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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:

  1. They charge exorbitantly high prices for their journals.
  2. 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.
  3. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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)?

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Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson is University Librarian at Brigham Young University. He has worked previously as a bibliographer for YBP, Inc., as Head Acquisitions Librarian for the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, as Director of Resource Acquisition at the University of Nevada, Reno, and as Associate Dean for Collections & Scholarly Communication at the University of Utah.


131 Thoughts on "Mysteries of the Elsevier Boycott"

As the boycott makes clear, open access is for many people an ideological, and now political, movement. Thus slogans and symbolic actions are more important than facts for such people. It does not have to make sense.

I would not disagree that the Elsevier boycott is “symbolic”, but that does not invalidate the idea that open access to scholarly research would be an important public good, and that publishers practice have been (shall we say) sub-optimal in allowing this to come to pass.

The present system may well be optimal, albeit not for public access. In a multi-objective system the individual objectives are typically sub-optimal when the system is optimized. Public access is just one of a number of important objectives. The fact that the various proposals for increasing public access all have significant downsides is evidence for this hypothesis. Mind you, if the system is optimal it can still be improved, as new opportunities arise.

But this boycott says nothing about open access. It hints around at the idea of OA by criticizing Elsevier’s pricing, but it doesn’t demand that Elsevier increase the number of OA journals it publishes (from the current list of six) or even that Elsevier stop charging for its journals at all. If this boycott is about OA, then its organizers might want to mention that fact.

The entire premise of the RWA is that the NIH mandate to place publicly funded research in PubMed Central should be reversed. It would also prevent any other funders mandates similar to NIH’s. If that’s not an attack on open access, I don;t know what is. The boycott opposes RWA, and in doing so opposes publishers’ attempts to roll back open access.

The premise of the RWA is that publishers can volunteer to deposit works at PMC, but shouldn’t be compelled to do so by government agency policies. Do you really believe different government agencies should be allowed to compel private organizations to turn over their finished products to the government at no cost?

Re. the comment below (I think replies have been turned off for it): I don’t accept that “private organizations” should own the “finished products” of the publicly funded research process. It so happens that publishers have been canny in creating a system in which they ask researchers to turn over their copyright in exchange for publication; I hope that researchers start to question this, in light of the Elsevier boycott.

The copyright canard is another classic. The alignment of publishers and authors over copyright is extremely high — both want the works’ integrity preserved, broad dissemination within reason, and long-term viability. For anyone who has worked with high-stakes research, the temptation for people to misappropriate, distort, misrepresent, or misattribute information exists, and is often put into action. Individual authors have a difficult time detecting, prosecuting, or defending situations that arise. They have sensibly made publishers their agents for this, because the alignment of interests is high. The trade is painless — authors typically don’t want to have to manage a paper for years on end, but rather want to get onto other research and grants; publishers generally treat their authors well and give them full free rights back when requested — and the trade is sensible. This isn’t about being “canny.” This is about being cooperative.

Oops, failing to understand the way comments nest, apologies- my 10.29am comment is obviously in response to Mr Anderson’s 10.12am comment.

It would also prevent any other funders mandates similar to NIH’s.

To be more accurate, it would prevent any other United States federal government funding agency from a similar mandate. It has no effect on private funding agencies, or funders outside of the USA.

I don’t accept that “private organizations” should own the “finished products” of the publicly funded research process.

Then I suppose you are also against the idea of universities and researchers being able to patent their discoveries and profit from technology transfer (a $90 million-plus a year business for the University of California system to name just one set of institutions). Why is it acceptable for researchers to put the fruits of their labor behind a patent paywall? Where’s the anti-UC profiteering boycott?

Point taken on the accuracy of my mandates post. On the question of patents created by universities: as it happens, I do think these should be made openly available too, though I don’t think the case is as clear cut as that for journal articles (and I suspect you will disagree!) The University of Glasgow here in the UK have done some pioneering work on this: http://www.gla.ac.uk/news/headline_181588_en.html

Uh, that’s a pretty flippant analysis.

It’d be disingenuous to suggest that only people who somehow aren’t acting logically would be involved.

Plainly actions that are purely symbolic are still worth doing to raise more general awareness of a particular issue. Normally you don’t see posts about journal bundling practices and new publishing tech on sites like Hacker News – in the past few days I’ve seen half a dozen.

And what’s wrong with having ideological purpose?

I would like to clarify what you write about Macmillan’s support of the acts you mention. Macmillan owns Nature Publishing Group, which publishes the company’s scientific journals. Nature Publishing Group and its sister company Digital Science do not support these acts. From the NPG statement: “NPG and Digital Science do not support the Research Works Act.” http://www.nature.com/press_releases/rwa-statement.html (NPG publishes various OA and hybrid OA journals, incidentally, including one interdisciplinary Nature journal, Nature Communications, and a journal called Scientific Reports, which publishes papers that report original research that is technically sound (no other editorial requirement).)

As a separate point, I believe that many publishing companies that are held to support these acts are deemed to do so simply by being members of AAP, which is said to have supported these acts without consultation of all its members.

(disclosure: WordPress, your blog platform, knows me in my personal capacity so that is how my name is displayed on your blog, but I am an editor at Nature.)

Thanks for that clarification. You’ll notice that I did not mention Nature; I’d be interested to know whether you have reason to believe that Macmillan itself does not support SOPA/PIPA.

Rick, the Macmillan you referred to in your article (and that Barbara referred to in her comment) and that supported SOPA/PIPA (but note not RWA) is Macmillan US, a separate subsidiary company from Macmillan Publishers, the company that owns Nature Publishing Group and Digital Science and doesn’t support RWA (http://www.nature.com/press_releases/rwa-statement.html), SOPA or PIPA (http://www.nature.com/press_releases/sopa-pipa-statement.html). Both companies have different policies reflecting the interests of the authors and customers that each serves.

Steven, thanks for that clarification. My point remains (why boycott Elsevier and not Macmillan US?), but it’s important to be clear on the separate identities of Macmillan US and Macmillan Publishing.

It will be interesting to see whether those who signed up for the boycott actually follow through with the threat. Around 30,000 signed the PLoS letter ten years ago that demanded journals release content after six months. Many non-profits immediately complied, but big commercial publishers generally did not, and ultimately very few scientists actually stuck to their guns.

One of the problems with big companies like Macmillan is that they represent very different interests. Publishers of trade books have different issues than a science publisher. The fact that this statement of support (and presumably some help drafting the legislation) was provided by the organization without regard to its total membership has obviously upset a lot of scholarly and scientific publishers. This has happened before and backfired. You’d think they would learn.

On another point, the big deal often does make single subscriptions prohibitively expensive. At my library when we objected to a $12,000 jump in our SAGE bundle subscription price, we asked what it would cost to get just the journals we wanted, not a large number. We were given a quote of $90,000. In other words, not an option. Three years later the package jumped another $12,000 in price. It will soon be in combat with the ACS over what’s left of our budget.

Which brings me to the “why Elsevier?” question. Because they are so big and have done many inexcusable things and because the person who started the boycott was annoyed with them. But I agree with you – these kinds of public statements by scholars that they will no longer contribute to publishing enterprises they feel are not representing their disciplinary interests should extend to similarly abusive for-profit publishers (SAGE, Taylor & Francis, etc.) and to societies that behave like them and lobby for legislation like RWA – ACS, APA, AAA among them – unless members of those societies think research should be available only to those who can afford it in order to sustain their associations’ activities.

A funny thing happened on the way to digitization of the scholarly corpus. Smaller institutions like mine (a liberal arts college that trains a lot of future scientists) began to think it was possible for our students to get a taste of what it means to be involved in the making of science. We no longer felt it was okay to say “don’t be silly; we can’t afford any of those ACS journals” which is what we did say 25 years ago. Now, not having the package and SciFinder Scholar seems impossible – we couldn’t recruit faculty and we would be letting down students, not to mention endangering ACS accreditation. We care too much about the sciences to do that. Of course we’ll never have a tenth of what R1 libraries have – but we need the basics and the definition of “basics” has changed radically.

We do not subscribe to any Elsevier packages, though. Though faculty would love to have them and we spend a lot buying them disposable articles, they do not at this point fit into the category of “basics.”

Barbara, I don’t disagree that some science publishers are making their journals prohibitively expensive. What I point out in my posting is that the boycott document says Elsevier is requiring libraries to purchase packages in order to get individual journals, and that’s not true.

Stepping into an area I know little about (acquisitions). . .If Elsevier sets prices so that the sum cost of a few individual journals is far more expensive than a package, doesn’t this effectively force libraries to purchase packages to get individual journals? Sure, the boycott text probably could have been better worded, but any objections on that point have the appearance of splitting hairs.

If Elsevier sets prices so that the sum cost of a few individual journals is far more expensive than a package, doesn’t this effectively force libraries to purchase packages to get individual journals?

No, it doesn’t. It may set up a situation whereby the library is rewarded for buying the bundle (by getting more content at a lower price), but it doesn’t force anyone to take advantage of that offer. A $1000 individual subscription costs $1000 regardless of whether it’s available for $40 as part of a bundle. (Is $1000 too high a price? Maybe so. But what’s the “right” price?)

Barbara, your account is well-put. Those publishers who do not support these acts (and maybe even some who do) have publishing policies that allow content to be made free by the author 6 months (or a year) after publication, via self-archiving. Google Scholar distinguishes these versions papers. NPG for example encourages authors to self-archive after six months and provides them with an automatic one-click service to do so on their behalf if there is a recognised archive for the discipline (PubMedCentral). Or authors can deposit themselves on a postprint server, institutional archive or other. Thus papers that are not published under an OA system are available in a fairly timely way (so far as the publisher is concerned) for those readers who don’t have access to institutional subscriptions.

It’s particularly disturbing to me that we’re seeing often uninformed, inflammatory statements that are based more on emotion than fact coming from scientists. Perhaps I just expect more from this community, given that it is based on strict adherence to only believing what the data shows. Instead we’re getting statements like, “I don’t have detailed facts at my fingertips: So many people have complained about Elsevier that I am inclined to believe that there is something to the complaints.” Imagine a scientist’s reaction to reading that same statement in a different context, “I don’t have detailed facts at my fingertips: So many people have complained about vaccines causing autism that I am inclined to believe that there is something to the complaints.” Why are conclusions about your profession held to a high standard, yet you’re willing to make pronouncements about my profession based on your feelings and guesses?

A better understanding of the issues, actually spending the effort to do the research and understand the complexity, would hopefully lead to some enlightenment, and perhaps better strategies going forward. I’m reminded of Joe’s recent posting that discussed fallacies like “the idea that superior intelligence can solve any problem…the distinguished life scientist pronounces on how publishing operations should be run without reflecting that perhaps there is more to the game than being smart.”

