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The call for a boycott of Elsevier is by now well-known. The boycott started January 21 with a blog post by Timothy Gowers in the UK, who objects to Elsevier’s pricing (it’s too high), bundling of lesser journals with more important journals (it’s wrong), and support of the Research Works Acts (it’s a power grab).

So far, a couple thousand academics have signed on to Gowers’ boycott. It has some momentum. But does it makes sense?

First, we’ll accept that sense is something we can hope for. After all, these are rational people — mathematicians, scientists, and logicians. They are empiricists, not idealists, and certainly a logical, fact-based argument will at least open a reasonable dialog. So, with that assured, let’s explore these accusations.

By the way, I have no interest in being an Elsevier apologist, or even a publisher apologist, but I do have a built-in drive to better understand situations and draw independent conclusions. You could put even PLoS or BioMedCentral under boycott, and I’d still question it — albeit for different reasons, no doubt. When smart people revert to blunt instruments, something’s amiss.

Elsevier’s pricing is too high — This is the classic complaint, one that is often disproved when evidence of usage is factored in, creating a per-use price that is quite low. Perhaps the converse is true — usage of the scientific literature is growing rapidly as accessibility is increasing, creating more value. The infrastructure of print used to allow for pockets of payers to exist at a university — departments, individuals, and libraries. Usage was impossible to measure. The infrastructure of online has centralized purchasing and allowed for usage measurements, which makes the total cost of all the access much more obvious and negotiable, but it doesn’t mean that any university is spending more net with online licenses than it was with sloppy print subscription practices. The new infrastructure means the library budget is carrying the burden for perhaps a half-dozen departments that once took care of their own subscriptions on the side. It’s no secret that library budgets have not been increasing as quickly as tuition and fees at universities or prices for these centralized institutional subscriptions. Luckily, Gowers believes he has a great example of how to solve this. His example is an Elsevier math journal called Topology. The editorial board quit en masse after pricing disputes with Elsevier, and started the Journal of Topology, which is now published by Oxford University Press. To Gowers, this was clearly a noble act and a solution. Putting aside the question of whether editors have the best sense of market conditions, value, usage, audience, and sales approaches, it seems Gowers hasn’t taken into account that another large publisher (Oxford University Press) now publishes this new journal. In addition, the London Mathematical Society, which publishes this and other journals with OUP, practices bundling, stating that discounts apply for subscribers who subscribe to the other three OUP/LMS journals. Discounting is exactly how Elsevier achieves its Big Deals. Aside from this untold part of the story, there is the bigger question: Did the overall cost to institutions for topology articles drop once two indispensable journals were available? Assuming the Elsevier journal’s price didn’t fall, any price above “free” for the Journal of Topology simply increased the cost of subscriptions to good journals in this area. While the price may be lower, and might have slowed price increases for Topology, this isn’t likely, as the Elsevier title is usually sold at a discount anyhow in a bundle. The hard fact is that good content — screened for quality and relevance, then polished and tailored for efficient consumption — is valuable. “Too high” is a relative term. (Update 2/4/2012: Via our always useful comment thread, I learned after this post went up that Topology did indeed fold, after all the papers accepted during the editorial board’s tenure were published. Therefore, the editorial board’s move was useful in decreasing overall prices in the field. I’ve taken out that part of my argument accordingly. However, LMS/OUP do still bundle journal sales, and the journal still costs more than $150 per issue, so the observation that “too high” is a relative term remains valid, as does the fact that bundling is a natural market move.)

Bundling smaller, weaker journals with bigger, stronger journals is wrong — Bundling through discounts not only provides a partial and sensible solution to the pricing problem libraries continue to face, but also protects smaller journals and smaller societies by providing more consistent revenues than they would get otherwise. A more cut-throat pricing approach — on in which the smaller journals had to fend for themselves — would likely lead to the failure of many smaller journals and perhaps smaller societies. It’s akin to profit-sharing in some sports leagues — smaller-market teams can exist because the big market teams share the available money, leading to a more dynamic and competitive sport and more access to that sport for fans. Asking for an end to bundling lesser journals with bigger journals is definitely a case of “be careful what you wish for.”

Elsevier Supports the Research Works Act — The Research Works Act is a shockingly short bill which simply states that the government can’t compel private-sector research or private-sector authors to publish things on government web sites. It seems like less of a power grab than resistance to a power grab — namely, the power of governments grabbing material from private industry as a matter of policy. Here is the main body of the bill:

    No Federal agency may adopt, implement, maintain, continue, or otherwise engage in any policy, program, or other activity that–
      (1) causes, permits, or authorizes network dissemination of any private-sector research work without the prior consent of the publisher of such work; or
        (2) requires that any actual or prospective author, or the employer of such an actual or prospective author, assent to network dissemination of a private-sector research work. . . .
      . . . The term `private-sector research work’ means an article intended to be published in a scholarly or scientific publication, or any version of such an article, that is not a work of the United States Government (as defined in section 101 of title 17, United States Code), describing or interpreting research funded in whole or in part by a Federal agency and to which a commercial or nonprofit publisher has made or has entered into an arrangement to make a value-added contribution, including peer review or editing. Such term does not include progress reports or raw data outputs routinely required to be created for and submitted directly to a funding agency in the course of research.

