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.