More than 40 leading scientists have resigned en masse from the editorial board of a top science journal in protest at what they describe as the “greed” of publishing giant Elsevier.

The entire academic board of the journal Neuroimage, including professors from Oxford University, King’s College London and Cardiff University resigned after Elsevier refused to reduce publication charges.

Academics around the world have applauded what many hope is the start of a rebellion against the huge profit margins in academic publishing, which outstrip those made by Apple, Google and Amazon.

Neuroimage, the leading publication globally for brain-imaging research, is one of many journals that are now “open access” rather than sitting behind a subscription paywall. But its charges to authors reflect its prestige, and academics now pay over £2,700 for a research paper to be published. The former editors say this is “unethical” and bears no relation to the costs involved.

Professor Chris Chambers, head of brain stimulation at Cardiff University and one of the resigning team, said: “Elsevier preys on the academic community, claiming huge profits while adding little value to science.”

He has urged fellow scientists to turn their backs on the Elsevier journal and submit papers to a nonprofit open-access journal which the team is setting up instead.

He told the Observer: “All Elsevier cares about is money and this will cost them a lot of money. They just got too greedy. The academic community can withdraw our consent to be exploited at any time. That time is now.”

Elsevier, a Dutch company that claims to publish 25% of the world’s scientific papers, reported a 10% increase in its revenue to £2.9bn last year. But it’s the profit margins, nearing 40%, according to its 2019 accounts, which anger academics most. The big scientific publishers keep costs low because academics write up their research – typically funded by charities and the public purse – for free. They “peer review” each other’s work to verify it is worth publishing for free, and academic editors collate it for free or for a small stipend. Academics are then often charged thousands of pounds to have their work published in open-access journals, or universities will pay very high subscription charges.

Stephen Smith, professor of biomedical engineering at Oxford University and formerly editor-in-chief at Neuroimage, said: “Academics really don’t like the way things are, but individuals feel powerless to get the huge publishers to start behaving more ethically.

Researchers put up with it because they want to publish in prestigious journals that will help their careers and ensure their work is widely read and cited.”

But he warned publishers, “Enough is enough. By taking the entire set of editors across to start the new journal, we are taking the reputation with us.”

A spokesperson for Elsevier said: “We value our editors very highly and are disappointed [with the resignations], especially as we have been engaging constructively with them over the last couple of years.”

He said the company was “committed to advancing open-access research” and its article publishing charges were “below the market average relative to quality. The fee for NeuroImage is below that of the nearest comparable journal in its field.”

Meanwhile, university libraries are angry about the cost of the online textbooks they say students now overwhelmingly want to read – often many times more expensive than their paper equivalent. Professor Chris Pressler, director of Manchester University Library, said: “We are facing a sustained onslaught of exploitative price models in both teaching and research.”

According to a spreadsheet of costs quoted to university librarians, Manchester University gave a recent example of being quoted £75 for a popular plant biology textbook in print, but £975 for a three-user ebook licence. Meanwhile Learning to Read Mathematics in the Secondary School, a textbook for trainee teachers published by Routledge, was £35.99 in print and £560 for a single user ebook.

A spokesperson for Taylor and Francis, which owns Routledge, said: “We strive to ensure that book prices are both affordable and a fair representation of their value.” He said a print book could be checked out for weeks at a time whereas ebooks could be checked in and out rapidly and had a much wider distribution.

He added: “Academic publishers provide services that are essential to a well-functioning research and scholarly communication ecosystem, and most researchers recognise this is a valuable service worth paying for. “

Caroline Ball, librarian at Derby University and co-founder of the academic campaign EbookSOS, said: “This is creating a digital hierarchy of haves and have-nots. There are institutions that just can’t afford these prices for texts.”

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