Elsevier’s open letter point by point, and some further arguments

I’ve had this post sitting around half written for a long time, so I’ve decided to post it without saying everything I wanted to say and have done with it. Even the things I do say are not as organized as I’d normally like.

In response to the recent boycott and the discussion it has generated, Elsevier has put out an open letter entitled A message to the research community: journal prices, discounts and access. It was more or less guaranteed that I would not be satisfied by what they had to say, since my view is that the entire system of commercial publishing of academic papers needs to be replaced, whereas Elsevier was almost certain to be arguing from within the current system. When a paradigm shift takes place, one does not expect the main players to remain the same.

Nevertheless, it seems only fair to make some attempt to respond to the points Elsevier has to make, rather than simply saying that there is nothing they can do, or at least nothing they can do that they would be likely to be prepared to do. So let me explain why I find their open letter unsatisfactory even on their own terms (that is, even if we make the assumption that what is needed is more like an adjustment to the current system than a replacement of it). The letter starts with some statements of the kind one might expect, about how their mission is to serve the research community and so on. The substantive part of their letter is then divided into bullet points, where they claim to correct the distortions that have been advanced. I’ll look at each of those in turn.

First, the cost of downloading an article has never been lower than it is today — on average one fifth of what it was just 10 years ago. As the effective price paid per journal accessed has decreased, the number of journals accessed has increased, and the usage of those journals has grown by over 20% per year. We have invested heavily in making our content more discoverable and more accessible to end-users and to enable the research community to develop innovative research applications. Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that in a study published by the Publishing Research Consortium, which Elsevier’s research team help conduct, 93% of university researchers report that access to journal articles is “fairly easy or very easy.” The full report is available here.

An annoying aspect of the open letter is that Elsevier are not precise about what they mean. For example, what is meant by the cost of downloading an article? Does it mean the cost for a private individual who follows a link to an article, clicks “Download pdf” and is then asked for $30 or so? If so, did it really cost $150 10 years ago? That would have been insane. Or does it mean what you get if you divide the total amount paid by all the institutional subscribers round the world by the total number of downloads by researchers at those institutions? If it’s the latter (or something more like the latter), then is the fall in this average cost due to a lowering of prices or to an increase in the number of downloads, or to some mixture of the two? And if there has been an increase in the number of downloads, is that not explained by the fact that everybody does more online these days, coupled with the fact that looking at a paper online takes much less effort than trekking over to the library and finding it on a shelf?

What does it mean to say “We have invested heavily in making our content more discoverable and more accessible to end-users and to enable the research community to develop innovative research applications.”? One possible interpretation of “making our content more discoverable” is the very annoying phenomenon where an internet search for a paper takes you to an Elsevier page that suggests that all you have to do is click to download the paper, but then asks for money when you do. That kind of ease of discovery I could do without. The phrase “and accessible” reads to me like pure padding: either I can get hold of an article or I can’t. And where is the heavy investment needed to allow someone to look at an article. The article is there. And what are the innovative research applications? I simply don’t understand what they are saying here, and I suspect that if it means anything at all, then whatever it means is of little interest to mathematicians.

As for the report they refer to, it again is very hard to interpret without a lot more information. My experience with Elsevier papers is this. If an author has taken the trouble to put a paper on the arXiv or on his or her homepage, then access to that article is easy (no thanks to Elsevier); otherwise, it is virtually impossible. Probably if I made more effort, I would be able to work out how to get access to Elsevier articles via Cambridge University’s subscriptions to their journals. But if I’m working from home, then I know that that is a complicated process that involves setting up some kind of account with our computer services — I tried it once but didn’t follow through to the end. In practice, if an article is behind the Elsevier paywall, I don’t read that article. Does that make me an outlier? Am I one of the 7%? Is my situation even part of what the question covers? I haven’t tried recently, but maybe if I tried to open an Elsevier article from the computer in my departmental office I would have no trouble. But all that would say is that Elsevier didn’t have a completely stupid system for opening articles. [Edit: Since writing that paragraph I have discovered that I can open Elsevier papers with no trouble at all from my office, and with only a small amount of effort from home. But others may not be so fortunate.]

I would suggest a different wording for the question: “How satisfied are you with the level of access that Elsevier provides for its articles?” Then the answers might be more informative. (I recommend looking at the report, which has no discussion of methodology whatsoever, as far as I can see.)

