Why boycott Elsevier?

Everyone has their own reasons for doing this. There is an interesting debate at Gower’s blog, including a response from an Elsevier employee. Some people dislike Elsevier’s high prices, their bundling practices, their fake medical journals, their parent company’s (now-former) involvement in the global arms trade, their lobbying for SOPA/PIPA/RWA, or other aspects of their business practice. Indeed, for those who want to reform Elsevier, this is one limitation of the boycott, in that it doesn’t clearly target a particular practice of the company that we want changed. On the other hand, others think Elsevier isn’t evil, but just has a communications problem.
In this post, I want to defend a more radical position, which is that we should try not to reform Elsevier or other publishers of academic journals, but to eliminate them. Until the debate over SOPA, I thought this position was too extreme. I thought we could tolerate a status quo in which journals are used for credentialing, and although it is a little unjust and absurd, the only real cost is bleeding the library budgets a little bit.
But the status quo isn’t stable. Open access and self-archiving are expanding. Soon, someone will successfully mirror JSTOR. Libraries are increasingly complaining about subscription costs.
In the long run, the future looks more like arxiv.org. Their front page boasts (as of this writing):

Open access to 731,335 e-prints in Physics, Mathematics, Computer Science, Quantitative Biology, Quantitative Finance and Statistics.

Just like the walled gardens of Compuserve and AOL would never grow into the Internet, no commercial publisher will ever be able to match the scope and ease of access of arxiv.org. Nor can they match the price. In 2010, there were about 70,000 new papers added to arxiv.org and there were 30 million articles downloaded, while their annual budget was $420,000. This comes to $6 per article uploaded (or 1.4 cents per download). Publishers talk about how much their business costs and how even “open access” isn’t free, but thanks to arxiv.org, we know how low the costs can go.
By contrast, if you want your article published open access with Springer, it costs $3000. This seems like something we might be able to protest, and convince them to change. We can’t. Elsevier’s outgoing CEO left with a golden parachute worth two million pounds. They’re not going to make that kind of money while running with the efficiency of arxiv.org. So while scientists and the public see the internet as a way of sharing knowledge and driving down costs, publishers like Elsevier see it as a threat. For them, $6/article is a nightmare scenario that has to be stopped.
Some of you might think I’m overreacting. After all, publishers have tolerated self-archiving, citeseer, arxiv.org, etc. so far. This is partly to avoid backlash, and partly because for historical reasons editors of journals like Science and Nature have personally supported the advance of science even over the profits of the companies they work for. But in the long run, we can’t both have everything available for free, and journals continuing to charge extortionate prices. I suspect that a conflict is inevitable, and when it happens, we’ll regret the fact that journals hold all of the copyrights. SOPA was the first sign that publishers are not on the side of advancing knowledge, and if a journal ever goes bankrupt and sells its portfolio of intellectual property, we’ll find out what they’re capable of when they no longer are run by people who place any value on science.
So what can we do about it? A boycott of Elsevier is a good first step. But really we need to change the system so that publishers no longer hold copyright. Their role (and rate of profits) would be like that of the local Kinko’s when they prepare course packs. This would also improve the academic societies, like ACM and APS, by removing the terrible incentive that their publishing gives them to support organizations like the AAP that in turn support SOPA. Instead, they could simply represent communities of scientists, like they were originally designed to do.
I’m not idealistic enough to imagine that arxiv.org is enough. The issue is not so much that it lacks refereeing (which could be remedied easily enough), but that it lacks scarcity. To see what I mean, imagine starting a free online-only virtual journal that simply selects papers from the arxiv. The entire journal archives could be a single html file of less than a megabyte. But without space constraints, it would need to credibly signal that papers accepted into it were high quality. This is nontrivial, and involves convincing authors, readers, referees and hiring committees, all more or less simultaneously. As a community, we need to figure out a way to do this, so that the internet can finally do what it was designed for, and disrupt scientific publishing.
Update: Via John Baez, I came across a proposal for replacing academic journals with overlay boards that seems promising.

