[ExI] Occupy Elsevier? A boycott of the publishing giant swells, but is the criticism warranted?

James Clement clementlawyer at gmail.com
Sun Feb 26 15:21:14 UTC 2012

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Nearly 4,500 researchers have signed an agreement to refrain from
publishing in, refereeing, and/or performing editorial services for
journals produced by the science-publishing behemoth Elsevier. But the
publisher of several well-respected life-science journals, including *Cell*
 and *The Lancet*, maintains that a misunderstanding of its intentions, and
not unfair business practices, are fueling the boycott.

The boycott was launched on January 21 when renowned Cambridge University
mathematicianTimothy Gowers <http://www.dpmms.cam.ac.uk/%7Ewtg10/> detailed
his criticisms of the company’s business practices on his blog *Gowers’s
Weblog <http://gowers.wordpress.com/>*. His reasons for the boycott
included what Gowers referred to as the “very high prices” Elsevier charges
for subscriptions to its journals, the practice of “bundling,” in which
academic libraries are sold package deals that include desirable as well as
less than desirable journal titles, and Elsevier’s support of the Research
Works Act<http://the-scientist.com/2012/02/2012/01/09/anti-open-access-rises-again/>,
a bill making its way through the US House of Representatives that seeks to
limit open access policies at federal agencies like the National Institutes
of Health.

“I also don’t see any argument at all against refusing to submit papers to
Elsevier journals,” Gowers
“So I am not only going to refuse to have anything to do with Elsevier
journals from now on, but I am saying so publicly. I am by no means the
first person to do this, but the more of us there are, the more socially
acceptable it becomes, and that is my main reason for writing this post.”

The blog post was tweeted, retweeted, linked in Facebook, and otherwise
spread like wildfire throughout the Internet. Within days, thousands of
Gowers’s fellow mathematicians and other academics had signed on to the
boycott at a site—http://thecostofknowledge.com/—set up by Tyler
co-founder of data analysis company Zillabyte, expressly for the purpose of
collecting names in support of the anti-Elsevier stance. As of this
writing, 4439 people had signed up, including more than 570 biologists.

Albert Einstein College of Medicine geneticist Brett
of the boycott when a friend posted a link to the cost of knowledge website
on Facebook last week. Later the same day he joined the boycott himself.
“When I signed on to the website there was something like 1500 names,”
Abrahams recalled.

Abrahams, who studies the genetic roots of autism, said that he joined the
boycott for what he considers the unsustainable nature of the
subscription-based publishing model for scientific research. “The notion
that the government pays my salary and my colleagues’ salaries and enables
us to do this very expensive research and then requires separate funding
for us to access our work,” he said, “That’s insane.”

Though he admits that he’s not intimately familiar with the way in which
Elsevier conducts business, Abrahams said that open-access publishing is a
fairer way to disseminate knowledge gained from publicly funded research.
“I know very very little about Elsevier and the specifics associated with
it,” he conceded. “The only problem I have with them is their resistance to
facing the reality of the changing environment. I don’t believe that we
should continue with this system rigged in the way it is now.”

Younger researchers also joined the Elsevier boycott. Aspiring soil
scientist and Virginia Tech grad studentNick
Bonzey<http://frec.vt.edu/GradStudents/NickBonzey.html> heard
about the boycott via a post on the popular blog
“It was a way to show my support to end monopolistic practices by big
companies like that,” he said. Bonsey added that unease with Elsevier’s
“bundling” practices bugged him the most. “Virginia Tech struggles from
keeping their libraries from sucking up too much money,” he said. “If I
didn’t have access to all the literature that was relevant in my field, I’d
have to pay $20-30 per article. I wouldn’t be able to do my work.”