Libraries are never forced to take “bundled” packages; they always have the option to purchase individual articles, subscribe to titles, or subscribe to sets of journals. Most choose large collections, however, because they get substantial volume discounts that offer more titles at a lower cost. And the additional titles they subscribe to are used by their researchers. In fact, on average approximately 40% of researchers’ usage is of journal titles that the library previously had not subscribed to.

The devil is in the detail here, and because of the confidentiality agreements that Elsevier insists on, it is very hard to find out the detail. So let me start by asking an obvious question: if the pricing policy is so reasonable, then why keep it confidential? Is it not healthy for academics to know how much their libraries are spending for their benefit, and what they are getting for the money, and what other deals would have been possible?

Let me try to explain what I object to about bundling. I want to be clear that I am not trying to prove that it is immoral. I just want to explain why I dislike it. That’s all I need to do to explain why if it is feasible to change to a different system, then I am strongly in support of doing so.

Let me draw an (imperfect — I’ll come to that) analogy. Suppose you go to your usual supermarket and find that their prices have suddenly become extraordinarily high. Of course, you walk out, but suppose you are intercepted by an employee of the supermarket and asked whether you are aware of their new “hamper deals” — you get a hamper that contains a wide variety of food items, and it works out far cheaper than buying all those items individually. You have a look in the hamper and you find that it does indeed contain pretty much everything on your normal shopping list, but it also contains a number of things you didn’t plan to buy, some of which you would be quite pleased to have and others of which you would probably end up throwing away. You note to yourself that the hamper is somewhat more expensive than what you have been used to spending at this supermarket, even if it is indeed much cheaper than buying the items individually. But you do get those extra items, so you decide, slightly reluctantly, to go for the hamper deal.

Next time you go back to the supermarket, nothing has changed, so you go for the hamper deal again, and this continues for a few weeks. But then the supermarket starts raising the price of the hamper deal. It’s still a lot cheaper than buying the items individually — not surprisingly as the individual prices are ridiculous — but it is clear that prices are going up faster than inflation (or even than food prices in general).

Why might you dislike this situation? It’s fairly obvious: by accepting the hamper deal you have lost your control over what you buy from the supermarket, and once you are in the habit of buying their hampers, they can raise prices in the knowledge that your other options — buy just a few very expensive items individually or stop using the supermarket altogether — are unattractive to you.

Or are they? Here is where the analogy is not perfect. If a supermarket were to start messing about with its customers like that, then those customers would have the option of using a different supermarket, and it probably wouldn’t take much for them to exercise that option. The big difference between supermarkets and academic publishers is that supermarkets are competing to sell the same goods, whereas academic publishers are selling disjoint sets of journals. In other words, academic publishers have a monopoly over their sets of journals. It’s as though you have one supermarket chain for vegetables, one for meat and ready meals, one for cooking ingredients, cereal, tea, coffee, bread, and so on. And you can’t get vegetables at even semi-reasonable prices without subscribing to a regular delivery of a fairly expensive vegetable box, which always contains more than you need. Under such circumstances, one might imagine growing one’s own.

Even this isn’t a perfect analogy, and what I should probably be talking about is institutional purchase of vegetables. If I found out, for example, that, in order to provide my lunch, Trinity College was having to pay for very expensive deliveries of vegetables, many of which were not needed … actually, even this isn’t a good analogy. Let’s suppose in addition that the fellows of Trinity had grown the vegetables in their back gardens and given them to the vegetable delivery company (who packaged them up quite nicely) and were then finding that Trinity College was paying through the nose for them. At that point, I’d be tempted to say that I’d be happy to bring my vegetables directly to the college, not packaged as nicely but free.

To make the analogy even better, one might add that different colleges paid different amounts for their vegetables, but that how much they paid was confidential — presumably so that rich colleges like Trinity would pay more than poorer colleges, or to put it more crudely, so that the vegetable delivery company could screw each college for as much as it could afford.

I was thinking of discussing bundling in terms of a mathematical model, but that’s something I’m not going to bother with any more. The main point can be summarized as follows: Elsevier has a monopoly over a large number of journals (because you can’t just substitute them with other ones) and it exploits that monopoly. It’s welcome to do that, and those who pay for their journals (whether directly or indirectly) are welcome to find it irritating and try to find ways of doing without the product over which they have a monopoly.

