Boycott Elsevier!

If you’re in academia and haven’t done so yet, please take a moment to sign this online petition organized by Tyler Neylon, and pledge that you won’t publish, referee, or do editorial work for any Elsevier journals.  I’ve been boycotting Elsevier (and most other commercial journal publishers—Elsevier is merely the worst) since 2004, when I first learned about their rapacious pricing policies.  I couldn’t possibly be happier with my choice: unlike most idealistic principles, this one gets you out of onerous work rather than committing you to it!  Sure, Elsevier is huge and we’re tiny, but the fight against them is finally gathering steam (possibly because of Elsevier’s support for the “Research Works Act”), years after the case against them became inarguable.  Since their entire business model depends on our donating free labor to them, all it will take to bring them down is for enough of us to decide we’re through being had.  We can actually win this one … Yes We Can.

For more information, see this wonderful recent post by Fields medalist and Shtetl-Optimized commenter Timothy Gowers, entitled “Elsevier — my part in its downfall.”  (Added: also check out this great post by Aram Harrow.)  You might also enjoy a parody piece I wrote years ago, trying to imagine how Elsevier’s “squeeze those dupes for all they’ve got” business model would work in any other industry.

65 Responses to “Boycott Elsevier!”

  1. Don Says:

    Yes!

  2. Steven Says:

    “Elseiver’s support for SOPA, PIPA”

    Do you have evidence for this? Google isn’t helping. I see Elsevier on lists of companies supporting these bills, but those lists are inaccurate.

    As far as journals go, I don’t care. Elsevier seems to be not significantly worse than the ACM, for example, and there are not good open-access journals for TCS.

  3. Aram Says:

    There’s this list on Wikipedia that came from Rep. Lamar Smith’s website:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_organizations_that_support_the_Stop_Online_Piracy_Act#cite_note-Supporters-1
    It lists Elsevier as a supporter of SOPA.

  4. Scott Says:

    Steven #2:

      Elsevier seems to be not significantly worse than the ACM, for example, and there are not good open-access journals for TCS.

    Let me humbly suggest Theory of Computing as a glaring counterexample to your last statement.

    It’s true that ACM, IEEE, SIAM, etc. aren’t great either, and also true that, at least for now, it isn’t practical for any active CS researcher to boycott all of them. However, the combination of

    (1) exorbitant and increasing prices,
    (2) bundling rules,
    (3) retaliatory actions against universities like MIT that passed open-access policies,
    (4) lobbying government against open access,
    (5) highly-inconsistent academic standards,
    (6) total lack of influence of the academic community on Elsevier’s priorities, and
    (7) lots of other bad stuff that I don’t even remember right now,

    does seem to make Elsevier the worst of the worst. As such, I think they’re an excellent place to focus for now. After the scientific community has freed itself from Elsevier’s yoke, it can then turn its sights on the other guys.

  5. Micki St. James Says:

    Elsevier’s support for Research Works Act
    http://www.michaeleisen.org/blog/?p=807#comment-52048
    Elsevier lobbies Congress (no way to drill down to SOPA,PIPA)
    http://www.opensecrets.org/lobby/clientsum.php?id=D000028557&year=2011

  6. Anthony Says:

    I’ll be happy to do that … as soon as I can afford to. My list of publications is unfortunately, at least to me, not impressive enough that I can disregard journals because their publisher is a major [insert favourite offense]. I won’t mourn them either, however.

  7. BOYCOTT « Rhymes With Cars & Girls Says:

    [...] am very pleased to join in with the boycott of Elsevier academic journals. It’s about time! My pledge: I shall not be submitting to or refereeing any Elsevier [...]

  8. JeffE Says:

    Signed.

    I also added a note to my publication web page indicating exactly when my boycott began. One of my recent papers appears in a SOCG special issue of Computational Geometry: Theory and Applications. I caved to the invitation, despite my existing distaste for Elsevier, because one of my co-authors was also my PhD student. Never again.

  9. Scott Says:

    Anthony #6: Your attitude is no doubt extremely common, and is precisely the reason why well-publicized, collective action as epitomized by this petition is necessary, rather than just individuals here and there boycotting Elsevier privately. I predict that eventually, publishing with them will hurt people’s academic reputations more than helping them.

