Elsevier Boycott, My Thoughts

The recent publishing brouhaha has been about Elsevier.  Mathematician, Tim Gowers, published a blog post where he complained about Elsevier’s very high prices, bundling practices, negotiation tactics, and their attempt to stop the move to OA and their lobbying support of SOPA and PIPA. He has made a conscious effort not to publish in Elsevier titles and also refuse to referee any articles.  Gower hopes that that other science disciplines besides mathematicians will follow suit.

“Even if so many mathematicians refused to cooperate with Elsevier that the quality of their journals plummeted, that wouldn’t necessarily force Elsevier to change its ways, since it could continue to bundle its by now rubbishy mathematics journals together with important journals in physics, chemistry and biology. However, it would be a powerful gesture — perhaps even powerful enough for other sciences to follow suit eventually — and at least mathematics would be free of the problem.”

Elsevier’s Publishing Model Might Go Up in Smoke is a recent and rather simplistic article in Forbes that erroneously states or over exaggerates (hopefully it is the later) the lack of expenses necessary for publishing journals online. 

“Academic publishing is a very good game indeed if you can manage to get into it. As the publisher the work is created at the expense of others, for free to you. There are no advances, no royalties, to pay. The editing, the checking, the decisions about whether to publish, these are all also done for free to you. And the market, that’s every college library in the world and they’re very price insensitive indeed.

Back when physical, paper, copies of the journals were an essential part of any scientists’ life the cost structure could, perhaps, be justified. It is expensive to typeset, proofread, complex texts and then print them in numbers of hundreds or perhaps low thousands. However, now that everything is moving/has moved online then the amounts charged for access to the journals seems less defensible. More like the exploitation of a monopoly position in fact.”

Geez I thought Forbes was a fairly decent magazine. Please tell me I am just totally reading this article wrong and Tim Worstall is writing in tongue and cheek.  I’m not privy to the specific costs of publishing journals but after sitting on the Library Advisory Board of one major medical journal, I know there are still significant costs to publishing online.  I don’t know if it is cheaper than in print or more expensive, but it is certainly not negligible like Worstall implies.  There are server costs, maintenance, upgrades, etc. and you have to pay the people doing all that stuff. Going online can bring a loss in advertising revenue.  In print Publishers could sell multiple ads for an issue. The ads would often appear between articles. There are no ads appearing between articles online.  They usually only have the limited space of the borders of their web page.  In print, some publishers could sell multiple ads per space depending on the subscribers.  For example on pg 42 an add for Lipitor might appear in copies that go to cardiologists while an ad for Advair would be on pg 42 in the copies for internal medicine doctors.  I am by no means supporting predatory pricing practices of publishers or other library vendors, I just think the Forbes article is a poorly written piece which does nothing more than to inflame both sides.  

Ars Technica wrote the short article asking the question, as Researchers boycott publisher; will they embrace instant publishing?  The article briefly describes the Elsevier boycott by mainly math and physical sciences researchers and asks whether something like Faculty of 1000’s  F1000 Research will change academic publishing.

“When a manuscript is submitted to F1000R, an editor will provide a basic sanity check and, if it passes, the paper will immediately be published under a Creative Commons license. Only after it’s online will the journal arrange for reviewers to perform peer review on it. Reviewers’ scope will be limited to the scientific validity of the results and won’t include an evaluation of the paper’s significance. Other researchers will be able to attach comments to the paper that will act a bit like informal reviews. F1000R will also host any large datasets associated with the publications.”

That definitely is an interesting way to publish articles. Not sure if it would work or not, but it is an interesting concept.  In order for it to work you have to get a group of people who are going to read the articles then are willing to critique it and write educated comments and evaluations.  That is a lot to ask when there is yet no incentive for researchers to do it.  

That leads me to what I perceive is the force driving this publishing problem, academia and advancement. The current academic system rewards people who publish in high impact journals and as long as you have people willing to cross the picket line, so to speak, and publish in those high impact journals, the publishers will keep publishing.   You can’t tell me that a struggling PostDoc isn’t going to try to get their article in the highest peer reviewed journal possible in their discipline.  If that happens to be an Elsevier title, then the boycott is conveniently forgotten. But wait, what if there are no established researchers to provide the peer review or editing because they are boycotting?  Again I don’t see a lack of willing reviewers or editors.  Because of the way academia works, there are more researchers who need the high impact journals than journals that need researchers. 

Yet it seesm the boycott is gaining ground.  According Michael Kelley,Library Journal, the Petition Targeting Elsevier’s Business Practices Begins to SnowballTyler Neylon organized an online petition for academics to pledge they won’t publish, referee, or do editorial work for any Elsevier journals, “unless they radically change how they operate.”  Kelley notes that as of Tuesday (1/31/2012) the petition already as 2284 signatures and many comments critical of Elsevier.

