The scientists are Keith Yamamoto, chairman of the department of cellular and molecular pharmacology, and Peter Walter, a professor of biophysics and biochemistry. In a letter circulated this week, they say that Reed Elsevier, a British-Dutch conglomerate, is asking the university system to pay more than $90,000 a year for the journals' online editions. The California Digital Library, which negotiates journal contracts for the university system, rejected that price, and is now pushing Reed Elsevier to reconsider its licensing terms that will take effect in January, says Daniel Greenstein, director of the Digital Library.
Mr. Walter and Mr. Yamamoto are asking scientists to retaliate against Cancer Cell, Cell, Developmental Cell, Molecular Cell, Immunity, and Neuron by refusing to submit articles to the journals, resigning from their editorial boards, and declining to review manuscripts for them. The publications are considered among the most prestigious in molecular biology.
In their letter, the San Francisco scientists cite Reed Elsevier's healthy profits and note that the university system is spending $8-million this year for online access to Reed Elsevier journals, half of the total systemwide budget for online journals.
They accuse Reed Elsevier of "breaking an unwritten contract with the scientific community: being a publisher of our research carries the responsibility to make our contributions publicly available at reasonable rates."
"As an academic community, it is time that we reassert our values," the letter continues. "We can all think of better ways to spend our time than providing free services to support a publisher that values profit above its academic mission."
Representatives of Reed Elsevier could not be reached for comment on Monday.
Reed Elsevier acquired Cell, Molecular Cell, Immunity, and Neuron from Cell Press in April 1999. Since then, Reed Elsevier has started Cancer Cell and Developmental Cell.
The libraries at the University of California have print subscriptions to many of the six journals, but have not been able to get electronic access. Faculty members pay individually to view the journal articles online.
Librarians from the University of California warned faculty members in a letter last week that the libraries may have to make "major reductions" in online journals.
This is not the first time that scientists have lashed out against journal publishers over the cost of online access. In April 2001, the Public Library of Science, a coalition of research scientists that tries to make scientific and medical literature widely available, called for a boycott of journals that did not make their content free online within six months of their publication in print. Although about 30,000 scientists worldwide agreed in writing not to publish in or subscribe to such journals, few of the scientists actually observed their pledges.
Some academic librarians predict that few scientists will participate in the current boycott effort, either. But they note that the boycott proposal is well timed. It was only last week that the Public Library of Science made freely available Public Library of Science Biology, the first of two online peer-reviewed journals that the coalition plans. The second, Public Library of Science Medicine, is expected to be introduced next year.
The current boycott effort may encourage some biologists, who would normally publish their manuscripts in one of the Reed Elsevier titles, to publish instead with the Public Library of Science online, the librarians say.
Following is the text of the San Francisco scientists' letter:
Dear colleagues and friends,
We are writing to ask your help with an issue that concerns scientists at all University of California campuses. In this century, we all rely on electronic access to the literature, not only for speed and convenience, but increasingly for supplementary methods and data, videos and the like. Moreover, at some sites, such as our new UCSF campus at Mission Bay, we rely exclusively on electronic access. UC has successfully negotiated contracts for almost every on-line journal. The glaring exceptions are the Cell Press titles: Cell, Molecular Cell, Developmental Cell, Cancer Cell, Immunity, Neuron.
Since 1998, UC has tried without success to reach a deal with Cell Press for electronic access. Cell Press is owned by Elsevier, the largest science, technology and medicine journal publisher in the world, reporting 34% and 26% profits in 2001 and 2002, respectively, for its science and medicine enterprise.
In 2002, the University of California paid Elsevier $8-million for online access to its journals, 50% of the total budget for all online journals in the UC libraries. Elsevier now seeks a new contract with annual increases several times above the consumer price index, plus an additional levy for the Cell Press titles that rapidly reaches $90,000 per year, with hefty annual increases thereafter. After exhaustive negotiation, the UC libraries, with the recent support of the UC Council of Chancellors, has declined to accept these rates.
By denying institutional electronic access for the last five years, Cell Press has enjoyed a bonanza of personal subscriptions. They now cite the potential loss of personal subscriptions as the basis for setting a high institutional price.
It is untenable that a publisher would de facto block access of our published work even to our immediate colleagues. Cell Press is breaking an unwritten contract with the scientific community: being a publisher of our research carries the responsibility to make our contributions publicly available at reasonable rates. As an academic community, it is time that we reassert our values. We can all think of better ways to spend our time than providing free services to support a publisher that values profit above its academic mission. We urge four unified actions until the University of California and other institutions are granted electronic access to Cell Press journals:
i) decline to review manuscripts for Cell Press journals, ii) resign from Cell Press editorial boards, iii) cease to submit papers to Cell Press journals, and iv) talk widely about Elsevier and Cell Press pricing tactics and business strategies.
If you agree, please let Cell Press know why you take these actions. Our goal is to effect change, but to be effective we must stand together.
Peter Walter and Keith Yamamoto, on behalf of the UCSF Mission Bay Governance Committee, Genentech Hall
© 2003 by The Chronicle of Higher Education