    FWIW, though, at least in CS theory, even today I can’t think of a single Elsevier journal in which publication would plausibly make a big difference to anyone’s reputation.

  10. Mayer B. Says:

    There is no need to boycott anyone. If everyone, like me, and most TCS researchers, continues to upload their papers on their personal webpages (or ECCC, ArXiV, etc.), no one should actually pay for any journal!
    Please ask your institute’s library not to subscribe to any journal. Everything is free on the web.

    YES WE CAN!

  11. Steven Says:

    Aram, the list that Lamar Smith’s office put out is of companies that are on record as supporting stronger protection of intellectual property (or some similar generic phrase). Smith, who as a SOPA proponent wanted to advertise the bill as having widespread support, decided to conflate that with “supports SOPA,” but that was dishonest of him. The list is not trustworthy.

    “Let me humbly suggest Theory of Computing as a glaring counterexample to your last statement.”

    Theory of Computing was what I had in mind.

  12. Shubhendu Says:

    What happens with undergrads/MS students’ prospects applying to graduate school who just submitted (their best work so far) to Elsevier?
    I completely understand and appreciate the move towards boycotting such journals but this is really making me anxious.

  13. Matt Welsh Says:

    Why not go further and refuse to contribute your time to any conference or journal that is not open access?

    http://www.researchwithoutwalls.org/

    http://matt-welsh.blogspot.com/2011/11/research-without-walls.html

  14. Alex Says:

    To those saying ‘but others are almost as bad': There is evidence (http://www.voxeu.com/index.php?q=node/6643) that just punishing the worst offender is sufficient to provide an incentive to good behaviour. (That article is arguing against ‘punishment by peers’, IE, vigilantism, but academics are not peers of Elsevier, so that doesn’t apply).

  15. Chuck Dickens Says:

    I was with you all the way unil the Obama reference. Very disappointing–he’s a big fan of Elsevier.

  16. Nonacademic Says:

    Why isn’t there any option “won’t buy”?

  17. GASARCH Says:

    Agree with Nonacademic- while boycotting submitting and editing and refereeing are good ideas, boycotting buying would hit them where they live.

    As a side note- people should always post what the publish
    on their website or arXiv or both, and keep them updated,
    thus forcing journals to change their business model.

    Also, working for free on-line journals would help.

  18. David Brown Says:

    http://ted.com/talks/defend_our_freedom_to_share_or_why_sopa_is_a_bad_idea.html Clay Shirky: Why SOPA is a bad idea
    Some libertarians advocate completely abolishing patent and copyright laws – would such abolition be a net benefit for science and technology?

  19. Nathan Says:

    For anyone interested — http://www.doaj.org/ is the directory of open access journals. I was trying to find a directory of open access (to find out what journals I should attempt to prioritize in the future) and found this an immensely helpful tool.

  20. aram Says:

    Here is evidence that Elsevier supports the RWA.
    http://www.michaeleisen.org/blog/?p=846

    However, you might be right that they didn’t support SOPA. In any case, they currently claim that they don’t:
    http://gizmodo.com/5870241

  21. Raoul Ohio Says:

    El Reg has started covering the boycott:

    http://www.theregister.co.uk/2012/01/28/scientists_boycott_elsevier/

  22. Gil Kalai Says:

    “…pledge that you won’t publish, referee, or do editorial work for any Elsevier journals.” Why stop at refereeing, why stop at Elsevier, why not exclude papers published on Elseviers journal from candidate’s CV’s? ; boycott colleagues who support SOPA; boycott all commercial publishers, boycott universities with rapacious tuition policies, medical companies, not give credits for people’s theorems published on Elsevier, not give credits to for any work by people who publish on Elsevier, not use theorems published on Elsevier, use their negation,…

    I dont like Elsevier, but I don’t think I like this

  23. Should you boycott Elsevier? « viXra log Says:

    [...] people include a few notable bloggers are saying that we should all boycott Elsevier who publish science journals [...]

  24. Scott Says:

    Gil, you’re being pretty ridiculous. The goal here isn’t some sort of (unachievable) “moral purity”; rather, it’s something straightforward and practical. If enough academics stop directly cooperating with Elsevier, it will eventually force a switch from the forking-over-dough-to-Elsevier model to the free, online, open-access model that technology permits and common sense has long dictated.

