The Elsevier boycott one year on

A few days ago was the anniversary of the beginning of the Cost of Knowledge boycott of Elsevier. It seems a good moment to take stock of what the boycott has achieved and to think about what progress has or hasn’t been made since it started. This post is a short joint statement by many of the people who signed the original Cost of Knowledge statement last year. At some point in the not too distant future I plan to write a longer post giving a more personal view.

The Elsevier boycott: where do we now stand?

In the first few months after the boycott started, the number of signatories grew very rapidly. The growth is now much slower, but this was to be expected: given that, for understandable reasons, no editorial boards of Elsevier journals were ready to take the drastic step of leaving Elsevier, it was inevitable that further progress would depend on the creation of new publication models, which takes time and work, much of it not in the public eye. We are very pleasantly surprised by how much progress of this kind there has already been, with the setting up of Forum of Mathematics, a major new open-access journal, and the recent announcement of the Episciences Project, a new platform for overlay journals. We are also pleased by the rapid progress made by the wider Open Access movement over the last year.

In one respect the boycott has been an unqualified success: it has helped to raise awareness of the concerns we have about academic publishing. This, we believe, will make it easier for new publishing initiatives to succeed, and we strongly encourage further experimentation. We believe that commercial publishers could in principle play a valuable role in the future of mathematical publishing, but we would prefer to see publishers as “service providers”: that is, mathematicians would control journals, publishers would provide services that mathematicians deemed necessary, and prices would be kept competitive since mathematicians would have the option of obtaining these services elsewhere.

We welcome the moves that Elsevier made last year in the months that followed the start of the boycott: the dropping of support for the Research Works Act, the fact that back issues for many journals have now been made available, a clear statement that authors can post preprints on the arXiv that take into account comments by referees, and some small price reductions. However, the fundamental problems remain. Elsevier still has a stranglehold over many of our libraries as a result of Big Deals (a.k.a. bundling) and this continues to do real damage, such as forcing them to cancel subscriptions to more independent journals and to reduce their spending on books. There has also been no improvement in transparency: it as hard as ever to know what libraries are paying for Big Deals. We therefore plan to continue boycotting Elsevier and encourage others to do the same.

The problem of expensive subscriptions will not be solved until more libraries are prepared to cancel subscriptions and Big Deals. To be an effective negotiating tactic this requires support from the community: we must indicate that we would be willing to put up with cancelling overly expensive subscriptions. The more papers are made freely available online (e.g., through the arXiv), the easier that will be. Many already are, and we regard it as a moral duty for mathematicians to make their papers available when publishers allow it. Unfortunately, since mathematics papers are bundled together with papers in other subjects, real progress on costs will depend on coordinated action by mathematicians and scientists, many of whom have very different publication practices. However, a statement by mathematicians that they would not be unduly inconvenienced by the cancelling of expensive subscriptions would be a powerful one.

We are well aware that the problems mentioned above are not confined to Elsevier. We believe that the boycott has been more successful as a result of focusing attention on Elsevier, but the problem is a wider one, and many of us privately try to avoid the other big commercial publishers. We realize that this is not easy for all researchers. When there are more alternatives available, it will become easier: we encourage people to support new ventures if they are in a position do so without undue risk to their careers.

We acknowledge that there are differing opinions about what an ideal publishing system would be like. In particular, the issue of article processing charges is a divisive one: some mathematicians are strongly opposed to them, while others think that there is no realistic alternative. We do not take a collective position on this, but we would point out that the debate is by no means confined to mathematicians: it has been going on in the Open Access community for many years. We note also that the advantages and disadvantages of article processing charges depend very much on the policies that journals have towards fee waivers: we strongly believe that editorial decisions should be independent of an author’s access to appropriate funds, and that fee-waiver policies should be designed to ensure this.

To summarize, we believe that the boycott has been a success and should be continued. Further success will take time and effort, but there are simple steps that we can all take: making our papers freely available, and supporting new and better publication models when they are set up.