Just before I finish, I’d like to consider two arguments that were put forward by another Elsevier representative, Alicia Wise. The first was that bundling protects some journals that would not otherwise get enough subscriptions to survive. To that I have two responses. One is that at least some of those journals are ones that shouldn’t survive — such as the notorious Chaos, Solitons and Fractals. I think her implication is that Elsevier is protecting the interests of journals in obscure but very worthwhile areas, but is it really those rather than bad journals in perfectly well-represented areas? I would need further evidence.

Her second point was that Elsevier adds value in many ways, such as Science Direct, where they have put all their papers with lots of hyperlinks and so on. I looked into that by going, for the first time in my life, to Science Direct and looking at a randomly chosen paper, entitled “Paley graphs have Hamiltonian decompositions” and published in Discrete Maths. I’ll admit it was quite a nice site. There was a brief section called “highlights”, which wasn’t part of the paper but gave you some idea what to look out for. There were internal links to references and to numbered statements within the paper. There were also links to any papers in the references that were published in Elsevier journals. Discrete Mathematics, not being a top-notch journal, is full of references to itself, so if you happen to be part of, or interested in, one of those mathematical conversations and have access to Science Direct, then you would probably find this feature quite convenient. They also had a list of related papers, but I’m not sure how useful that is, as it appeared to be automatically generated. For example there were several papers listed about Cayley graphs. (Is that because “Cayley” rhymes with “Paley”? Surely not, so exactly how the list was generated is a bit of a mystery to me and an amusing exercise in reverse engineering.)

Anyhow, my response to all that is that if that is the main way that Elsevier (as opposed to the unpaid referees and editors) adds value, then what I would like to see is a system where we paid Elsevier for adding that value. Under such a system, a journal would be an autonomous organization, but if it wanted its papers to appear on Science Direct, so that they had all those links (the buzzword seems to be “metadata”), then they could pay for that service. Of course, Elsevier would have to set the price at a level that would be worth paying, given what the journal was getting. But then I’d feel confident that Elsevier was getting a fair price for the value it was adding, whereas now I don’t at all.

As I warned at the beginning, I haven’t covered all the points I intended to cover, but I think it’s time to reclaim this blog for non-Elsevier-related posts. That doesn’t mean that there won’t be further news about Elsevier. There will, and my interest in the subject is as strong as ever. But the change that many of us have hoped for for a long time is not going to happen overnight, so I’m going to write about other things as well. Meanwhile, I hope that if you agree with the objectives of the boycott, then you will think about what you can do to help — things like making sure that your papers are easily available online, encouraging others to do the same, not submitting to an expensive journal when a cheap one is equally suitable (which I know is not always), supporting new cheap journals and publishing methods, and so on.

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42 Responses to “Elsevier’s open letter point by point, and some further arguments”

  1. D. Eppstein Says:

    Re “There were internal links to references and to numbered statements within the paper”: this is easy to achieve yourself by using the hyperref latex package, and I believe arxiv automatically includes this package in its default processing setup. So it’s not exactly much of an added value.

    • gowers Says:

      That’s very interesting to know. I hadn’t heard of the hyperref latex package, though it doesn’t come as a surprise to learn that it exists. I presume external links can also be created easily. If so, then Science Direct really has got nothing on the arXiv — who wants a site that connects up Elsevier papers when you could have a site that connects up all papers?

    • John Baez Says:

      Everyone who writes in LaTeX should use hyperref! It’s really easy, at least if you’re using a fully functional modern version of LaTeX. You just type


      at the top of the document, and then all internal \ref’s (that is, references to theorems, definitions and the like) become clickable links. And in your bibliography, you can type things like

      David Yetter, Measurable categories, Applied Categorial Structures 13 (2005) 469-500. Also available as

      to get clickable links to the papers you’re referring to. The first argument of the \href command is a URL, the second is what you want the reader to see and be able to click on.

      That’s all there is to it!

      While the arXiv automates the use of hyperref, there’s a limit to how much it can automate the use of hyperref to create links to other papers. I think it tries to create a link whenever you include an arxiv number it recognizes, e.g. arXiv:math/0309185. But I also go out of my way to find and include links whenever possible, e.g.:

      J. Heinloth, Some notes on differentiable stacks. Available
      as \href{http://www.uni-due.de/~hm0002/stacks.pdf}{http://www.uni-due.de/~hm0002/stacks.pdf}.

