Elsevier, the world’s largest publisher of scientific journals, doesn’t have many friends of late. Earlier this year, a group of academics led by British mathematician Timothy Gowers started a petition to boycott the publisher—a petition which, as of April 10, included the names of over 9,200 researchers.

The stated impetus of the petition is Elsevier’s high prices and restricted distribution models. In order to understand the issue, we need to go back to 1996 and an initiative called “the big deal.” In a nutshell, the big deal uses economics of scale to bundle electronic access to a group (sometimes hundreds) of journals and sells this access to libraries and library consortia for a fixed fee over a certain period (say, three years). The benefits of this model are that instead of paying full price for each expensive journal subscription, libraries can pay one fee for…

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