February 12, 2012; Source: Boston Globe | The values of the nonprofit sector might be in play in the protests against the Amsterdam-based publisher Elsevier and in bipartisan legislation that the publisher is promoting in the U.S.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) follows the principle that if American taxpayers’ dollars pay for research, the results should be available for free. NIH pays for a good piece of medical research that scientists want to publish in technical journals like those published by Elsevier. 

Now, Elsevier is behind the Research Works Act, introduced by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), which would allow scientific publishers to put taxpayer-paid research findings behind pay firewalls. Thousands of scientists are protesting, some joining Fields Medal-winner Timothy Gowers in a boycott of Elsevier. The recipient of over $41,050 in campaign contributions from Elsevier since 2004, Maloney hasn’t backed down yet, nor has Issa, whose campaign coffers received $5,000 from Elsevier. 

Elsevier publishes a number of very well respected and sometimes pricey scientific journals, including one of NPQ’s favorites, The Lancet, an international medical journal that costs $222 (for print and online) or $158 (for online-only access. Some Elsevier titles apparently cost over a thousand dollars, according to this Boston Globe op-ed piece, but the writers who contribute their research to the magazine articles do it for free. It’s not a bad deal for the publisher, which in 2010 had revenues of $3.2 billion and a profit of 36 percent. 

In the editorial, Gareth Cook, a blog editor for Scientific American, notes that Elsevier and other academic journals benefit from a lot of free labor—scientists writing articles for free because they have to publish to advance their careers, others reviewing potential articles for free to help the editors as part of their academic bona fides, and university and other libraries that subscribe no matter what the cost because they have to provide scholars with access to the significant journals in the field.

He calls for the defeat of the legislation, but adds something that sounds like more of a nonprofit or socially responsible alternative: “The scientific community also clearly needs to work harder on building effective alternative models for sharing the results of their work,” he recommends, citing the nonprofit Public Library of Science whose academic journals are made available for free. He also calls on “the editorial boards of overpriced journals…[to] simply resign en masse to start up new, more reasonably priced journals.”

Doesn’t the Maloney-Issa bill have the feel of the SOPA/PIPA bill that the nonprofit sector so effectively rose up against? —Rick Cohen