Understanding the Elsevier Boycott

Hello Dear Readers,

Can someone help me quickly get up to speed on the Elsevier boycott? I’ve had a read through thecostofknowledge.com and even skimmed through Tim Gower’s statement of purpose. What I’m missing is what are the demands of this boycott? I’m delighted to have an excuse to refuse a request for refereeing, but how can my boycott be genuine about this if Elsevier has no way to make things right?


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8 responses to “Understanding the Elsevier Boycott

  1. There are no formal demands, since it would be next to impossible to formulate them clearly and appropriately. For example, it’s not clear how to set conditions for how Elsevier could show that they have fixed their ethical or peer review problems, and the boycotters can’t micromanage Elsevier’s prices (especially given how non-transparent bundling makes everything). Most of the obvious demands one could make are either woefully insufficient or really implausible. Figuring out the right approach is something the community will have to do with Elsevier, rather than dictate in advance. It should also be a matter of really fixing things at a fundamental level, rather than just improving barely enough to shift into the “offensive, but not quite boycott-worthy” category.

    I hope Elsevier does address the issues behind the boycott and manages to regain the trust of the community. I believe this should involve making big changes, finding ways to make binding commitments rather than relying on trust, and demonstrating dramatic progress over time. Ultimately, it’s up to them to figure out how to redeem themselves.

    By the way, you might also be interested in an article Doug Arnold and I wrote about the boycott (http://arxiv.org/abs/1204.1351). It lays out the case for the boycott as clearly as we could.

  2. Thanks, Henry. It seems to me that you do lay out some demands in your article, although I recognize the challenge of articulating them precisely, not to mention getting the thousands of boycott participants to agree to them.

    If this movement makes big, big changes in the way scientific publishing is done, don’t forget about me and my health science buddies. The stakes are high my new field.

  3. David Ketcheson

    I think many boycotters, like myself, don’t really expect Elsevier to change. I agree with this article: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/crux/2012/02/21/its-not-academic-how-publishers-are-squelching-science-communication/

    which says about the boycott

    “It’s sometimes been described as a petition, but isn’t trying to persuade Elsevier to do something. It’s a declaration of independence.”

    For me, there are better places to publish. I boycott Elsevier not to try to persuade them to change, but simply to “vote” for better publishing models in the most effective way I can — with my papers and my referee time.

  4. Thanks David. I saw that sentence when I was googling, but I didn’t read the article until you suggested it. I strongly support the sentiment that the article closes with “it is the intrinsic merit of the work, and not the title of the journal in which an author’s work is published, that should be considered in making funding decisions.” But perhaps it is naive to assume what should be considered is what _will be_ considered.

    In thinking about this over the last few weeks, I’ve started to wonder if the move in Computer Science away from Journal publications and towards Conference Proceedings might actually be a good thing. Moshe Vardi and Lance Fortnow argued the opposite in a series of provocative viewpoints a few years ago (http://cacm.acm.org/magazines/2009/5/24632-conferences-vs-journals-in-computing-research/fulltext http://cacm.acm.org/magazines/2009/8/34492-viewpoint-time-for-computer-science-to-grow-up/fulltext), and, since I am no longer in a department that understands that certain conference papers should be respected as much or more than certain journal publications, I have been sympathetic to their position. But it could be time for a radical reassessment. Maybe the computer scientists have been doing it right.

  5. I don’t see how moving from journals to conferences addresses the underlying problems. It introduces a ton of new issues: rushed peer review, poor writing due to deadline pressures, pressure towards publishing in small, incremental pieces, artificial timing issues because submissions can be made only at certain times of year (do you publish now in a lower-ranked conference or wait for a better one?), inability to publish if you aren’t able to attend the conference in person, etc. Meanwhile, I don’t see it solving any of the old problems.

    Plus the ACM is determined to turn itself into the professional-society equivalent of Elsevier (I’m serious about this – their copyright and author’s rights policies are actually worse than Elsevier’s by now, although of course that’s not the only thing wrong with Elsevier).

  6. Thanks for your thoughts Henry. I think that the promise of professional societies is their democratic structure. The ACM just elected Vint Cerf as president, and he campaigned on platform of increasing membership engagement, to “invite open dialog with ACM’s worldwide membership”. I know that delivering on a campaign promise can be a challenge, but at least a professional society is accountable to its members, not its shareholders.

    I acknowledge the problems with conferences you identify above, and maybe CS is right to try to move away from that system. In this context, the good thing about conferences is that we have lots of experience with their shortcomings, and we’ve been coping with them for years.

    I met with some librarians this week, who think the Elsevier boycott is right on, and think that the lack of clearly articulated demands is just fine. Since academics have so much leverage in the conflict, the onus is on journals to figure out how to improve without demands.

    The librarians called my attention to an emerging business model in particle physics publishing, SCOAP3 which is intriguing. Intriguing new models scare me, though, because they are untested. What if this system has even more serious pitfalls than the subscription model, but we don’t think of until years down the road when we are locked in? But maybe I’m being too cautious.

  7. SCOAP3 is exactly the direction I hope the community ends up going, since it provides open access without the negative effects of publication charges. It’s really not so different from subscriptions, except that it avoids the issue of “if it’s all available for free, why are we subscribing?” This required some careful negotiation, but it seems to have worked out.

    You’re right to be cautious, and this is why it has taken years to get SCOAP3 set up (since nobody wants to negotiate poorly or set up a system with hidden weakenesses). However, once it starts operating next January, I think it will become very popular.

  8. Here is another interesting new development, which I will have to investigate in the future: http://peerj.com/