I agree that a boycott is a legitimate strategy, but I have my doubts about its efficacy. As one of the other commenters here points out, the last time this was tried there was great response and a near-complete lack of follow-through. Instead of asking people to make career sacrifices for a cause which may not be at the top of their priority list, are there instead positive actions that could be taken to improve the situation?

The positive action that came after the failure of the previous boycott was the founding of PLoS. That had a much more significant impact on publishing than did the boycott. If access to the scholarly literature is as vital as many here believe, then why are institutions crippling their libraries by constantly reducing their budgets? Why not put some effort into putting some of those rising tuition funds toward the library’s budget, rather than cutting it every year? Is this a place where faculty and students can make a difference? What about becoming more involved in research societies and helping steer their publications? Why not a call to researchers to favor society publications which are owned and controlled by the community (and return any profits to the community) instead of a blanket boycott of everything because you’re unhappy with one subset of a company’s products?

In #2, do the Libraries get electronic access for their institution if they buy an individual journal subscription? Or do they only get print? They may force libraries to buy the freedom collection in order to get electronic access to the titles they want…

Good question, but no — online access is available by individual title as well as by bundle.

But often at a price that makes the bundle look cheap. At least we’ve had that experience with SAGE (charging $90,000 for a handful of titles as opposed to something around $50,000 for the all of their journals).

Agreed. But is your point that publishers shouldn’t offer discounts for bundled purchases? (If so, that seems like a very strange position for a customer to take.) Or is it that the list prices of individual subscriptions are too high? (If so, fair enough — so at what price point should we call off the boycott?)

I think charging $6,000 to $10,000 for individual ejournals so that paying $50,000 for all of the publisher’s wares is a cheaper alternative is forcing our hand and making us support the companies’ ability to create more journals that will be populated by the seemingly endless supply of content produced by academics who need lines for their vita. Those inidivdual prices are far too high, but because we cannot substitute other journals (content is not the same) our hand is forced. (This particular situation was with SAGE, not Elsevier – we said no to Elsevier a decade ago and I’m glad we did.)

The boycott is not about price point. It’s about a whole constellation of issues and especially about what scholars do. Gowers’s initial post said plainly that for-profit publishers do what makes sense for their purpose. They have no moral obligation to do otherwise, because what they do is perfectly consistent with their goals and purpose. Gowers writes “the moral issues are between mathematicians and other mathematicians rather than between mathematicians and Elsevier. In brief, if you publish in Elsevier journals you are making it easier for Elsevier to take action that harms academic institutions, so you shouldn’t.” He wasn’t suggesting that Elsevier change, but rather that academics do. And it’s only if academics change that we’ll see price points reflect what the end user wants and needs. The only reason this system keeps going is that the user doesn’t pay, so has no incentive to change. Gowers is pointing out that this is not responsible behavior.

I think charging $6,000 to $10,000 for individual ejournals so that paying $50,000 for all of the publisher’s wares is a cheaper alternative is forcing our hand and making us support the companies’ ability to create more journals that will be populated by the seemingly endless supply of content produced by academics who need lines for their vita. Those inidivdual prices are far too high, but because we cannot substitute other journals (content is not the same) our hand is forced.

So it sounds like your real issue is not with the fact that bundles come with discounts, but with the list prices of the individual titles. Fair enough; in many cases I agree with you. And if, as an author, you choose not to write for a publisher with whose business practices you disagree, then more power to you. What I question in my piece is the wisdom of organizing a mass boycott of one publisher among the many whose practices may reasonably be considered objectionable; of justifying that action on the basis of misinformation; and of doing so without any concrete goal. Is hurting Elsevier a sufficient goal in and of itself? Or are we trying to improve the scholarly communication environment? If the former, then this boycott is a great idea, and the validity of its premises hardly matters. If the latter, then it seems to me that the questions I’ve posed about the boycott are worth considering carefully.

As I said elsewhere, boycotting Elsevier or other publishers is rather futile, even if scientists that have signed stick to their threat. Elsevier is driven by money. They only look up if money stops flowing in. That means not renewing big deals. Often however big deal contracts run for several years and scientists would not accept having no access to Elsevier journals. There should be a list where scientists could could up their name promising not to complain if the library does not renew the big deal. Now that would make a change.
BTW your first three point are completely true. One point I would like to make is that Elsevier is singled out because is is the biggest, because it has the strongest anti Open Access stance and perhaps most importantly because of the extremely arrogant reactions by its spokesman Tom Reller, enraging many scientists.

Jeroen, I’m very sorry if any of my comments in and of themselves are enraging scientists, that’s certainly not my intent. I’m just trying to insert a combination of facts and perspectives into various debates taking place about our company. I don’t expect them to all be accepted, but I think they should be welcomed – even when disagreed with. I certainly don’t think they should enrage anyone, but maybe that’s more a factor of the environment David Crotty described.

But if there’s an arrogant tone to them it’s unintentional and likely a reflection that I do truly believe this is a great company. Not a perfect company, but a great company with great people, and a sincere belief that we’re here to help scientists. And yes, we also strive to perform well. But we’re nothing like what some people say and we deserve to be defended. I don’t personally think that’s arrogance, but you’re obviously free to disagree.

And keep in mind I try to write these comments as concisely as possible, I can only worry so much about how every word is phrased or going to be interpreted. I’m very well aware of our past and the complexities and difficulties in some of our relationships. Maybe someday I’ll write a book about why I think this is a great company despite all the misinformation in the blogosphere, but until then, I have to communicate in comment threads amid short attention spans.

In any event, in regard to Open Access, I’d just say we’re further along than most give us credit for – not as far along as you probably want, just further along than you think. You can find more information here — http://www.elsevier.com/wps/find/intro.cws_home/open_access_mechanisms

What you suggest is being pursued in France, where we have launched a petition to influence the ongoing negotiations with Springer (mostly mathematicians have signed, but also some computer scientists, physicists and a few other scholars),

I do not think that one kind of initiative should be preferred to another; both the Cost of Knowledge pledge and the French Call have their purposes.

Please read a bit more about this, in these comments, or from our blog when this occurred. It was a mistake by a regional office in Australia, and was quickly addressed.

History and social change are way more likely to lurch forward through serial accidents, coincidences, missteps, mob psychology and dilettantism than by some concerted, reasoned, strategic plan. This is especially true in a world fueled by social media. I’m sure Mubarak sat in his palace in Egypt saying, “Why me? Why now? I used to be worse? Abdullah is still worse.” Likewise, Goldman-Sachs probably looks down at the Occupy people on Wall Street and says, “Are we really worse than Merrill Lynch or Morgan Stanley?” And maybe the Susan G. Komen Board is saying today, “What did we do? They’re not understanding our side of the story! Listen to the facts!” Well, sorry all, that’s just not the way of the world.

Elsevier has a deservedly bad brand image for sins past (and maybe some not so far in the past). They’ve been coasting along lately in slightly better climate for campus and library relations. Maybe they deserve some credit for turning that around from the 80s and 90s, but credit is way harder to come by than blame, and people are slow to forgive and forget.

That said, it doesn’t take much to set off a firestorm, and Elsevier showed up to a rally with matches and a fuse. Their fingerprints are all over HR 3699 (The Research Works Act) and while that’s probably the way the big boys and girls lobby and play in America, this is a bad time to get your hand caught in the cookie jar. This legislation has almost no chance of succeeding, so it’s simply a dumb calculation to openly align with a movement—or instigate a movement— that is so blatantly at odds with the interests of the academy and the tax-paying public.

When things are going great for a company like Elsevier, their leaders are all about patting their own backs for being the smartest and most charming guys and gals in the room. When all hell breaks loose with a faculty insurgency to withhold love and services, well then they complain that they are misunderstood, being undermined by false information, victimized by malefactors, or otherwise ill-fated. Right or wrong on the details, I think Elsevier earned the wrath of 2,800 researchers who signed the petition. There are no innocents here— Elsevier got out a stick and whacked a hornet’s nest. Sometimes you can get away with that and sometimes it come back to sting you. In this case I think we’re seeing the latter.

To the larger point, Elsevier, Wiley, et al. are on the wrong side of history here, and eventually they’ll all be forced to give ground. Why Elsevier gets singled out today, while some other publisher gets a bye week is just a quirk of history. The others, however, shouldn’t revel too much in Elsevier’s problems. Their time will come soon enough to face the “wisdom of the mob.”

The day that our profession becomes a mob is the day I hope I have the courage to leave it.

Elsevier has got a successful business model. How about beating them in the market? Can’t be that difficult to establish a better way of doing scientific publishing business, can it? Or are we really reiterating the Linux-vs-Microsoft fallacy here: to believe one could hit a company without developing and executing a better way of doing their business.

I agree with Mark Sandler; whether it is factually based or not, whether it is effective or not, whether it is right or wrong misses the point as to why this event is important. Humanity is driven by emotion as much as by fact. There have been any number of studies in economics and marketing that prove this point. All we are really observing here is a system in flux. There are many reasons for this flux, technological change, a realignment of the economic structure in the West, a reevaluation of the role of government and business – to name but a few. This single event only makes sense when looking at the larger picture. Will this boycott make a difference? I seriously doubt it. But I think Mark is right, it could be a sign of larger things to come. Though unlike him, I am unwilling to predict who is on the right side of history here. History has a funny habit of unfolding in unexpected ways.

As for the Merck thing in Australia, I lived and worked in Australia during that time period (for a competing publication). Kent, you are right – up to a point. Those were the actions of a remote division of Elsevier and a mistake that ran counter to Elsevier policy. But a five year mistake? During that time period corporate executives from the Netherlands made repeated trips to their local division there. It seems odd to me that they were unaware of this activity. But then that is an issue for Elsevier’s stockholders. If I were a stockholder in Elsevier, I would be concerned about management’s judgement on any number of issues including this boycott. But then, I am not a stockholder in Elsevier.

Whether it is factually based or not, whether it is effective or not, whether it is right or wrong misses the point as to why this event is important.

Important? Probably so — if you can get 3,000 academics to sign up for an initiative that actually constrains their options, chances are good you’ve got something important happening. Where you lose me is on the suggestion that it doesn’t matter whether the boycott is factually based, effective, or right. My posting is based on the assumption that those things do matter, callow and naive as that assumption may be. What Mark calls the “wisdom of the mob” seems to me like something that those who consider themselves to be on the right side of history ought to call out, expose, and resist — even if the mob is howling at the “right” target.

Mark, the best I can try to explain what you’re getting at is that this was a small pharma sales division. I think between 3 and 5 people at any given time. The custom reprint business was not all that large so it didn’t get a lot of attention with senior management. The people working on them understood the pharma marketing business, they didn’t understand journal publishing, and particularly that you just can’t call a magazine of reprints, a “Journal”. It sounds crazy to academics that an Elsevier employee wouldn’t know this, but these sales employees werent working with our publishers.