    • John Baez Says:

      By the way, this hyperref business is one reason it’s important to have grad students. They tend to keep up with the latest technology and teach us old fogeys new tricks. One of them taught my hyperref a few years ago, and now it’s an utterly essential part of my life. If we’re reading papers electronically and connected to the internet, it would be insane for those papers not to link to the documents they’re referring to!

    • gilbertweinstein Says:

      Not to discount hyperref, but of course, today most browsers will let you to highlight a title, right-click and do a search in a different tab on google (or even better google scholar) which will pick up most instances of the article online.

      @John: I tried that on the article you listed and it came up with your hyperlink.

      If you are reading a (non-hyperf-ed) pdf, then you will have to go though the (ah so much) more tedious process of highlighting the title, right-clicking, copying, opening a new tab in a browser, pasting into the address bar (provided it defaults to google search), and hitting enter. Still, it compares quite favorably to having to walk over to the library and searching through the stacks as some of us still remember having to do. I think that the added value in Science Direct is very close to negligible.

    • Tom Leinster Says:

      I agree with John, but he made a slip: the line you type is


      — with curly brackets, not square brackets.

      (Tim, if you want to correct John’s error and delete this comment, that’s fine by me. Otherwise people might follow John’s suggestion, discover that it doesn’t work, and conclude that it’s all too complicated.)

      I’ve corrected it but left this comment. I thought the square brackets were rather surprising …

    • Mike Shulman Says:

      As long as we’re exhorting people to use hyperref, it may be worth pointing out that hyperref also has many nice options which are less well-known than they should be. Of particular note are pagebackref, which adds links from each item in your bibliography to the places in the paper where that item is cited, and colorlinks, which lets you choose your own color scheme for hyperlinks (and get rid of those ugly red boxes — who thought those were a good idea?)

  2. plm Says:

    Could anyone point to information on Elsevier’s mathematics business segment’s finances or at least something more detailed than the global Reed-Elsevier financial statement?


    Elsevier does not seem very willing to share details of their finances -profits in particular.

    • gowers Says:

      This may not give you what you’re looking for, but it’s well worth a look.


    • plm Says:

      Thanks alot Tim, that is very helpful:
      “The Science &Technology division contributed 50% of the total Elsevier revenue in 2010. Of this revenue, 77% came from research (journals), 10% from reference education (books) and 13% from databases and tools. Approximately 32% of Science & Technology revenue in 2010 was derived from North America, 36% from Europe and the remaining 32% from the rest of the world.”

      It may be safe to estimate mathematics’ part at somewhat less than 10% of science and technology, with 110 journals. If revenues also scale this way it makes ~£100 mn mathematics segment revenues, one third of it profit.

  3. Niall Madden Says:

    “… what I would like to see is a system where we paid Elsevier for adding that value.”

    A good point, because of course we Mathematicians do (get our libraries to) pay for such a system in MathSciNet/Math Reviews. It is expensive, but valuable and independent. So the argument is not about getting what you want for free: it Is about paying for only what you want

  4. Ch. Williamson Says:

    Elsevier is not the only publisher using this same raunchy business model. In fact there is at least one publisher with worse practices. This one, in addition to those listed for Elsevier, 1) publishes articles and even a book without getting author’s final approval, 2) gives away thousands of e-books with their journal bundle without asking the authors of those e-books for permission and 3) routinely sues authors if they object to these practices.

  5. Mark Says:

    “The devil is in the detail here, and because of the confidentiality agreements that Elsevier insists on, it is very hard to find out the detail. So let me start by asking an obvious question: if the pricing policy is so reasonable, then why keep it confidential?”

    Most US states have open records laws that require the release of contracts involving state institutions, and typically the inclusion of a confidentially clause in a contract does not exempt disclosure. A little googling found the “Big Deal Contract Project” http://www.econ.ucsb.edu/~tedb/Journals/BundleContracts.html which has been collecting journal contracts in exactly this manner. According to the website (as of August 13, 2009) they have collected Elseiver contracts from 26 universities and 3 consortia. It does not appear that they have placed copies of these contracts online. You could contact them and ask for copies. Making these publicly available would give detailed information to inform a discussion like that above, as well as help inform libraries in the process of negotiating new contracts.

