Should you boycott Elsevier?

Some people include a few notable bloggers are saying that we should all boycott Elsevier who publish science journals and sell them at a good profit margin. Does this make sense? I wont answer that question but Iwill make this point: Elsevier is a profit making business who can set its margins according to how well it can persuade people that its products have good value (e.g. by attracting good authors to give it a high impact factor), and how well it can keep its costs down (e.g. by attracting unpaid reviewers) Elsevier have been doing this a little bit better than some of its rivals. If a boycott now reduces these margins they will increase them for any other publisher that is used instead by those authors and reviewers. Result: back to square one.

Of course there are non-profit organisations that publish journals, but the cost of their journals is not really that much better and they are not necessarily better at being open access either. If they were, then there would be no publishers making profits. So is there a real solution to the problem? If scientists don’t want to pay a high price for someone to organize their peer-review they have to find an efficient way to do it themselves. They have already found efficient ways to do the publishing and distribution (e.g. arXiv). Now they have to do the same for the more difficult task of peer-review. Until they do that any boycotts will be a futile game of pushing lumps and scientists will have to continue paying the market price for a commercial service.

That is my opinion, what do you think?

Update: John Baez has posted another follow-up discussing what else can be done to replace journals for peer-review. Apparently the life sciences are now ahead of maths and physics on this!


31 Responses to Should you boycott Elsevier?

  1. Kea says:

    Agreed. These academics are a bunch of spoiled, lazy sods. I am boycotting many organisations and businesses, but this is not at present one of them, because so long as academia takes them seriously, academia is to blame.

  2. Kea says:

    They’re like those occupier idiots. Think they can change things without actually giving up anything they have.

  3. wl59 says:

    I’m afraid the problem is here seen from a completely wrong side.

    The whole problem is, that the editors ‘usurpate’ things what 1st are not them and 2nd are paid from public money.

    It passes already all limits, that currently the editors “owe” exclusive copy rights, meanwhile for 70 … 100 years after the dead of the author. It will not take long time, that they claim to posess also the rights of the technic or scientific results …

    Thus it’s clear that the ‘justification’ by the custs of a peer-review (moreover as these custs are zero for the editors) miss the real problem – what is the whole system that the whole scientific community works gratis for these ‘firmas’

    I think the solution is very easy. For me isn’t published, and I don’t cite, what’s not published. If more and more collegues treat this in the same manner, the ‘renomee’ of ‘publications’ in commercial journals will diminuish and people will publish open. What’s not inconditionally publish, but is locked by the publishers and showed only for a peep-show payment, is simply not published.

  4. Soap_Bubbles says:

    The more reservoirs we have for people to add their thoughts and contribute to science is a good thing. The lifespans are far too short and have a negative impact on scientific work, so if we can compensate by getting more and more minds in the field maybe we can answer the questions faster.

    Contamination of information is not a factor and it only takes one stroke of genius to open the flood gates.

    Capitalism is the optimum approach even in science.

  5. Mike Usher says:

    I’ll allow for the possibility that things may be different in physics, but in math it is *absolutely false* that the cost of nonprofit journals is “not much better” than that of journals published by Elsevier and other major commercial publishers. See for some data. The AMS’s journals are all (except the Bulletin, which publishes expository articles and reviews, not research articles) under 30 cents per page, and Annals of Mathematics is 13 cents per page, whereas it is quite common for Springer and Elsevier journals to be over a dollar a page. There have been several instances over the past decade of editorial boards moving their journals away from commercial publishers (in some cases requiring a slight change of name) primarily to obtain a lower price (e.g., J. Eur. Math. Soc., Topology, J. Algorithms, Ann. Sci. Ec. Norm. Sup., K-Theory, Compositio Math.), and at least one new publisher ( ) has been founded by mathematicians and managed to provide a very high quality product (a couple of their journals are widely regarded as the best specialized journals in their respective subfields) at very low cost.

    Much of the reason that commercial publishers get the prices that they do is that what makes a journal essential is the quality of submissions it gets, and when someone submits an article they do not bear the cost of subscribing to the journal and so (often) don’t take it into consideration–if a journal’s prestige and editorial board are a good match for the article, they’ll submit it regardless of whether the journal charges 15 cents or 150 cents per page. The creation of competing journals which charge lower prices doesn’t particularly fix this problem–it just means that there will be still more journals that every good library should subscribe to, since there will likely still be authors who submit to the old expensive journal (I’ve always taken price into account in choosing journals, so I wouldn’t be one of them, but unfortunately a lot of people don’t take price into account, again since there’s no direct incentive for them to do so).