19 Replies to “Why boycott Elsevier?”

  1. I couldn’t agree more with Aram’s post – thumbs up! Out of sheer curiosity – judging by conversations with your colleagues, emails, opinions on the Internet etc., how radical really is your “radical” view? Although for us the principles of open access may seem completely obvious, I suspect that there might be a great deal of inertia and aversion to radical change in the academic community, if only because most people in general, not only in science, try to avoid “stirring up trouble”.

    1. There’s certainly a lot of inertia, but I think it’s mostly due to people worrying about their career. If our work is evaluated on the basis of the papers we’ve published on a particular set of journals (possibly established by the publishers themselves!), it might be hard for us to say no. As much as I admire Tim Gower’s stance, it’s “easier” for him to boycott Elsevier, as he’s already a well-established mathematician (of course, having a well-established academician start the boycott is probably the best course anyway).
      I think it should be the people funding us, who paytwice for our work (our salary + the publisher’s price), that should change the criteria for evaluating us. Of course, we can and should push in that direction ourselves.

    2. I think he is an absolute outsider compared to the people around me. (I don’t mind this as an insult.)
      Walking on campus and asking people randomly, I could not even find a single person who had heard of the Elsevier boycott.
      Most professors have not even given 5 minutes of thought to the fact that people outside campus don’t have access, and many people (more than you would expect) think it is a good thing. In fact, even among those who advocate open access, many would rather than non-researcher be prevented from having full access. (Think about climate scientists who want to protect themselves from the “scrunity” of climate skeptics.)
      Overwhelmingly, open access journal is equated with “poor quality” when people know what it means at all. Conversely, for-profit publishers are considered more prestigious by many people. In fact, a common objection to open access is that it is equivalent to a “vanity press”. The thinking goes that for-profit publishers who publish good stuff because it costs them money to publish it, so they have to be selective.
      I’ll go even further: I have many colleagues who don’t even know that their favorite journals are available online. You have a lot of people are still working entirely on paper. A *lot*. I gave a talk to young Ph.D. students a couple of years ago, and I kept talking in terms of PDF files, and then some of them started objecting that they had been trained (by librarians) to keep paper copies of everything, and they had been given instructions on how to archive and index their own paper archives. This was 2010 in a pretty good school (not my own though).

  2. I don’t understand your point about the need for artificial scarcity.
    Bloggers don’t have artificial scarcity, but there are still good, and not so good blogs, and it is not hard to assess them. There are important blog posts, and unimportant ones, and we can measure this…
    We’ve had online journals for years now, and they have no page/article limit, yet some of them are really good.

    1. You’re right, but I don’t know if we can evaluate the quality of blogs well enough to facilitate superficial comparisons (which maybe we shouldn’t make anyway), or well enough to survive people trying to game whatever metrics we come up with.
      The scarcity question is difficult. We _shouldn’t_ need it, but in practice people do tend to brag on their CVs about the acceptance rates of conferences they present at.

      1. Ok. Allow me to dig into this issue a bit.
        Let us imagine that we build a “journal” from arXiv. You and me. We build it just as you describe: one big HTML file pointing at the papers. Easy! (I write “journal” because it is not really a “journal” in the conventional sense, but I digress.)
        Of course, we want it to be good. What is the point otherwise? If we don’t select the best papers, then people don’t need us, they can just go straight at the source. Yet if we do this work carefully enough, over a long enough period, people will start to accept our brand as prestigious
        But to select the best papers, we need to read them!
        How many papers can you read in a year? I mean… really read… to the point where you can vouch of the high quality of the work?
        This number is surely limited. Of course, you can try to scale up by delegating to others. How many friends do you have? If you want to scale even better, you can allow these people to delegate and so on. However, your trust will soon go down.
        Strictly speaking, you don’t need to read everything. Eventually, it will become clear that a given paper is important. (E.g., Grigori Perelman’s papers proving the Poincaré conjecture). But if you want until everyone knows about the importance of a paper, you are not providing much value.
        So, effectively, in practice, the number of papers we can include in our “journal” will be (naturally) limited.
        If this sounds like an improbable venture, consider that people already curate lists of interesting links. Many bloggers do it. I certainly do it on Twitter and Google+.
        The reason I am commenting here is because I have been subscribed to your Twitter account for year. You have been generally interesting: that is, you don’t fill your Twitter account with junk… otherwise, I would have unsubscribed (I am very selective).
        So, really, this type of “journal” is very natural. And I think it might be very interesting. And I might just do it one day.

