February 14, 2012

5,000 profs join boycott of Elsevier publications in international “academic spring”


An “academic spring” has broken out against scientific journal publisher Elsevier, says a New Scientist report by Jacob Aron. According to the report, “Inspired by a University of Cambridge mathematician, over 5000 academics have agreed to boycott publishers Elsevier, vowing not to peer-review or submit papers for any of its scientific journals.”

Of course, it should be noted that Elsevier is owned by the giant conglomerate Reed Elsevier, which not only owns many publications but runs fairs and conventions such as the London Book Fair and the Book Expo America … and also owns New Scientist.

Nonetheless Aron gives a good synopsis of the situation:

The protest began last month when Timothy Gowers, a mathematician at the University of Cambridge, wrote a blog post objecting to what he called Elsevier’s “very high” prices and its practice of “bundling” journals, which he says prompts university libraries to spend money on titles that they may not want.

Other mathematicians joined the cause, creating the website thecostofknowledge.com to declare they would no longer support Elsevier. Since then academics from other disciplines have joined the protest, and earlier this week 34 mathematicians, including Gowers, published a more formal statement explaining the reasons behind the boycott.

As well as criticising Elsevier’s pricing, the statement also objects to the company’s support of three proposed US laws: the SOPA and PIPA anti-piracy bills and the Research Works Act (RWA), which aims to prevent government-funded researchers from being required to publish in open-access journals.

Mathmatician Nassif Ghoussoub — a member of the Board of Governors at the University of British Columbia — gives a more detailed breakdown of the charges against Elsevier in a post on his Peace of Mind blog:

Journal costs:  Though not alone among publishers in price gouging, Elsevier’s prices are ridiculously high …

Bundling, which is a business practice that forces libraries to subscribe to large numbers of journals in order to avoid paying the exorbitant list prices for the ones they need. The real effect of such a practice is that the average price that libraries pay for the journals they actually want, is higher …

Scandalous practices: Elsevier has been involved in various dubious practices regarding the scientific content of its journals. One in particular involved the journal “Chaos, Solitons & Fractals”, which was at some point one of the highest impact factor mathematics journals that Elsevier published. It turned out that the high impact factor was at least partly the result of the journal publishing many papers — by its own editors — full of mutual citations.

In another example, Elsevier seems to have published a series of sponsored article compilation publications, on behalf of pharmaceutical clients, that were made to look like journals and lacked the proper disclosures.

Ghoussoub also observes that, with so many signatories, the petition started by Prof. Gowers has, it seems, had an impact on Reed Elsevier’s stock … but at least one investment analyst has said in a report on the stock that it “fully expects the price to rebound once this boycott fails like all the previous ones.”

A paidContent report by Robert Andrews, on the other hand, notes not all market analysts are so sanguine about the company’s recovery. He quotes Claudio Aspesi of Bernstein Research European saying, “We think that investors should ask management of Reed Elsevier how a PR incident of this kind could happen, why crisis management has been so tentative and what other steps management intends to take the handle the protest.”

Meanwhile, Ghoussoub, at Peace of Mind, points to a post at Shtetl Optimized, the blog of Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Scott Aaronson, who gives some nature of the long-festering anger behind the boycott:

From now on, if I’m evaluating (say) a faculty or tenure candidate, and I see lots of Elsevier publications, I’m going to wonder about the reasons: “is this person simply unaware of the widely-discussed issues with Elsevier? is the person a timid conformist who feels that his or her papers need a ‘gold star of approval,’ even from a journal whose publisher is known to be mercilessly ransacking universities? if this person can’t even accept whatever minuscule or perceived career risk comes with open(er)-access publishing, why would the person take huge risks in the intellectual realm?” And I’m sure I won’t be the only one thinking this …

And they haven’t even started talking about using Twitter to rally people yet ….


Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.