Elsevier withdraws support for the Research Works Act

This deserves a post to itself, despite my intention to reclaim this blog for its core purpose. I don’t have a considered reaction to this news, so I won’t write a detailed response. The one thing I’ll say is that it does appear to be a fairly direct result of the boycott. (Edit: Alicia Wise, Elsevier’s “director of universal access” denies this.)

Elsevier’s (slightly grudging) announcement is here.

Edit. Elsevier announce further concessions here in a letter to the mathematics community.

21 Responses to “Elsevier withdraws support for the Research Works Act”

  1. Ch. Williamson Says:

    Several readers have noted that Elsevier has not been forthcoming about its financial arrangements. Its close rival, Springer Publishers, had a bit more disclosure about its profitability when it was sold in 2009. Now owned by 2-EQT, a Swedish private equity firm and a sovereign wealth fund within Singapore, this disclosure not only names profitability but mentions the same players as those directly participating in the ongoing euro crisis. Scientific publishing hews to the same principles as any other private equity business model.

    “LONDON, Dec 9 [2009] (Reuters) – Swedish private equity firm EQT is set to scoop up Springer Science and Business Media this week in a bargain buy, showing the contrasting fortunes of buyout houses as stronger firms profit from their weaker rivals.

    The deal will value Springer’s [SPSBM.UL] equity at around 100 million to 150 million euros ($147.5 million-$221.3 million), two sources said, giving the business an enterprise value of less than 2.4 billion euros.

    The sum is below the 400 million euro equity value mooted as a price when publisher Informa Plc (INF.L) was still in the race [ID: nGEE5AN0BD], and also far below the 500 million euros sellers Candover (CDI.L) and Cinven [CINV.UL] initially sought for just a minority stake.

    EQT was advised by Deutsche Bank (DBKGn.DE), while Goldman Sachs (GS.N) and UBS (UBSN.VX) are advising Candover and Cinven. All three private equity firms and their banks declined to comment….”

    • plm Says:

      Thank you very much.

      I think the situation may be tense with any publisher attempting to make interesting profits from the mathematical community. As Pierre Colmez and others said, the most realistic situation would be academic and mathematical societies publishing (AMS, EMS, Cambridge, Oxford, SMF…).

      I don’t see how Elsevier’s stance could be anything but trying to push back the unraveling of their scientific publishing business starting from the mathematics branch. That is, even if mathematicians forgave them their debt to the community, I do not see how Elsevier would be interested in making AMS, EMS, not to mention SMF-level profits (which is no profit in the SMF case), so they try to extract a few years more profit (so long as mathematicians editors work for them), not really considering to propose something acceptable to the community.

      For this strategy, hiding information is key, making mathematicians believe they are fair.

  2. crlab Says:

    This is great news.

    For US citizens who want to contact their legislators in opposition of the RWA and in support of the Alliance for Taxpayer Access, the has a web page to simplify communication:

  3. Elizabeth Says:

    I note Topology isn’t one of the journals whose archive is going to be open after 4 years. How much do libraries end up paying for digital access to the back issues, does anyone know?

  4. outofthenormmaths Says:

    It’s worth stating that the boycott is continuing:
    has been updated with RWA crossed out, but at least two other points still stand.

    Is there a clear end-game for how Elsevier could address points (1) & (2)? Explicit goals combined with obstinacy can have excellent effects, and it could perhaps help recruit and keep people, now that Elsevier has (at least) offered to reduce the distance between reality and everyone’s ideal situation.


  5. Alexandre Eremenko Says:

    On my opinion, one thing is missing in the statement of the
    boycott: the conditions on which this boycott can be terminated.
    These conditions should be discussed,
    To begin with, I propose the following two:

    1. Elsevier gives free access to all mathematical papers older that
    5 years. Five years since the time of publication.


    2. Eslevier donates 3 million dollars to the arXiv as an endowment.
    If it meets any of these conditions, I am ready to renew my cooperation with Elsevier.

    Alex Eremenko, Purdue University.

