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.