I find it surprising that academics would applaud government control of science outputs. So far, everything has been peaceful. There is no guarantee it will stay this way. Politics are unpredictable, while commerce is predictable — that is, publishers will likely always be on the side of authors and readers, working to maintain independence and chasing quality to its highest reaches. What motivates the government? That can change, and suddenly. The bill doesn’t mean that publishers can’t participate in government research archives. It merely means they can’t be compelled by the government to do so. It seems odd to me that support of a bill like this would be a boycottable offense.

Overall, it’s unclear on who is being boycotted. The publishing economy is full of dependencies and relationships. Elsevier publishes most of its journals under contracts with not-for-profit organizations. Many of these organizations depend on the revenues from Elsevier to do other things — research, advocacy, education, and outreach. Boycotting Elsevier is essentially boycotting these societies, and putting their revenue streams under threat.

Gowers is a brilliant mathematician, but that doesn’t mean he knows what he’s talking about when he says:

I also don’t see any argument at all against refusing to submit papers to Elsevier journals.

Just because you don’t see counter-arguments or unintended consequences doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.

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55 Thoughts on "The Elsevier Boycott — Does It Make Sense?"

Your interpretation of the RWA is bizarre – it’s impossible to interpret the arrangements that the RWA is trying to overturn as government control over research outputs, either now or in the future

  • gemstest
  • Feb 2, 2012, 6:37 AM

How else do you interpret government requirements that private firms transfer their products to the government? Government non-control? Government largesse?

  • Kent Anderson
  • Feb 2, 2012, 8:08 AM

Now you are clearly distorting facts.
Here is the actual NIH open access policy:

“The Director of the National Institutes of Health shall require that all investigators funded by the NIH submit or have submitted for them to the National Library of Medicine’s PubMed Central an electronic version of their final, peer-reviewed manuscripts upon acceptance for publication, to be made publicly available no later than 12 months after the official date of publication: Provided, That the NIH shall implement the public access policy in a manner consistent with copyright law.”

In other words, if a researcher asks NIH for money to finance his research,
he agrees to post the resulting papers to PubMed Central.
Although some journals do provide an option to forward papers to PMC,
there are many journals that do not,
hence your claims about “government requirements that private firms transfer their products to the government” are outright false.
Also, the “final version” refers to the authors’ manuscript as it was submitted
to the publisher (i.e., the manuscript that incorporates suggestions
of the editors and referees, but has not yet been touched by the publisher).
Elsevier, for example claims to “deposit the accepted author manuscript (NIH refers to this as the “final peer reviewed manuscript”) on behalf of NIH-funded authors.”
Claiming that this manuscript is “their product” (i.e., private firms’ product)
is again an outright distortion of facts: The manuscript that is submitted
to PMC has never been touched by the publisher.

In fact, I do not see how this could be considered different from an ordinary
commercial agreement: A company pays money to some other company
in exchange for certain services.
In this case NIH pays money to researchers in exchange for papers
containing the results of their research.
This agreement can be seen as a very permissive one, after all
researchers are allowed to submit their papers to third parties
and even transfer copyright to them, which is unthinkable in any commercial agreement
as opposed to government funded research.

  • Dmitri Pavlov
  • Feb 2, 2012, 9:25 AM

“Also, the “final version” refers to the authors’ manuscript as it was submitted to the publisher (i.e., the manuscript that incorporates suggestions of the editors and referees, but has not yet been touched by the publisher).”

Are we all SURE this is what is referred to? A few years ago (it may have been at an Annual SSP meeting) I asked a representative of the NIH for clarification on this as many in publishing view the “final version” as one which has undergone peer review, revisions, copy editing, lay out and so forth. The NIH rep was uncertain of the answer but seemed to agree this was “probably” the case. If there’s additional documentation or info available to clarify this I’d be interested in seeing it. I’m not trying to be argumentative one way or the other. It’s just something I’ve found very confusing.

Also, in cases where the suggestions of the editors/referees (who frequently work on behalf of the publishers of the journals) have been incorporated, doesn’t that count as having been “touched by the publisher?”

  • Adam Etkin (@adametkin)
  • Feb 2, 2012, 2:25 PM

Elsevier interprets it this way and seems to be perfectly fine with it.
I am pretty sure that such a big publisher as Elsevier has figured out all legal formalities before adopting such a policy.

“Touched by the publisher” means that a (paid) employee of the publisher
changed the paper at least in some way, which would then add at least some substance
to the publisher’s claim of adding value to the paper and justify the term “their product”.
Editors and referees work for free, they are not employees of the publisher
and neither is the author.

  • Dmitri Pavlov
  • Feb 2, 2012, 2:54 PM

See here for an assessment of the policy and it’s impact.


Pretty strong evidence it is not harming publishers
PMC it is very heavily used
Lots of publishers are voluntarily submitting their manuscripts.

Key Facts about PMC:

Over 2.4 million articles are now in PMC. In addition to the NIH-funded papers deposited into
PMC, publishers voluntarily deposit more than 100,000 papers per year.

Every weekday, one half million users access the database, retrieving over 1 million articles.

Based on internet addresses, an estimated 25% of users are from universities, 17% are from
companies, and 40% from the general public

  • David Solomon
  • Feb 3, 2012, 6:46 AM

Dmitri – you fall into the trap where you’re equating Elsevier with every other publisher. It’s not true and it’s unfair. You made a statement about what the NIH Mandate says but I’m not sure you’re correct. You may be, but I see nothing to change my mind yet. I’m not even sure if there is one “correct” interpretation.