    • Mike Taylor Says:

      I don’t think the boycott site can or should try to impose a uniform condition on signers returning to the Elsevier fold. I can tell you that for myself, only radical change will bring me back to contributing back to a parasitic organisation (and note that I am here using “parasitic” as a purely descriptive term, not an insult). I want to see Elsevier backing the FRPAA. Then I’d be able to believe there had been a real change.

    • Colin Says:

      This is something that would need to discussed at some level and at some stage. My hope is similar to Mike Taylor’s. I think if this opportunity is missed by scientists to collectively create something better for scientists, they would be worst off in the long run than where they are today. I think the fable of the scorpion and the frog really is important to remember here.

      Also, what about a reduction in prices for journals in other fields? There are to date over 1000 “signatures” in Biology, 800 in Comp Sci, and 600 in both Physics & Social Science. Some unity needs to be kept in the costs. Maybe I missed the link stating its a cost reduction throughout.

      Lastly, Alexandre’s first proposal coupled with a clause allowing authors to submit post-refereed papers to the arXiv or on author’s website or university repositories practically removes all profit for Elsevier in 5 years.

    • Henry Cohn Says:

      Alex, pricing and authors’ rights are also crucial issues. I believe Elsevier will end up making much bigger changes than you are asking for here, and it would be unwise to set conditions too soon. (Incidentally, three million dollars would be nothing if it let them continue with their current prices. It’s hard to give a meaningful value to their ability to overcharge for mathematics journals, but the present value of such a revenue stream would be at least in the hundreds of millions of dollars.)

      Colin, the AMS makes back issues available for free and allows authors to do these things, but still makes a substantial profit that supports other AMS activities, so the same should be possible for Elsevier. As for price reductions in other fields, I agree that this is a major issue. Elsevier’s strategy is presumably to try to satisfy mathematicians before the boycott spreads too far into other communities, but I hope people in other fields will see what is happening here and demand similar concessions for their fields.

  6. CH. Williamson Says:

    Thsi blog has framed the scientific publishing industry vs. scientist-authors so well that it deserves two more action steps:

    1) Call for full disclosure of the financial machinery at work at Elsevier, Springer and their close mega-competitors. This calls for more than how these ill-gotten gains are linked to buying political favor at the expense of voters and taxpayers. When scientific authors publish, we sink the value of the individual no matter who or what the scientific findings might benefit.

    2) Commission an easy-to-read book such as “The Big Short” on making the financial pipeline. This would require contacting financial authors and public intellectuals worldwide as a plea for some sunshine and transparency. Scientific authors, largely government funded, need cleaner business models, socially acceptable pipelines stsrting with education to knowledge-making to societal value. Social changes to scientific publishing are long past due.

  7. william e emba Says:

    As a further sign that Springer has also lost it, Springer has decided to join Elsevier in the completely fake science/mathematics publication game. See this discussion in The Panda’s Thumb blog for information about their forthcoming fake proceedings of a fake conference.

    As the PT article notes, their timing of this travesty seems to be doubly rotten in light of all the negative publicity Elsevier is generating.

  8. This Means War | OU Math Club Says:

    […] Tim Gowers, Scott Morrison, and others remain unconvinced. Considering Elsevier was a big supporter of the Research Works Act, we don’t blame them. […]

  9. Dave Applebaum Says:

    I think that the letter to the mathematical community from Elsevier deserves a considered response. I signed up to the boycott last week and it seems to me that if Elsevier are already making some concessions, then the “leaders of/spokespeople for” the boycott should be negotiating with them to get the best possible deal for the community.