Plus keep in mind there are actually no external regulations in existence as to what can be called a journal and what can’t be, its not illegal and it passed local pharma marketing requirements. It’s just something that peer reviewed publishers know you shouldn’t do. We wish someone there that understood and saw both parts of the business saw these, but they didn’t, for that many years. Now we have guidelines in place so pharma sales working the reprint business understand this.

You can go to our three press releases on the matter for further information:

Hope this is helpful, but if not I’d be glad to talk to you more about it over the phone. Thank you.

If I understand correctly, you are claiming that Elsevier, among the largest medical publishers in the world, had staff who lacked basic knowledge of ethical obligations in the reprinting division with so little supervision that the existence of the “fake” journals wasn’t known to other divisions even after 5 years. Mind boggling if true.

Notably, Elsevier has never disclosed (as far as I’m aware) the amount of money they were paid for the “reprints.” I’d make a bet it was well above the market price of a reprint. They are quite excited to tell everyone that what they did wasn’t technically illegal. Good for you. That makes it ok (sarcasm alert).

BTW. For what its worth, Elseviers overt support (and sponsorship) of RWA (not to mention SOPA) is the final straw for this young academic. I’ll be doing what I can to avoid Elsevier journals (incidentally this is the answer to the question: why Elsevier? For example, NPG has explicitly opposed SOPA and RWA.)

Those fake journals were published under the management of a local executive who exerted tight control over all regional operations and was able to keep things opaque to upper management. As soon as his practices were found out, he was fired/sacked/let go. There is nothing “mind boggling” in this. Scandals on this scale and this type happen all the time, I hate to tell you, and are actually more common in academia than in publishing, I’d wager. Fake authorship. Plagiarism. Fake data. Overinterpretation of results. Lack of disclosure. If there’s a moral rule here, you have to apply it evenly for it to be a rule. Personally, I see no part of your complaint as a reason to blackball a company for years on end — I’d blackball that executive and others involved, including the physicians who signed on to the fake editorial boards, but not the company. Also, the problem is not part of the stated reasons for the boycott, so you’re just bringing in extraneous points. What’s next? Don’t like the Dutch? Don’t like companies that can have the anagram of “evil” in their name? (Livestrong.org must be in your sites, then.)

Is the boycott political? Economic? Personal? I still don’t understand the underlying problem that would target Elsevier, other than that they’re a convenient target. If that’s the case, it’s kind of a superficial boycott.

Kent – if you notice the publishing scandal was referenced by Tom and I was replying. As I directly raised, if Elsevier’s management was so clean (and perhaps they were which is symptomatic of mismanagement) why haven’t they ever told us how many $ Merck paid them. I have a hunch that it might be well above market rates which might indicate that at least someone knew they were providing a “special” service.

For the record, the thing that has tipped me to join the boycott is Elsevier’s support for RWA. I guess you could say that’s political. That combined with discontent of Elsevier’s pricing (although since Elsevier doesn’t openly disclose most their prices, this is harder to come by). Incidentally, this happens to be exactly the issues raised on the boycott website and the issues mentioned at the top of this blog. Mystery solved.

But sure, speaking of extraneous points, my reasoning is exactly on the same level as boycotting a company due to weird anagrams … or perhaps your obtuseness is perhaps demonstrating some of the reasons Elsevier has managed to get >3000 academics fed up enough to sign a boycott.

Just to emphasis how deliberately obtuse [seemingly, perhaps there is a more charitable organisation] you are being, here is the last paragraph of my previous comment:
“BTW. For what its worth, Elseviers overt support (and sponsorship) of RWA (not to mention SOPA) is the final straw for this young academic. I’ll be doing what I can to avoid Elsevier journals (incidentally this is the answer to the question: why Elsevier? For example, NPG has explicitly opposed SOPA and RWA.)”

to which you replied firstly by equating my decisions with boycotting companies based on anagrams of their name or their nationality and then asking:
“Is the boycott political? Economic? Personal? I still don’t understand the underlying problem that would target Elsevier, other than that they’re a convenient target.”

So if Elsevier stopped supporting the RWA, you’d stop boycotting them?


Great events and moments in history turn on inaccurate information or misconceptions. That is what I mean when I say it doesn’t matter whether the boycott is right or effective – if we are indeed observing an event that is part of a larger change.

Wars are won even if tactical mistakes are made and battles are lost. I have no idea how this will play out. My point merely is this event and the open access movement in general are all part of a shift in the traditional dynamic in academic publishing. In that context, it makes no difference if individual events are done for right reasons or are effective. This boycott could indicate a general dissatisfaction among academic publishers’ customers – if that is true then the larger issue is more important than the reasons for this single event and whether or not it is effective.

So when you say “it doesn’t matter whether the boycott is right or effective,” it sounds like what you mean is that the boycott’s dunderheadedness has no bearing on whether it reflects a real trend in the thinking of academic authors. If so, no argument here. The point of my posting was not to question the reality of that trend, but to discuss the dunderheadedness of the boycott — which strikes me as a significant enough issue by itself to justify comment.

If it is acceptable for the science community to base decisions on feelings rather than fact, then do we lose all credibility in challenging the anti-evolutionists, the climate change deniers and the anti-vaxxers? How are their arguments any less driven by emotion or human than this one?

Should scientists hold themselves to a higher standard, or is this an inevitable part of human nature? Are the science community and the Tea Party much more alike than either would care to admit?

My point above is that social change (for better or worse) is often driven by faulty or incomplete information that leads to flawed conclusions. I take your point– and Rick’s– that it would be more satisfying if these faculty advocates had a more airtight argument, but that doesn’t lead me to conclude that they’re “wrong” about the premises they assert or the overall conclusion they reach. Does Elsevier charge “exorbitantly” or do they charge what the market thinks their content is worth—discuss. Is it wrong to say that libraries “have to” take “unwanted” titles if the alternative is to pay more for the subset of titles you do want—discuss. Is it correct to say they oppose open access if they support open-access models that enhance their revenue—discuss.

Could the argumentation here be tighter? Sure, but that doesn’t mean these folks are wrong, either in the particulars or in their assessment of their interests vis a vis the publisher. The problem with the Tea Party, as distinct from these smarties, is a) the tea party revels in being wrong as an expression of freedom and a thumb in the eye of elitist authority; and b) they are most likely acting against their own best interests. I don’t think either of these is true for our scientist-warriors. They would happily let Rick recast their premises in tighter language as long as it still leads to the same conclusions, and I believe it would.

So, to me, this doesn’t make the organizers of this effort “wrong.” Rather, it means they could do an even better job of explaining why they are right.

Mark, my posting doesn’t address the quality of anyone’s argumentation. It addresses the fundamental premises of the boycott. One of those premises is very simply false (which isn’t a problem of poor argumentation, but rather one of straightforward misrepresentation); the other two premises are true enough but don’t support the boycott’s targeting of Elsevier to the exclusion of other publishers (which isn’t a problem of poor argumentation, but rather one that goes to the boycott’s logical basis). My last criticism is that the boycott has no clear purpose: there is no indication as to what the boycotters are trying to get Elsevier to do. All of these are criticisms of the boycott’s basic premises, not critiques of the boycotters’ ability to formulate “airtight arguments.”

So what I’m wondering is: do you disagree with any of the things I actually said in the piece? Or do you only disagree with the imaginary positions that you’ve creatively extrapolated from my posting? (Or — another possibility — are you simply saying that since the boycott is “on the right side of history” and is symptomatic of a larger discontent with Big Publishing, it’s therefore beyond critique?)

Your politics are showing, David C. Climate change skepticism is a real policy debate and the Tea Party is a real party. The scientific community is no more immune to political movements than the engineering community, the business community, the legal community, the education community, or any other community, nor should it be. Scientists are not more rational than everyone else.

Figured I’d hear from the right wing of The Scholarly Kitchen on this one. Perhaps I’m just being something of a Pollyanna here, and expecting my science community to be more grounded in reality, to base decisions on facts rather than gut feelings and “truthiness”. The end message may be that we’re all just humans and that for humans, a compelling story is more important than a true one.

One of the fundamental skills of a scientist is the ability to discard a set of ideas when presented with compelling evidence that they are wrong. Sometimes these skills go missing (publishing and peer review seem to be particular blind spots), but once the relevant facts are established then the correct consensus should emerge.

So yes, scientists are expected to be more rational than other groups that steadfastly ‘believe’ in their pet idea (climate change denial, creation, vaccines causing autism etc) irrespective of what the evidence actually says.

Mark, I agree that “the larger issue is more important than the reasons for this single event and whether or not it is effective.” But we are discussing this single evnt. We have discussed the larger issue at length in numerous posts and will continue to do so. Moreover, this event is quite revealing of the larger issue, namely that it is more of a cause than a rational argument. That is, people just want change for its own sake. They do not have a better alternative. Causes are like that.

Rick, yes you have stated my position correctly. I think this particular event is ill-conceived and will prove ineffective. However I like to look at these things from an investor’s perspective. As a dispassionate investor, who can invest in the publishing industry or any other industry and within the publishing industry I can invest in Elsevier or Houghton or (insert company name here), I would find the trends in the publishing industry of the last decade to be disturbing. My conclusion would be that the very profitable business model publishers’ had built for themselves is under severe stress (and most likely cannot hold – for many of the reasons I listed in my original entry). In my view, this event is not a catalyst for change but merely a symptom of a model under stress and so therefore should be looked at from that perspective.

In the case of this particular event and Elsevier, if I were an investor in Elsevier I would have some concerns that Elsevier tends to be singled out by the community. I think this is partly explained by its size, the biggest player is always singled out. But on the other hand, as an investor I would be worried that Elsevier always seems to be embroiled in these issues and never seems to get ahead of them. I am an investor in Johnson and Johnson, even though it is a very profitable company and a leader in the industry – its inability to get on top of its production problems this past year concerns me as an owner. One has to wonder about management that cannot seem to get beyond or resolve ongoing issues.

Perhaps this boycott is ill-conceived, but scientists are certainly within their right to think that the dissemination of scientific literature can be handled in a different way. Kent’s very eloquent and reasoned description of the RWA is still just an opinion, however reasoned it may be. The problem with real life is that we cannot conduct a clinical trial in a lab to prove or disprove a thesis. Yes, the current model may align the interests of author and publisher as Kent describes. But there is no reason to believe that technology won’t alter that alignment or that these interests cannot be aligned in an alternate manner. The issue here isn’t that there is a right and wrong way to disseminate scientific information. Again, as Kent pointed out, any model developed by humans will be imperfect and require trade-offs. For all their protestations, the OA advocates do not offer a better model. They merely offer a model with a different set of trade-offs. It is a matter of opinion as to which trade-offs are preferable.