Also, many publishers do pay their Editors. It’s also common place for production staff, who are paid by the publisher, to do HEAVY editing of accepted papers prior to publishing.

Finally, I somewhat reject the idea that reviewers work for “free.” Reviewers may not gain financially, but they are rewarded by participating in the process, helping the advancement of their field, seeing new work before others. They are also recognized by their peers (via the journals they work for, getting awards at Editorial Board meetings) and in many cases their participation in this process is increasingly rewarded by their Universities and organizations.

  • Adam Etkin (@adametkin)
  • Feb 3, 2012, 10:25 AM

@Adam Etkin: NIH FAQ also addesses the same question directly:

I want to submit my final published article to PubMed Central through the NIH Manuscript Submission System. Why does NIH require me to submit the final, peer-reviewed manuscript?
The NIH Public Access Policy is based on a law that requires investigators to submit “their final, peer-reviewed manuscripts” to PubMed Central. NIH will accept the final published article in lieu of the final peer-reviewed manuscript, provided that the author has the right to submit this version. NIH’s experience to date is that virtually all authors relinquish this right to a publisher when they sign a publication agreement with a journal.  Some Journals post final published articles directly to PubMed Central.  See http://publicaccess.nih.gov/submit_process_journals.htm for more information.

  • Dmitri Pavlov
  • Feb 3, 2012, 12:05 PM

@Adam Etkin: What you say about referees is true, but I fail to see how it adds to the original discussion of the term “their product”.
My claim is that the pre-publication stage is handled by editors and referees, who do not receive any financial compensation from publishers,
so the publishers cannot claim the result as “their product”.
The benefits provided to referees that you have mentioned are provided to them by editors, not publishers.

Paying editors in my area (mathematics) is virtually unheard of.
It might be the case that this is different in other areas,
but then I would like to see some evidence.

As for the “HEAVY editing”, again it is virtually unheard of in my area.
The only kind of editing that commercial publishers in my area actually do
is bringing papers in compliance with publisher’s typesetting style.
This type of editing tends to introduce a lot of typos and errors in mathematical
papers and it is a source of a widespread resentment among mathematicians:

  • Dmitri Pavlov
  • Feb 3, 2012, 1:02 PM

Dmitri, NIH does not pay in return for papers, rather it pays in return for research, including a final report by the way. I do a lot of consulting and I always give my client a report. The idea that my client also has a claim to everything I write thereafter that uses anything I learned in my study for them would be preposterous, but that is exactly what the NIH law asserts. RWA merely outlaws this intrusive practice.

  • David Wojick
  • Feb 3, 2012, 7:33 AM

I mean absolutely no offense, but the idea that the NIH pays more than 30 billion dollars every year just to get a bunch of “final reports” as the result is completely ridiculous.
A final report is just a secondary item, necessary to complete the administrative paperwork,
but it is in no way the primary objective of a grant.
There is no point in conducting research if you don’t produce a paper that describes your findings afterwards.
Also, if you don’t write any papers that describe your findings,
the NIH will definitely deny you any further grants, and rightfully so,
which clearly indicates that writing papers is a part of the work that is funded by a grant.

Your comparison with consulting makes no sense.
The analog of a consulting report for a research grant is not the final grant report,
but rather the paper that describes your findings.
The analog of a final grant report in consulting is the administrative paperwork
that you have to complete to get payment for your consulting.

Contrary to what you are claiming, you a free to write other papers
based on your NIH-funded research, and nobody is forcing you to submit them to PMC,
unless of course you got another NIH grant afterwards.

Anyway, the open access policy of the NIH indicates pretty clearly that they
give out grants not just for conducting research and writing the final report,
but also for writing a paper that describes your findings,
thus disproving your claim “NIH does not pay in return for papers”.
If you don’t like the policy, nobody forces you to apply for NIH grants.

  • Dmitri Pavlov
  • Feb 3, 2012, 11:44 AM

Several years ago, it was reported that publishers were being advised “to focus on simple messages, such as ‘Public access equals government censorship.'” (See, for example, http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v445/n7126/full/445347a.html)

In his comment to the recent Chronicle article on the boycott, Elsevier’s Tom Reller wrote, “None of these are easy issues, they’re complex, so these broad generalizations and sensationalistic statements aren’t helpful to furthering a real dialogue that needs to take place.”

I think it’s possible for a reasonable person to view your framing of the RWA as somewhat simplistic, Kent.

  • Bill Walsh
  • Feb 2, 2012, 10:34 AM

Of course it’s possible. But it’s also possible that it’s spot-on. Thanks.

  • Kent Anderson
  • Feb 2, 2012, 10:36 AM

Speaking as a logician, your premise is wrong. This is an ideological, and now political, movement. The facts are largely irrelevant to these folks, who are acting from a sense of moral outrage (scientists have feelings too). They are forcing the rest of us to take sides, join or don’t join. I personally think they are nuts, but that is just me.

  • David Wojick
  • Feb 2, 2012, 7:32 AM

To dismiss people as nuts doesn’t do much for your argument, or your claim to be a logician

  • Ben
  • Feb 2, 2012, 8:05 AM

I don’t dismiss them, quite the contrary. After careful study I reject their ideology as irrational. It is a professional judgement, since my field is the logic of complex issues. Is that better?