    From the fact that one boycott is a good idea, it doesn’t follow that any possible boycott anyone makes up is also a good idea.

    So for example, not citing papers published in Elsevier journals would be intellectual dishonesty. I’ve never done that and would oppose anyone who did.

    Colleagues who work with Elsevier can hopefully be brought around, so “boycotting” them (whatever that means) seems counterproductive … just argue with them! Elsevier itself, by contrast, has demonstrated for the past decade that it can’t be brought around.

    I haven’t yet encountered a single academic who says they support SOPA—if I did, I suppose I’d be more curious than angry. :-)

  25. Gil Kalai Says:

    Hi Scott, let me draw my line clearly. It is ok not to publish or not to serve on the editorial board of a journal you don’t like. It is unprofessonal and in my opinion inappropriate to refuse refereeing a paper because of such considerations. Certainly it is inappropriate, in my opinion, to organize a boycott which refers also to refereeing.

    If the move against Elsevier applied only to serving on editorial boards and to submitting papers I would not regard it appriori inappropriate. It is still rather problematic and I suppose I will have to think more about it to form an opinion.

  26. Gil Kalai Says:

    Actually the pledge in the prtition itself is that: “you will not support any Elsevier journal unless they radically change how they operate” So perhaps refusing to referee is Scott’s own interpretation.”

  27. Scott Says:

    Gil: Well, my opinion differs. Refereeing journal papers is an onerous burden that we take on voluntarily, with zero payment and zero recognition, purely because of an abstract “duty to science.” As such, I think referees have every right in the world to expect that, at a minimum, the publishers who they’re donating their time to will share a little of their idealism about science. I wouldn’t volunteer to drill oil for BP or roll cigarettes for Marlboro … so why would I volunteer to increase Elsevier’s bottom line? Or tell anyone else to? Or not tell them not to? :-)

  28. Mayer B. Says:

    The boycott seems redundant. Can someone please give me an example of a recent significant TCS paper that is not freely available on the web?
    Please stop your library from buying any journal. 99% of recent papers is free on the web.

  29. Gil Says:

    In my opinion, Scott, refereeing is part of our academic duties for which we get paid by our universities (or research institutes). There is nothing abstract about it. It is true that a lot of our academic work has some voluntary nature in the sense that we can get away from it. But essentially this is part of the job.

    On top of that there are considerations that we should not take into account when asked to evaluate a work of a colleague or perform any other academic duty. The publiher’s pricing or lobbying policies is such a consideration that should not be taken. I realize now that not refereeing was not your interpretation, and it looks that most people who signed the petition make such a pledge. This is disappointing.

  30. Daniel Says:

    The boycott can be effective only if there is a viable alternative to publishing in commercial journals. Saying that you can put your paper on arxiv, or that there are hundreds of unknown free online journals is not a suitable alternative for various reasons. What we need is an ecosystem of respected free journals that is capable of processing hundreds of first/second/third-tier papers in different areas every year. Who will run these journals? ACM and other professional organizations would be the most natural candidates, but for some reason they are not doing their job very well at the moment. So instead/besides boycotting Elsevier, we should make an effort to constructively coerce, say, ACM to change their business model in a way that actually helps science. Something along the lines of (1) forget about printed journals, (2) increase the number of issues/journals, as it is no longer constrained by printing costs, (3) make the online archive as widely available as possible.

  31. matt Says:

    Gil, I doubt that you referee every paper that you get, especially in a more mathematical field like yours where refereeing should require a lot of care. I’d guess that the number of referee requests you get is high enough that you need to decline some requests solely for reason of time constraints, especially if you also do any program committee work or anything like that. So, since you’re going to decline something anyway, why not just decline the Elsevier requests? Nothing unprofessional about that.

    Separate issue that no one brought up: in some ways, the internet helps entrench the establishes publishers. There is almost no reason that a physicist would care about having subscription access to current issues of a journal, since basically all the content is available on the arxiv. And perhaps your university has access to back issues of the journal if you want to read papers from the pre-arxiv days. But if you drop the subscription, you lose access to the electronic copies of the old issues and only retain the printed copies. That is the only reason I can think of for not suggesting at your next faculty meeting that they drop all expensive journal subscriptions.

