The Dutch publisher Elsevier publishes many of the world’s best known mathematics journals, including Advances in Mathematics, Comptes Rendus, Discrete Mathematics, The European Journal of Combinatorics, Historia Mathematica, Journal of Algebra, Journal of Approximation Theory, Journal of Combinatorics Series A, Journal of Functional Analysis, Journal of Geometry and Physics, Journal of Mathematical Analysis and Applications, Journal of Number Theory, Topology, and Topology and its Applications. For many years, it has also been heavily criticized for its business practices. Let me briefly summarize these criticisms.
1. It charges very high prices — so far above the average that it seems quite extraordinary that they can get away with it.
2. One method that they have for getting away with it is a practice known as “bundling”, where instead of giving libraries the choice of which journals they want to subscribe to, they offer them the choice between a large collection of journals (chosen by them) or nothing at all. So if some Elsevier journals in the “bundle” are indispensable to a library, that library is forced to subscribe at very high subscription rates to a large number of journals, across all the sciences, many of which they do not want. (The journal Chaos, Solitons and Fractals is a notorious example of a journal that is regarded as a joke by many mathematicians, but which libraries all round the world must nevertheless subscribe to.) Given that libraries have limited budgets, this often means that they cannot subscribe to journals that they would much rather subscribe to, so it is not just libraries that are harmed, but other publishers, which is of course part of the motivation for the scheme.
3. If libraries attempt to negotiate better deals, Elsevier is ruthless about cutting off access to all their journals.
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.
I could carry on, but I’ll leave it there.
It might seem inexplicable that this situation has been allowed to continue. After all, mathematicians (and other scientists) have been complaining about it for a long time. Why can’t we just tell Elsevier that we no longer wish to publish with them?
Well, part of the answer is that we can. A famous (and not unique) example where we did so was the resignation of the entire editorial board of Topology and the founding of The Journal of Topology — the story is told briefly here. But as the list above shows, such examples are very much the exception rather than the rule, so the basic question remains: why do we allow ourselves to be messed about to this extraordinary extent, when one would have thought that nothing would be easier than to do without them?
A possible explanation is that to do something about the situation requires coordinated action. Even if one library refuses to subscribe to Elsevier journals, plenty of others will feel that they can’t refuse, and Elsevier won’t mind too much. But if all libraries were prepared to club together and negotiate jointly, doing a kind of reverse bundling — accept this deal or none of us will subscribe to any of your journals — then Elsevier’s profits (which are huge, by the way) would be genuinely threatened. However, it seems unlikely that any such massive coordination between libraries will ever take place.
What about coordination between academics? What is to stop all the other editorial boards of Elsevier journals following the example of the board of the Journal of Topology? I actually don’t know the answer to that: I can only assume that not enough people on those editorial boards care to make it worth it to them to go through what is likely to be a somewhat unpleasant and time-consuming process.
If top-down approaches to the problem don’t work, then what about bottom-up approaches? Why do any of us publish papers in Elsevier journals? Let me answer that question in my own case. I have a paper in the European Journal of Combinatorics, which I submitted about 20 years ago, before I knew anything about the objections to Elsevier. And what’s more, I didn’t know it was an Elsevier journal until a few days ago. (Part of my reason for listing the journals at the beginning of this post was to make the second excuse less valid for anyone who reads this. A more complete list can be found here.)
Once I did hear about Elsevier’s behaviour, I made a conscious decision not to publish in Elsevier journals and I started to feel bad about cooperating with them in any way. I didn’t go as far as to refuse, but if, say, I was asked to join the editorial board of an Elsevier journal and wasn’t quite sure I wanted to, then the fact that it was Elsevier was enough to make my mind up. (This actually happened. I was a little cowardly and gave it as an additional reason for reluctance rather than the main reason, but I did at least mention it.) I am not knowingly on the editorial board of any Elsevier journal, and haven’t been in the past either.
Now, however, I have decided that my previous quiet approach was not enough. I think another reason that we cooperate with Elsevier is simply that it is embarrassing not to. If I’m asked to referee a paper for an Elsevier journal and I am clearly an appropriate choice of referee, then refusing to do it feels like a criticism of the editor who has asked me, who may well be somebody I know. It also feels like shirking my duty and slightly letting down the authors, who may well also be people I know.
It is because of that that the moral argument in favour of refusing to cooperate, as an individual, with Elsevier is not quite straightforward. Indeed, if we were just to accept Elsevier’s abuses as an unfortunate fact of life that is not going to go away, then there would be a genuine argument that refusing to cooperate with them is the wrong thing to do. However, I think that the abuses are eventually going to go away — the internet will see to that — so I think that the doing-my-duty argument is outweighed by the argument that it is in the interests of the mathematical community to get to that happy day as soon as we can. I also don’t see any argument at all against refusing to submit papers to Elsevier journals.
So I am not only going to refuse to have anything to do with Elsevier journals from now on, but I am saying so publicly. I am by no means the first person to do this, but the more of us there are, the more socially acceptable it becomes, and that is my main reason for writing this post.
It occurs to me that it might help if there were a website somewhere, where mathematicians who have decided not to contribute in any way to Elsevier journals could sign their names electronically. I think that some people would be encouraged to take a stand if they could see that many others were already doing so, and that it would be a good way of making that stand public. Perhaps such a site already exists, in which case I’d like to hear about it and add my name. If it doesn’t, it should be pretty easy to set up, but way beyond my competence I’m afraid. Is there anyone out there who feels like doing it?
Returning to the subject of morality, I don’t think it is helpful to accuse Elsevier of immoral behaviour: they are a big business and they want to maximize their profits, as businesses do. I see the argument as a straightforward practical one. Yes, they are like that, as one would expect, but we have much greater bargaining power than we are wielding at the moment, for the very simple reason that we don’t actually need their services. That is not to say that morality doesn’t come into it, but 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. (I’m thinking of stories I’ve been told about mathematicians at major universities who have been cut off from Elsevier journals. Something I don’t know, but would be interested to learn, is whether mathematicians in developing countries can afford to get access to Elsevier journals. If not, then that would be another powerful moral argument against submitting to them.)
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.
One final remark is that Elsevier is not the only publisher to behave in an objectionable way. However, it seems to be the worst.
PS For non-British readers, the titles of this post and the previous one are an oblique reference to this book.