  • David Wojick
  • Feb 2, 2012, 9:20 AM

Worse, because one of the features of complex issues is that they are immune to simple binary logic (rational/irrational). I should stick to calling people nuts, at least it’s entertaining.

  • Ben
  • Feb 2, 2012, 11:05 AM

I agree that irrationality comes in many forms and degrees, but that does not mean that it does not exist, as in this case. However, I prefer to call them confusions, since I have a diagnostic system of 126 kinds of confusion in regulatory systems design, which is what the RWA issue is basically about. See: http://www.stemed.info/engineer_tackles_confusion.html

Like many cause-based political movements, the open access issue is very confused. It is driven by slogans which sound compelling but on analysis make no sense, such as that taxpayers have a right to whatever they pay for. Plus a lot of unsubstantiated factual claims and a marked lack of viable alternatives to present practices. I think academics just hate the journal system because it judges their worth, and nobody likes to be judged.

As for the logic of complex issues, here is my little textbook, if you are interested. I would love to do a detailed analysis of the open access issue.

  • David Wojick
  • Feb 3, 2012, 3:07 PM

I think you are nuts, but maybe that is just me.

  • Chris Maloney
  • Feb 2, 2012, 7:06 PM

Pharma company A has knowledge that drug X causes cancer.
“…causes, permits, or authorizes network dissemination of any private-sector research work without the prior consent of the publisher of such work; or..”
Whistleblower B tries to publish this knowledge.
Could you please explore unintended consequences (are they) not just in the boycott you attack?
Also, private submissions to government agencies are going to be closed to the public with respect to the above law. What happens to freedom of information?

  • Kirov
  • Feb 2, 2012, 9:12 AM

This is the same Elsevier that helped Merck publishe that fake medical journal – the Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine, right? ‘Nuf said.

  • John Spevacek
  • Feb 2, 2012, 9:45 AM

That’s an unrelated ethical violation. Every university has had a scandal of fraudulent data, fake studies, or ethical violations of basic scientific protocols. Should each of them be boycotted or diminished because of those? Big organizations sometimes have rogue agents in them. When this happened, we condemned it along with everyone else. It was clearly wrong. But the embargo isn’t about this ethical lapse. It’s about the things described in the post, which have nothing to do with this prior and unrelated event.

  • Kent Anderson
  • Feb 2, 2012, 10:15 AM

If I was willing to take some of your arguments at face value, the following sentence characterizes you as a biased and dishonest:
“Big organizations sometimes have rogue agents in them.”
Such decision could not have been taken without at least with some of the highest senior executives being in the loop. Most probably VPs were involved. I also did not see anything mentioning who specifically was responsible. Therefore I expect the ethical standards to be just as low as they were.

  • karov
  • Feb 2, 2012, 8:41 PM

I’ve begun to clarify this issue:

Australasian journals were reprints of original peer reviewed research compiled as marketing collateral for pharma companies to mail directly to clinicians in Australia, and it was not uncommon in the industry. They were published out of a small pharma sales division in Australia and the business ended when Vioxx happened and changed the landscape for pharma marketing. We said they were inappropriately called “Journals” and they should have had better disclosures. It was a mistake, and we said we that regret it took place.

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

  • Tom Reller, Elsevier
  • Feb 2, 2012, 10:33 AM

You wrote: “I find it surprising that academics would applaud government control of science outputs.”

I think this is a distortion of what people are supporting. No-one supports unreasoned or capricious ‘government control’. In my view the opponents of the RWA they are supporting the government’s decision, as the representative of the public and the taxpayer, to ensure that the published outputs of NIH-funded research are available free to all. That’s democracy for you!

  • Stephen Curry (@Stephen_Curry)
  • Feb 2, 2012, 11:15 AM

But the published output of NIH-funded research should be the final report from that project, not anything that is written about it thereafter. For example, I did research for DOD in 1978 and my report is available in DTIC. If I were now to write an article based on that research does the government have a claim on it? I regard this idea as preposterous, but that is precisely the principle underlying the NIH law.

Note by the way that RWA too is a proposed law, so if it passes it too is a government decision, one that reverses the present law. So pointing to the present practice is no argument against RWA.

  • David Wojick
  • Feb 3, 2012, 7:43 AM

Nobody is telling Elsevier that they have to accept manuscripts that had been done with NIH or other US Federal funding. They could just say, “Dude, take your article elsewhere.” It isn’t like they don’t know that the author final manuscript is going to the PMC 12 months later.

Let me be clear — the versions of articles that are deposited with PubMed Central are manuscripts that have not been peer-reviewed. Here is a list of journals that do/do not accept the publishers “work product.” http://www.urmc.rochester.edu/hslt/miner/research_and_publishing/publisherspoliciesonpubmedcentralminerlibrary.cfm

If anything, the actions and public letters from Elsevier, Wiley, AAA, etc. (See at http://www.whitehouse.gov/administration/eop/ostp/library/publicaccess) will drive more scientist manuscripts to OA publishers. This way, the public will get to easily read the final published peer-reviewed version instead of only having free access to the author manuscript.

The scientists are catching on, the publishers are afraid of losing their cash cow.

  • Joe Kraus
  • Feb 2, 2012, 3:18 PM

This is based on a fundamental error in attribution — Elsevier doesn’t edit journals; editors at scientific societies (by and large) edit journals. Elsevier is not a person or a force of nature. It is a company comprised of a bunch of commercial relationships, hundreds of which are with scientific societies who edit journals and have asked Elsevier to help them publish and sell them. Demonizing this collection of relationships is a little reckless.

