Elsevier journals: has anything changed?

Greg Martin, a number theorist at UBC (the University of British Columbia in Vancouver) doesn’t think so, so he has decided to resign from the editorial board of Elsevier’s Journal of Number Theory. His resignation letter makes interesting reading: I reproduce it here with his permission.

Dear colleagues,

I am writing to inform you of my resignation from the editorial board of the Journal of Number Theory, effective immediately. I will also be adding my name publicly to the list of people who refrain from volunteering for, or submitting manscripts to, Elsevier journals.

It has been a little over a year since the boycott against Elsevier went public. The petition at
has been signed by thousands of mathematicians (indeed, over 13,000 researchers in total). There was a flurry of communication back and forth between Elsevier and our editorial board (and those of other journals, I’m sure). But now the dust has settled, and I must conclude that essentially nothing has changed.

Financial hardships remain in place for our libraries and institutions (even more so, as budgets tighten these days), despite all the good reasons that access to our own research should be becoming less expensive, not more. I’m sure you all know these points well; a lucid summary appears at:

Click to access elsevierstatementfinal.pdf

It is disappointing to read that statement’s “What next?” section, which proposes several levels of possible improvement to the status quo, and realize that not a single one of them is gaining significant ground.

As far as I can tell, Elsevier’s responses to our concerns ended up being limited to a slight easing off of support for legislation limiting access to our research, together with a nominal reduction in individual journal prices. Regarding the latter, however, Elsevier’s “bundling” practice remains in place, making individual journals’ prices essentially irrelevant. Their (aggressively defended) lack of pricing transparency from one institution to another also speaks volumes, in my mind, to the limits of their desire to seriously address our pricing concerns.

More recently, we were told of Elsevier’s new policy that editors would receive $60 for every article they process for the Journal of Number Theory. To me, this policy demonstrates a true inability (or unwillingness) to understand the key part of our observation that “all the work is done for free by volunteers, but access to that work is exorbitantly expensive”. We want access to be less expensive; we’re not looking for extra dough in our pockets. The most generous interpretation of this new policy’s effect is that it continues to take money away from the research community at large, but now puts some of it in the personal pockets of a small subset of mathematicians who don’t need it. (My personal reaction, to be honest, was to view this as too close to bribery not to be somewhat insulting.) But this policy uncontroversially shows, at least, the extent of Elsevier’s robust profits on its research journals.

It might well be that a commercial company such as Elsevier is simply unable to adapt to a publication model more appropriate to our 21st-century ability to easily format, store, and transmit research around the globe. This is why my resignation does not contain any condemnation of the people who work for Elsevier. But I do not wish to continue supporting a system, however entrenched, that forces our institutions to make a choice between giving up increasingly expensive research resources and throwing more and more of their educational budget into the closed coffers of commercial publishers.

Of course, any issue as complicated as this one admits a wide range of reasonable opinions and strategies, and I respect the judgment and good intentions of everyone receiving this email. However, if any of you continue to be troubled by this situation, I submit that now is as good a time as any to join me in resigning from JNT.

Sincerely yours,

Greg Martin
Professor, Department of Mathematics
University of British Columbia

53 Responses to “Elsevier journals: has anything changed?”

  1. David Roberts Says:

    Does this mean that I can submit scores of crank papers (or, if you like, papers that do not prove anything interesting/new) under a pseudonym to an editor, with whom I have an agreement to split the proceeds? Are they going to roll this system out to other journals? Sounds like the sort of system that led to Chaos, Solitons and Fractals having a massive impact factor to me.

  2. Louis Lapidaire Says:

    Dear friends,

    At united academics we are trying to establish sound, peer reviewed, journals. And all in open access, meaning…
    Please get in touch with me personally to discuss the start of the ubited academics journal of mathematics. Written by all, reviewed by all and available for all!
    You can mail me at : louis.lapidaire@united-academics.org

    Warm greetings,

    Louis Lapidaire, founder

  3. As the dust settles … nothing has changed at Elsevier | Quantum Moxie Says:

    […] else, for that matter. Greg Martin, mathematician at the University of British Columbia, wrote this eloquent letter (reprinted with permission on Timothy Gowers’ blog) describing why he resigned as a member of […]

  4. Scott Morrison Says:

    Another JNT editor has promised a fancy dinner in Chicago for each ten papers that you submit to him. Let’s get to work!

  5. Mark C. Wilson Says:

    Is this kind of secret payment (apparently it has been going on for some time and I certainly didn’t know about it) now standard practice? Does anyone have first hand knowledge of other Elsevier journals? other commercial journals? Surely it is completely unethical behaviour to accept such payments.