I happen to think that the current model has worked very well for many decades. Current events, however lead me to conclude that the model may no longer hold. The important lesson to be learned from the boycott isn’t that it will change the world but that, yet again, it demonstrates a frustration in the community with how things are currently organized. It would be wrong for publishing management to focus on this single event but instead focus on the larger issue. Like the hapless former president of Egypt, publishing management should be asking itself; why me and why now? I have no doubt that many managers are indeed asking this very question.

Perhaps this boycott is ill-conceived, but scientists are certainly within their right to think that the dissemination of scientific literature can be handled in a different way.

It sounds like you and I agree on both of these points, Mark. The burden of my posting was to point out that the boycott is ill-conceived. And there is certainly no question that scientists have the right to think that the dissemination of scientific literature can be handled in a different way. My posting was not about what people have the right to think, but about a particular thing that this group of people has set out to do.

I actually avoided quoting Gowers because he wasn’t one of the boycott organizers, and it didn’t seem fair to blame his ignorance on them. But if you insist, then I guess we need to bring up again the fact that Gowers has publicly admitted that he really has no idea what he’s talking about. The first relevant quote (“I don’t have detailed facts at my fingertips: So many people have complained about Elsevier that I am inclined to believe that there is something to the complaints”) was mentioned by David C. earlier and is embarrassing enough. But consider also this one, from a recent Library Journal article: “Gowers acknowledged, in a subsequent blog post, that Elsevier’s involvement with arXiv ‘considerably weakens the argument that Elsevier papers, once published, disappear behind a very expensive paywall.’ But he said it still was an inconvenience since page references in the arXiv version are different from the journal.”

I wasted a perfectly good workday yesterday obsessively tuning in to Susan G. Komen news and the Elsevier boycott. I resolved to pay attention to my work today, but want to weigh in once more with a few quick comments:

First and foremost, I think it’s nuts to call Tim Gowers “ignorant.” He’s plenty smart, not only about math but about scholarly publishing, Granted, he’s not an information economist, nor an AUL for collections, so doesn’t live his entire day eating/drinking/breathing library licensing, but that’s a far cry from “ignorant.” He’s got more than a lay understanding of the issues here, so I say he’s as entitled as the next guy/gal to speak his mind.

Second, an effort to redress grievances with one company is a sensible tactic to me—I think they call it pattern bargaining in labor negotiations. Singling out one company probably puts more competitive business pressure on them than lumping them all together where no one company is put at relative risk.

Third, since we’ve already dabbled in analogies to right-wing politics in America, let’s tip our hat to Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 plan. Sure it may have been horribly regressive. Sure it may have only raised half the revenue currently realized through the tax system. Sure Romney’s 59 points of light are probably more nuanced, but at the end of the day the Cain plan was simple and memorable enough to stick with average voters. Faculty undoubtedly have more tolerance for detail than the average American voter, but there are limits. Gower, et al. have put forth a simple statement of grievances that are easily grasped, even if “oversimplified” for the tastes of some.

And fourth, Elsevier, Wiley, et al. have been talking for years about the value they add by organizing peer review, editing, disseminating, etc., and will say here again that the boycotters fail to understand the role they play. It occurs to me that they just haven’t been very effective in delivering that message, or showing some compelling data, or linking their work-product to costs, or anything else about the strings they are supposedly pulling behind the curtain. I know one publisher that likes to say that their costs necessarily take account of the high percentage of submissions they reject—in other words, we’re not paying for what they publish but what they DON’T publish. At the end of the day, the publishers haven’t done a very good job of making the case for the value they add—not just this week but over the past twenty years. I think Herman Cain might have some free time to come consult with them about how to package their pizza.

So, to the main point here, while we “experts” keep nattering in the Scholarly Kitchen, the boycott has attracted 3,500 pledges and is growing by hundreds each day.

First and foremost, I think it’s nuts to call Tim Gowers “ignorant.” He’s plenty smart, not only about math but about scholarly publishing, Granted, he’s not an information economist, nor an AUL for collections, so doesn’t live his entire day eating/drinking/breathing library licensing, but that’s a far cry from “ignorant.”

Context is important here, Mark. There’s no question that Tim Gowers is a very smart guy. But being smart isn’t the same thing as knowing what you’re talking about; Gowers has publicly acknowledged his own ignorance on two of the fundamental issues underlying this boycott, and it was the expression of his misinformed opinions that reportedly led to the boycott’s establishment. The issues in question are not the scholcomm equivalent of rocket science; you don’t have to be an information economist or a full-time library administrator to get the basic facts of these issues straight. All it takes is a minimum level of fact-checking. And if he didn’t do that minimum work, then the boycott organizers certainly should have done so before publicly posting misinformation. (Again: this is not a matter of insufficiently “airtight arguments”; it’s a matter of simple fact-checking.)

As to your second point: you disagree that targeting Elsevier to the exclusion of all the other similarly predatory publishers is a strategic mistake. Fair enough.

Your third point seems to be based on the continued misperception that I’m critiquing the quality of the boycott organizers’ arguments. See above.

With your fourth point, it sounds like you’re actually arguing with Tom Reller and his counterparts at the other Big Publishing houses. You’re certainly not addressing any argument I’ve made.

Mark, I think your last point is important, and not just for commercial publishers. I think there’s a tremendous amount of ignorance about how the publishing process works, what a publisher does, and exactly how the economics work. I work exclusively with not-for-profit society journals, and when I meet with editorial boards, I often find it necessary to give a primer explaining the journal’s connection to the society, how the system works and where the money goes. If those close to the journal are unclear on the concepts, then those peripheral to the journal are likely even less clear.

We need to do a better job justifying our existence, and in making it clear (at least in the case of societies) where the money goes.

As one of the signers of the boycott, for me it is not about making Elsevier change, is about stopping them from having a significant role in the research community. I just think they represent an obsolete part of the journal publication process, and I am happy to help make them go away. I would boycott other big journal publishers as well if someone cared to organize a boycott.

For those tracking inaccuracies and wondering how low into the gutter the debate can descend, it should be noted that in The Guardian, a commenter has identified Rick Anderson (the Associate Dean for Scholarly Resources and Collections at the University of Utah’s Marriott Library) as a “commercial publisher” and has compared him to an abusive spouse for daring to try to understand this boycott’s goals:

Sigh. I’m beginning to agree with others here that my faith in the rationality of the science community is not warranted.

David, scientists are people too. They are subject to the same emotions as the rest of us. That fact does not depress me or cause me consternation.

Rick, we are indeed in agreement and it certainly is legitimate to look at this event in particular and its merits. The article in The Guardian and the comment from “A” here on this blog, I think lend credence to my perspective. This event is part of a larger movement. The final verdict on the actions of publishers is not in our hands. It is in the hands of our customers. They are the judge and jury. Rick, one can debate the merits of this particular action, but the point is the publishing industry’s customers are sending us a message loud and clear. We would be wise to listen.

I find the comments disparaging the people involved in this boycott quite tedious and ahistorical. I tend to agree with Mark Sandler and others who have pointed out that this is a political movement and that it is, quite possibly, just beginning. Elsevier is a big target, which explains why it was chosen. There are obviously mitigating circumstances that make it less than ideal (i.e. there are lots of other journals and no one forces libraries to buy into the big deal, etc.) But this isn’t just about emotion either. There are many things about this protest that make perfect sense. In this sense, it makes less sense to look at this one website of the protest and more sense to look at all the public comments on the RWA,


RWA is a clear affront to the principle of Open Access because, despite the weird support its getting from people on this blog, it does something quite different than simply amend or critique the NIH policy. If it were simply to do that, then the RWA might make sense. It is interesting to read the above critiques of the NIH policy, but we should be clear that this is not what Elsevier and other supporters of the bill are doing. No one is saying, “you know, this current policy is a little off and could use some tweaking.” They are saying, “there can never be another policy like this.” I.e. the RWA is a government mandate that says you can never have a government mandate that requires publicly funded research be made public. Maybe the NIH policy is wrong, but the way you change ineffective policies is by having a public conversation about them and then amending them. Elsevier and the bill’s supporters did not do this: they lobbied for a backroom bill, minted by one of the opponents of SOPA so that it might appear on the up and up, and had it introduced while all the academics were off on break. What’s ridiculous is not the academic boycott: it’s the presumption on the part of this corporation that it can basically write the laws that suit them, everyone else be damned, and none of their immediate suppliers or consumers (which in this case, are often the same people) will be offended.

I don’t have any more of a sense of the efficacy of the boycott- which, after all, was not some intensely planned, deeply strategized political event: it was a clear cry of anger against what many feel is an unjust policy – and the corporate interests who helped draft it. It’s no big surprise that there could be better stated aspects about it, but the critique in this comment stream is just plain reactionary. Would you have said there was no way for the Montgomery bus boycott to help start a national movement? Would you have said that occupying a little park in New York city wouldn’t be enough to set off a nationwide series of protests with a similarly vague but symbolic target? It’s true that, in both of those cases, there was a significant amount of organizing that went into the action. But the fact that it caught on was not completely the work of the organizers themselves. When something strikes a chord with a large group of people, when protests begin to spread and catch on, the question isn’t, “was this the best/right/most logical way to carry out the protest?” It’s, “wow! Why is this catching on? What will be the effect?”

Critiquing the rationality of the protest as a text is Monday morning quarterbacking: as people like James C. Scott pointed out years ago, when a revolution starts there are often a wide variety of impulses, needs, demands, and desires that get clustered under the wide umbrella of the revolution. There is always a revolution (or many) in the revolution. In this case, there may be many people who have signed the petition not because they think this, directly, will have an effect (though as Rick points out, it is a rare situation for academics since it actually could: they’re basically threatening to go on strike); instead, it may be a fairly simple thing they can do, alongside other actions, which can register their disdain for the current system – and especially for the proposed legislation, which would, in some ways, make this system far more permanent.

What I find interesting here isn’t just the rare structural advantage faculty have discovered they have in this particular fight – i.e. they can, in fact, have an effect. Instead, what I think is interesting is the larger cultural effect this could have. I don’t know as much about the sciences, but in the liberal arts (especially fields like Communications) there is a clear set of hierarchical standards for published work – and publishing work in so-called “flagship” journals. Whatever open access provisions are available in pre or post publication, the fact remains that many academics feel compelled by their tenure and promotion committee standards to continue to produce work for these journals. Thus, even if they would rather put their work in some open access journal, the cultural capital (and hence institutional value within the university and T&P environment) of the “big journal” creates a pressure to publish there (and work on those editorial boards and demand subscriptions to them).