  • Kent Anderson
  • Feb 2, 2012, 3:21 PM

Yes, I know that there are a lot of people who work for Elsevier as editors, and that many edit society journals under the Elsevier umbrella. It is still the publisher Elsevier setting these policies, making these comments, and writing these letters to the US Federal Government. This does not change my viewpoint.

  • Joe Kraus
  • Feb 2, 2012, 3:33 PM

At risk of being tedious, if editors at scientific societies are the ones editing the journals, then doesn’t this take some of the wind out of the sales of the argument that Elsevier is adding value through editing, facilitating peer review, etc.?

  • Andy Farke
  • Feb 2, 2012, 3:41 PM

Editing = selection is different than editing = improvement. I was talking about selection. Elsevier does a lot of editing to improve materials, and in some cases does a lot of the management lifting.

  • Kent Anderson
  • Feb 2, 2012, 3:51 PM

A little research would have shown you that Topology, the Elsevier journal whose editorial board had resigned collectively in 2006, has folded. It ceased officially by the end of 2011, but the only piece published in 2011 was a corrigendum to an article that appeared in 1995. The last issue was published in 2009, and libraries will get their subscriptions refunded for 2010 and 2011. Topology published in 2011: 4 pp., 2009: 224 pp. (incl. a conf. proc.), 2008: 472 pp., 2007: 598 pp., 2006: 1020 pp. Journal of Topology published its first issue in January 2008, and continues to publish around 1000 pp./year since then. It is gratifying that the Elsevier title didn’t survive, so that the outcome was not just another new journal to be paid by math libraries. The 2011 EUR price of the new journal (around 400 EUR) was half of the 2011 price for the Elsevier journal. The former regular library price for Topology was roughly twice as high in 2006 compared to 2011.

  • Bernd-Christoph Kämper
  • Feb 3, 2012, 7:10 AM

You’re correct, and while I did research, I didn’t come across this because I didn’t know to look for it. The Elsevier pages are still available, and nothing stating it has folded is there. Thanks for the information. I’ll amend the post accordingly.

  • Kent Anderson
  • Feb 4, 2012, 10:22 AM

Yes, thanks again.

  • Kent Anderson
  • Feb 4, 2012, 12:43 PM

By the way, one does not drive a successful player out of a market by calling for a boycott. One drives a player out of a market by developing a better business model, finding some venture capital, and changing the market. This is the fundamental flaw I see with the boycott. More generally, I see lots of complaints about publishing companies, but little effort to develop something better backed by a solid business model.

  • Sven Türpe
  • Feb 5, 2012, 2:50 PM

The people performing the boycott are the scientists. They are saying that Elsevier provides little value but are forced to pay for the product due to conventions within the community. Why should they provide a business model if they don’t even benefit from this type of business? If science can proceed as efficiently, but without having to raise as much money for the scholarly activities, science benefits. The point of the boycott is to change conventions and make all involved more clearly aware of the real nature of the relationship so that if science decides to continue using Elsevier to organize the editing and filtering for quality, at least they have looked into the alternatives.

  • B. Nash
  • Feb 7, 2012, 11:44 AM

The people editing Elsevier journals are scientists, the people submitting to them are scientists, the people benefiting from the prestige and exposure in these journals are scientists. So, some scientists are saying Elsevier provides little value, but most scientists aren’t part of it. What’s your conclusion from that?

Scientists can be wrong, too, especially about business matters in which they have no experience. What I’m trying to expose is that there is little internal logic to the boycott (why not boycott the LMS/OUP journal that broke away from Elsevier — it practices bundling, costs $150/issue, etc.), and that you’re actually boycotting the scientists and their societies who choose to publish through the journals Elsevier publishes. Elsevier is a public company, and returns its profits to shareholders, shares its revenues with scientific societies. Is that morally inferior to PLoS, which made a surplus in 2010 yet has no obligation to share those surpluses?

What are you boycotting again? Or is this just free-floating anger at something big and therefore presumably scary?

  • Kent Anderson
  • Feb 7, 2012, 12:09 PM

>So, some scientists are saying Elsevier provides little value, but most scientists aren’t part of it.

How many scientists are actually saying Elsevier provides some value?

>Scientists can be wrong, too, especially about business matters in which they have no experience.

As others have been trying to explain to you, scientists would be just fine without any kind of “business” that publishes their journals.
Editorial boards and referees work for free, and after they finish their work
the author can simply put the final version of his paper on arXiv,
mark it as accepted by a certain journal, and be done with it.
Such a system would a much better job than the current system operated by “businesses”.
There is no need for “publishers”.

  • Dmitri Pavlov
  • Feb 7, 2012, 12:22 PM

The scientists leading organizations that have chosen to contract with Elsevier for publishing services are inherently saying Elsevier provides some value. I’m sure the editors of the American Journal of Preventative Medicine or the Annals of Physics might see some value in having Elsevier under contract.

Your last statement gets to the heart of how unrealistic these stances are. Scientists referee for free because there are publishing businesses with brands, identities, audiences, and editors they trust and want to be part of. If arXiv were sufficient, all physics journals would have folded years ago. Clearly, it isn’t.