  32. Gil Kalai Says:

    Matt, Academic decisions especually regarding judgements of the works of others, like which paper to referee and which not, should be made based on academic considerations. Basing such decisions on politics or pricing of the journal, like on many similar things, means a certain corruption of the academic judgement system which is delicate and fragile. At least don’t expect a medal for that.

  33. matt Says:

    I don’t think anyone is expecting a medal for it. But, for example, I don’t think anyone would object to the following: I am given two papers to referee, and I only have time to referee one. In this case, neither paper comes from an Elsevier journal. However, one paper is sent to me with a personal request from a colleague that I know because he is trying to put together a special topic issue, and so I decide to referee that one. Innocuous, yeah? It is helping a special issue. But, I really don’t think it is innocuous: it is allowing personal connections to decide which papers get published. It could be argued that it is seriously wrong.

    Now, perhaps Gil holds to an impeccable moral standard in which allowing the particulars of the journal to influence his decision is wrong; if so, I am impressed and grateful. However, I think that hoping academia as a whole can approach such a pure standard is a hopeless dream. I don’t think it’s even possible for most humans to approach such an objective standard in any field since so many hidden factors can bias our judgment.

  34. Danny Calegari Says:

    Gil – it seems to me that the act of refereeing for a journal has political consequences whether they are intended or not. This is politics in the sense of “social relations involving authority or power”. It seems to me that deciding a priori not to referee papers for a particular journal entirely on the basis of their publisher – and saying so explicitly and in advance – does *not* amount to making a judgement of the academic value of the work in question.

    But in the broader sense, there are circumstances where politics (or, anyway, financial reality) trumps academics for various reasons. In order to reduce the emotional investment associated with the discussion of journals, let’s turn to the neutral (ha ha) issue of undergrad textbooks. If I’m trying to decide which book to assign for my differential equations class, I might have to decide between one book that costs $150 and another that costs $5 (or is even available free). The book that costs $150 might be better, from a purely “academic” perspective; but if the difference in price means that half the students don’t buy it, that’s a bad outcome. Just today I got an email from a publisher who is trying to promote cheap (~$10) textbooks for differential calculus. Ordinarily I don’t even consider such emails from publishers, but the price in this case made me pay more attention. Paying more attention is in itself bound to influence my final decisions about what book to assign – in this case for entirely non-academic reasons.

  35. Gil Kalai Says:

    Yes, yes, but here we talk about organized and public boycott of refereeing papers submitted to Elsevier. Lets say you are a scientist that like to publish in Elsevier. Would it be ok for you not to agree to referee papers of people boycotting Elsevier?

  36. matt Says:

    Not ok unless you make it a public boycott of the boycott. (and according to your own standards, probably even then I think the boycott of the boycott would be worse than the original boycott as this boycott is more directed targetted at individuals)

  37. Danny Calegari Says:

    Gil – there’s a big contrast between a boycott targeted at a corporation and one targeted at individual mathematicians. But I do want to stress that I sympathize with you and worry about the potential for harm (intentional or not) to a person who has submitted a paper to an Elsevier journal and who is inadvertently thrust into the middle of the situation. I acknowledge that this is real harm, even thought I believe that the boycott will be a net good to the mathematical community as a whole.

    I don’t know a good solution to this problem, but it is probably worth trying to think of some possibilities. I am already accustomed, when refereeing a paper, to sometimes say something like “this paper is not good enough for journal X, but it would be good enough for journal Y; I know editor Z at journal Y – I can contact editor Z, and if the author is happy to withdraw their paper and submit it to journal Y, I will recommend it for acceptance.” Maybe one could say – *before* refereeing a paper – something like “I have ideological objections to refereeing a paper for journal X. However, I will referee for journal Y which is of comparable standard in the same area. If the author is happy to withdraw their paper at submit it to journal Y, I will promise to referee it by such and such a date”. In this way one hopes to offer the harmed third party something of genuine value by way of compensation, and mitigate the collateral impact.

    Maybe there are better suggestions?

  38. Mayer B. Says:

    Matt: Separate issue that no one brought up: … There is almost no reason that a physicist would care about having subscription access to current issues of a journal, since basically all the content is available on the arxiv.

