Research Works Act leads to Boycott against Publishers

February 15, 2012

The extreme terms of the Research Works Act, of which we blogged recently here, have lead many in the scientific community to react  by promoting a Boycott against the publishers that lobbied for this legislation.


The kernel of the Act proposed by the American Association of Publishers (AAP) is:

No Federal agency may adopt, implement, maintain, continue, or otherwise engage in any policy, program, or other activity that — (1) causes, permits, or authorizes network dissemination of any private-sector research work without the prior consent of the publisher of such work; or (2) requires that any actual or prospective author, or the employer of such an actual or prospective author, assent to network dissemination of a private-sector research work.”


In reaction, thousands of scientist are reminding the publishers that this used to be a space of mutual cooperation, and that in particular, publishers get for Free, the labor of  scientist as:

  • Authors
  • Reviewers
  • Associate Editors
  • Editors

The reminder comes in the form of a Boycott in which members of the scientific community are refusing to:

  • Send articles
  • Review articles
  • Cite articles

with the publishers who are behind the lobbying for the Research Works Act.

The commitment has been signed by 5,973 researchers, and you can still add your signature at:


The news of the boycott have made it to the New York Times:

“Mathematicians Organize Boycott of a Publisher”


A group of high ranking mathematicians issued a statement that highlights the root of the issue in the crisis of scientific publishing:

“…a system in which commercial publishers make profits based on the free labor of mathematicians and subscription fees from their institutions’ libraries, for a service that has become largely unnecessary.”


Among the signers of this statement, are three Fields medalists (The Mathematics equivalent of the Nobel Prize): Dr. Gowers, Terrance Tao and Wendelin Werner. The statement was also signed by Ingrid Daubechies, widely known for her work on Wavelets, and President of the International Mathematical Union, who then resigned as one of the unpaid editors in chief at the Elsevier journal Applied and Computational Harmonic Analysis.


These recent developments are a reminder of the fundamental conditions that are required for cooperation to emerge, and that have been widely studied by economists, sociologists, evolutionary biologists and the military. Such studies have shown that the most successful strategy for cooperation is “TIT FOR TAT”:

  • In your first move, you cooperate
  • In every next move, you do what the other player did in the previous move:
    • If he cooperated, you cooperate
    • If he defected, you defect
  • Forgiveness: you only consider the previous move of the other player.


The lobbying publishers may have to reconsider their move of defection, and hope that scientist will apply the third rule of the “TIT FOR TAT” strategy. This may help publishers like Elsevier to retain their profitable margins. For example, in 2010, Elsevier reported a 36 percent profit on revenues of $3.2 billion, a profit margin higher than the one of Microsoft.


For some publishers, it might be too late. A large variety of Open Access options are available to scientists, with Journals that truly value cooperation with the scientific community. These alternatives make the old Industrial Age economic model of closed publishing,… as the mathematicians put it:


“… largely unnecessary…”



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