Publishers be damned!

A mild-mannered Cambridge University professor is leading huge numbers of top researchers in a damaging boycott of Reed Elsevier. Stephen Foley explains why

Timothy Gowers makes a habit of bringing bright people together to solve big problems. The Cambridge University professor is one of Britain's leading mathematicians – recipient of the subject's biggest prize, the Fields Medal – and founder of the Polymath Project, where researchers from around the world collaborate online to work on the toughest unanswered questions in maths.

Right now, though, he is bringing people together for a different reason, to humble one of the UK's most powerful corporations – and ultimately unlock the vast trove of human knowledge currently hidden behind academic publishers' paywalls.

Professor Gowers has gathered a small army of the world's top researchers to boycott Reed Elsevier, the world's biggest publisher of academic journals, and investors had better take note.

The Elsevier publishing division brought in £2.1bn in revenue last year, and £768m in profit, by charging fat fees for access to cutting-edge research. If the mild-mannered mathematician gets his way, those are numbers the company won't see again.

In fact, if he gets his way, the economics of academic publishing could be turned on its head.

For generations, researchers have fought to have their work included in the top journals while libraries, which must provide access to the latest research, have paid whatever it takes to stock their shelves.

Professor Gowers isn't the first person in academia to long for a world in which research is instantly and freely available, but he just might be the first to find a way to break the stranglehold of the publishers.

"Lots of people do find this situation extremely annoying and do think Elsevier is fairly evil. I myself just think their business model makes sense – but if we put in a bit of effort then it would no longer make sense and we would save ourselves a lot of money," he said.

It was six weeks ago today that Professor Gowers nailed Elsevier: My Part in its Downfall to his blog. He declared that he was not going to submit papers to, or peer review any papers for, Elsevier journals, and called for others to follow his lead.

More than 7,700 already have. Signatories come from every subject and every corner of the globe, and the speed with which the movement has grown has stunned Elsevier.

In unusual language from a big corporation, it says the boycott is "hurtful", and that "being criticised by even one researcher, let alone all the signatories of the petition, is difficult for a company whose reason for being is to serve the research community".

It has already made concessions, including providing free access to back issues of old mathematics journals, and dropped support for a controversial pro-publisher law that was being proposed in the US. But still the boycott grows every day.

Professor Gowers' beef, as set out in Elsevier: My Part in its Downfall, is that the FTSE 100 publisher charges high prices and uses complicated "bundling" of popular and less popular journals to bolster its profit margins.

Some Elsevier executives feel they are under siege from the kinds of radical forces who argue all internet content should be free and who dispute the very idea of copyright – forces which demonstrated their power in the US earlier this year by defeating the controversial Stop Online Piracy Act. Elsevier had been backing another piece of proposed legislation, the Research Works Act (RWA), which threatened to generate the same sort of heat.

Proponents of free access to academic research have been pushing US government agencies which fund academic projects to insist that the resulting discoveries be published online for free, and not on subscription-only journal websites. The National Institutes of Health, a huge funder of medical research, already has such a condition, something that threatens to reduce the value of subscription journals in the medical field. The RWA would ban those types of conditions on government funding in future, and Elsevier's lobbying for the law was one of the motivations for Professor Gowers' pushback.

Elsevier dropped its support of the RWA this week, saying it "seemed inconsistent with Elsevier's long-standing support for expanding options for free and low-cost public access to scholarly literature".

Professor Gowers is no "property is theft" radical, intent on doing away with the publishing industry. He just says Elsevier's £2.1bn in annual revenue seems a lot to charge when you consider articles in the journals are submitted free by academics, and the peer review process managed by volunteer editors.

More than that, though, he sees a world of boundless collaboration just over the horizon, if only the academic community works together to break down publisher paywalls, and to break Elsevier, the mightiest publisher of all.

The charge sheet: Gowers' blog

1. High prices – "so far above the average it seems extraordinary they can get away with it".

2. Forcing libraries to do multibuys. "The journal Chaos, Solitons and Fractals is a notorious example of a journal that is regarded as a joke by many mathematicians, but libraries must nevertheless subscribe."

3. Libraries attempting to negotiate get cut off.

4. Elsevier supports measures attempting to stop the move to open access.