Banner
    From Aaronson to Žerovnik: Scientists are lining up to boycott Elsevier
    By Oliver Knevitt | February 3rd 2012 12:22 PM | 5 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Oliver

    In a nutshell: I like fossils. But even more than than that, I like arguments about fossils. Which is why my current occupation as a PhD researcher...

    View Oliver's Profile
    Many publishers attract a significant amount of bile from scientists.

    However, most bile is reserved for that titan of publishers, Elsevier. Now, many academics are signing on online pledge called The Cost of Knowledge, where you can pledge to boycott Elsevier journals. This can either involve refusing to submit papers, or refusing to provide refereeing or editorial work.

    You may wonder why Elsevier in particular are being targeted. After all, as I've pointed out recently, while Elsevier certainly does charge obscene amounts to make obscene profit, it is not alone in doing so. Many of the major publishers cream off 33% of what you pay as profit. And though making these profits is hardly saintly, it is partly a consequence of the laws as they are. It's only natural that they will try and make as much profit as the market can bear.

    No; while the profits are certainly rather unpalatable, it's more that Elsevier are - to put it bluntly - rather questionable in their practices. As a brief list (compiled by Michael Nielsen), some of their misdemeanors include,

    Many scientists are unanimous in the opinion that the situation as it is cannot go on. If you asked us to imagine how science would be working in 50 years time, we certainly wouldn't want Elsevier, in it's current form, to be part of that. So why not now?

    Despite the pomp of what I've said above, I must say that; though the boycott is not really intended for PhD students like me to sign, I don't expect that you will see many early career scientists sign this. I certainly wouldn't be brave enough. Though, of course, this may be a gross underestimate on my part; we'll just have to see.

    Anyway, it's quite an unprecedented move into trying to take down this goliath, and some people, such as Andy Farke, have questioned whether it's the best way of going at this. After all, the main people who are going to be hurt by this are not going to be the Elsevier fat cats. It's going to be authors who submit papers. These papers will spend longer in review due to the lack of reviewers and editors.

    Mike Taylor, who along with Tim Gowers is one of the major proponents of this move, has answered a lot of the objections that many have here. I'll quote him,

    In short: there is no wholly good solution here.  It’s a matter of finding the least bad solution.  In the long term it is, unquestionably, to the advantage of all authors for open access to become ubiquitous.  Without a doubt we will need to make sacrifices to reach that future, including passing up opportunities to place our work in higher impact venues.  This is one more such sacrifice.

    … and at this point, I’m a bit nonplussed.  What did we expect?  That it would just fall into our laps?  That the gigantic multinational corporations that eat our work would happily hand it all back to us?  That they would cheerfully give up the anti-science business model that has made them record profits year on year?  Did we think there would be no fight?  That we wouldn’t have to give anything up along the way?

    I'll put his point even more succinctly.

    This is war. And in war, you expect casualties.

    ---

    You can find the petition at the link below, if you're in a position to sign it.

    http://thecostofknowledge.com/index.php

    By the way, I just got a Twitter account. So, if you are so inclined, you can follow me at @OliverKnevitt.

    Comments

    Oliver Knevitt
    Looks like the guardian got there at the same time as me. Mike Taylor (paleontologist at bristol) is really spearheading this thing, and has pointed out in the comments that this is not a petition; it's a boycott.
    Hank
    Despite the pomp of what I've said above, I must say that; though the boycott is not really intended for PhD students like me to sign, I don't expect that you will see many early career scientists sign this. I certainly wouldn't be brave enough. 
    I actually think early career scientists have a better chance of supporting this and coming through unscathed. It's scientists on R01 grants with labs and employees and post-docs whose careers would be derailed if they miss a round of funding that are most at risk, not early-career scientists. How many early career scientists are really getting a first author spot in Cell?  

