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.