Doug Arnold, John Baez, Folkmar Bornemann, Danny Calegari, Henry Cohn, Ingrid Daubechies, Jordan Ellenberg, Marie Farge, David Gabai, Timothy Gowers, Michael Harris, Frédéric Hé lein, Rolf Jeltsch, Rob Kirby, Vincent Lafforgue, Randall J. LeVeque, Peter Olver, Olof Sisask, Terence Tao, Richard Taylor, Nick Trefethen, Marie-France Vigneras, Wendelin Werner, Günter M. Ziegler

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63 Responses to “The Elsevier boycott one year on”

  1. Mark C. Wilson Says:

    I think the most disappointing thing over the last year (more than the lack of courage of editorial boards or the lack of further signatories) has been the lack of use of arXiv. I am not sure that even all the original signatory group of this petition use arXiv systematically for all their papers! It seems very hard to understand.

  2. Piotr Migdal Says:

    Just yesterday I got a proof of an article accepted in an Elsevier journal. Before calling me a bad guy – it was sent 1.5y ago. However, quite ironically, when publishing in a kind-of-new field for me, I choose an Elsevier journal because it explicitly allowed uploading arXiv preprints (and it wasn’t true for all journals in that field).

    I was a bit pushy when persuading group to upload preprint (and limit publishing possibilities), but it was worth it.

    Moreover, I believe (and here many may disagree) that it is much more important to upload a preprint to arXiv than just publish in a “good” journal. Of course – ideally to do both.

  3. Mark C. Wilson Says:

    Of course, we need to differentiate between “preprint” (= submitted manuscript), the final version sent to the journal after refereeing (called “postprint” by some, although this is confusing), and the final journal version. Elsevier allows the second type to be posted on arXiv. Some publishers don’t but this is uncommon in mathematics. More information at http://www.openoasis.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=552&Itemid=375

    and the AMS Notices article on author rights by Kristine Fowler is interesting: http://www.ams.org/notices/201203/rtx120300436p.pdf

    Again, I can’t understand why authors wouldn’t at least avail themselves of their rights, even if they don’t want to negotiate with publishers (a strategy that is usually successful) or engage in some kind of civil disobedience.

    • Mike Taylor Says:

      I wonder how much of the underperformance of Green OA is attributable directly to confusion over what “preprint” and “postprint” mean.

  4. Mike Taylor Says:

    Thanks for posting this. I agree with pretty much all of it. While no-one would say that the Elsevier boycott was directly involved in the genesis of exciting new OA outlets like eLife, PeerJ and the Open Library of Humanities, it certainly make an enormous contribution towards incubating the atmosphere in which such initiatives can thrive.

    One thing you said here is very important and deserves to be highlighted:

    “We note also that the advantages and disadvantages of article processing charges depend very much on the policies that journals have towards fee waivers: we strongly believe that editorial decisions should be independent of an author’s access to appropriate funds, and that fee-waiver policies should be designed to ensure this.”

    I think this is crucial; and I wonder whether anyone could really object to any journal charging APCs if it had such a no-questions-asked waiver policy. It’s one reason that I unhesitatingly recommend the PLOS journals to colleagues. (It would help to position BMC more strongly if they were to make a clear statement along these lines.)

  5. Michael Lacey Says:

    Concerning the use of the arxiv, it is quite healthy. Focusing on the number of submissions in math, rather than the use by individuals, in 2011 there were 21211 submissions to math, and in 2012, that is a 13% increase, equally the percentage increases over the last small number of years.

    The colorful graphics here point to a growing adoption of the arxiv by the mathematics community.

    • Mark C. Wilson Says:

      Thanks for that info. It shows progress in the right direction (I think – how much have non-arXiv papers increased by in the same time?) but it is pretty slow. ArXiv has been around for over 20 years. It will still take decades at this rate to get universal coverage. It still seems that there are barriers, and I do wonder whether the preprint/postprint distinction is one. For years I always thought arXiv was just for preprints and I never bothered to update after acceptance. Of course, we are talking about people who don’t even post the preprint there. Many no doubt put it on their own webpage.

  6. On Open Access Journals | Sebastian Schöps Says:

    [...] Probably, everybody working in academia is aware of the Elsevier boycott. The discussion was started by Timothy Gowers on his blog. Recently, he published summarizing the results of the campaign. [...]