  6. Wayne Borean Says:

    Elsevier has missed the main point.

    Any company that is unable to keep their customers happy will generate competition. This is natural. Elsevier has only themselves to blame.

    That they don’t like Capitalism, well, that’s their problem.

    Just curious, what’s the name of the pirate publisher?


  7. Daniel Bradley Says:

    I apologise for writing such a long comment, I did not have time to write a shorter one.

    I believe the key issue is that the cost of publication of a single paper – due to electronic distribution – is now perceived as being significantly less than the historical cost of publishing a print volume. However, the total number of papers that publishers such as Elsevier are expected to provide access to is increasing dramatically (maybe exponentially). This is a great burden to them, however from the business perspective it provides them with huge competitive advantage.

    From our (academic author’s) point of view, we realise that the Internet provides an inexpensive means of distributing our papers (perhaps from faculty web servers), a potentially inexpensive means of peer reviewing papers (for example through software like Easychair), and, if an appropriate publication format is used, the future possibility of distributed indexing of citations, which would distribute associated costs between institutions.

    However, and please forgive if I offend, I suspect that many academics forget the pain involved with carrying out one’s important literature reviews at the beginning of one’s research studies. Modern systems such as ScienceDirect are invaluable as a means of thoroughly performing a review, which is now expected as so much more material is available than ever before. It is easy to belittle the usefulness of such systems when one is in a position of no longer needing them because one has already downloaded all the historical PDFs one would wish for. Perhaps, also the reason established academics no longer need such systems is because their research students (using such systems) bring important papers to their attention.

    I have no doubt that in the future there will be a shift towards semi-independent academic publishing. This will occur as the systems, processes, and most importantly, rankings of independent journals increase. However, the fact is that publishers such as Elsevier hold the copyright to a huge proportion of academic papers that are expected to be cited by future researchers. Understandably, and also to their credit, they see it as both their responsibility, and their right, to provide the public with access to those papers. To their credit, publishers like Elsevier have invested a lot of money to ensure such researchers have access to those papers.

    If real change is to occur, it would be necessary for the government to buy all publishers such as Elsevier so that they can control, and therefore free, the copyright to existing papers. Hang on!!!, which government? The US government? The EU? Perhaps the UN? And what is to say that the purchaser will be able to provide access at below the cost of say Elsevier? Maybe “better the devil you know”.

    Now, despite all I have written above, and to return to the key issue and to agree with the main thrust of Gowers’s blog post — academics see something that they gave away for free being resold (limitlessly) to those unfortunate enough not to be a member of a paying institution for $30, or $41.95 if you’re after a real gem like “Complex assembly of calgranulins A and B, two S100-like calcium-binding proteins from pig granulocytes” published in 1996. That is comparable in price to a new release music CD, a Blockbuster DVD, or even a full season of a recent TV series. It is beyond belief that this is anywhere near the per paper amount that institutions collectively pay, or even reasonably close to healthy Apple-esque markup on Elsevier’s per paper cost.

    I believe that what would satisfy most academics is if publishers released their costs per peer-reviewed paper and the average cost per paper to institutions, then priced all of their online papers at around a 20-30% markup on that average price.

  8. Jan Says:

    “In practice, if an article is behind the Elsevier paywall, I don’t read that article.”

    This is telling. They don’t add value, they remove it. I tend to use journals as an arxiv overlay. If something is on the arxiv, I get it from there. I find the journal sites harder to navigate, and all the automatically generated “meta-data” is in a best case just distracting.

    “However, and please forgive if I offend, I suspect that many academics forget the pain involved with carrying out one’s important literature reviews at the beginning of one’s research studies.”

    As a graduate student, Mathscinet and Arxiv have done much more in this respect, more for me than all the Springer/Elsevier/Wiley journal sites combined. As for searching, I find that Google searches much better in all articles, instead of just the ones in one publishers collection.

  9. The blog post as a scientific article: citation management « Henry Rzepa Says:

    [...] publishers are starting to do this. I bring only one example to your attention, although this introduces a host of other issues that perhaps I should leave for another [...]

  10. Ian Walker Says:

    Ironically, if we were to parallel the scientific journals industry with the recording industry, the publication of learned articles would be called payola… Just how is this legal? How is it approriate use of public monies?