Theoretical biology PhD student Joel Adamson <http://adamsonj.ninth.su/> signed
up for the boycott after reading about it on Twitter. He said that seeing
prominent scientists, such as renowned Masachusetts Institute of Technology
computer scientist Hal Ableson <http://groups.csail.mit.edu/mac/users/hal/>,
on the list influenced his decision to join. “Seeing the names of people
who had already signed up was the critical thing,” Adamson said. Like
Bonzey and Abrahams, the University of North Carolina grad student said
that the stark distinction between Elsevier’s publishing model and that of
open-access publishers was central to his support of the boycott. “I’m not
opposed to the basic idea of subscription-based journals,” Adamson said.
“Day by day I see people making a bigger commitment to open-access
publishing, and I don’t think [Elsevier] can stand up for very much longer
with their business model.”

Elsevier maintains that the criticisms are based more on a misunderstanding
of the company’s goals and strategies than a truly flawed or unethical
business model. David Clark, Elsevier’s senior vice president for physical
sciences, said that the boycott is still troubling to the company. “The
fact that anybody wants to say that they don’t want to work with us is
something that is going to cause us concern,” he said. “I wouldn’t
underestimate just how alert we are when people have this negative sort of

But Clark rebutted the criticism voiced in Glowers’s blog post, starting
with the claim that Elsevier’s subscription prices are too high. “Our list
prices, on a price per article basis, are absolutely on the industry
average,” he claimed. “This image of these journals becoming more and more
expensive and less and less accessible simple isn’t true.”

Clark also refuted the notion that Elsevier was forcing institutional
libraries to buy bundles of journal titles and ruthlessly negotiating those
deals. “If you look at what libraries choose to do, they do choose to take
some of these packages,” he said. “We’re not in the business of forcing
people to take journals.” Clark added that libraries have the option of
purchasing each of Elsevier’s publications individually if they don’t want
to buy bundled packages.

Clark defended the company’s decision to support the Research Works Act
through its membership in the Association of American Publishers, a trade
group that is lobbying for passage of the legislation. “We want to have a
voluntary relationship, and we want to encourage authors to get their work
out and disseminated,” he said. “We’re not wild about government mandates,”
such as the NIH’s mandate that any research supported with public funds be
submitted to the publically accessible digital archive PubMed Central upon
acceptance for publication in journals. “But I don’t think any other
publisher is wild about that either.”

Elsevier posted a
Clark’s stance on the Research Works Act (RWA) this past weekend. “We are
against unwarranted and potentially harmful government laws that could
undermine the sustainability of the peer-review publishing system,” the
statement reads. “The RWA’s purpose is simply to ensure that the US
government cannot enshrine in law how journal articles or accepted
manuscripts are disseminated without involving publishers. We oppose in
principle the notion that governments should be able to dictate the terms
by which products of private sector investments are distributed, especially
if they are to be distributed for free.”

The boycott, Clark added, largely boils down to academic authors failing to
understand how the business side of Elsevier works. “I think people are
misunderstanding, but I think part of the fault in that is ours,” he said.
“I look at the current situation, and we just need to do a better job of
communicating about who we are, what we want to achieve, and how we value
access and dissemination.”

But academics who’ve signed on to the boycott are thinking about their
futures in a future without Elsevier journals. “It’s really frustrating
because it’s so much extra work now to figure out alternatively where to
submit my papers,” Abrahams said. The Albert Einstein College of Medicine
geneticist noted that he’d have to balance his own stance on Elsevier with
the good of his students and collaborators. He admitted that if he’s in a
collaborative situation in which the decision of where to publish findings
is not his to make, he’ll likely voice his opinion but ultimately yield to
the consensus, even if that means publishing in an Elsevier title. “At that
point, that’s going to be a very hard decision for me,” Abrahams said.
“Then, I don’t think it’s in my students, or my institution’s interest to
walk away.”

*Correction (Feb 13, 2012): The original version of this article
incorrectly identified Tyler Neylon as a grad student at NYU. In truth,
Neylon secured his PhD and has moved on to bigger and better things. The
mistake has been fixed, and *
The Scientist* regrets the error.*

James Clement
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