  7. Sam Says:

    I think part of what’s preventing wider arXiv adoption is the fact there is (or seems to be) no way to “silently” upload to the arXiv. If a well-established author decided to put his entire research backlog onto the arXiv, it would fill up the front page and look like spam. There needs to be a way to upload old papers without having them announced as if they are new papers.

    • Henry Cohn Says:

      Personally, I like learning about the free availability of old papers on the arXiv.

      I agree that uploading 100+ papers in one day would look weird, but I’m not convinced the attention would be primarily negative (and I personally would not consider it anything like spam if they were genuine papers – instead, I’d just be happy that someone was uploading all their papers). Uploading even one or two dozen papers in one day would amount to only a small fraction of that day’s submissions. I’d guess that the number of people who are prepared to upload more than could reasonably be handled in a few days is very small.

      If it were possible to upload silently to the arXiv, I would be more worried about people trying to take advantage of this to establish priority while minimizing the chances competitors would see their papers (so they could preserve their head start). Of course the system could be set up to try to enforce a prior publication requirement, but that would complicate things and there would be borderline case.

    • Mike Taylor Says:

      Does anyone in fact know what arXiv’s attitude IS to batch-uploading old papers? Maybe they’re cool with it already?

    • Henry Cohn Says:

      I can’t speak for the arXiv, but here’s my understanding. It’s possible to do automated submission using SWORD. I don’t think this is intended for use by individuals (but rather journals, conferences, etc.), but if you wanted to do a batch upload of an enormous number of papers you could probably do it (although using SWORD would not be trivial). On the other hand, I don’t think this gets around the article announcements that bother Sam.

    • Mike Taylor Says:

      It’s polite of Sam to think about how others might react to the article announcements, but I’m not sure reading his comment that he would actually mind, for himself. I know you wouldn’t and I know I wouldn’t. Maybe no-one would, and we just don’t need to worry about it?

    • Mark C. Wilson Says:

      Whether this is true or not, it doesn’t explain why such people are not uploading their new papers as they come out. I still don’t have all old ones there, and was hoping to get some help with the tedious process of uploading them, but I certainly put the new ones there.

    • chorasimilarity Says:

      Well, Leonhard Euler put some of his articles on arxiv, I don’t think anybody complained about that.

  8. Wiki journals over arxiv « chorasimilarity Says:

    [...] Anniversary of the Cost of Knowledge movement at Gowers blog. [...]

  9. Saturday Morning Linkage » Duck of Minerva Says:

    [...] The status of the Elsevier boycott (via Jordan Ellenberg) [...]

  10. nad Says:

    In the cost of knowledge statement of purpose it is written that:

    “This is the widespread practice among large commercial publishers of “bundling” journals, which allows libraries to subscribe to large numbers of journals in order to avoid paying the exorbitant list prices for the ones they need. Although this means that the average price libraries pay per journal is less than the list prices might suggest, what really matters is the average price that they pay per journal (or page of journal) that they actually want, which is hard to assess, but clearly higher.”

    this had eventually been overread by Rick Anderson who claimed that the cost of knowledge boycott objections meant that it is “not possible” to buy individual subscriptions (at least thats how I understand this), citation:

    “They require libraries to buy journals in bundles, thus forcing them to buy unwanted content in order to get wanted content. This is simply not true.”

    The confusion here seems to be due to the question what “realistic option” means.
    In a comment there a concrete example was given (unfortunately without a number of journals). Maybe it is useful to collect more examples of this sort in order to illustrate what realistic options mean in the context of “bundling”.

  11. OMF Says:

    Keep it up! Cultures take a long time to change, but ideas and principles are very powerful.

  12. A. Klein Says:

    Aside from the expensive journals, I’d be interested to know what peoples’ experience with scientific books currently is.

    During the last year I added a number of books to my library, and at least five of them are “el cheapo” on-demand reprints. The two most expensive of them were also the biggest disappointments: “Random Matrices” by M. L. Mehta (Elsevier) came with several pages missing, “Principal Component Analysis” by I. T. Jolliffe (Springer) had considerably worse print in hardback than in paperback. Both sell for well over €100.