    Actually, this was brought up explicitly by me; and since nobody answered my claim that the boycott is redundant, let me repeat my question: could someone please give me an example of a recent TCS paper that is not freely available online?

    Gil: I agree with your approach. Organized boycotts are dangerous.

  39. Petition Targeting Elsevier’s Business Practices Begins to Snowball Says:

    [...] Scott Aaronson, an associate professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT on his blog. He also signed the [...]

  40. gabor Says:

    @Mayer B.: While it is true that almost all recent TCS papers are freely available online, there are always exceptions. A more significant counterpoint is that almost all TCS papers written prior to 1990 (for instance) are *not* freely available online, nor are they at all reasonably-priced to obtain. That is a ton of foundational work, and only a little appears among free online materials. Elsevier’s prices for these older articles are among the worst (e.g. $40 for a 2pg IPL article), and libraries have to pay ridiculously-high annual subscriptions to keep online access to these article. I think that one who objects to this pricing is still justified in boycotting Elsevier, if only to send message that putting these huge prices on classical TCS literature is not OK.

  41. Mayer B. Says:

    Gabor, I disagree. For papers prior to 1990 you can go to your nearest library and read the article (yes, you can photocopy it for personal use).

    Libraries do not need to pay for any new journal now.

  42. Chuck Dickens Says:

    Scott, I think what Gil is trying to say (indirectly) is that those people who referee a lot of papers do get a very tangible benefit: when these people submit their own papers to the same journal, the editor often sends their papers to referees who are easy to please and who recommend most of what they see for publication. Basically, Gil doesn’t want your publication rate to suffer! So don’t take offense.

  43. Commenter Says:

    That there is an ethical problem when refusing refereeing is not obvious to me. If you refuse to referee, it’s not the end of the world for the authors: they can still submit elsewhere.

  44. Don Odom Says:

    A digital architecture is needed which automates as much as possible acquisition, vetting and peer review, and dissemination/”publication” of manuscripts to a common standard (or series of standards) for consumption. This is critical in order to reduce the opportunity costs for researchers to an acceptable level as they absorb the remaining publishing functions represented by publishing houses. No one ever won a Nobel prize for the layout, design, typography, archiving or dissemination of original research – the prizes have all been awarded for the research itself. Striking the right balance between the opportunity cost to one’s research of doing everything oneself as it pertains to publishing functions will become an increasingly important question.

  45. Scott Says:

    Mayer B. #38: I don’t even know where to start with recent CS papers not available online, but how about “Relativized separation of worst-case and average-case complexities” by Russell Impagliazzo. After Russell failed to respond to my email asking for the PDF, I ended up paying $20 for it. Of course, this problem could be solved if authors like Russell simply took the 30 seconds to put their papers online, but then there would still remain the problem of all the earlier papers remaining locked behind paywalls. Personally, I’d be happy to see all publicly-funded scientific papers declared public domain by Congressional fiat, and any publisher copyrights to the contrary invalidated. Needless to say, I see zero chance of that for the forseeable future.

  46. Scott Says:

    Commenter #43:

      That there is an ethical problem when refusing refereeing is not obvious to me. If you refuse to referee, it’s not the end of the world for the authors: they can still submit elsewhere.

    There’s no more of an “ethical problem” with turning down a referee request than there is with turning someone down for a date. (And I say that as someone who does, I think, more than my share of refereeing … and yes, I know everyone thinks they do more than their share, but in my case it’s true! ;-) ) Your turning down a request doesn’t even mean the authors need to submit elsewhere: all it means is that the editor will go down the list to the next potential referee.

  47. Meyer B. Says:

    Scott, okay, you’re right. Russel Impagliazzo is indeed one of those extreme weird cases whose papers are unavailable on the web and who has not updated his site for about ten years (!!)

    He is quite an atypical example. I would guess that about 90% of recent TCS papers are freely available online. So maybe the solution is not to boycott Elsevier, but to boycott Russel Impagliazzo :)

  48. Gil Says:

    Personally, I’d be happy to see all publicly-funded scientific papers declared public domain by Congressional fiat, and any publisher copyrights to the contrary invalidated. Needless to say, I see zero chance of that for the forseeable future.

    Does this mean that people can freely quote them in, say, advertisements? :}

  49. Scott Says:

    Gil:

      Does this mean that people can freely quote them in, say, advertisements?