There is no need for quote marks around businesses and publishers. They are legitimate and valuable parts of the scientific communication process. Or should we not have “universities” since we can all go into the woods and teach each other while drinking nectar and communing with nature? Reality demands realistic approaches. Dreaming of a utopia without value exchanges and professional experts is nice, but it’s not going to get you far beyond a comfortable theory.

  • Kent Anderson
  • Feb 7, 2012, 12:48 PM

>The scientists leading organizations that have chosen to contract with Elsevier for publishing services are inherently saying Elsevier provides some value.

These contracts were signed years ago, when the situation with journals was very different,
and not by scientists, but rather by the administrators of these organizations.

>Scientists referee for free because there are publishing businesses

Name a scientist that referees for free because there are “publishing” “businesses” with “brands” and “identities” they want to be part of.
As you can see at http://thecostofknowledge.com/,
there are quite a few people who will not referee a paper because
they would have to be a part of Elsevier’s “publishing” “business”.

Editors and referees work for free because this is an established tradition in the academic world,
editing and refereeing for free is one of the fundamental duties of a scientist,
which ensures proper functioning of the academic community.
It does not have anything to do with “publishers”.

>They are legitimate and valuable parts of the scientific communication process.

Legitimate perhaps, valuable no.

These days “publishers” are no more necessary than telephone companies,
which were made obsolete by voice-over-ip.
Both perform services that once were important, but are no longer needed today.
Both will survive for some time because of society’s inertia.

Claiming that getting rid of “publishers” is utopia is similar to claiming that getting rid of telephone companies is utopia.

I use quotes around “publishers” because to publish something means to make it public.
50 years ago publishing a paper in a journal made it public: You could go to a library
and read the paper for free, and it was the most efficient method possible.
These days putting a paper on arXiv makes it public for the same reasons, “publishing” it in a journal does not.

  • Dmitri Pavlov
  • Feb 7, 2012, 1:15 PM

No, actually most scientific societies are led either by Boards consisting of scientists, administrators who are or were scientists, and so forth. And no contract gets signed for a journal without heavy involvement of the editors, that’s for certain. They want to know what they’re getting into. I speak from experience. Where’s your evidence to back up your statements?

I’ve personally witnessed scientists jump up and down in joy at being selected as a peer reviewer for a publication they respect, then work for years in a rewarding and interesting position, having insider knowledge of upcoming research and being associated with the success of a brand and publication and business they respect. I don’t know where you get your ideas, but apparently there’s a lot of quote-mark lint in that box, because every time you go to it, there are quote marks stuck all over the stuff you pull out.

Telephone companies are obsolete? Are you mad? VOIP is part of the new phone company, but most phone companies are cellular now or bundled with home entertainment packages, or both. Are you paying less now for phone now than you were? Include your cell/mobile in that, please. AT&T, Sprint, Verizon, Orange, T-Mobile, and other companies are phone companies. What planet are you living on? You’re paying more now for phone than ever, because your phone is more valuable to you than ever. And you’re probably not paying less for your landline, once you include caller ID, voicemail, and other services they’ve tacked on to make your phone more valuable. Getting rid of phone companies is just as unrealistic as I’ve outlined. There are bigger, more robust, and richer phone companies today than ever. You haven’t been paying attention.

I’m glad you’re not in business. Given your knowledge, insights, and experience, I can see how you would turn any real business into a “business.”

  • Kent Anderson
  • Feb 7, 2012, 2:39 PM

>They want to know what they’re getting into. I speak from experience. Where’s your evidence to back up your statements?

Well, if they knew in advance how outrageous the policies of their “publisher” would become,
they would definitely choose a different company (probably a not-for-profit one).

Here is my evidence: Topology, which was published by Elsevier,
and K-theory, which was published by Springer.
Do you think the founding editors of these journals would even start
negotiating with their publishers, if they knew in advance they would
have to go through the hassle of switching to a different publisher?

>Are you paying less now for phone now than you were? Include your cell/mobile in that, please.

You completely missed the point.
I am talking about _landline_ phone companies.
By the way, I don’t have a landline phone, because it’s useless these days.

  • Dmitri Pavlov
  • Feb 7, 2012, 3:08 PM

Topology became Journal of Topology, and is now published by OUP. The editors obviously didn’t mind contracting with a big publisher, they just wanted a different one. And that’s OK. Same for K-theory, which went to Cambridge University Press, from what I can tell. These things happen in business. Or, as you would call it, “business.”

As for phones, you weren’t clear in your previous comment. I can’t help that. Now that you’re clearer, yes, landline phones have changed, and may go away entirely, but phones are more important and valuable than ever. Print journals have changed and may be going away entirely, but journals are more important and valuable than ever.

And you’re saying _I_ missed the point?!

  • Kent Anderson
  • Feb 7, 2012, 3:21 PM

>The editors obviously didn’t mind contracting with a big publisher, they just wanted a different one. And that’s OK.

But this clearly disproves your own claim:
“The scientists leading organizations that have chosen to contract with Elsevier for publishing services are inherently saying Elsevier provides some value.”

They aren’t saying Elsevier provides some value, they are just stuck with Elsevier.
Some of them, like Topology, had enough perseverance to switch to a different publisher,
others are still stuck with Elsevier.

>Print journals have changed and may be going away entirely, but journals are more important and valuable than ever.

True, and my point is that once printed journals are gone.
we will have no need for “publishers”.