    I really wonder what justifies prices like that, given that quality seems to be going down the drain.

  13. Kernel Says:

    “we believe that the boycott has been a success and should be continued”

    This is a shockingly self-contradictory statement. If the boycott has been a success, why continue?

    My impression is that this boycott has been an unmitigated failure that has done great harm to the next generation of professional academics. Because of your actions, the next generation believes that it is reasonable to shirk the civic duty of peer review based only on vague accusations and impossible demands. Thanks a lot.

    • Mike Taylor Says:

      Let me fix that for you.

      Because of the actions of Tim and others, the next generation is no longer deluded into thinking that it’s somehow morally obliged to freely donates both its manuscripts and its professional services to unethical profiteering exploitative corporations.

      There, that’s better.

    • John Baez Says:

      There’s no civic duty to work for free for a large corporation whose monopolistic practices have helped drive my university library toward a state of ruin.

    • chorasimilarity Says:

      Re:Kernel, the only “failure” up to date is that the movement is not overwhelmingly big. But, as you write, the movement seems to have achieved the goal of exposing the immorality of some publishing practices, encouraged also by academic managers in the past.

    • Dorothy Bishop (@deevybee) Says:

      Signing up to Elsevier boycott is not shirking one’s duty. I signed up, and resigned from one Elsevier editorial board. I then kept a log of my reviewing. In 2012, I was asked to review 89 papers, of which 17 were from Elsevier journals. I agreed to review 23 papers, only one of which was Elsevier (-this slipped through the net, as I failed to realise the publisher until after I’d agreed to do it). One review a fortnight is quite enough to keep me busy and ‘doing my duty’ and I can manage this without doing unpaid work for Elsevier.

  14. Jon Says:

    I’ve just seen it announced in the latest issue of the Notices that there’s a plan by the AMS to launch two open-access journals in late 2014 (they chose the brand with an APC fee, but don’t say how much) as spinoffs of Proc AMS and Trans AMS, see http://www.ams.org/notices/201303/rnoti-p347.pdf

  15. Anonymous Says:

    Tim, have you seen the response from the White House to the petition?

  16. ☆ New models for academic publishing | Mostly physics Says:

    [...] journals. For the moment this activity seems to be concentrated on mathematicians, including Elsevier boycotter Timothy Gowers. Although open access advocate Steve Harnad has questioned the need to give this [...]

  17. ☆ New models for academic publishing | Mostly physics Says:

    [...] For the moment this activity seems to be concentrated on mathematicians, including Elsevier boycotter Timothy Gowers. Although open access advocate Steve Harnad has questioned the need to give this [...]

  18. Elsinor Says:

    “There has also been no improvement in transparency: it as hard as ever to know what libraries are paying for Big Deals.”

    For a UK university, such information should be available by a Freedom of Information request, which gives a right of access to all recorded information of the university with a few exceptions. Furthermore, if the university does not give the information, it has to specifically cite an exemption from the Freedom of Information Act.

    One method of submitting a Freedom of Information request is via the http://www.whatdotheyknow.com website.

  19. Open the Doors of Learning: The Case for Open Access Academic Publication Says:

    [...] One exciting aspect of the shift toward OA publication is the degree to which several established publications have embraced the concept. This is by no means universal, with some organised opposition to the concept, mainly on self-interested financial grounds. Beside the rapid establishment of OA journals like the Public Library of Science (PLoS), established, reputable publishers like Springer have started the inevitable shift, while others such as like Elsevier and JStor have demonstrated resistance to true OA principles. They have consequently come in for significant academic flak and even boycotts. [...]

  20. Gil Kalai Says:

    The new letter reads: “We acknowledge that there are differing opinions about what an ideal publishing system would be like. In particular, the issue of article processing charges is a divisive one: some mathematicians are strongly opposed to them, while others think that there is no realistic alternative.”

    In view of this statement I think it is very important that a clear voice will be made, by those who wrote the letter and by other mathematicians, against governments or grant agencies enforcing the model of open publishing with article processing charges.