  10. Peter Murray-Rust Says:

    I signed the boycott and will continue to stand by that. I think it’s inconceivable that Elsevier could do anything within the next five years that would convince me to remove my name. I have personally been treated extremely badly by Elsevier – http://blogs.ch.cam.ac.uk/pmr/2011/11/27/textmining-my-years-negotiating-with-elsevier/ and their whole unconstructive attitude to text-mining, indexing, re-use of materials etc. is most unlikely to change. [BTW if anyone starts a petition of Springer, Wiley, Nature, etc. I’d sign that].
    The real point is that Elsevier has a hidden agenda – to build a walled garden which controls the activities of scholars. Scopus and Sciverse act as devices to lock people into a single controllable point of access and control. They have consistently denied me my rights and I am through with their excuses and prevarication. I shall lay down what I consider to be my rights and ask Elsevier to agree or fail-to-agree – this is not a negotation. If they asserts that I have the rights I think that I have then I will have won a battle (not the whole war) for the whole community. I am not prejudging their repsonse. If you wish to follow it, visit http://wwmm.ch.cam.ac.uk over the next two weeks and our report to the UK’s Hargreaves report.
    Publishers state that they are “extremely helpful” to anyone wanting to re-use information (e.g. text-mining). My experience is diametrically opposed – and I’d welcome other experiences.

  11. Leo Waaijers Says:

    In their letter to the mathematics community Elsevier announces the withdrawal of their public support to the Research Works Act thus adressing the third reason for 8000 authors, reviewers and editors to stop their support for any Elsevier journal. This move of Elsevier has gained wide publicity.

    But Elsevier also adresses the first reason of the boycot, their exorbitant pricing, by announcing that their core mathematical journals will priced at US$ 11.00 per article by next year. They claim that this will make them cheaper than a number of their competitors, including commercial ones. This message has been overlooked by the media as far as I am aware.

    Yet, I think it is an important step worth some attention as it will enable, for the first time, an accurate price comparison between Elsevier’s prices and the article processing charges of open access publishers. Let me give an example. If an Elsevier journal has 300 subscriptions and its subscription price is based on US$ 11.00 per article, Elsevier will receive US$ 3300 plus the revenues of the sales of single copies @ US$ 30 each. If they sell 10 copies their total revenue for that article is US$ 3600. This is way beyond the open access prices which are US$ 3000 max per article but normally range between US$ 1500 and US$ 2500 and are often lower. So, in this case Elsevier’s claim of being competitive is bluff.

    The problem is that we do not know the subscription numbers per journal. Elsevier has always been very secretive about that. But now we have internet we can help ourselves. So, my suggestion is that someone – a library for example – places a list of, say, ten core mathematical journals of Elsevier on a web site linked to the boycot web site together with a call to libraries to tick the journals that they subscribe to. In a month time we then can make a reliable guess of the total subscription numbers of those journals and complete the price comparison. My personal surmise is that, for mathematical journals, the subscription numbers are substantially higher than 300. It would make Elsevier’s claim their next blunder.

  12. Links 11 Mar « Pink Iguana Says:

    […] Gowers, Elsevier pricing protest updates, start here. […]

  13. Ravindra Says:

    Professor Gowers,
    I wanted to bring your attention to the following article in the Guardian.


    I think this bodes well for the Boycott Elsevier campaign.

  14. Gordon Lawrie Says:

    Can you help me here? I’m a life member of Edinburgh University Library, having attended decades ago. I’m not an academic, although I have occasionally been asked to contribute to non-scientific academic journals, including some published by the University itself. Does that make me a paracademic?

    My library membership won’t allow me to access most of the online journals; that’s only available for staff and matriculated students, I’m told because of the cost. As the library goes over to eJournals, I’m being slowly frozen out. Recently I was in the bizarre situation where I was asked to write for an Edinburgh University journal but its own library wouldn’t let me research it. Instead I had to use a friend’s account to fetch all I needed.

    Despite a number of complaints over the years, no-one seems to care much. Is this connected with the stuff that’s in today’s Guardian?

  15. M K Mukherjee Says:

    U Hve hit the root of the problem. QMUL is very generous to allow me to use the library facilities.
    If they withdraw the facility I’ll not be able to access the journal I need for my research. I believe there are lots of people in my position.

  16. Paul Matthews Says:

    Regarding Elsevier journals and their scientific quality, people may be interested in this.

  17. fake military id Says:

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    Elsevier withdraws support for the Research Works Act | Gowers's Weblog

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