As Journal Boycott Grows, Elsevier Defends Its Practices

February 7, 2012

31 Jan – A protest against Elsevier, the world’s largest scientific journal publisher, is rapidly gaining momentum since it began as an irate blog post at the end of January.  By Tuesday evening, about 2,400 scholars had put their names to an ONLINE PLEDGE not to publish or do any editorial work for the company’s journals, including refereeing papers.

The Chronicle

The boycott is growing so quickly—it had about 1,800 signers on Monday—that Elsevier officials on Tuesday broke their official silence to respond to protesters’ accusations that they charge too much and support laws that will keep research findings bottled up behind a company paywall.

“Over the past 10 years, our prices have been in the lowest quartile in the publishing industry,” said Alicia Wise, Elsevier’s director of universal access. “Last year our prices were lower than our competitors’. I’m not sure why we are the focus of this boycott, but I’m very concerned about one dissatisfied scientist, and I’m concerned about 2,000.”

She added that her company improves access rather than impeding it, and said that Internet downloads from some journals increased by as much as 40 percent when Elsevier added them to collections it sells to libraries.

Protesters disagree, and say Elsevier is emblematic of an abusive publishing industry. “The government pays me and other scientists to produce work, and we give it away to private entities,” says Brett S. Abrahams, an assistant professor of genetics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. “Then they charge us to read it.” Mr. Abrahams signed the pledge on Tuesday after reading about it on Facebook.

Those views highlight a split that could spell serious trouble for journal publishers, and for researchers. Price complaints are not new, but some observers say this is the first time that the suppliers of journal content—the scientists—are upset enough to cut the supply line. But, if publishers are correct, those scientists could cut themselves off from valuable research tools.

The Boycotters’ Complaints

According to the boycotters, Elsevier, which publishes over 2,000 journals including the prestigious Cell and The Lancet, is abusing academic researchers in three areas. First there are the prices. Then the company bundles subscriptions to lesser journals together with valuable ones, forcing libraries to spend money to buy things they don’t want in order to get a few things they do want. And, most recently, Elsevier has supported a proposed federal law, the Research Works Act (HR 3699), that could prevent agencies like the National Institutes of Health from making all articles written by grant recipients freely available.

The complaints surfaced on January 21 in a blog post by Timothy Gowers, a prominent mathematician at the University of Cambridge who has won the Fields Medal, math’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize. “Why do we allow ourselves to be messed about to this extraordinary extent, when one would have thought that nothing would be easier than to do without them?” he wrote. “It might help if there were a Web site somewhere, where mathematicians who have decided not to contribute in any way to Elsevier journals could sign their names electronically. I think that some people would be encouraged to take a stand if they could see that many others were already doing so.”

Within days, just such a Web site surfaced. It’s called The Cost of Knowledge, and biologists, social scientists, and others began signing the pledge along with mathematicians.

Sean M. Carroll, a prominent cosmologist and senior research associate at the California Institute of Technology, signed the pledge and added on his own blog that Elsevier charges “amazingly exorbitant prices to university libraries—and then makes the published papers very hard to access for anyone not at one of the universities.”

Senior scholars like him, and Mr. Gowers, arguably have little to lose by turning their backs on well-regarded journals. But the protest has also reached junior scholars like Mr. Abrahams of Albert Einstein, who has yet to gain tenure.

“I have three papers I’m hoping to submit in the next 12 weeks. One was destined for Cell, and another for Neuron,” also published by Elsevier, he said. “It would have been a real feather in my cap to publish there. But I won’t, based on this week’s discussions.” His work, focused on identifying genes related to autism, will go other places. “There are other good journals. And, long term, I’d like my library to be able to use its limited resources to better ends” than high journal prices, he said.

That could signal real problems for Elsevier, says Kevin Smith, director of scholarly communications at Duke University Libraries. “Librarians have long complained about prices and bundling journals together, and nothing has changed,” he says. “Now it’s not just the customers who are complaining. It’s the suppliers.”

Academic librarians may buy journals, but it’s the scientists who produce and submit articles that make them worth buying, he says. “If they are upset, there is a chance they may change the system.”

The Company Responds

Ms. Wise, from Elsevier, says she understands why libraries complain about prices. “Globally, the amount of research that’s published and needs to be read is going up every year. But library budgets are not keeping pace.”

That is why her company offers a variety of packages and pricing schemes to libraries, and negotiates discounts based on institution size, type, and usage patterns. And while Elsevier in the 1980s and 1990s did increase prices steeply year after year, that has stopped. “We got it wrong then. But we’ve improved and have become good citizens,” she said. So much of the community ire comes from past reputation, not present practice, she said.

Individual academics often do not have accurate notions about prices and the value of journals, particularly when they are sold in groups, said Thomas Reller, the company’s vice president for global corporate relations. “They don’t have access to library usage figures. They see journals that they don’t use, and wonder why the library has them. It’s because other people are using them, but the individual doesn’t know that.”

Indeed, Mr. Gowers wrote in an e-mail to The Chronicle, “I don’t have detailed facts at my fingertips: So many people have complained about Elsevier that I am inclined to believe that there is something to the complaints.” He also agreed that libraries are not forced to buy bundles of journals but said “that the costs of buying journals individually are so high that it’s not far off compulsion.”

Mr. Reller counters, emphatically, that the way to look at prices is per use, or download, of the individual articles, and that viewed that way, “access to published content is greater and at its lowest cost per use than ever.”

Elsevier officials declined to provide specific examples of its journal prices, saying they were negotiated privately with individual institutions.

Ms. Wise said that it’s also a misconception that publishers like Elsevier make scientists pay to read their own work. “What publishers charge for is the distribution system. We identify emerging areas of research and support them by establishing journals. We pay editors who build a distinguished brand that is set apart from 27,000 other journals. We identify peer reviewers.

“And we invest a lot in infrastructure, the tags and metadata attached to each article that makes it discoverable by other researchers through search engines, and that links papers together through citations and subject matter. All of that has changed the way research is done today and makes it more efficient. That’s the added value that we bring.”

The company’s support of the Research Works Act is driven by its investment in those products, she added: “It’s not a disavowal of the National Institutes of Health or of open access. We are just trying to avoid inflexible regulations.” The company was the first and largest contributor to PubMed Central, the NIH repository of free, full-text articles, Mr. Reller pointed out.

Those arguments, however, are lost on senior scholars like Mr. Gowers, who told The Chronicle that researchers can now evaluate and review one another’s papers on open Web sites. “That would be far cheaper than anything a commercial publisher could hope to offer, and just as effective,” he noted.

Nor does the Elsevier infrastructure impress younger scholars like Mr. Abrahams. “It could disappear tomorrow, and I’d never notice that it’s gone,” he said.

Podcast – For more about the publication of junk science is found here.