    With attribution, sure!

  50. Research Works Act, la “SOPA” contra l’accés obert a la ciència | Q Says:

    [...] per citar alguns exemples de blogs que segueixo, Tim Gowers, Michael Nielsen, Steve Flammia, Scott Aaronson, Aram Harrow, Cosma Rohilla Shalizi… I segur que n’hi ha molts més. Per acabar, us [...]

  51. JK Says:

    I would guess that about 90% of recent TCS papers are freely available online.

    I would guess that only about 20% of recent TCS papers exist as a “full version” at all.

    I’m surprised that no one has brought up the positive side of journals (whether open access or not).

  52. Gus Says:

    Hi Scott,

    I don’t have much to contribute other than my public support (for whatever it’s worth) for anything that contributes to the downfall of traditional academic publishing. Why is it that so many respected researchers (like Lance Fortnow, or even Michael Nielsen) continue to sympathise with old-school publishing? As you’ve asked before, where is everyone’s anger?

  53. Douglas Knight Says:

    “Public domain” has a legal meaning. You can do anything with public domain material; attribution is not required. (At least in the US; Europe has “moral rights” that are hard to lose, but I don’t think they require attribution.)

  54. Scott Says:

    Gus #52: Thanks for the support! But I don’t think Michael Nielsen deserves to be classified as someone who “sympathizes with old-school publishing”; he’s done as much for the open-science movement as anyone. Lance, sure. :-)

  55. Scott Says:

    Douglas Knight #53: Thanks for the clarification! Then I didn’t mean “public domain”; I meant Creative Commons license or something of that kind.

  56. Gus Says:

    Quoting by memory from Nielsen’s new book: Regarding traditional publishers, “they deserve our sympathy, but not our support.” Sounds a lot like sympathy to me. I was quite surprised to see him tread so lightly upon traditional publishing in that book. Where was his anger?

    That said, I agree that he’s done much for open science. How one could advocate so strongly for open science and NOT be openly hostile to traditional publishers is beyond me.

  57. Scott Says:

    Gus: Michael can clarify himself, but I imagine what he had in mind is that there might be reasonable individuals working at the traditional publishing houses, who once performed a useful service but now stand to lose their jobs in the open-access world, and therefore have in interest in delaying that world for as long as possible. Such individuals would indeed deserve our sympathy but not our support.

  58. azxtlx Says:

    Mr. Aaronson, I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for making your lecture material and research interests accessible on the world wide web. I have no professional relationship to computer science of any kind, it simply provokes my curiosity.

    John Wilbanks compiles and contrasts a lot of perspectives about the future of academic publishing. There are internet available videos of his Oxford and MIT presentations and they are quite densely interesting

  59. Fourteenth Linkfest Says:

    [...] Scott Aaronson: Boycott Elsevier! [...]

  60. Charlie-Boo Says:

    If you’re going to boycott a publisher, why not base it on content rather than price? Springer published the completely insipid text “Adapting Proofs-As-Programs” full of unsubstantiated claims that it applies to the problem of program synthesis, including several incomplete bogus examples. Springer also recently published a book containing what is claimed to be an elementary proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem.

  61. LOLsevier | yourbrainondrugs.net Says:

    [...] Boycott Elsevier! (scottaaronson.com) [...]

  62. Rudolf Olah Says:

    The ACM shouldn’t even come into this discussion. They’re an association that does some publishing but they aren’t a publisher. In fact, when you join the association you’re given access to the catalogs of other publishers such as Springer. The subscription fee for a professional is significantly less than Elsevier’s fee. Elsevier’s fees are ridiculous.

  63. Irrationality of reviewing « QuantumBlah Says:

    [...] do we review papers?  As pointed out in the boycott against Elsevier, with the big commercial publishers, reviewers are doing free [...]

  64. Shtetl-Optimized » Blog Archive » Aaron Swartz (1986-2013) Says:

    [...] research should be freely available to the public.  We can honor Aaron’s memory by supporting the open science movement, and helping the world catch up with him [...]

  65. e-cigarette Says:

    Elsevier seems to be not significantly worse than the ACM, for example, and there are not good open-access journals for TCS. BTW John Wilbanks has many perspectives…

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