I’ve read several critiques of the boycott that point out the wide availability of open access venues for academics who really value this. This is true, but until there’s a sort of critical mass, it is hard to justify to the older academics in your department (or just the other, reactionary ones) that you haven’ tried (or been accepted) to these journals. I realize that something similar to this boycott has happened several times in the past, but each time it increases the visibility of the option – and the more good, solid scientists working on open access journals instead of Elsevier titles, the better those venues will become and the more reasonable it will be to accept those venues as valid places of publication, editorial work, etc. for T&P purposes. If it also give libraries the license to not license these titles (i.e. the kind of boycott mentioned above where faculty say they’d be okay with not having access to them) then this is all the more damning to the current system – particularly since libraries would likely appreciate a place to cut corners with the current budget environment.

In other words, in this and many other ways, there is a significant gap to jump over between the current system and the rather exciting possibilities of a more open system. The boycott is one attempt to bridge that gap, however reasonable, however effective. And, as it happens, its main target is a bill (and one of its key corporate sponsors) which, for better or worse, attempts to destroy one of the other ramshackle bridges across this moat. What is more curious to me than the boycott or its own ramshackle structure, is, as Mark puts it, how miscalculated and idiotic the legislation was to begin with. Faculty may often be distracted and subject like everyone else to the inertia of their profession: but they also have a deep reserve of blind, sanctimonious rage.
Whatever devil there is in the details, Elsevier provides the perfect target for this rage, the bill in congress the perfect context, and the structural power of faculty the perfect mechanism. It is a perfect storm of factors making that rage seem more rational and well conceived than usual.

Elsevier is playing this as if the boycott is some sort of PR disaster and they need to try to play the refs (i.e. the media and reactionary commenters on blogs and listserves). They are right, but this is insufficient: instead they need to realize that their 36% profit margin isn’t given to them by god. Their market monopoly is a direct effect of faculty producing content, reviewing content, editing content, and then demanding access to that content from their local academic institutions. If any part of that breaks down, they are in trouble. The more they chastise, fact check, or call the faculty involved in this boycott irrational, the worse will fare in the fallout. This is a time to abandon the bill in congress and go back to what they should have done from the very beginning: lobbying their main constituents rather than lining the pockets of legislators.

What you folk fail to grasp is that Rep. Issa is a Committee Chairman in the US House. Nobody writes his bills except his staff and nobody tells him what to write, most especially not a foreign corporation. RWA is a message from the right, which now controls the House. I realize that most academics are liberals so it is a hard message to grasp, but you folks should try to understand the situation if you hope to advance your cause.

I may just be a silly, liberal academic, but there is at least some evidence to support the following assertion: there is more to this than some partisan agenda in congress that just happens to benefit the largest publisher of science research in the world. In almost every instance of PR response to the boycott, Elsevier’s representatives (such as Alicia Wise) are keen to point out that, on the one hand Elsevier ain’t so bad, and on the other, that RWA is a good thing. They are clearly in favor of the legislation and have made contributions to both of the legislators who have sponsored the bill. You are right in so far as they aren’t the only publisher advocating this legislation (thought they have the most to gain financially from it’s passage) but foreign companies can lobby US legislators just as ably as domestic ones. I’m sure GOP control of the house has some role in this, but I fail to see what dog the GOP in general has in this fight. Are there statements supporting this bill by GOP house members other than Issa? Does it fit directly into any agenda other than giving in to the demands of any corporation that signs you a check? I’m sure the situation is overdetermined in many ways, but it would be nice to have some evidence to back up the almost ad hominem attack on liberal academics.

I should add that it doesn’t really matter if they supported it in its drafting (though I’m sure they had input in some fashion since, again, they have an enormous position in this market). They are supporting it now. If the boycott is spurred by the RWA, the easiest PR move for them (if they didn’t care about it) would be to distance themselves from the legislation. They are not doing this. They are doubling down thereby increasing the chances that foolish liberal academics like myself will find the boycott all the more valid in its target. The only reason for Elsevier to do this is if they really, truly, deeply support the legislation. Whether they paid for it is incidental at this point and I don’t think the tactical blunder is any less significant.

The GOP’s dog is as follows. The RFI tells me that the Admin is considering extending the NIH model to the rest of the funding agencies. RWA is a shot across their bow. The Rep principles involved are (1) keeping govt off of industry’s back and (2) anything Obama wants to do is wrong. Of course the Elves support RWA, because most publishers hate the NIH power grab. I imagine Issa’s people have had an earful from the industry, profit and non.

I think most of “we folk” know perfectly well who Darrell Issa is–and what the Heartland Institute is for that matter—and understand perfectly well that neither are friends of the academy. So that little tutorial was unnecessary. But, if we’re offering remedial education here, I’ll say it’s absurd to think or say that lobbyists don’t draft legislation for Congressional Representatives and their staffs. Happens all the time, on both sides of the aisle.

True enough, Mark, and I have proposed legislative language more than once. But the boycott defenders are talking as though Elsevier dictated (in the authoritarian sense of the word) the RWA, and so must be punished. That is nonsense.

As for friends of the academy, it is amusing that the OA movement is driving toward a world where researchers will have to pay to get their papers published, perhaps even to get them considered for publication and rejected. How friendly is that?

David, to provide just one example,
NPG has a press release publicly opposing the RWA.
As have the AAAS and MIT etc.

Elsevier OTOH has donated significant $ to the drafters of the bill.
Elsevier has never been known for its charity – so I imagine they didn’t dole out the lobbyist $ for giggles. But if they want to publicly oppose the RWA they’re free to do so and I’d revise my opinions accordingly.

Perhaps this makes it clear why I’m much keener to publish in an MIT press journal than an Elsevier one.

The basic concept of political contributions is that you support people who agree with you. Elsevier is doing nothing wrong and has no reason to change its mind.

Not likely Mark. Congressmen are an independent bunch, especially Committee Chairmen, who are leaders, not followers. They are powerful people.

I agree with everything you’ve said. A legitimate political response to a company supporting political actions we disagree with is to give them a reason to change their mind. This is known as a boycott.

In other words, in this and many other ways, there is a significant gap to jump over between the current system and the rather exciting possibilities of a more open system. The boycott is one attempt to bridge that gap, however reasonable, however effective. And, as it happens, its main target is a bill (and one of its key corporate sponsors) which, for better or worse, attempts to destroy one of the other ramshackle bridges across this moat.

Sean, are you suggesting that the main target of this boycott is RWA? If so, I’m curious as to how you come to that conclusion. RWA is mentioned only in passing on the boycott website and is hardly discussed at all on the Journal Publishing Reform wiki page, to which visitors are directed for more information. On the boycott’s website, its organizers are very clear: the boycott’s target is Elsevier, not any specific piece of legislation. Specific examples of legislation are cited only as partial justification for the targeting of Elsevier.

I’m saying that the RWA is the primary catalyst for the boycott. Immediately before Gowers post on his webpage (the “downfall” one, on 1/21/2012), a wide swath of internet orgs staged a blackout (1/18/2012) in protest of SOPA/PIPA. These protests, by about 1/21, appeared to have been largely successful at generating attention and solidarity around the legislation in question. RWA was, as David puts it, an equivalent shot across the bow of OA publishing and the principle of public access and “free culture.” This serves as the primary context and catalyst for launching the protest. It is mentioned as one of the three reasons for the protest on the boycott website, one out of three being hardly “in passing” (its inclusion with SOPA/PIPA is overdetermined: for those who know about RWA, it just testifies to a pattern; for those who don’t know about RWA, it demonstrates the necessary bleeding of that SOPA/PIPA protest into the ivory tower.) You’re right that it doesn’t appear prominently on the wiki (thanks for pointing out that page, BTW), but if you click on almost any of the news reports under the heading of the boycott, they cite RWA as a context for the boycott. It is basically the straw that broke the camel’s back – and a way to channel all the energy generated from the SOPA/PIPA blackout into an issue that more directly affects academic and scholarly publishing. And while we can quibble all day about Elsevier’s centrality or actions in that area, there is no arguing that it is an enormous company. As I said, there may be many other forms of animosity that are not directly targeted at RWA or Elsevier’s role, support, or potential benefit from that bill; but likewise there are many people supporting the boycott that are probably more concerned about the principle of OA and the threat that RWA has to it.

As for David’s point that people supporting OA are not being friendly to researchers or the academy, this is a very short sighted way of thinking about it. As Heather Morrison pointed out on her blog several months ago, the profits (only the profits! from only one year!) from Elsevier alone could effectively fund OA for the year.


The fact is that researchers and their institutions are ALREADY paying for this, quite likely several times over, and if that money were instead channeled into an Open Access system they might not have to pay for it every year from now until the end of human existence. That makes paying a fee seem like a good move for institutions (something Rick’s library has been wise about.)


Maybe he can say something about this as a possible strategy. It seems like, were it adopted by more libraries in place of some portion of the subscription budget, it could begin to hack away at the monopoly control of this content.

I’m saying that the RWA is the primary catalyst for the boycott.

Understood. And I’m saying I see nothing in the boycott documents to support that assertion. RWA is certainly part of the context of the boycott, but so is any number of other scholcomm issues and controversies. The fact that Gowers cites the SOPA/PIPA protests in a blog posting previous to the one that led to the boycott is not exactly compelling evidence for the proposition that RWA is “the main target” of the boycott. Dissatisfaction with Elsevier has been brewing for decades, and is not only sufficient as an explanation for the boycott, it’s actually the cause that is specifically cited by the boycotters themselves (as opposed to third-party commentators seeking to explain it). And while we’re quibbling quantitatively, RWA is not “one of the three reasons for the boycott on the protest website.” It’s cited as one of several questionable policies that Elsevier is said to support; Elsevier’s support for those policies is itself only one of the three reasons given for the boycott. RWA truly is mentioned only in passing; it’s one entry in an open-ended list of examples.

The only reason I harp on this point is that I think it’s important not to lose focus on the question at hand, which is not “Is Elsevier bad?” or “Is SOPA/PIPA/RWA bad?” or “Does the scholarly communications system need to change?” These are legitimate questions, but they’re tangential to the topic of my posting. My posting is about the undeniable falsity (in one case) and what I see as the questionable logic and strategic clumsiness (in the other two cases) of the specific premises on which this boycott is explicitly founded. Responses along the lines of “But Elsevier is bad and the scholcomm system needs to change and the boycott expresses the genuine outrage of many researchers” may well be expressions of truth, but they don’t address the issues and questions I raised in my piece.

