Embrace the 'Academic Spring'

Embrace the 'Academic Spring'

The world of academic publishing was recently plunged into turmoil by Timothy Gowers, the Cambridge University mathematician whose personal blog called for a boycott of Elsevier, the publisher of more than 2,000 top academic journals in a wide variety of fields.

Academic publishing powerhouse Elsevier faces a growing boycott of its journals by leading scholars who accuse it of over-pricing.

Inspired by the world-renowned winner of the Fields Medal _ the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in mathematics _ more than 9,500 researchers worldwide have signed online petitions since January refusing to publish their works in, edit papers for or even refer to any article published in Elsevier or journals belonging to Elsevier Co.

As the number of academics participating in this boycott increases rapidly, the world may be looking at the onset of an "Academic Spring".

Dr Gowers cites three major reasons for his opposition to the publishing giant.

First, Elsevier's journal registration fee is too high, especially as the company reported a profit margin of 36% on revenues of US$3.2 billion (101 billion baht) in 2010.

Elsevier's practice of "bundling" is Dr Gower's second reason for the boycott, with libraries compelled to subscribe to journals they have no need for as part of package deals to get the few journals they actually want.

Third, Elsevier supports legislation such as the Research Works Act, a bill that would forbid the US government from requiring that free access be allowed for the results of taxpayer-funded research.

Elsevier defends its high prices, saying it is necessary to control the quality of the papers published in their journals.

The price takes into account the costs of peer review, editing and publication.

Elsevier says their price-setting methods are no different from those of other average-sized publishing companies.

They say their high profits arise from cost savings due to efficiency in organisational operations.

The conflict between academics and the publishing house is an old one.

The academic culture of free flow of information in universities _ with the costs and benefits of research and editing provided free of charge _ clashes with the ethos of publishing companies looking to make hefty profits off their work by charging journal membership fees and controlling many well-known academic journals.

Online academic publishing has become a new battleground in this war.

Academics and many universities have tried to cut off Elsevier from its production and research supply chain.

Their measures have included resigning from the editorial groups of many of Elsevier's journal publications, establishing new publishing houses with lower membership costs and creating websites to publish academic papers with no member subscription charges.

Nevertheless, compared to the former publishing process for journal papers, the new outlets are unreliable in terms of the academic quality of the papers being published in them.

Academic papers published solely on the internet tend to lack official expert peer reviews, making them especially unreliable.

Meanwhile, a university's position in college rankings such as those produced by US News & World Report or Princeton Review still depends partly on the number of papers published in high-impact journals belonging to Elsevier.

A suggested solution for this problem is that state agencies and foundations support research grants specifying conditions of free access to journal's publishing work produced with the help of these grants.

In Thailand, where the minimum wage has risen and competition is intense, research and innovation are needed to propel the country forward economically.

However, Thailand's national academic and research movement is unable to bring hope to the country.

Its progress is obstructed not by the private sector's thirst for profits, but because of the research access restrictions of state agencies.

Private sector access to state agency generated research is limited by benefit sharing and the high price set on accessing this research.

Commercial purchase from state agencies is not worthwhile, which leaves much research languishing without being developed and used commercially.

The operations of state bureaucracy and the investigation of state budget usage may also make cooperation difficult between state agencies and the private sector.

Investment in research might also be seen in the benefit it produces in terms of finances, rather than present and future economic and social benefit.

It is time for Thailand's government, state agencies and academics to stand up and reform research management, whereby national innovation will make research the answer for the future of the country.

Kriengsak Chareonwongsak is a Senior Fellow of Harvard University. He can be reached at kriengsak@kriengsak.com and http://www.kriengsak.com.

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