    If all mathematicians (or more broadly scientists) were to suddenly stop submitting to poor-value journals, then the poor-value journals would indeed go out of business. But we’re not a monolithic entity, and so there’s a collective action problem which has prevented this from happening–some people continue submitting, which raises the journal’s prestige, which makes others feel like they have to submit as well. One can quibble with the exact mechanism, but actions like the boycott are a part of getting the coordination between scientists that’s necessary to solve this collective action problem and make the market work as it should. Some of the rhetoric that I’ve seen about this has perhaps been a little overheated for my tastes, but this may be what’s necessary to get people to take action.

    • Philip Gibbs says:

      I dont dispute that Elsevier have higher charges or that they work because succeed authors and reviewers are willing to use them. In fact those are the points I am making. the problem is that if you remove them through boycotts then another commercial publisher will take their place. Only by changing the way peer-review is done can you change the system. It may take time to convince the traditionalists but it will never happen if you dont make a start.

      If publishers like AMS became all open access I would start to accept that they could become part of a solution.

      • JFringe says:

        I don’t really see the necessity of changing the whole system, at least until someone thinks of a better system.
        Yes, if you boycott the main publisher, another will take its position. But as there may be more than one candidate, they may be willing to negotiate. Every time you depose one and another gets its position, you can gain some additional rights. The same happened with capitalism. Rich people are still rich, but at least I don’t work 16 hours a day. And some rights will end the artificial power they have.

        Anyway, what alternative do you suggest?

      • Philip Gibbs says:

        see the link in the post update for one form of alternative, and the link to my earlier “peer review 2.0” for others. I dont have all the answers myself but I am sure the combined intellect of all the worlds scientists and mathematicians can figure out something.

      • JFringe says:

        I’m more afraid of combined intellects than of individual ones XD

        I didn’t see the update. It seems promising.

  6. Tony Smith says:

    Phil said “… scientists … have already found efficient ways to do the publishing and distribution (e.g. arXiv [ and vixra]).
    Now they have to do the same for the more difficult task of peer-review. …”.

    As Phil said, Elsevier has no power over publication and distribution, but it does have power over peer-review evaluation.

    Years ago, I had some early papers about my model and took them to a USA physics department for evaluation. Instead of reading and evaluating the papers on their own,
    the professors there said that it should be published.
    I said that it had been published in the International Journal of Theoretical Physics.
    They said that journal did not count for them, and that the only journals that mattered were:
    Phys. Rev. and Phys. Rev. Lett. (USA)
    Nuclear Physics and Physics Letters (Europe – Elsevier)
    IJMP and MPL (Asia – World Scientific).

    At the time, Phys. Rev. and Phys. Rev. Lett. had substantial page charges that I did not think that I could afford,
    if I wanted approval from the department I had to publish with Elsevier/Europe or World/IJMP,MPL.

    Being rejected by their editors/refereees was an early step on my path to being blacklisted.

    My point is that if you want to get along in the physics world,
    the prevailing mindset of senior professors is that Elsevier Nuc Phys or Phys Lett publication is a mark of approval, to which there are few alternatives.

    Realistically, what can you propose as a realistic European referee evaluation system to replace Nuc Phys and Phys Lett ?

    Without a realistic European referee system
    how are you going to change that mindset of senior professors
    who are unwilling to evaluate stuff on their own
    but rather
    want to be guided by some external referee evaluation service ?


  7. ondra says:

    i think Tony has a point. The reality is that scientists write articles and evaluate them mostly for free and then they are made to buy their work afterwards. But there is almost no alternative, because your work is evaluated in your department and your grant agencies by this publications. No one cares if you write that you have your articles on arxiv or vixra.

    • Like Kea says, if they are not willing not even to risk their jobs, they are doing an worthless attempt to fix things.

      • stringph says:

        What happened to democracy? The idea that there might be change that a majority of concerned people want to happen, even if they don’t risk their lives or even jobs? Not every change should require a violent revolution.

        Anyway, democracies already have laws that should be used against Elsevier: monopoly laws. They have a monopoly on the prestige associated with certain journal titles, and are abusing that monopoly by charging whatever they like and bundling. Monopolies are also an exception to the ‘laws’ of supply and demand: if you break up and/or replace a monopoly prices may come down considerably.