  6. chorasimilarity Says:

    The publishers play us by using our vanity. It’s a business, if we like it and we ask for more, they are OK, as long as we provide them (not especially Elsevier) with something to put in their journals, more well-known names and/or more famous universities, the better it is, because the vast majority of researchers, which are neither well known, nor working in famous universities, will do anything to publish in the same place as big guy X, or in a journal associated to big place Y.

    Better support DORA, this goes to the roots of the phenomenon.

    • OMF Says:

      I’ve recently tried to publish a mathematical physics paper in astrophysics. Three of the four astrophysics journals have page charges of $100 per page, and due to an unfavourable review, I’ve blown my chance to get published with the free one. There are other journals, but few without page charges and which publish on the topic of the paper.

      It’s not a question of vanity for me. It’s a question of not being able to spend €4000 on getting one paper published. This is before I even submit, let alone anyone else tries to read it.

      This isn’t a business. It’s a gang of rent seekers, living out of academics. There is no reasoning with such people. You just have to move on and start afresh.

    • gowers Says:

      Are you saying that you don’t have access to institutional funds for the page charges, and that the journals don’t have a waiver for people in that position?

    • chorasimilarity Says:

      @gowers What is an author buying from a Gold OA publisher?

    • gowers Says:

      I don’t know whether that is supposed to be a link, but it doesn’t work if so.

      Different people have different answers to your question. I think you buy roughly what your library buys from a subscription journal: slightly higher production values than the arXiv and whatever reputation the journal can confer on your paper. I don’t see Gold OA as a good answer for more than a small fraction of mathematical publishing, since for the vast majority of papers I don’t see any good argument for high-end production values, given what it costs. That’s why I am hoping that arXiv overlay journals, selected papers networks and the like will start to play a big role in the next year or two.

    • chorasimilarity Says:

      Thanks for the answer. It’s not a rhetorical question, I think that, beside reputation, the only thing which is offered by the publisher and the author does not have is a chance of peer-review. That is a link, probably I misses some ” so I put it again: here. Now I cross my fingers and hit

  7. Elsevier one year on: “essentially nothing has changed” | The Aperiodical Says:

    […] Read the letter: Elsevier journals: has anything changed? […]

  8. chepec Says:

    Can anyone else confirm that Elsevier offers or offered money to editors in exchange for processed articles? Perhaps a link to an Elsevier policy document or similar?
    This practice would go against the core idea of academic publishing practice.

  9. Springer Editor Says:

    I don’t quite understand the complaint that such behavior (paying editors) is “unethical.” Editors get paid whether the paper is accepted or not, so there’s no incentive to accept substandard submissions.

  10. Springer Editor Says:

    BTW, the Elsevier payment does not apply to “crank” papers, which are dealt with by the managing editor.

  11. Elsevier and Winston Churchill | Gavia Libraria Says:

    […] Timothy Gowers has posted a colleague’s editorial-board resignation indicating that Elsevier has tried a new placation tactic in its public-relations war with Gowers […]

  12. David Roberts Says:

    @Springer Editor – are you also an Elsevier Editor?

    Note that not all editors get paid, and I would imagine if they are, it’s not at professional rates to the amount of work they do. And surely if I or someone else submits a joke paper to any editor, they have to do *something* with it, if only pass it on. What about a paper that is not obviously a crank paper, but which is unsuitable for publishing for more subtle reasons (turns out it was scraped from some little-known paper, or was submitted to several journals etc). The system is easily gamed, and this is what is shonky. If Elsevier are going to do this *just* for JNT, or *just* for mathematicians, then the whole thing is merely a carrot (I’m trying to think of another metaphor with sinister overtones, but can’t) for editors to not leave JNT/maths journals generally. But if they are going to be egalitarian, and do this for all journals, then I foresee problems. Imagine if Chaos, Solitons and Fractals (supposedly a mathematics/mathematical physics journal) had been run with this system? A certain EiC would have been lining his pockets.

  13. Scott Morrison Says:

    The $60 payment is specific to the JNT, and was offered by Elsevier sometime last year in response to mutinous complaints from parts of the editorial board.

    If the Elsevier submission process weren’t so cumbersome, I’d recommend to everyone that they submit all their non-number theory papers to JNT first, perhaps with a note acknowledging that the the article is wildly out of scope for the journal, and hoping for a quick response.

    It seems like a win-win. Either Elsevier gives some extra money back to number theorists, or they terminate this policy and have to come up with something else. In the meantime, editors either enjoy the extra spending money, or decide that it’s a ridiculous situation and do something about it, as they prefer.

  14. John Says:

    I don’t understand what is unethical about paying people for their work. Even if it was to keep the editors from quitting, so what? If your boss gives you a raise to keep you from quitting, that’s a good thing.

    • BB Says:

      Elsevier is not my boss. It is better to think of Elsevier as a toll road, where they collect fees so that I can communicate with my peers. Without mathematicians (and academics, more generally) providing their services for free, Elsevier wouldn’t have a road for which to charge tolls.