    • Mike Taylor Says:

      That simply doesn’t follow. There and and always have been strong opinions both for and against certain things. Sometimes, one side is simply right and the other wrong. To pick an extreme example, there were plenty of Americans who strongly felt that the system of slavery should be retained (while others strongly felt the opposite). Now to be clear I am not saying that subscription fees are equivalent to slavery. But I am using that example to demonstrate that the mere existence of two strongly held and opposite opinions does not imply that the right answer is somewhere in the middle.

    • Henry Cohn Says:

      I don’t think it’s fruitful to work against article processing charges (APCs), which I see as one of the only viable ways to get funding for journals in the future. Instead, I’m in favor of working to make sure they don’t cause problems. For example, a crucial property is that acceptance and publication of an article should be absolutely independent of ability to pay, and a journal supported by APCs must ensure that it can subsidize any articles for which grants or institutions cannot pay. I do not think this will be difficult in the long run, since funding agencies and universities will generally prefer APCs to a subscription model (and for good reason: the APC model ensures wider access and makes costs better observable and thus easier to control), so money will be available in most cases. If we work against this system, we will be turning down the most promising source of funding; if we work with it, we can hold it to the highest ethical standards. Ultimately, I hope that before too many years we have a system like SCOAP^3 (http://scoap3.org/), where a consortium supplies APCs behind the scenes for all articles in a journal and authors are never even involved. The consortium will collect money from the libraries and funding agencies that make up its membership, and APCs will become just a bookkeeping device for dividing this funding among journals. We’re not there yet, but I believe we can and should work towards this.

    • Gil Kalai Says:

      Henry, I think we should work against the idea of governments and granting agencies enforcing the model of open access publishing. We can certainly discuss and experiment various models including the model of APC.

    • Mike Taylor Says:

      “I think we should work against the idea of governments and granting agencies enforcing the model of open access publishing.”

      Why?

      Who else should prescribe the dissemination model, but the people who pay for the work in the first place?

      If I hire you in a private capacity to write advertising copy for me, isn’t it my right to use that copy as I wish? Why would that be different if instead I am a funding body paying you to produce mathematics?

    • Henry Cohn Says:

      I’m in favor of reasonable open access mandates for funded research (I like the recently announced policy in the US, for example), but I can appreciate that there are tricky issues, especially in fields like mathematics with relatively modest grants. For example, even if you get a grant, it pays for only a fraction of your own research, and you may have coauthors who aren’t funded, so the “we paid for it” style of argument is pretty aggressive about leveraging partial funding to exert substantial control. That control is not necessarily bad if it is directed towards reasonable and worthwhile goals, and I personally feel that open access qualifies, but I’m not fond of some of the arguments.

    • Gil Kalai Says:

      Mike, there are three levels for discussion here. The first level is if the intention of the mathematicians who signed the initial letters a year ago against Elsevier, and the new letter here was to suppurt governments enforcing the model of article payment charges on scientists. As far as I understand this was not the intention. Tim, for example, wrote that he does not want to enforce anything on anybody but rather to try some new methods. I see no reason to think that the other signees support such enforcement and certainly not without a thorough discussion on its implications.

      The other levels are first if the government has the right to force the APC models on scientists, and second if such an enforcement is a good idea for promotion science, knowledge, and other values. These are complicated issues that deserve a carful examination. Let me just relate to a few things you wrote.

      “Who else should prescribe the dissemination model, but the people who pay for the work in the first place?”

      The input from scientists on what the preferred publishing model for promoting academic research (if any), is very crucial.

      “If I hire you in a private capacity to write advertising copy for me, isn’t it my right to use that copy as I wish? Why would that be different if instead I am a funding body paying you to produce mathematics?”

      We are supported by the governent, but we do not work for the government.

    • Mike Taylor Says:

      “We are supported by the governent, but we do not work for the government.”

      I would be interested to understand what you mean by that. Doesn’t who pays the piper call the tune?

