Over the past few days, I — along with many of my library colleagues — have received several email messages about a boycott of Elsevier by academics who in the past may have reviewed for, edited, or published in Elsevier journals and are now pledging not to do so again. An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education characterizes the boycott as “gather(ing) steam” and refers readers to a website put together by the boycott’s organizers. That site lays out the following three-part indictment of Elsevier:
- They charge exorbitantly high prices for their journals.
- They sell journals in very large “bundles,” so libraries must buy a large set with many unwanted journals, or none at all. Elsevier thus makes huge profits.
- They support measures such as SOPA, PIPA and the Research Works Act, that aim to restrict the free exchange of information.
As of this writing, 2,820 people had indicated their support for the boycott by signing up at the website, in most cases signaling their intention neither to contribute content nor to provide reviewing or other editorial services for Elsevier journals.
A couple of thoughts occurred to me upon learning about this. The first was along the lines of, “Well, at least this has the potential to get Elsevier’s attention.” Unlike subscribers, authors actually have monopoly control over something that Elsevier wants. If a library or individual chooses not to buy an Elsevier product, Elsevier can always look for subscribers elsewhere, and the money will be equally valuable no matter where it comes from. The same is not true of a research article; just as the journal publisher has monopoly control over an article to which it has secured the copyright, so the author of an article has monopoly control over that article until he assigns it to a publisher.
My second thought, however, was, “Wait a minute. Why is Elsevier the specific target of this boycott?” Let’s look again at the three articles of indictment:
- They charge high prices. Well, okay — but so do quite a few other journal publishers, especially in the hard sciences. Not all of them are for-profit publishers, either.
- They require libraries to buy journals in bundles, thus forcing them to buy unwanted content in order to get wanted content. This is simply not true. While the Elsevier name is popularly associated with the Big Deal concept and its (ridiculously branded) “Freedom Collection” is one of the largest and most well-known of the Big Deal packages, it is not true that Elsevier requires libraries to purchase the Big Deal in order to get access to any particular journal. All Elsevier journals are available as individual subscriptions. If there is “coercion” involved, it comes in the form of the extremely low unit cost of individual titles under the Big Deal, which may cause librarians to feel compelled to join up — but the boycotters are accusing Elsevier of something different. The boycott document accuses Elsevier of actually requiring the purchase of bundles in order to get access to particular journals. That accusation is false.
- Elsevier supports measures such as SOPA, PIPA and the Research Works Act. Fair enough; like the first accusation, this one is true. But again, why is Elsevier being targeted specifically? According to this website, SOPA and PIPA were formally supported by over 350 companies, including such notable publishers as John Wiley & Sons, Macmillan, HarperCollins, and Cengage Learning (formerly known as Thomson Learning). Why are they not being boycotted as well?
My guess is that Elsevier is being targeted because of its prominence, and because for those on the demand side of the scholarly communication chain, the word “Elsevier” has become shorthand for “big science publishers we love to hate.” More disturbing, though, is the fact that it’s not at all clear what Elsevier must do to get out from under the boycott. Lower its prices? (If so, by how much?) Publicly state its opposition to SOPA and PIPA and RWA? Affirm the availability of individual subscriptions to its journals? If it does these things, will the boycott be called off?
Don’t get me wrong — I’m not defending Elsevier or any of its strategies. I completely understand and often agree with those who object to one or another of the company’s business practices. And if you object to the behavior of any publisher, then refusing to provide content or services to its journals is an absolutely legitimate means of protest. But if you’re going to organize a mass boycott of one publisher and not of others, shouldn’t it be in response to offenses that are both real (unlike accusation no. 2, above) and at least somewhat unique to that publisher (unlike accusations nos. 1 and 3)?