    • OMF Says:

      Nobody in the journals get paid apart from the Elsevier administrative and especially management staff. A wholly unnessesary body of people in an age where everyone self-publishes their papers on the arXiv anyway.

      The journals are like the ice-harvesting industry after the introduction of refridgeration — except in this case no-one is willing to turn on their fridges even as the price of ice has increased ten-fold.

  15. Mark C. Wilson Says:

    You are paid for your work by your university (almost always). You have a position of high status and influence. Now you want money for that too? If the editor want to set up a paper improvement/peer review /rating board that is dissociated from the journal, paying them makes sense. We can then eliminate journals and use arXiv. But while they get to make decisions that directly affect the careers of the authors, payment is clearly a bad idea. By the way, good referees often work much harder than editors. They are not being paid.

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

    […] Assessment (DORA) .  Timothy Gowers, the initiator of The Cost of Knowledge movement, asks “Elsevier journals: has anything changed?” and […]

  17. BB Says:

    What I find particularly galling is the remuneration offered for each paper handled. Presumably mathematicians undertake their editorial activities for the larger interests of their field and profession, and think of their services as a contribution to the public good. I don’t have a problem if someone wants to pay them for that. But if you are going to make it about the money, surely $60 is way too cheap. If the price was, say $50,000 for each paper handled, I’m sure the board would have stayed. (More generally, there is some price at which they would have stayed.)

    So I think the objection to Elsevier is two-fold. (1) Offering payments for services rendered out of goodwill, and (2) paying an insultingly low amount for those services.

  18. Your library $$ at work: Elsevier offering $60 to editors for each paper they process | Piece of Mind Says:

    […] later. For now, I am reproducing  below Greg’s resignation letter, with his permission. See also Tim Gowers’ blog and the related […]

  19. openaccessbelgium Says:

    Reblogged this on Open Access Belgium and commented:
    Did Elsevier policy change at all since the boycott?

  20. OMF Says:

    I cannot understand why academic don’t simply produce and print journals themselves now. Writers write and format papers themselves, reviewer review, editors edit, all for free. It costs a pittance to print a few paper copies for whoever wants them, so surely money for the purpose could be bummed off a university grant somewhere.

    If you’re willing to put with with a (mild) increase in typos and spelling mistakes, we can all have proper, physical, academic run journals tomorrow morning.

  21. Ghaith Says:

    Andrew Odlyzko has an interesting take on the open access and the competition between libraries and publishers http://www.dtc.umn.edu/~odlyzko/doc/libpubcomp.pdf

  22. Benoît Régent-Kloeckner Says:

    @OMF: unfortunately, things are more complicted than that. Who will be sending papers to MSC and Zentrallblatt so that they are indexed? Who will keep up with the angry mails of authors whose review are overdue, the reviewers that have been contacted but did not response? The framework around peer-review is something to do, and not something negligible. Letting editors deal with it is not a good allocation of ressources, even if several not-too-big journals do a great job without much ressources.

    • chorasimilarity Says:

      For one thing, why is the indexing in MSC and Zentrallblatt still interesting? Otherwise, as probably many others, I arrived to the conclusion that, even if it is technically possible to do what OMF suggests, and moreover sure to happen in the future, we are to be blamed for this inertia. Publishers just take advantage of this. A very good recent article on this is Mark Johnston’s We have met the enemy and it is us.

  23. Anonymous Says:

    I am still confused as to the reason for the boycott in the first place. If everybody submitted their articles to the arxiv, there would be no problem would there? I always submit my papers to the arxiv. Then I submit to Elsevier. If the library stops buying Elsevier because it’s too expensive, that wouldn’t be a problem for me or anybody reading my papers…

    • gowers Says:

      Because of bundling, that won’t work unless everyone else does it, not just in mathematics but in the other sciences as well. And if that happened to the point where libraries stopped subscribing, my guess is that Elsevier would change its policies about letting people put papers on the arXiv.

      Having said that, it is clearly the case that the more it becomes standard practice to put papers on the arXiv, the better.

  24. Colin Says:

    From the resignation letter “Regarding the latter, however, Elsevier’s “bundling” practice remains in place, making individual journals’ prices essentially irrelevant. Their (aggressively defended) lack of pricing transparency from one institution to another also speaks volumes, in my mind, to the limits of their desire to seriously address our pricing concerns.”

    I thought ARL were making slow but steady progress there http://www.econ.ucsb.edu/~tedb/Journals/BundleContracts.html.
    Are there UK and European counterparts to ARL and if so are the laws there suited for Publishers victory?