Gower correctly mentions that Elsevier isn’t the only publisher out there with heavy handed tactics.  There are others and we in the library world have heard and seen this same rant many times over.  Gower also isn’t the first to boycott a publisher.  We’ve seen this all before with other publishers and scientists and yet the pricing model remains the same.  In fact Kelley reminds us of the PLoS petition directed at scientific and medical publishers to make research literature available through free online public archives. That petition dwarfed the Neylon petition with close to 34,000 signatures from 180 nations.  So how did that work out?  Well according to PLoS, everything remained the same until they jumped into the mix to liberate the literature.  Personally, I think things are still pretty much the same despite all of the protests, boycotts, rants, flames, etc.  If things had changed would there be a Gower boycott?

Everybody is all a twitter (litteraly and figuratively) about the boycott.  It is the news du jour and I do hope something positive comes out of it.  However, I am not holding my breath.  Perahps I am just in a cynical mood today (I am a GenXer afterall so finding me not in a cynical mood is quite rare), but I read these stories and all I can think is that it is the same ol’ same ol’.  I can’t get excited about Gower’s boycott or any other ones.  I can’t get excited that  publishing models will finally change if all of the authors and reviewers boycott, because everybody doesn’t boycott.  I guess I am like this because I feel these type boycotts just really don’t work.  Part of the reason is they are only boycotting half of the problem.  Academia’s advancement structure feeds into this problem. Gower’s boycott doesn’t address that.  Gower’s boycott doesn’t give alternatives to PostDocs who aren’t tenured.  If they are supposed to be good little boycotting researchers, where do they publish without hurting their chances of advancement? I think it is going to take a cataclysmic event within the publishing/library/research world for things to change.  Boycotts are not the cataclysmic event. 




8 thoughts on “Elsevier Boycott, My Thoughts”

  1. Those articles don’t talk nearly enough about arXiv! The whole reason math and physics are able to do this boycott is that most of their publishing has already moved over to an open-access repository model, with publishing in journals as a afterthought (maybe mostly for credentialing and tenure purposes?).

    Of course, the whole reason they have arXiv is because they physicists have a culture of collaboration and results-sharing that is unlike anything I’ve seen in biomedicine. So it’s not a question of “build the repository, and everything will work out.”

    A physicist friend recently told me that in the High Energy Physics community, articles are published in arXiv (their preprint/reprint/eprint repository) and many are NEVER published in journals! I didn’t believe her so I went and checked, and sure enough, there are a significant number of papers that don’t ever seem to have been “published” (though many were presented at conferences). Physicists cite articles from arXiv that haven’t been published, and they base new experiments on preprints that haven’t been published in journals.

    And according to arXiv, which, remember, hosts every article in many subspecialties of physics, their annual operating budget is about $400,000, less than $7 per subscription and less than two cents per download! But I really think it’s ultimately a cultural thing, not a money thing, otherwise scientists would use PubMedCentral like physicists use arXiv (well, except I think PMC requires articles to have been published in peer-reviewed journals, doesn’t it?).

    Sorry for my rant! Why can’t we all share like physicists? 🙂

  2. You’ve hit the nail on the head with tenure/advancement. Until that changes, there will be many academics in need of work who’ll take the place of those who can afford to walk away. And maybe Elsevier is currently being targeted because of their heavy hand in the Research Works Act nonsense.

  3. Thanks Kyle, I have heard that the physicist world is way different from other scientists. It would be nice if there was the same culture of sharing. I think mainly in biomedical publishing there is a fear of being scooped. I don’t know if there is that fear in the physicist world.
    Perhaps the boycott of Elsevier would work in the mathematic sciences but in the biomedical sciences, been there done that have the t-shirt.

  4. You’re probably right Krafty. But I think your piece overlooks the extent to which librarians are part of the system you describe.

  5. I think in addition to the fear of being scooped, there are sometimes patent concerns (I work with a lot of pharmaceutical science people) which I suspect don’t apply as much to physicists… I’m not sure the finding the Higgs Boson has a whole lot of immediate practical applications.

    But the fear of scoopage is strong… some of the worst sharers I’ve seen are hominid paleontologists – they’ll dig up an Australopithecine or something and then sit on the find for YEARS while they work on their monographs, and they seemingly go out of their way to deny others in their field access to their finds.

  6. @Ben, I kind of purposely left the librarian part out because as librarians I think we are all familiar to some extent with our side. I tried to focus a little outside of the library, but that is hard to do when we are talking about journal publishers.

    @Kyle, did you bug my living room last night? 😉 My husband and I were talking about this issue and he said the same thing about the Higgs Boson.
    I have never heard that about palentologists, I wonder why they fear scoopage so much. Definitely there are different scientific subcultures and norms. Interesting.

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