I guess my response would be that I think you’re seriously overlooking the role of power in each of these cases, especially in case #2, which appears to be the “undeniable falsity.” We’ve gone over this before, but the situation is much more complex than you acknowledge. I admit you know a great deal more about the actual nuts and bolts workings of this, but I would dispute your characterization of the meeting between a publisher and that of a library as being one of equality and voluntary choice. Perhaps coercion is a strong word, but the prices libraries encounter are not the magical precipitate of a free market: they are gates that publishers strategically construct in order to channel the most traffic possible to the big deal. And just as we will, eventually, have to get them to relent if pay-per-use is ever to be a real possibility, it is they who price the gates in such a way that the big deal makes far and away the most sense. With a 36% profit margin its hard to think they don’t have this scheme down to an exact science. As you know, it is a monopoly good which they permit access to at their pleasure. Libraries need access to these goods and it is not exactly a free choice if they are channeled through an arbitrary pricing structure to buy journals they probably wouldn’t otherwise (the same complaint, it’s worth noting, is leveled at cable providers). If the boycott webpage has worded this sloppily, I’d say this is more the result of faculty not entirely understanding what happens in libraries. It would be good to give them some pointers, but in their defense I’d say that it is good faculty are thinking seriously about this as an issue. This doesn’t have to be the boycott to end all boycotts: the political movement here can go in many directions, probably some with better information than others.

As for the RWA angle, it is clearly more central than your letting on, for both Gowers and the protest supporters in general. True there has long been animosity about Elsevier, but social movements begin with sparks that sometimes seem random at the time. Gowers doesn’t mention SOPA/PIPA, he explicitly cites RWA as a catalyst, contextualizing it within the SOPA/PIPA debate:

“4. Elsevier supports many of the measures, such as the Research Works Act, that attempt to stop the move to open access. They also supported SOPA and PIPA and lobbied strongly for them.”

This is point 4 out of 4 points. So clearly RWA is a pivotal point for him. As I said, it is a key catalyst. I don’t remember if I said it was the only target, but I would say that this is at least open for debate. And, as you mention, “started in the math community and then broadened.” In this broader protest it is impossible to separate RWA from other motivations – it may have been more or less important for individual signatories to the boycott, but it is clearly an important dimension of the context. Instead of asking “why elsevier” I think the better question is “why now?”

Your other two main arguments (#1 and #3) are basically summed up with, “Why not other publishers?” I would say again that this boycott (like all popular movements) is a very baggy instrument: many people signing it might just be angered by scholarly communications in general. The boycott began, people liked the general idea of a boycott, and signed onto a boycott of a specific, but very large, company. I don’t think this is sloppy or even strategically clumsy. Elsevier is a key player. Who’s to say a similar boycott of Springer or Informa owned journals wouldn’t garner as much support. In a sense, no boycott that didn’t target specific companies could be effective.

As for what Elsevier would have to do to get the boycott called off, it could start by acting as if the people organizing the boycott (i.e. the people who produce content for them) were at all significant to their business model. As I said, they seem to be treating this like a PR problem rather than a strike by their workers. To be fair to them, similar boycotts have been more flash in the pan for most of the people involved: so maybe they’re just calling the scientists’ bluff. Time will tell if that was the right strategy, but either way it is important that none of their appeals are to scientists or researchers themselves: the appeals they are making are to academic news organs, pitching their arguments as if they are being made by outside agitators rather than (at least potentially) their ONLY producers and consumers, likely to assuage college presidents (and librarians!) from thinking there’s anything to it.

In some ways, it is a testament to everything that you say is wrong with scholarly publishing that Elsevier is pitching its defense to the people who sign the checks rather than the people who demand access to the content they helped produce.

PS: I thought this statement by COAR was also interesting.

Again, it seems that the main point is not that Elsevier is somehow the only publisher guilty of this, but that the boycott is in some way justified. The language on the Elsevier website is really obtuse in certain places. And both there and in comments I’ve seen made elsewhere, they seem to insist that they will not allow people to post certain versions of their articles as a response to any mandate AND that all of their NIH and PubMed deposits are voluntary. Which makes supporting RWA seem worthless except in the case that, as David says above, there were plans to broaden the NIH policy. Then Elsevier might be compelled to voluntarily comply with that regulation while affirming it doesn’t comply with mandates.

I guess my response would be that I think you’re seriously overlooking the role of power in each of these cases, especially in case #2, which appears to be the “undeniable falsity.” We’ve gone over this before, but the situation is much more complex than you acknowledge.

I freely acknowledge the complexity of the environment in which this issue plays out (and the power differential is itself complex, as the ability of authors freely to withold their labor from Elsevier makes clear). But in case #2, the issue isn’t whether or not the scholarly communication ecology is complex; it’s whether or not the boycott document had its fundamental facts straight. It did not. This has now been acknowledged and fixed, and the document changed.

Your other two main arguments (#1 and #3) are basically summed up with, “Why not other publishers?” I would say again that this boycott (like all popular movements) is a very baggy instrument: many people signing it might just be angered by scholarly communications in general.

Agreed. And that’s one of my points, really: not only did the boycotters get fundamental facts wrong, but their approach is, in my view, “baggy” (I used “dunderheaded” earlier, but “baggy” works fine, I think). This is not to say that the feelings behind it aren’t real or legitimate or widely shared. My piece is a criticism of the tool being employed, and the lack of due diligence on the part of those using it — not a defense of Elsevier or of the status quo.

As for what Elsevier would have to do to get the boycott called off, it could start by acting as if the people organizing the boycott (i.e. the people who produce content for them) were at all significant to their business model.

What gives you any reason to believe that this would result in the boycott being called off? The boycotters themselves don’t seem to have given any reason to think that. If Elsevier is treating this more “like a PR problem rather than a strike by their workers” it may be because striking workers typically come to the table with issues to discuss and demands to be met. They don’t just walk off the job and leave the bosses to figure out what it will take to get them back on the line. When that happens, the PR problem is the the only one available for dealing with. This goes to the bagginess/dunderheadedness issue discussed above. This instrument is so blunt and ill-defined it’s not even possible to tell what it’s trying to accomplish, beyond simply causing pain to Elsevier. And as I said before: if one’s only goal is to cause Elsevier pain (and to experience the righteous satisfaction that comes with lashing out at an easy target), then this boycott makes perfect sense. But if the goal is to improve the scholcomm environment, then at some point the questions I asked in my piece (among others, most likely) are going to require answers.

I’m pretty sure the link in my post above includes an acknowledgement of this correction. And I see your other point, but it is also crucial to recognize that here we’re only arguing over the extra meat left on the table after all the actual costs are paid for (including, it’s worth noting, all the costs for operation of paywalls, subscription systems, marketing, negotiating, and a lot of other activities that might be less important in an OA environment) . If we could almost fund the OA system on the profits alone, think of what we could do with the other 64% if libraries shifted the whole enterprise. Or is that too extreme an idea?

If you return to the original (and highly questionable piece) by Morrison, she includes the profits from Lexis-Nexis into the mix, adding more than US$1 billion to the calculation to favor her argument. It’s dubious whether Lexis-Nexis revenues should be included in the overall calculation. Lexis-Nexis is a robust, highly synthesized, and broadbased information service touching on insurance, law, retail, and so forth. It uses public sources, media, scholarship, and historical documents. Building it over the past few decades has been a non-trivial activity, and it’s impressive and highly useful. But is it part of Elsevier’s overall “profits from scholarly publishing,” as Morrison puts it? I find that hard to swallow.

So let’s run the numbers again. Let’s take into account the correction to the allocation of Elsevier’s profits, which lowered the number from US$1,383 to US$730 per scholarly article. Take out another US$1 billion from Lexis-Nexis, and you’re down another US$650, so we’re at US$80 in Elsevier-proper profit per scholarly article, hardly enough to cover PLoS ONE fees — in fact, US$1,270 too little, or a 94% overestimation by Morrison.

But other than that . . .

Kent–note that in this article:
it’s stated that in 2009, journals accounted for 59% of the revenue from Elsevier’s science and health divisions. So the numbers used may need to be scaled back even further to reflect this as I believe they’re assuming 100% of profit comes from journals.

skj–yes, I do realize that the link does include a correction, but 1) not everyone here follows every link in every comment so I thought it was worth pointing out, and 2) even with that correction, it’s still not terribly accurate. I know I’m reaching the point of being pedantic here, but it drives me crazy to see scientists repeatedly using fraudulent/error-strewn data to try to prove their points. If you were arguing education with a creationist and they told you the earth was 6,000 years old, you’d likely dismiss the validity of their message. After you proved that this number was false, if they responded that it was probably something close to that and that the actual number doesn’t matter because it just feels true, you’d consider them to be a religious fanatic.

I’m not sure how much subscription management costs a journal each year, but OA is not without costs either. You’re now managing a huge number of payments likely coming in through a wide variety of channels. I don’t see how marketing activities go away, and if we follow PLoS as a lead, then you’re still negotiating with funding agencies and institutions to set terms and sell memberships. All of those things come at a cost.

The other big problem with the number is that it assumes PLoS ONE’s rate for papers works across the board. For a humanities journal, the fee is likely going to have to be less as there is nowhere near the same level of funding as there is in sci-med. And then why, one must ask, do PLoS Biology and PLoS Medicine charge more than 2X as much as PLoS ONE? Are there perhaps some different costs that have not been taken into account here? Furthermore, PLoS makes a hefty profit from PLoS ONE, enough to cover the journals that don’t break even despite those higher author fees. If you’re talking about just covering costs, why use a number that results in profit?

There are arguments to be made here, but sloppy thinking and flawed analyses don’t help illuminate the subject nor point to realistic solutions.

Why Elsevier specifically?
(1) Divide et impera. By focusing on one particular publisher we can have a stronger effect than a more diffuse boycott of all non-open-access publishers.
(2) It had to be somebody, so why not Elsevier?
(3) Elsevier’s exploitation has been particularly egregious; RWA is only the latest in a long string of incidents.
(4) There are only two commercial publishers that have any relevance in my own research area, Elsevier and Springer, and while I’d like to eventually stop publishing with Springer as well, the time is not yet ripe — it will take a longer period of discussion to convince my colleagues to drop them as the publisher of many major conference proceedings etc.

(1) Arguable, but at least this is an apposite response. A few other commenters have suggested this line of argument as well.
(2) Not an answer; one might as well ask “Why not Wiley?” or “Why not the American Chemical Society?”
(3) Eh, I don’t know: I can think of other publishers whose behavior has been more egregious in each of the areas cited by the boycott document, particular in the areas of extortionate pricing and coercive bundling. (This is one of the reasons I raised the question in the first place.)
(4) This might explain why you would boycott Elsevier to the exclusion of all others, but doesn’t explain the narrow focus of this more broad-based boycott. (Though admittedly, the boycott seems to have started in the math community and then broadened.)

(2) What I meant was, the choice of Elsevier was a contingent circumstance. In some parallel universe it could easily have been Wiley, and in that parallel universe some analogue of you is no doubt wondering why Wiley. And if it were the ACS then it would obviously not have attracted such broad cross-discipline support; also in my mind although there are open access problems with academic societies as publishers they are still a big step up from the for-profit corporations.