  11. Ian Walker Says:

    a belated comment about hyperref – many people – high flyers maybe especially, could really benefit from training courses in the tools they use… I once did the work of a 6 person team (a military job) in a day, when it took them 12 MONTHS to do the job ‘manually’. Why? I knew the right tools and how to use them. They stuck to they way it had always been done… We all get canalised into comfy ways of doing stuff, familiar and accepted ways… they are treacherous! Old mother nature teaches us that if we fail to pay attention to change, we become geology…

  12. Peter Cameron Says:

    I can’t resist commenting on Paley and Cayley, since I believe it is more than just rhyme. A Paley graph is a particular example of a Cayley graph, and the techniques used for Hamiltonian decompositions of Paley graphs work also in wider classes of Cayley graphs. So it is not entirely stupid.

    That said, I have sometimes wondered how they come up with those suggestions. But the same comment applies to, for example, suggestions on Amazon for what book they think you might like to buy.

    • gowers Says:

      That’s a good point. If they have got a database somewhere that includes the information that Paley graphs are special cases of Cayley graphs, then I’m impressed — even if it’s a bit like saying that modular forms are special cases of analytic functions.

    • JBL Says:

      In fact, the word “Cayley graph” appears more than a dozen times in the text of the article, including several times in the titles of referenced articles. It should not be hard to algorithmically assemble lists of keywords and make suggestions based on that.

    • gowers Says:

      That’s another good point. In that case, what I said about modular forms and analytic functions is not fair to Science Direct. So perhaps it’s worth stressing that my main point is that those kinds of “you might also like to look at” recommendations are, if generated automatically, not likely to be useful enough to count as value added for which our libraries should be paying substantial sums of money.

    • JBL Says:

      Agreed — I could imagine a piece of software that (e.g.) scanned arXiv or databases of published papers and made semi-intelligent suggestions of related reading being sold commercially, but I can’t imagine you’d be able to make Elsevier-type profits selling it.

    • Domingos Says:

      This is probably a form of Machine Learning. The large volume of data they have allows them to find correlations between key words (for instance by establishing that articles containing ‘Payley’ commonly reference articles containing ‘Cayley’). Unfortunately, the computers still don’t ‘understand’ what the concepts mean but they can cluster concepts with some level of accuracy.

  13. Elsevier Withdraws Support for Research Works Act, Continues Fight Against Open Access « Says:

    [...] the research community: journal prices, discounts and access“. Again, Gowers took the time to respond point by point. Today, Elsevier publicly announced that it withdraws its support for the Research Work Act. [...]

  14. Ed Says:

    Science direct is ok, but is a cut-down version of Elsevier’s scopus, which you have to pay extra for, for what you get indexes to significantly more than just Elsevier journals (for example, the Journal of Fluid Mechanics) and which provides useful results such as h-index graphs for authors and citation indexes for journals, etc. Isn’t this what is wanted by “a system where we paid Elsevier for adding that value”, and doesn’t it show that Elsevier don’t and won’t add value without charging again for it?

  15. rcsudtell Says:

    Reblogged this on Sudtell Law and commented:
    Interesting to follow

  16. Fr. Says:

    My only question is: how much more fiscal stress on university and research services is needed for a majority of academics to realize that it’s time to drop the current extortionate bargain to which their community has largely signed in?

    In effect, a paradigm shift is going to require massive failure acknowledgement among all players (governments, librarians, deans, scientists, etc.). However, I do not think that we should expect critical failure, such as a publisher going down.

    Absent of a critical failure, the Elsevier model is going to thrive as long as we do not get below some kind of threshold, where k% of the academic population stays out of Elsevier and the remaining 100-k% are more or less coerced into imitating them.

    To get there, we can rely on a different type of failure: gradual retrenchment in library services, leading to journal pauperism in the poorest research venues. That already exists. Are we going to wait for, say, Yale to get there? (It might not be so far away.)

  17. Elsevier’s letter to mathematicians « Xi'an's Og Says:

    [...] Elsevier’s journals, an action started by an earlier blog of Timothy Gower. He has now posted his extensive reaction to this email and, as it perfectly fits mine, I see no point in writing another post (esp. with [...]

  18. rr Says:

    “We have invested heavily in making our content more discoverable and more accessible” – one of the things Elsevier could have in mind here is gradual scanning of old papers and putting them online, for instance, you can track back the content of JCTB as far as to 1971.