  25. Igor Belegradek Says:

    I have been supporting Elsevier boycott (by refusing to referee and publish with them) until I found out that they now give free access to any paper older than 4 years (for math journals), available at http://www.elsevier.com/about/open-access/open-archives. In most cases the access goes back to each journal beginning. As long as this policy continues I feel this is a good deal and have no quarrel with Elsevier. As far as development of the mathematics goes, four years is nothing and together with arXiv and personal communications, it should cover pretty much every paper out there.
    So yes, things have changed.

    • gowers Says:

      My view is that there are two related but importantly distinct problems. One is the problem of access to the literature, which Elsevier’s move certainly alleviates to a considerable extent for mathematicians, especially given that a reasonable proportion of mathematics papers are now routinely put on the arXiv. The other is the problem of universities paying far too much for the service that Elsevier provides. That is not helped by this move, because the archives are not open for journals in other subjects. That means that Elsevier can continue to get away with its bundling policy: the fact that mathematicians can largely manage without Elsevier subscriptions doesn’t mean that libraries can save money by cancelling those subscriptions, because maths journals are bundled together with all the other journals. The one exception to this is maths institutes, which do not need to subscribe to journals in other subjects.

  26. Igor Belegradek Says:

    The question then becomes: why focus on Elsevier? Is their bundling business model so much more evil than the one of a cheaper journal
    (like Annals or Duke) that offers no free access to back issues. Someone with no JSTOR/ProjectEuclid subcriptions would probably prefer Elsevier. I am fortunate to have good library access and still I hesitate to pick one model over the other. What Elsevier was doing before was definitely abusive. Now I am not so sure. And incidentally, I am very pessimistic about “open access” in the US; mathematiciants have very little grant money to spare.

  27. Debating Open Access | viXra log Says:

    […] their own research through their libraries. Just look up articles on the subject by John Baez or Timothy Gowers to see how true this is (the linked posts are just the most recent of many and I mostly agree with […]

  28. QuestionMan Says:

    How about Springer Journals? Atleast I can find older than 2 year old results for free in Elvesier.

  29. Anonymous Says:

    Here’s a very pertinent case in point. The Springer journal K-theory stopped appearing in 2008 (apparently following a dispute with the editorial board). Back issues of the journal continued to be accessible via Springer online, until a few months ago, when they were suddenly made unavailable.
    Past issues are accessible via the online archive portico.org, however it requires subscription of its own, and unlike JSTOR covers far fewer titles (and is not subscribed to by my university).

    This makes Springer much worse than Elsevier in my book.

  30. sashakolpakov Says:

    Probing into open-access journals or how they framed us
    Here (http://phys.org/news/2013-10-paper-publishing-reveals-lax-standards.html), I’m pissed at the conclusion: “Bohannon doesn’t offer any real analysis of his sting operation, preferring apparently to let the results stand on their own with the clear implication that because of unscrupulous operators, open-source publishing is seriously flawed and in many cases should not be taken seriously by those wishing to publish research papers.”
    This is actually a perfect examples of totally flawed logic. Why not to make an obvious consequence: do not publish in rubbish journals, open-access or not. I’m quite sure there are non-open-access journals which would accept any bogus paper just since they charge you for getting it published. At least, they actually existed before. I’m quite sure that the level of the journal and its ability to engage people for refereeing people does not depend on being open-access or not, as stated in the article below (and this statement is just deliberately false). It’s a pity that the open-access movement has been used as an advert and a cover for a new wave of low-standard journals, basically accepting any manuscript upon the receipt of necessary payment.

    • gowers Says:

      I recommend the following post by Michael Eisen, which makes a similar point — and not just about rubbish journals: http://www.michaeleisen.org/blog/?p=1439

    • sashakolpakov Says:

      Thank you for this reference! Above, I actually meant that the author’s conclusion was something I did not like: they say that “open-access” generally means “poor peer-review standards”, which is not at all true, neither it has been justified by their “sting operation”.

    • gowers Says:

      That was how I took what you wrote. I think there is one valid argument here, which is that an open-access journal with article processing charges has an incentive to publish as much as possible, which is also an incentive to drive down standards. However, that argument would have more force if subscription journals operated in a genuinely free market, where libraries just wouldn’t subscribe to low-quality journals. But because of the market distortions that result from bundling, this isn’t the case, and plenty of libraries subscribe to plenty of low-quality journals because they can’t subscribe just to the good ones (except at even more outrageous prices).

  31. Anonymous Says:

    I had a dream last night where I could not access a class syllabus for a graduate math course because the professor had published the syllabus in the “Journal of Class Syllabi.” Unfortunately, the “Journal of Class Syllabi” is bundled with a number of expensive Humanities journals, so my school, being largely an engineering school, did not see fit to purchase access to the “Journal of Class Syllabi.” Accordingly, I had to ask for a scanned copy of my class syllabus from a library at a neighboring liberal arts institution that does not have a math department. I then woke up, but hopefully my dream self knows the time and date of his final exam now.

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  34. Anonymous Says:


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