(3) I don’t know about the boycott document, but my own personal reasons for disliking Elsevier also include the past history of gun-running, the fake medical journal scandal, and the Chaos Solitons & Fractals scandal.

Again, clarity seems to meet conflation in these arguments. Elsevier is a publisher, not an editor, so the “Chaos Solitons & Fractals” scandal is an editorial scandal, not a publishing scandal. The fake medical journal scandal was a local matter that gained notoriety and was quickly shut down, and is not part of the boycott (if it were, why wait so long after it happened?).

If you’re boycotting Elsevier for perceived “scientific misconduct,” your ice just got really thin. Will you boycott Harvard, MIT, Yale, Duke, and countless other universities that have had plagiarism, fabrication, data manipulation, and scientific fraud scandals of their own?

So, you’re boycotting price bundling while celebrating an offshoot journals family that represents the “rebel alliance” but does price bundling. You’re boycotting a publisher who has high prices, but “high” is a relative term, and nobody can define it objectively, and it could apply to nearly any other publisher, even university presses and society publishers.

The choice of Elsevier is for effect, largely. But again, what is Elsevier, but a confederation of society publishers and some privately held journals scientists use? Did they get so big because what they do is useless?

I don’t see your point about editorial vs publisher scandals. Just as an editorial board must take the blame when a bad paper sneaks through, the publisher must take the blame when an entire bad editorial board sneaks through. And one incident would be a bad excuse for a boycott, but with Elsevier there hasn’t been just one incident, there’s been a repeated pattern of misconduct, year after year (another one I forgot to mention, for instance: the 2009 Amazon review payola scandal — again, by itself excusable, but part of a pattern).

I also don’t see what you hope to accomplish by your continued attacks on the rationality and integrity of boycotters such as myself me. Do you hope that this will persuade us to see the error of our ways and return to the fold of happy little cogs in the corporate profit machine? They’re my reasons, you don’t have to believe in them yourself.

Regarding your argument that, because I choose to involve myself in one boycott, I should somehow be morally obligated to boycott everything else that might be remotely tainted by misconduct: no, I feel no such obligation. In particular, I am still laboring under the perhaps misguided belief that the administrations of the universities you list are trying to do the right thing for their students and faculty and society, and that they sometimes listen to their constituents. In the case of Elsevier, on the other hand, the evidence seems to be that whenever they are faced with a choice between what is best for science (open access) and what will maximize their profits (RWA) they will take profit every time. I don’t care to help them do that.

As for “celebrating an offshoot journals family that represents the “rebel alliance” but does price bundling”, I have no idea what you’re talking about. The journals I’d like to celebrate are the ones such as Electronic J. Combinatorics, J. Graph Algorithms & Applications, and J. Computational Geometry (to pick three that I’ve published in myself) that are free for both authors and readers, and run on volunteer labor and a minimal budget by their publishers.

Let me explain further. If an editor is at the helm when a scandal occurs, you’re willing to forgive them because it’s a big system they’re trying to run and manage, and sometimes things happen they can’t control. Yet when a publisher scandal occurs, you’re unwilling to forgive them because it’s a big system they’re trying to run and manage, and sometimes things happen they can’t control. I’m simply trying to make you see an essential link between the two — big, complex systems that sometimes throw off flammable sparks. It happens for editorial board and editors, it happens for universities, and it happens for publishers. You’re willing to forgive 2 out of the 3, so I wonder why not the third? Universities have been raising their tuitions and fees faster than publishers have been raising their rates, so it can’t be because of price gouging. Why then?

Please don’t drift into battle rhetoric. I’m not attacking anyone, just asking pointed questions when I think answers fall short. OA likes battle metaphors, but they don’t help us much, especially when it’s increasingly clear that OA publishing and traditional publishing aren’t at loggerheads, but are complementary and different pools of information.

If the boycott emanates from a moral rule, it’s hard to understand it if you apply it only to publishers, and then only to Elsevier. That seems like targeting, and somewhat irrational. A better boycott might be, Boycott all subscriber-pays journals. How hard would that be to effect? It would have more moral resonance if author-pays is truly your moral stance.

The offshoot journals I was referring to were those Gowers praised (Journal of Topology and its siblings). He praised them while not recognizing that they independently and quickly adopted price bundling practices themselves and are now published by another large publisher, OUP. Again, what are you protesting again, if you celebrate price-bundling journals published by a large publisher while also boycotting a large publisher that price-bundles? Can you see why this is a little confusing?

(2) You’re certainly right that if the boycotters had picked some other individual target — another one that seemed no more objectionable than many other available targets — I would have asked the same question. As I said in my piece, my point is not to defend Elsevier. It’s to question the selection of Elsevier as a specific and unique target when other publishers do just as much (if not, in some cases, more) to offend authors than Elsevier does.

(3) There are lots of reasons for disliking Elsevier, or any other company. But the boycotters cited only three reasons — one of which was fallacious, and the other two of which don’t distinguish Elsevier from many other publishers. That’s my point.

A small point: a few days ago I asked Tyler Neylon to change the wording of the three objections to Elsevier, for precisely the reason you object to. It’s not strictly true that libraries are forced to buy large bundles. However, many libraries are put in a position where that is the only reasonable option. It’s not strictly compulsion, but if you’re one of those libraries you probably won’t find the difference all that comforting …

This is actually a big point, Tim, and I applaud the change. I’ll add only that Elsevier’s ability to “(make) huge profits by exploiting the fact that some of their journals are essential” characterizes all publishers of (non-OA) journals, including those that are nominally non-profit. If you publish an essential journal, you control a high-demand product. The only way to change that would be to boycott all journals that charge subscription fees, or at least all those that charge some fee higher than a reasonable maximum. Now your only challenge is determining what that maximum should be…

Rick, Open Access does not preclude the ability to make huge profits. We haven’t yet seen PLoS’ financial reports for 2011, but many are very curious to see how the large increase in papers published has affected the bottom line. As it stands, in 2010 they were able to use OA profits from one journal to pay for a great deal of experimentation and cover the expenses of journals that were not profitable on their own. That’s the reason why so many have copycatted the PLoS ONE model, hoping it will similarly be hugely profitable for other publishers as well.

Yes, David, good point. If you’re running an “essential” OA journal, then that enables you to realize profits from authors rather than from subscribers.

It’s something I looked at last year:

The much heralded Public Library of Science had around a 20% profit margin in 2010. PLoS ONE published 6,800 papers at $1350 per paper, which adds up to revenue of around $9 million. In 2011, the journal is predicted to publish around 12,000 papers, bringing in an astounding $16 million.

Doing the math for 2011, if everything else remains equal, PLoS would have a higher profit margin than Elsevier.

So the obvious question is, if PLoS starts making profits at the same “exorbitant” levels as Elsevier, can we expect an anti-PLoS boycott later this year?

@David – I think we could expect PLoS boycotts if they began behaving in consistently annoying or unethical ways. For instance, many would protest if the OA fee waiver for those who need and request it is discontinued (I would certainly protest that – my institution and I can’t afford typical PDF download costs for the level of access desired, nor can we afford regular OA fees). I suspect there might also be protests if the journal spun off a wing that was mostly thinly-veiled advertising under the guise of science, or if it hiked its prices to the level of for-profit publishers, or if there was evidence that the journal was favoring articles from full-pay authors, or engaging in other predatory open access practices.

[full disclosure – I am a volunteer academic editor at PLoS ONE, but any opinions are my own]

Thanks for your thoughts Andy. I think that’s the sort of question Rick is asking here–what’s the reasoning behind this boycott, and if a journal wants to avoid this sort of reaction, what do they need to do?

I’m not sure what you mean by “if it hiked its prices to the level of for-profit publishers”. PLoS already charges author fees in line with those of other publishers (close to $3K for PLoS Biology & PLoS Medicine) and PLoS ONE itself is clearly more profitable than most other journals, considering it can cover PLoS’ other journals shortfalls and still result in a 20% profit margin across the board.

But I suspect that what you’re saying is that making a large profit from the voluntary work and grant funding of the academic community is not enough to spur this sort of protest on its own.

Very interesting. But if they are using profits to pay for other intiatives and cover other journals, are they really still profits or just reinvested as operating expenses? I don’t know how these bottom lines are figured.

In any case, I take the overall point Rick and Kent are making here that it is hard to see the bright moral line that can be drawn around Elseveir in this (or any) case. Though I think we could talk about there being a continuum, I can see that there is something to the claim that it is an arbitrary target. To play further devil’s advocate (though I’m not sure against which side) isn’t it also true that “Big Deal” subscription bundling was a service offered to libraries who protested high individual subscription costs? From this perspective, it would seem that the demands and targets of the protest may be highly contextual, such that, if PLoS ONE seemed to be skimming more value than it was producing, it is just as likely that, in fact, a protest could emerge against that player as well.

The issue here seems to be very similar to the one Albert Hirschman discusses in his book “exit, voice, and loyalty,” which is where the only way to actually change a large organization who holds a virtual monopoly is through political means, i.e. through protest, rather than through the mechanism of exit, which is purely economical (i.e. you just stop buying the product.) This is certainly a hybrid: as Rick points out, they are not giving specific demands, and by simply boycotting, they are acting more like economic actors using “exit” as a mechanism. Still, they are making a political show of it (and, likely, as in the past, this may be all that comes of it: many of the scientists may not honor their pledge) because they realize that, because of the economic significance of the company, a real boycott is almost impossible. (incidentally, on the liblicense listserve last night, some market analysts for Elsevier said about the same thing, pointing out that OA is no threat to Elsevier and the boycott will likely amount to nothing in terms of economic fundamentals–except of course for an irrationally low stock price, leading them to advocate, “BUY! BUY! BUY!”)

The more PLoS One was seen as a monopoly rather than simply an alternative, the more likely a similar kind of protest would erupt around it (just as it has around increases to fees at higher education institutions). It’s worth noting that, in Hirschman’s system, this is actually a better situation for remediation of the problems of the institutions, exit being more likely to bring total collapse. The hybrid response of the scientists (using exit as voice) is not the most productive response to this situation – which I think is Rick’s overall point – but on the other hand, it is typical of our current cultural environment, constructed as it is to produce precisely this response.

I meant to try to write something longer about this for my own blog, but only got as far as outlining what Hirschman meant in relation to education:


Before Elsevier can state profits, they pay their contract terms to the societies and journals that use them for publishing services. Then, shareholders are paid as part of stock ownership (and it’s unclear how many universities hold Elsevier stock, either directly or through an investment instrument). Being for-profit brings a level of accountability, and that accountability may actually be part of why they’re a target.