There are few purely electronic journals in my field (mathematics).
Examples include New York Journal of Mathematics and Electronic Journal of Combinatorics.
Both of them demonstrate that once there is no need to produce
a printed version, one can easily run a reputable journal without any “publishers”
and without any fees to publish or to obtain access to the articles.
Incidentally, these journals also do not require their authors to transfer copyright
to their papers.

  • Dmitri Pavlov
  • Feb 7, 2012, 3:58 PM

I think that the publishing business is changing, and a boycott like this is part of a shift in the balance of power. The people who can honestly and safely take part in this boycott are those in a position that their career doesn’t depend so strongly on getting publications in Elsevier published journals. Personally, I am in the field of synchrotron radiation and accelerators. The one Elsevier journal I could publish in is Nuclear Instruments and Methods A, which though a quality journal, is not particularly high impact. So, personally, signing this boycott wouldn’t mean so much, though I am interested in the changing landscape of publication.

What Elsevier seems to mostly provide is the prestige and brand name of the journal which is related to opinions within a given scientific community. But if alternative tools and less expensive organizations can get the word out and manage the scholarly record just as effectively, then I would say it makes sense to work towards that. Certainly scientists can be wrong about business issues. But from what I read from those who have signed this boycott, they don’t see Elsevier providing them much benefit but they don’t want their actions to hurt the members of their field. The internal logic of such an action seems perfectly well self consistent to me.

>So, some scientists are saying Elsevier provides little value, but most scientists aren’t part of it.
>What’s your conclusion from that?

As I said, there are people whose present careers may not be able to afford a public break from Elsevier. But that doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t support a change in infrastructure in managing of scholarly publications.

I think there are a variety of positions from those signing this boycott. It may be that some are not proposing viable alternatives, but the general consensus that Elsevier is gaining too much for the value they provide, given shifts in technology looks to me to be pretty solid.

  • B. Nash
  • Feb 7, 2012, 1:12 PM

>What Elsevier seems to mostly provide is the prestige and brand name of the journal

Elsevier does not provide prestige, editorial boards do.

For example, Elsevier publishes Advances in Mathematics
and Chaos, Solitons & Fractals.

The first journal is a respectable mathematical journal,
the second journal publishes papers filled with literal nonsense.

The difference in prestige is precisely due to the editorial boards of these journals.

And CSF hardly has any prestige, even though it is published by Elsevier.

  • Dmitri Pavlov
  • Feb 7, 2012, 2:09 PM

Seeing Chaos, Solitons & Fractals mentioned I have two questions:

1) Does anybody think the people publishing in CSF would be equally happy with just putting their papers online somewhere? If not, what’s the difference for them?

2) Would your perception of the value added by Elsevier as a publisher change if they would manage the content of their journals more thoroughly, giving them the power to decide what is or is not science?

  • Sven Türpe
  • Feb 7, 2012, 3:21 PM

“Many of these organizations depend on the revenues from Elsevier to do other things — research, advocacy, education, and outreach. Boycotting Elsevier is essentially boycotting these societies, and putting their revenue streams under threat.”

Umm, no, I will still be supporting my professional societies directly with my membership dues… and in my area (mathematics) I am not aware that Elsevier has made any significant contributions helping the main professional societies (like the American Mathematics Society or the Mathematics Association of America). But I’d be curious if you can show me otherwise; the budget report of the AMS, for instance, doesn’t seem to say anything about revenues coming from private publishing companies: http://www.ams.org/ams/AnnualReport08-09.pdf In any case, to say, as you do, that an Elsevier boycott would “put [the AMS’s] income stream under threat” is clearly not true if you look at this budget.

Well, that’s how it is in math, perhaps it’s different in other areas of science. But regardless, *boycotting private publishing companies is not boycotting professional societies,* and I (and surely many others) would gladly pay more in membership dues to make up for whatever money would be lost without Elsevier’s support (which can’t be much, can it?). Or, more to the point: I’d much rather have the money spent by university libraries to buy high-overhead expensive journals be directly donated to the professional societies, rather than indirectly through Elsevier.

Speaking of which, you are correct, “high cost is relative,” so here, have some data: http://www.ams.org/membership/mem-journal-survey. As John Baez pointed out in his blogpost “The Cost of Knowledge,” “.. The Annals of Mathematics, published by Princeton University Press, is one of the absolute top mathematics journals and quite affordably priced: $0.13/page as of 2007. By contrast, ten Elsevier journals (not including one that has since ceased publication) cost $1.30/page or more; they and three others cost more per page than any journal published by a university press or learned society. For comparison, three other top journals competing with the Annals are Acta Mathematica, published by the Institut Mittag Leffler for $0.65/page, Journal of the American Mathematical Society, published by the American Mathematical Society for $0.24/page, and Inventiones Mathematicae, published by Springer for $1.21/page. Note that none of Elsevier’s mathematics journals is generally considered comparable in quality to these journals.”

  • gavagaistew
  • Feb 12, 2012, 3:26 PM

Well, most members of membership societies pay less than the value of what they receive, their dues being largely subsidized by publishing profits. For many of these societies, the profits come from contracts with companies like Wolters-Kluwer, Springer, OUP, and Elsevier. You may not know this. For instance, in 2009, the AMS made less than $2.4 million from membership dues according to its 2009 IRS filing, but nearly $19 million from publications. You can find their 990 on Guidestar.org.

