With Cambridge under a blanket of fresh snow, it may seem unseasonal for a boycott of scientific and mathematical journals to have been dubbed 'The Academic Spring'. It must also be conceded that the effects will be somewhat less vehement than those of the Middle East. However, a similar use of online publicity has lead to an unexpected eruption of support for the initial boycott of Timothy Gowers, fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge.

The mathematician, who won the Fields Medal in 1998, known officially as the International Medal for Outstanding Discoveries in Mathematics, gave his reasons for boycotting Elsevier in a blog post on the 21st January. He accused the publishing company, which owns prestigious journals such as the Lancet and Cell, of charging 'very high prices', and of a process of “bundling” in which libraries must subscribe to a package of journals rather than the one desired.

Timothy Gowers is leading the boycott of scientific and mathematical journals.

Whilst the temperatures here in Cambridge plummeted, the debate was hotting up across the Atlantic. Tyler Neylon, a fellow mathematician based in California, in response to Gowers' blog entry, created a website entitled 'The Cost of Knowledge: Researchers taking a stand against Elsevier'. On going to print the number of signatures on the website stands at 4438, with numbers rising exponentially, to employ a fittingly mathematical term. Neylon has used his own blog to campaign against the prices of Elsevier's journals, with a post dated February 2nd carrying the heading '97% of US schools cannot afford Elsevier Journals'.

Back in Cambridge, Gowers posted a further blog entry in response to this now international appeal on the 29th January, claiming that:

'It probably sounds disingenuous of me to say this, but when I sat down to write a post about Elsevier I wasn’t really trying to start a campaign. My intention was merely to make public, and a little more rigid, a policy that I and many others had already been applying, in my case without much difficulty, for several years.'

The situation has been frosty since 2006, when the entire editorial board of Topology, a mathematics journal published by Elsevier, resigned over pricing. The Economist has been quick to note that Elsevier saw profits in 2010 of £724m, however its director of global academic relations, Nick Fowler, has stated that these margins are merely a consequence of the firm's efficient operation.

With icy temperatures forecast for the week ahead, it seems that the only spring on the horizon is, unsurprisingly for Cambridge, academic.

 

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