        Monopolies must either be broken up by force – telling Elsevier it must relinquish a certain number of its prestigious titles – or met by monopsony: governments negotiating reasonable (not hugely profit-making) prices for universal access to all journals for all citizens.

        Boycotting may actually work as an interim measure, because it’s possible for publishers to make a profit without charging Elsevier-style prices. Whenever there is a monopoly bad actor whose profit margins are huge but who doesn’t have a total grip on the market, increasing people’s awareness of other choices can re-activate that market.

        As long as there are at least three or four publishers in the game, some pressure should be applicable to erode excess profits.

      • Keep thinking like this, you won’t change a thing.

  8. First of all I think that the results of science should be available for everybody at no costs. The opinions of scientists or people who have different points of view must be direct approachable by everybody interested without him paying any money. Knowledge has to be one of the first free accessible needs of mankind, like air and sunshine.
    Elsevier is posessed by shareholders , the pure egoists of the society, responsible for the misfortune of 99% of humanity, they sit back and only “profit” is the keyword of their being, not “well being”, that is why these shareholders are not interested at all in the publications of Elsevier, they only see the end result of the company.
    Capitalism is the worst system for the spreading of ideas that will not generate money or war.
    I thank people like Phillip Gibbs who are trying to find ways (VIXRA) to publish the spiritual properties of others without thinking of a profit for himself.

    keep on thinking free


  9. Of course there are non-profit organisations that publish journals

    The organisation per se must be non-profit, but some people who works at them can earn large profits. I remember a public letter by several scientists (including a Nobel laureate) because a non-profit scientific organisation (ACS) was paying very large profits to certain director

    Ironically the second link is behind a pay-wall (but for some reason nobody ever blame Nature for selling one and two-pages articles to $32).

    Regarding the use of open repositories as Vixra. I recommend them of course, but do not miss that they do not count as formal publications for many issues.

    I remember a discussion in a forum, where a physicist presented his work on a modification of GR, but most of the criticism that he received from others was: «Where was published?», «Return when it was published».

    And when he published his first work in a journal. The response changed to «Return when was published in this or this other journal».

    And when he published another work in one of those ‘good’ journals. The response was finally «Editor probably did a mistake when publishing your work».

    He never received technical answers or serious criticism from such academicians.

    • Kea says:

      Juan, once a conformist decides you’re a nobody, nothing will change their mind. And their decision is made by the zeitgeist, because they don’t have a brain of their own. This happens to women and minorities from the day they are born.

    • wl59 says:

      I think the criterion is very simple: “published” is what’s made PUBLISH .

      This is NOT, that it’s contained in anyone’s (editor’s) box, and only if you pay something, then you can see it (like in a peep-show). That’s not publish; it’s only circulating within a payers / members club.

      Publish is, what’s generally accessible, according to the reasonable means corresponding to the modernity.

      In my time, everybody could go to a library and read almost all jornals. That’s make publish, PUBLISHED. It’s clear that not all libraries can keep all journals, but in the average were kept enough, proportional to the local interest, and also one could order fotocopies from other libraries, gratis or for the mere copy fee. Nobody had to pay additional fees for copy articles. That is REASONABLE.

      Today, less and less printed jornals are kept by libraries, because of the shameless prices. And libraries, by corruption or lobby by the editors, have to limit the access — in many university libraries external people can’t longer go to read, and also they bill a yearly access (reader-card) fee for paying copyright-watching organizations founded by the editors in the last years. That’s NOT PUBLISHed .

      There is also a very easy criterion according international right. According to highest laws like UNO Res. 2200-A or OAS Res. 30, each and every person has rights like a) participate on the cultural integration and news, b) participate on the tecnical and scientific progress. That’s the right of EVERY person, rich or poor. Papers what don’t fullfill this, aren’t published as accessible for everybody, nor part of tecnical and scientific progress, but just unpublished privat ideas in the brain or on a internal paper.

      Thus, the criterion is, published have to be reasonably generally accessible.

      It’s quite possible, that shameless people deny other’s really published, general accessible results, don’t citating them, and writing an own paper claiming discovery. In this case, I would write or publish a note directed to colleagues and with copy to the institute of that person, exhibiting the case, and reclaim about the plagarism. That author could read free and without obstacle PUBLISHED results; if he don’t do it, then he don’t act in good faith.