    • Henry Cohn Says:

      There is some government pressure towards open access, but I don’t see this as a matter of pressure towards APCs specifically. The US policy treats all forms of open access evenhandedly, for example. The UK policy does seem to be written in a way that suggests APCs are a preferred mechanism, and it has a very short window for deposit in a public repository (six months, which I worry might be short enough to damage subscription journals in mathematics if widely adopted). However, even the UK policy is compatible with approaches other than APCs.

  21. Gil Kalai Says:

    Probably this was already mentioned but let me mention that the London Mathematical Society gives an open access option since 2009 see http://www.lms.ac.uk/openaccess (which is now required by something called RCUK),

    The processing charge per paper is 3050 dollars (1925 pounds).

  22. openaccessbelgium Says:

    Reblogged this on Open Access Belgium and commented:
    The Elsevier Boycott, one year later

  23. Crazy Scientist (@Wandedob) Says:

    Why hasn’t anyone mentioned parallel publishing? Whenever I publish a paper, I also upload my version to the university’s database, such that google can make an automatic link to the pdf if someone searches for the title. This is completely free.

  24. Christian Gutknecht Says:

    Elsevier one year later:

    “”Reed Elsevier enjoyed a bumper year in 2012, beating analysts’ expectations with adjusted net profit of £1.1bn. This was the best performance in the 20-year history of the combined Reed/Elsevier, with its London-listed share price recently hitting a historic high of almost 750p.”

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2013/mar/12/reed-elsevier-chief-engstrom-pay

  25. Jon Says:

    Just for information, a petition in favor of open access, together with an op-ed in Le monde newspaper by a group of academics, librarians and university presidents have just been announced (it looks to be aimed at french people only though, since no translation is available) see:

    http://iloveopenaccess.org/ and

    http://www.lemonde.fr/sciences/article/2013/03/15/qui-a-peur-de-l-open-acces_1848930_1650684.html

  26. Open Access Journals | Intro to Global Studies Says:

    [...] of the heat in the blogosphere has been directed at the academic publisher Elsevier, which has been the target of a boycott. While this boycott is valuable, I think that there is a simpler solution. We all need to start [...]

  27. marksapir Says:

    [...] about editorial business. Here is why I think Govers’s boycott of Elsevier is “ill-advised”. The real effect of the boycott is that when an editor of [...]

  28. The Govers’ boycott | marksapir Says:

    [...] about editorial business. Here is why I think Govers’s boycott of Elsevier is “ill-advised”. The real effect of the boycott is that when an editor of [...]

  29. What do math journals do? | Igor Pak's blog Says:

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  30. Bizarre wiki page on ISI (and comments about DORA and The Cost of Knowledge) | chorasimilarity Says:

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  31. Open Access @ Oxford | Nuffield College Library's blog Says:

    […] The Cost of Knowledge boycott – read the latest about this boycott of high-cost journals […]

  32. Free access to all Elsevier material for postdocs between jobs « Motivic stuff Says:

    […] before Aug 31st! Probably this is something they’re experimenting with partly in response to criticism and boycott, but regardless of your opinion on Elsevier and the boycott debate, access to “their” […]

  33. Billion Dollar Science | adamantic Says:

    […] ludicrous state of affairs. Some scientists (or in this case, mathematicians) have organised a boycott. Unfortunately this is unlikely to really achieve […]

  34. BoyCod Says:

    And now Elsevier also discriminates scientists from countries with political problems with the US:

    http://news.sciencemag.org/2013/05/scientific-journals-adapt-new-u.s.-trade-sanctions-iran

  35. The Glam is Dead! Long Live the Glam! | The Analog World Says:

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  36. CIU News Blog - Steal This Research Paper! (You Already Paid for It.) Says:

    […] and Darrell Issa (R-Calif.). Elsevier, the bill’s main supporter, backed off [31] after mathematicians boycotted the company [32] and Eisen publicized a bunch of interestingly timed donations [33] from company execs to […]

  37. Whose Fall is the Academic Spring? | Good Science Bad Science Says:

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  38. MOOCs in the media Says:

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  39. Bufere – Ocasapiens - Blog - Repubblica.it Says:

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  40. A festa “open” das publicações científicas | True Singularity Says:

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  41. To Open Access, then Beyond | biomolbioandco Says:

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