    I wonder why this took so long and what the true impetus was - or if this was just a buildup.  The arms fairs ended in early 2008 and El Naschie was a running joke here and elsewhere but hardly a sign of cancer within peer review or Elsevier.  Andy Farke is likely right, for two reasons; one is what he pointed out but also that he works for PLoS One and they positively pump out articles and make money on each one - if 2% of them are peer reviewed it is a miracle, the rest are just looked at by an editor.  So concerns like "publishing fake medical journals sponsored by pharmaceutical companies" could just as easily be "publishing fake articles sponsored by pharmaceutical companies" in open access. It's a slippery slope and someone - probably Nature or Science - is going to yell double-standard if PLoS people start piling on.

    I don't actually have an answer for the open access potential problem; I have been working on a Science 2.0 journal code for a year but I think even open access is an interim step.  There's no reason scientists should have to pay to publish any more than Elsevier should publish for free and charge readers.  But successful open access journals insist their fixed costs don't allow that, which sounds a lot like big publishers, just asking for less money.   The solution to true 'open publication' that can still have an impact factor is out there, I just don't have it yet.

    No money is the only way to insure that no one can buy access.
    Oliver Knevitt
    It is funny that it has taken this long. I think there's been a critical mass (or rather, supercritical mass) for some time now; it just needed a trigger, which was either George Monbiot's article or having a high profile academic like Tim Gowers enter the ring.

    I hadn't realized that the arms fairs had ended, (I think that may be news to some of my colleagues too).

    Yep, I do feel a little bit like a charlatan sitting here espousing the virtues of signing this thing yet not signing. But I think it's something I need to ask my supervisor first.

    There's no reason scientists should have to pay to publish any more than Elsevier should publish for free and charge readers.  But successful open access journals insist their fixed costs don't allow that, which sounds a lot like big publishers, just asking for less money.

    It is tricky, expensive and time consuming to ensure quality. Maybe paying to publish is one of those things we will have to live with. Certainly it's a pain, but I really think that if a public body has funded the science that has culminated in a journal article, that article should be accessible by the public. Libraries will still have to take up some of the cost, but at least 1/3 of the money won't be going into the pockets of shareholders.
    Hank
    I can do it - a completely open to read and free to publish publication that has an impact factor - but it is a tough road.   Mike Eisen tells the story of when he was co-founding PLoS, how his own brother wouldn't put an article in the thing, despite having as good a pedigree as you can get behind the company.  Now his brother is editor at PLoS Biology, a terrific publication.  Back then it was too risky. Everyone seems to agree it is a good idea but few pioneers 'want to get an arrow in the back' going into that wilderness and PLoS had the luxury of spending $10 million of someone else's money to get the thing going.   

    Virtually all of the catalysts you noted (El Naschie, pharm company house organs, arms fairs) were over by 2009 so it might be that the time finally came - but some of it may also be a little unfair.  I'm not sure an arbitrary line of 'this is who should make money' will resonate with the larger scientific community.  Why not go after lab equipment companies?  If they charge $50K, why not tell them they should only charge $30K?  Because a lot of people need the stuff now and that cost is built in.  Open access charges what they charge because funding agencies build a marketing fee in - but the cost for publication is still 3X what the funder provides, assuming a grant recipient publishes one article per year.   That's money that could be used by researchers but is funding employees at some company, BMC or, on a much smaller scale, PLoS and others.

    I'm not sure corporate publishers are out of it just yet.  They claim they provide a service.  The biggest open access companies say they provide a similar service, only slightly cheaper - yet a lot more expensive for the scientists doing the research, since $3-4K is real money and traditional publishers charge nothing. I still think most are going to Nature first unless they know it is not going to get published there, then maybe they go right to PLoS One.  Getting in Nature still means validation whereas PLoS One just means your credit card cleared.
    According to an article in the Economist, Elsevier bundles its journals, forcing libraries to purchase publications they do not need. This is one of the reasons it enjoys a 36% profit margin, which, of course, the company attributes exclusively to efficiency. In comparison the most efficient Fortune 500 companies(or the ones closest to a monopoly) average 15 to 20 % margins, and in book publishing, someone like McGraw Hill pockets only 14% of revenue.

    What also stains Elsevier is that they support Research Works Act, a bill now before America’s Congress that would forbid the government from providing the public with free access to full articles from taxpayer-funded research.