So, if you boycott a society’s publisher, you boycott its main revenue stream in many, many cases — publications. Just be careful out there.

  • Kent Anderson
  • Feb 12, 2012, 3:40 PM

Thanks for the data. But my understanding was that the AMS publishes its own books and journals independently of Elsevier or any other private third-party company, or am I misunderstanding?


I suppose the situation could be more complicated in other fields, but I don’t see why professional societies couldn’t contract with other publishers or even self-publish like the AMS does. Though this would require convincing people higher-up than mere tenure-track professors to join the cause.

One of the main points, for me, is that it just doesn’t make any sense for libraries to have to spend as much money as they do on high-priced journals published by Elsevier and Springer when professional societies and presses like OUP (whom I have nothing against) show that it can be done for cheaper. As other commenters have said, it’s not like the imprimatur of Elsevier has any added value for me (or for any other mathematicians I’ve talked to about this), rather the prestige generally comes from the editorial board.

  • gavagaistew
  • Feb 12, 2012, 4:08 PM

Yes, AMS publishes independently, but the economic reality is pretty much the same nonetheless. Elsevier keeps more when it does more, but the net return to the society is usually much more than membership dues provide. Self-publishing is a big decision — you have to hire staff, management often doesn’t know what being a publisher requires, there are upfront costs and ongoing costs, there’s risk, and there’s mission dilution. It makes a lot of sense for societies focusing on research and education to outsource their publications. And it’s sometimes a hybrid model — books outsourced, journals inside, or vice-versa.

I agree, the imprimatur of a publisher shouldn’t and often doesn’t matter. Therefore, if Elsevier journals are commanding a higher price in the market or performing better for their contracted organizations or both, then what does that tell you? Maybe what you’re seeing is just the result of straight-up competition. If someone wins a lot of the time, does that mean they’re bad? And why not complain about an OUP journal that costs $150/issue and practices sales bundling ala Elsevier? Are you cutting OUP slack where you won’t cut it for Elsevier?

This should all be rational and fair, not irrational and unfair. A rational approach is to boycott high-priced per-use journals, which would be overcharging based on value exchange. However, to boycott a publisher who publishes on behalf of hundreds of societies and tens of thousands of scientists? And to leave others out of it who do largely the same things? And to not understand or appreciate the follow-on effects? I don’t get it, and I don’t respect it.

  • Kent Anderson
  • Feb 12, 2012, 4:17 PM

“Self-publishing is a big decision — you have to hire staff, management often doesn’t know what being a publisher requires, there are upfront costs and ongoing costs, there’s risk, and there’s mission dilution. It makes a lot of sense for societies focusing on research and education to outsource their publications. And it’s sometimes a hybrid model — books outsourced, journals inside, or vice-versa.”

But there are academic societies that are already in the publishing business, and they tend to sell their journals at a much cheaper per-page rate than Elsevier. (Which I would argue is a better metric than price-per-volume, since the number of pages in a journal can vary greatly, or price-per-use — in academia, there’s a value to having papers “out there” which often is not reflected in raw counts of how many people happened to download it.) In my field, the difference is especially stark: among the two top journals, of comparable prestige, the one published independently by the professional society (The Journal of Symbolic Logic) costs $0.26/page, and the one published by Elsevier (Anals of Pure and Applied Logic) costs $2.61/page. If I have a paper that’s X pages long that I want to publish some way or another, Elsevier makes it 10 times more expensive for others to see that work in print.

“Therefore, if Elsevier journals are commanding a higher price in the market or performing better for their contracted organizations or both, then what does that tell you? Maybe what you’re seeing is just the result of straight-up competition. If someone wins a lot of the time, does that mean they’re bad? And why not complain about an OUP journal that costs $150/issue and practices sales bundling ala Elsevier? Are you cutting OUP slack where you won’t cut it for Elsevier?”

Or maybe it tells me that Elsevier happens to own or to have bought out a lot of traditionally prestigious journals and therefore can get away with charging lots of money for them to libraries, and people have been slow to realize that there are better, cheaper alternatives due to the murky economics of the situation (it’s generally libraries who buy these journals, I don’t know anyone who would shell money out of their pocket for a $150 journal) and just plain inertia? I hope I’m not cutting OUP any more slack than Elsevier, but (at least in the field I know best, mathematics) their journals simply seem to be cheaper, end of story.

“This should all be rational and fair, not irrational and unfair.”

It’s hard to argue with this. But the rationale behind boycotting an entire publishing company and not a few journals is to punish Elsevier as much as possible for their pricing practices in order to inspire them (and, yes, all the other high-price publishers) to make a systematic overhaul if they want to stay in business, not just do a bit of damage control. Or if they simply can’t get costs down to something comparable to that of the AMS journals, then why should we shed any tears over their demise? What many people behind the Elsevier boycott would probably want is for the prestigious editorial boards to change from offering their (unpaid!) services to expensive journals and instead simply move to cheaper journals already published by professional societies. If this happened, and Elsevier simply ceased to exist, I don’t see what could be the negative “follow-on effects” of that.

In fact, thinking a bit more generally, the interests of mathematicians these days seem to run contrary to those of for-profit publishers: when a paper is done, we want as many people to be able to see it as easily and cheaply as possible (or, even better, for free).

  • gavagaistew
  • Feb 12, 2012, 8:00 PM

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