      At this oportunity, it’s good to create the sensibility that put in locked jornals jornals, simply is NOT published, because it’s not accessible only depending on the will of any potential reader. Institutes which use and defend such journals, run the risk that their results aren’t recognized.

      A very simple example is the CERN ‘publishing’ manner. They are ‘published’ as internal notes, but not generally accessible; against external scientists f.ex. of other institutes, such papers / results couldn’t claim any priority, because they couldn’t read their content, nor verify their autenticity (and date).

      Published is MAKE PUBLISH, reasonably accessible for each and every person depending only on his will to read it

  10. Kea says:

    wl59, while we agree wholeheartedly with your sentiments, please don’t mix up this issue with ill informed ideas about CERN. The issue with the CERN experiments is NOT a publication issue; the scientific method requires INDEPENDENT verification of results, and this cannot be achieved if anybody can access everything that CMS and ATLAS do. If you like, think of it as a privacy issue. Do you really expect everybody to have access to all your personal computer files? I mean they are there, right? So why not publish them?

    • SlowSteve says:

      Hang on…..I’m confused here.

      I agree with the general principles of what has been said in the wider thread, though I think perhaps there is a bit of niavity when it comes to a boycott doing any good ( the price of anything is how much someone will pay. If Elsevier are making a profit, then the price is set correctly – it might just not be as low as many people would like….)

      I am a bit confused about this specific comment though. CERN is majority government funded….. which means taxpayer funded. Most fundamental research is – it’s hard to turn a profit on a kaon or a Higgs. So why DON’T I, as an EU citizen, get to see the output of what my taxes are being spent on?

      What I do on my private home PC is my own. What I do on my companies PC is belong to them – no matter what “it” actually is – thats the way the world works these days ( which doesn’t mean I have to agree with it, but I understand it) . So surely whats on a CERN PC should be available to the ultimate owners – i.e the people who paid for it?

      That is OBVIOUSLY an extreme example – and I’m not advocating this – but being able to access the internal research notes, even if it was 6 or 12 months after they were initially released internally, would be a nice thing to access to, and surely wouldn’t cause too many ruptions?

      • wl59 says:

        It is not to ‘boycot’ something. boycots are often something temporary, and a protest. It’s simple to skip over, or let behind, not temporarily but definitively, something what became obsolete, unnecessary, and in other aspects problematic, as there have better alternatives. And – that’s the most important – dump something what don’t longer do what it should do – to make results reasonably and generally accessible PUBLISH. It’s just to use other, better, cheaper, more modern means for obtain this.

    • Philip Gibbs says:

      SlowSteve, there is no research institution who has been more open with their results than CERN. We have enormous numbers of papers all being released quickly on their own public archives and into arXiv before going for peer review. They even publish conference notes, often before a conference. They give us the results of important searches within weeks of the data being collected even when these results could be preliminary and inconclusive. They even allow us to look at the running of the machine as it happens and see collisions live. This level of openness has never been seen before.

      There are also many discussions going on and early plots that we don’t see. This is because the media would report them as possible discoveries and then complain when they turned out to be nothing. The line has to be drawn somewhere to allow the physicists to discuss what they are seeing without having to worry about how non-experts looking over their shoulder might interpret what they are saying. Even releasing these things later could present problems, with commentators making a big deal out of comments that turned out to be wrong for example.

  11. harnad says:


    While the worldwide researcher community is again busy working itself up into an indignant lather with yet another publisher boycott threat, I am still haunted by a “keystroke koan”:

    “Why did 34,000 researchers sign a threat in 2000 to boycott their journals unless those journals agreed to provide open access to their articles – when the researchers themselves could provide open access (OA) to their own articles by self-archiving them on their own institutional websites?”

    Not only has 100% OA been reachable through author self-archiving as of at least 1994, but over 90% of all refereed journals (published by 65% of all refereed journal publishers) have already given their explicit green light to some form of author self-archiving — with over 60% of all journals, including Elsevier’s — giving their authors the green light to self-archive their refereed final drafts (“postprint”) immediately upon acceptance for publication…

    So why are researchers yet again boycotting instead of keystroking, with yet another dozen years of needlessly lost research access and impact already behind us?

    We have met the enemy, Pogo, and it’s not Elsevier.

    (And this is why keystroke mandates are necessary; just keying out boycott threats to publishers is not enough.)

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