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In an apparent concession to thousands of academics who have rallied against its “exorbitantly high pricing,” the scholarly publishing juggernaut Reed Elsevier on Monday withdrew its support of the Research Works Act, a bill that would have preempted the government from mandating public access to federally funded research published by commercial publishers.

“While we continue to oppose government mandates in this area, Elsevier is withdrawing support for the Research Works Act itself,” the company said in a statement on its website. “We hope this will address some of the concerns expressed and help create a less heated and more productive climate for our ongoing discussions with research funders.”    

Hours later, the sponsors of the proposed Research Works Act -- Representatives Darrell Issa, a California Republican, and Carolyn Maloney, a New York Democrat -- pronounced the bill dead.

“The American people deserve to have access to research for which they have paid,” Issa and Maloney said in a joint statement. “This conversation needs to continue and we have come to the conclusion that the Research Works Act has exhausted the useful role it can play in the debate.”

Elsevier published another note, addressed to “the mathematics community,” announcing that it will reduce the price of access to articles in its math journals to no more than $11 per article. The company also said it will make the articles in “14 core mathematics journals” free to the public four years after they are first published. Math scholars have been the leading force behind a recent boycott of Elsevier based in part on pricing.  

David Clark and Laura Hassink, the Elsevier senior vice presidents who signed the note, said these steps are “just the beginning” of the company’s efforts to win back the support of disaffected mathematicians. 

Elsevier’s concessions and the subsequent death of the Research Works Act are being hailed as a victory for the 7,500 academics who pledged to abstain from submitting or editing articles for the company as part of a boycott. Still, some of the boycott's original supporters say they are not ready to lay down their arms. The company’s decision to stop lobbying for the Research Works Act was not a sign of shifting principles, they say, but an attempt to break a wave of bad press generated by the boycott by abandoning a piece of legislation that was not likely to go anywhere anyway.

“The Research Works Act offended many researchers and Elsevier’s support for it was symbolic of broader issues, but the bill wasn’t likely to pass anyway at this point, so withdrawing their support is mainly a PR move for Elsevier,” wrote Henry Cohn, a researcher for Microsoft who was one of 34 mathematicians who sparked the boycott earlier this month by signing a lengthy critique (link from this page) of Elsevier’s role in scholarly communications, in an e-mail.

However, Cohn added that the company’s caveat about open-access mandates indicates that its decision to ditch the Research Works Act was a matter of changing strategy, not changing principles.

“I’m afraid the lesson Elsevier may have learned is that lobbying should be done behind closed doors,” he said. “If they continue to work against the interests of the research community, then their public position means little.”

The Open-Access Interventionism Debate

The debate over whether the federal government should force private-sector publishing companies to give taxpayers free access to articles that are based on publicly funded research grants has been going on for years. In 2008, Congress passed an appropriations act that directed the National Institutes of Health to require its grantees to submit a copy of their peer-reviewed manuscripts, which the National Library of Medicine would make freely available one year after its publication in a journal. (The Research Works Act would have undone this policy.)

So far, open-access advocates have had little luck pushing for similar policies for research funded by other government agencies. But a provision of the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010 instructed the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to revisit the question and solicit public feedback on the matter.

Earlier this month, the office published all the letters it received -- including one from Youngsuk Chi, the chairman of Elsevier. Chi bashed the NIH policy in his letter, saying it has resulted in “a modest reduction of usage (by subscribers) and transactional sales (for nonsubscribers)” for articles that are republished by the National Library of Medicine. Therefore, the policy has “depriv[ed] publishers of revenue for their investments,” he wrote.

“Government mandated submission of private-sector journal articles without compensation undermines a publisher’[s] intellectual property rights and a publisher’s ability to recoup the significant investment they have made in the peer review, editing and distribution of these articles,” Chi wrote. Elsewhere in the letter he enumerates the points of value Elsevier adds to scholarly communications -- such as peer review, “editorial perspective” and a pipeline for soliciting, vetting and producing presentable articles -- that go beyond what federal agencies grant researchers for data collection and analysis.    

Elsevier’s statement disavowing the Research Works Act does not suggest that this position has changed.

The remark by company officials against government mandates “indicates they will still probably support the next such bill to come along,” says Randall J. LeVeque, a professor of applied mathematics at the University of Washington and another original signatory to the boycott.

LeVeque added that while he and his colleagues are encouraged that they managed to budge the publishing giant, few will be placated by its decision to renounce the Research Works Act. “I don't think anyone is declaring victory or dropping the boycott anytime soon unless there [are] a lot more substantive changes,” he said in an e-mail.

Still, the fact that a group of individual scholars have managed to win any concessions from Elsevier is remarkable, says Barbara McFadden Allen. She is executive director of the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, which represents 13 major research universities, most of whose provosts signed an essay about scholarly open access on Inside Higher Ed last week.

“I cannot recall an incident, like this, when the academic community spoke on a matter and had a pretty public conversation with a publisher,” said Allen. “At the end of the day, it’s extraordinary.”

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