  3. Looking at it as dispassionately as possible, one could conclude that peer review is the only remaining significant raison d’être of formal scientific publishing in journals. Imagine that scientists, collectively, decided that sharing results were of paramount importance (a truism), but peer-review isn’t considered important any longer. If you imagine that, then the whole publishing edifice would suddenly look very different. More like ArXiv. Continued here: http://bit.ly/w7uBMG

  4. Awasome! Let’s hope more prominent/established scientists as yourself join the clause.
    But as some of the comments pointed out, for PhD candidates it is simply no choice and they rather ignore and stay out of trouble. However, the whole publishing deal is one thing which seems stinky to me. Thus, being one of reservations I have towards going for academic or science career!
    I know, there is worse than that, like the sheetsink c00rporate b00lzhit…

  5. The overlay boards seems like a wonderful idea, and one that could be implemented with relatively few resources. “Virtual journals” go some way towards this, but not the full way. How hard would it be to implement a quantum computing one? You would need an editorial board, willing referees, and most importantly submissions, which all seem fairly feasible, especially since it is essentially an indexing service rather than a journal, and so there is no double publication problem and authors aren’t forced to choose between submitting there or to a conventional journal.

  6. @Pontiff: do any of you have any comprehensive data on exact distribution of costs needed to run a journal in a cost-effective way (servers, editorial process etc.)? I have been faced with the argument that a big chunk of publishing cost is the cost of editorial process, and while I find extremely unlikely (does proofreading a single paper cost $1000?), it would be nice to have some real numbers.

    1. The copy editing done by journals is very shallow. I’ve found a dozen of typos in my published papers over the years… I’ve even a glaring typo in the abstract of a journal paper which appeared in a top notch (Elsevier) journal.
      All I can say on this is that copy editors hired by Elsevier, in my experience, are from India. (This is not a remark on their ability.) Given my approximate knowledge of the going rates in India I would conclude that $1000 is at least an order of magnitude too high a price, but I would not be surprised if it were two orders of magnitude too high or more.
      Anyhow, what is the value of copy editing to the scientific community? I would say that we would all agree that we are unwilling to pay $1000 per paper.
      I *don’t* find that papers written by my peers are in need of more editing, even when I download it from arXiv as a preprint. You don’t become a good scientist if you are a poor writer. And several of my colleagues who are weak in English pay for their own revisions.
      Of course, journals will try to hype the services they offer, and they will stress the importance of copy editing.

  7. OK, it’s time for a “modest proposal.”
    Or rather, a “modest Fermi estimate.”
    What would be a fair price, to purchase by eminent domain, and to open forever to the public, available on-line, “free-as-in-freedom”, every peer-reviewed academic article ever published, in every subject, every year, and every language?
    I will think on my financial estimate tonight, and post that estimate tomorrow evening (PST).
    Such a globalization-of-knowledge program might well be the smartest investment that the early 21st century could make.

    1. My cost estimate for the “Universal Library” is (a) 100 million peer-reviewed articles ⊗ (b) $250 per article paid for rights in perpetuity = $25 billion dollars.
      Spread over ten years, as the price of a permanently free academic literature, that price is pretty darn cheap.

  8. Pingback: The Research Works Act, open access and publisher boycotts « sharmanedit

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