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The butterfly effect

Will Elsevier’s decision to fund a leading opponent of open access kill the paid-for journal?

The open-access movement has been making slow but determined progress in challenging and eroding the dominance of commercial research journals. Its cause has been helped immeasurably by the decision of funding bodies such as the National Institutes of Health in the United States and the Wellcome Trust in the UK to require that grantees deposit copies of research papers in open-access repositories within a year of publication.

Faced with such a demand, commercial journal publishers have had no choice but to comply, though some have done so more reluctantly than others. One publisher that sees itself as a forced convert is the Anglo-Dutch multinational Elsevier. The company, which publishes a range of top-ranked journals, is backing the Research Works Act, a renewed attempt in the US Congress to roll back the open-access requirement. Indeed, Elsevier’s backing goes well beyond polite words of support; executives from the company have been funding Carolyn Maloney, a Democratic Congresswoman from New York, a co-sponsor of the proposals.

And here’s the rub. Until the discovery of Elsevier’s generosity, most observers believed the Research Works Act to be not much more than a time wasting, if ultimately harmless, distraction. But this may not be the case anymore. As we report on page 6, another influential UK scientist has decided, clearly after much angst and soul searching, to refuse a request to review a paper in a paid-for Elsevier journal.

The researcher in question is Stephen Curry, professor of structural biology at Imperial College and vice-chairman of the campaign group Science is Vital. In an interview, Curry tells us that his decision not to review research papers for an Elsevier journal isn’t irreversible, but the fact that he has decided to join with those refusing to work with Elsevier’s paid-for journals is significant, because a trend may be emerging.

In spite of open-access publishing becoming in effect a legal requirement in the US, traditional paid-for journals remain the dominant outlet for scientific research. There are at least two reasons. One is that research funders, private companies and university administrations continue to allocate funds, rank universities and promote staff based in part on their record of publishing in high-impact journals. The second is that researchers are continuing to offer their peer-review services free of charge.

For open-access journals to makes serious inroads in research publishing, they need to be regarded as prestigiously as their commercial rivals—which is beginning to happen. Faster progress, however, will happen if more senior researchers stop peer reviewing for any journal that is not open access. Many younger researchers are contemplating such a move, but they know that doing so could risk their careers, unless their more senior colleagues jump first and provide them with cover—which is what now seems to be taking place.

Senior researchers such as Curry, the Cambridge mathematician Tim Gowers and many more are now doing just that. If more follow suit, this could be the beginning of the end of the paid-for journal.