August 20, 2019

Setting Science Free

“The 27,500 scientists who work for the University of California generate 10 percent of all the academic research papers published in the United States.

Their university recently put them in a strange position: Sometime this year, these scientists will not be able to directly access much of the world’s published research they’re not involved in.

That’s because in February, the UC system — one of the country’s largest academic institutions, encompassing Berkeley, Los Angeles, Davis, and several other campuses — dropped its nearly $11 million annual subscription to Elsevier, the world’s largest publisher of academic journals.

On the face of it, this seemed like an odd move. Why cut off students and researchers from academic research?

In fact, it was a principled stance that may herald a revolution in the way science is shared around the world.

The University of California decided it doesn’t want scientific knowledge locked behind paywalls, and thinks the cost of academic publishing has gotten out of control.

Elsevier owns around 3,000 academic journals, and its articles account for some 18 percent of all the world’s research output. “They’re a monopolist, and they act like a monopolist,” says Jeffrey MacKie-Mason, head of the campus libraries at UC Berkeley and co-chair of the team that negotiated with the publisher. Elsevier makes huge profits on its journals, earning its parent company RELX billions of dollars a year.”

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