    This brings another issue, namely that we should also point out what are Elsevier and such doing right, not only to be fair, but also to have a better understanding of our expectations from the new cheap/open-access journals, which will presumably start to appear thanks to this movement.

    From my point of view, easy access to back-issues is one of the more important things. On one hand, Elsevier is scanning old issues and is providing them online, on the other hand, the price is ridiculous. But at least they are doing it. I was recently that unfortunate as to need to find a paper that appeared in “ISCAS 1979.” Even finding out that this means IEEE International Symposium on Circuits and Systems that still exists, on the IEEE website there is not clue concerning the paper or in fact that year’s conference, let alone an abstract. (But maybe I am missing some feature of their (inconvenient to use) website, in which case I would be grateful for a hint.)

  19. Weekly links for March 4 « God plays dice Says:

    [...] by Tim Gowers and Izabella Laba on the Elsevier [...]

  20. Jan Herzhoff Says:

    Its very harsh to single out Elsevier in this debate.

  21. Michael Taylor Says:

    @rr> Try searching http://dl.acm.org/ which is run by ACM (Assoc for Computing Machinery, one of the three major US academic CS societies) but includes IEEE Computer Society another major US CS society) and related publications and conferences from other third-parties.

    Having been witness to the grass-roots effort, and incredibly modest budget requirements of a successful open online-only peer-reviewed mathematics journal, I’m surprised there aren’t more of them, particularly given that nearly all papers are submitted TeX/LaTeX files as in mathematics. Using resources the that already exist for most national mathematics societies and government funded national libraries (LoC, LAC, BL, etc.) combined with a editorial board you already have roughly 90-95% of what you need.

    I don’t know if not-for-profit technical publishers like NRC Research Publishing http://www.nrcresearchpress.com/ could be used for any required publication services, I don’t know their fee structure, but knowing the fields they have existing client publications are fairly modest in size, I suspect it may be quite reasonable. They have pre-/post-publish author free academic distribution (i.e. not for commercial purposes) and for-fee online-free direct access via their web site under a boilerplate OpenAccess policy.

  22. James Smith Says:

    Reading Terry Tao’s blog this morning I clicked on lnks to find that I was forwarded to a MathSciNet page that effectively barred my access to the papers in question. I’m at Imperial now and if I were logged on to their VPN I suppose I’d get access without further ado but it wasn’t so long ago that I found myself up against these barriers constantly. Do you know Carleson’s celebrated paper is still not available freely? It’s a travesty. Academic institutions and publishers should find other ways to make money than by restricting access to knowledge and levying charges on those probably least able to pay for it, as I was.

  23. Jochen Wengenroth Says:

    These are the institutional print prices for the Journal of Functional Analysis which demonstrate that Elsevier is doing nothing but maximizing their profit:

    Institutional print price:
    EUR 5,143 for European countries and Iran
    JPY 537,300 for Japan
    USD 4,022 for all countries except Europe, Japan and Iran

    (5143 EUR = 6 714 USD= 1.67 4022 USD)

  24. Ch. Williamson Says:

    Elsevier and Springer use similar business models – except maybe Springer, now in the hands of private equity, has become loose with the truth (see Panda’s Thumb on their creationist book) and pennywise, pound foolish with authors. Editing a galley has become a crime and they sooner publish without checking than make it right. Elsevier is buying the U.S. Congress, that is clear from looking at the open register on lobbyists. Same, different – does it really matter? This calls for an Occupy movement of its own.

  25. Filipe Oliveira Says:

    Tim Gowers is one of the most prestigious mathematicians in the world and has no longer nothing to prove concerning the quality of his work. However, you regular mathematician ( specially the younger ones) are often judged by the notoriety of the journals they are able to publish in. This has very direct implications in the evolution of their careers. Most of these journals are detained by large publishing houses. To publish quality work in open access journals is, for this reason, not an option to many of us. The desired change of paradigm must take this variable into account by putting somehow a quality stamp in some papers.

  26. Hilbert90 Says:

    Looks like the concerned collective of academics need to start a little closer to home:


  27. Fifteenth Linkfest Says:

    [...] Elsevier’s open letter point by point, and some further arguments (world-class mathematician vs. mercenary Public Relations department) [...]

  28. p k diiiiiii Says:

    Elsevier is very bad in all around the world

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