PLoS has done a good job of cultivating an image as “alt publishing,” but they’re not as alternative as they once were. Open access and author-pays models are available nearly everywhere, and PLoS is no longer running at a deficit. PLoS ONE is a convenient place to publish some things, but if it were truly competitive with core journals, you wouldn’t see submission rates climbing like they are everywhere. PLoS ONE may be an alternative in every sense — alternative papers for an alternative journal.

Very interesting. But if they are using profits to pay for other intiatives and cover other journals, are they really still profits or just reinvested as operating expenses? I don’t know how these bottom lines are figured.

That’s where things get a bit complex and subtle. Profits are what’s left over after you’ve paid all the expenses you’ve incurred. What you do with that surplus is an open question. PLoS reinvests those profits in their publishing program. But there are society-owned journals published by Elsevier who take their profits and spend them directly on their research communities, paying for scholarship, research, education and so on. There are not-for-profit publishers that take their surplus funds and spend them on supporting research and academic pursuits at their home institutions.

As I noted elsewhere ( http://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2012/01/20/the-research-works-act-is-it-time-for-a-rally-to-restore-sanity/ ), if these are important issues, you need to look into the actual ownership of the individual journal and follow the money. If you want to support PLoS’ work in changing the publishing landscape, that’s what you’re funding by publishing and working with them. If you want to support your own research community, there are likely society-owned journals where you can publish and accomplish that.

This is all a very interesting discourse. I guess that since I’m late to the party this comment won’t get read, but I too am puzzled by the attack on bundling (point #2). It seems to me that bundling enables the continued existence of many small and unprofitable journals (the ones Tim Gowers doesn’t want), but these are still important to some sections of the scientific community. To let them disappear would allow a cluster of highly specialised expertise to disperse, to the detriment of science.

In fact, were publishers to only offer subscriptions to individual journals, complaint #2 would likely read:

2) They only sell subscriptions to single journals, thus exposing small but invaluable specialist journals to the whims of the market. Elsevier thus sacrifices the needs of science in the name of corporate greed.

Their first point is somewhat disingenuous, stating that “the cost of downloading an article has never been lower than it is today — on average one fifth of what it was just 10 years ago”. Presumably this “on average” only applies to institutional subscriptions, or is heavily weighted towards them? The cost of downloading an article has certainly gone up for individual PDF purchases. This is a major point of frustration for many of us who work at institutions w/o major library support. I realize we’re minor players in the scheme of things, but it seems odd that on the one hand we’re told that costs are lower than ever but then we’re told that we researchers just don’t understand how expensive it is to produce a single PDF. (and yes, I realize that I can wait several weeks for an inferior B&W photocopy via ILL at the public library, or email the author for a PDF that may or may not ever arrive because they ignore the email or don’t have a PDF themselves, or any other number of second-class solutions.)

I’m willing to bet it’s an aggregate number, based on total downloads. If their journals are anything like those where I’ve worked, the number of PPV downloads is miniscule compared to subscription downloads, so it wouldn’t have much impact on the overall average.

This thread has no doubt run its course. However, the Economist published an article on this issue http://www.economist.com/node/21545974?frsc=dg%7Ca. To paraphrase Hemingway; for whom does the bell toll? Rick, you cannot look at this issue in isolation. The customers of academic publishing are sending a message, loud and clear. We would be wise to listen.

Mark, if by “you cannot look at this issue in isolation” you mean “you will not be able to raise concerns about the premises and structure of the boycott without people insisting on avoiding those concerns and talking about larger or different issues instead,” then I think this thread has proved you right.

If, however, you mean that it’s invalid to raise concerns about the merits of the boycott, because regardless of its merits it is nevertheless a “loud and clear” expression of real anger, then I strongly disagree. There is more at issue here than the validity of people’s objections to Elsevier. It matters how those objections are expressed, it matters what tools are used in the attempt to effect change, and it really matters whether or not those organizing the attempt actually have some kind of constructive change in view. And, frankly, it also matters whether the reasons given have some basis in reality. Obviously, Elsevier would be wise to listen to the message the boycotters are sending. What might help Elsevier to do so would be if the boycotters were sending a message that goes beyond “We’re mad at Elsevier and we invite you to be mad at them too.”

Mark–while I would agree with you that a loud message has been sent, “clear” is one of the last words I would use to describe the situation here. What exactly, is the lesson that publishers should learn from this boycott? As far as I can tell, the closest message I can get out of it is that one should try to be a good citizen, a member of the community in good standing or else people may be mad at you. But that’s pretty vague.

Looking at the actual claims of the boycott, how does one respond to 1) a demand that prices charged not be “exorbitant” when no actual fair pricing levels are suggested, and seemingly many of those signing on to the boycott don’t actually know what Elsevier charges for their journals, nor how they compare with other publishers. 2) a demand for abolishing bulk discounts–Rick has already dealt with this one and the boycott has actually changed its language due to his efforts. This may be the only real world lesson to learn here, that people will be happier with more flexible discount plans, but many publishers already offer these, and given that most publishers don’t have collections the size of Elsevier, the whole complaint may be irrelevant. 3) Don’t publicly support RWA/SOPA/PIPA. Fair enough, most of us are already in that boat.

What actions then, would you propose publishers take here? If Elsevier cut their prices a bit, changed their bundling structure and dropped their legislative support, do you really think they would become beloved by these boycotters? Keep in mind that this boycott currently has around 5,500 members, which pales in comparison to the 34,000 of the 2000 boycott. Last year I tried to estimate the total number of scientists worldwide and came up with 11.5 million. The question must then be asked–how far should a company like Elsevier go to satisfy the demands of a disgruntled less than 00.05% of their customers?

In your comments above, you suggested looking at things as an investor. If that’s your viewpoint, do you agree with the analysts at Exane:

We’re in agreement that publishers should not ignore this situation, and I think very few are doing so. Beyond that, I’m not sure what action should be taken. Some of the commenters here and elsewhere have suggested that the goal is to erase Elsevier from relevance. I’m not sure there’s much of a response to make to that.

The question of ‘Why Elsevier’ can be answered by looking at the “Statement of Purpose” (pdf available at http://thecostofknowledge.com/ ) put out by a group of prominent mathematicians in support of the boycott. I found the last sentence in the following paragraph particularly informative:

“…The Annals of Mathematics, published by Princeton University Press,
is one of the absolute top mathematics journals … . For comparison, three other top journals competing with the Annals are Acta Mathematica, … , Journal of
the American Mathematical Society, … , and Inventiones Mathematicae, … . Note that none of Elsevier’s mathematics journals is generally considered comparable in quality to these journals…”

So these knights in shining armor are leading the charge against a publisher of second rate journals in their field. When the mathematicians are brave enough to boycott a publisher of top tier math journals, this initiative might seem more credible. I guess the likelihood of that happening is even lower than the likelihood that biologists will start boycotting the publisher of Cell/Neuron/Immunity etc etc…

Political movements like this have vague goals because they have members with different goals. Call it strange bedfellow syndrome. In this case some are against subscription journals per se. Others are only against for-profit journals. Some hate the Elves. Some merely want lower prices. Some want an end to the journal system entirely.

Movements also keep their goals vague because the vaguer the goal, the greater your options for defining success. When the final Tea Partiers and Occupiers have all gone home, you can bet that the last ones on the field will declare victory — and that “victory” will be defined as whatever happened during the period that the movement was active.

Your quote is truncated in an incredibly unfair way. The point made in the paragraph you quote is that the top journals in maths, with the notable exception of Inventiones which is run by Springer, are twice to ten times cheaper than many Elsevier journals. don’t you think this clears the reasons for the boycott, and clarifies the matter of quantifying what a fair price is?

While Elsevier mathematical journals are not usually considered comparable to the other cited here, some of them are still quite good (Advances in math, journal de mathématiques pures et appliquées to cite two) and it is not that easy to sign that pledge for a mathematician.

Benoit, don’t tease us — if you’re saying that the comparative data on math journal prices “clarify the matter of quantifying what a fair price is,” then please share with us the fair price. I’ve got some negotiations coming up shortly, and if I can come to the table with pricing proposals that can be rigorously defended as fair based on quantitative data, that will help me a lot.

David, the stock analysis you present here is typical of short term investors. This analysis recommends that you not short Elsevier stock because this boycott should have minor short-term consequences for the stock. I agree with that assessment. However, I agree with the Economist that this action is, to quote the Economist; “…symptomatic of a wider conflict that is being thrown into sharp relief by the rise of online publishing.” Rick, this is also what I mean when I say you cannot look at this event in isolation. Rick, you raised valid points about the stated goals as listed on the boycotter’s website. Looking at them in isolation, one could not help but agree that the reasons for the boycott are fuzzy. However, as the Economist states, this is all part of a larger issue. The internet alters the dynamic between academic, publisher and library in ways that are still yet unclear. The Economist also stated in this article; “…there are reasons for the continued dominance of traditional publishers.”

I see this boycott as part of this larger issue. My point is that it is not clear how the technology will impact publishing, libraries and the academic community. David, as a long-term investor my concern would be that this very profitable model Elsevier and other publishers have built is coming undone. There has been much talk about the Big Deal here, for that matter, there has been debate about the Big Deal for years. Is the Big Deal a good deal? Many people have debated that issue back and forth in this thread and many other threads as well. But in my view, the opinion of the commentators, my opinion and even Elsevier’s opinion of the Big Deal is irrelevant. The only opinion that matters, is the opinion of Elsevier’s customers. Again I am not privy to research that quantifies Elsevier customer satisfaction with the Big Deal. But one does have to wonder why, after all this time, this issue continually comes up for discussion. Once again the issue is raised in this boycott.

I’ll end with yet another quote from the Economist; “…publishers need academics more than academics need publishers. And incumbents often look invulnerable until they suddenly fall.” Rick, that is why I say it is more important to look at the boycott in the larger context. Is this event yet another indication that the “incumbents”are about to fall? Only time will tell.

Dear All,

Posts on this blog have made interesting read. Various issues affecting the publication and dissemination of scientific output are not new. Debate about pre vs. post publication peer review, open vs. closed reviews, author pay vs. reader pay subscription model etc are all widely understood. What is however not fully appreciated always is that they are interlinked. It would be difficult to find a lasting solution to these problems without looking at them all at the same time.

There are journals charging readers (or libraries) for the content and then there are others, who charge authors (or research funders) significant sums of money in lieu of open access. Many of these “open access” journals have been funded by significant charitable donations and are “not for profit”. Still, they find it difficult to be sustainable. One has to put Elsevier’s argument in this context. Publishing industry will not be able to offer radically better solutions until scientists and researchers are reluctant to engage with this wider debate about how we communicate science and reward those who do a good job of it.


Kamal Mahawar
CEO, Webmed Limited
United Kingdom

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