Boycott Elsevier

By Sean Carroll | January 30, 2012 8:56 am

While I have the blog open, let me throw in a quick two cents to support the Boycott Elsevier movement. As most working scientists know, Elsevier is a publishing company that controls many important journals, and uses their position to charge amazingly exorbitant prices to university libraries — and then makes the published papers very hard to access for anyone not at one of the universities. In physics their journals include Nuclear Physics, Physics Letters, and other biggies. It’s exactly the opposite of what should be the model, in which scientific papers are shared freely and openly.

So now an official boycott has been organized, and is gaining steam — if you’re a working scientist, feel free to add your signature. Many bloggers have chimed in, e.g. Cosma Shalizi and Scott Aaronson. Almost all scientists want their papers to be widely accessible — given all the readily available alternatives to Elsevier (including the new Physical Review X), all we need to do is self-organize a bit and we can make it happen.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Academia, Science and Society
  • Elliot Tarabour

    You mean your going to forgo all those humongous royalty checks???

  • The Science Pundit

    The first I had heard of this was when Timothy Gowers announced on his blog that he was boycotting Elsevier, which I believe was only last week. Now it’s become a giant of a movement. Hopefully this leads to real change.

  • Gizelle Janine

    Holy shit. That’s beyond horrible.

  • Mike Fisher

    Oh, please, please, let Finagle, the Flying Spaghetti monster and the Random Quantum all help you succeed. As a layman passionately interested in science it drives me absolutely nuts when I get locked out of so much reference material when I’m trying to do some background reading.

  • jrad

    Since the situation in Astronomy seems only marginally better than in Physics, do you all have recommendations for good* open access Astronomy/Astrophysics journals to publish in?

    *Where good is probably defined as peer reviewed and not scoffed at when considered for jobs.

  • mikka

    Heck, they make it tricky even when you DO have institutional access. Geoscientist, going to have a look at the boycott movement – my university is getting into the open access movement, maybe I could bring this up in meeting this morning.

  • MPS17

    It’s not just exorbitant prices. Due to their stifling copyright policy, the theses of many (most?) doctoral students who have published with them are technically illegal.

  • Unacceptable!!!

    The same situation applies to Economics! It’s unacceptable!!

  • Jim A

    Elsevier makes the music industry look good.

  • Thomas Perraudin

    Dear Sean, I am not sure to understand why you want to boycott Elsevier. Do you want to boycott the company or the system?

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  • ohwilleke

    If only I could. As a lawyer, I am actually required by law to do business with Elsevier, who has the contract to run the state court system’s e-filing system for legal documents.

  • Eugene Lim

    “Won’t do refereeing”?

    Count me in!!!

  • TheThinker1958

    boycott now? why wasn’t there a boycott on day one?
    can’t people do things for humanity’s benefit anymore?
    you can’t buy me for 10,000 or for 10,000,000 or 1,000,000,000 dollars.

  • Jeff

    Why stop with Elsevier? All journal articles that result from government grants should be accessible to the public, i.e. accessible to the people who paid for the research.

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  • Nick

    Maybe I am missing something here, but why boycott Elsevier especially, and not, say, Springer, which also has a fair amount of locked-access articles with an exorbitant price?

  • scholar

    Unfortunately, only authors who have funds to pay the $1500 article processing fee can “freely and openly share” their work in Physical Review X. If open access is the wave of the future, some mechanism must be found to make it available to unfunded researchers.

  • Lab Lemming

    1. What #18 said.
    2. It should be pointed out that many scientific societies have outsourced the publishing side if their society journals to companies like Elsevier. Addressing the reasons for this is important of you want to get them, and the scientists who are members, to support you.

    It is very hard for me to avoid Elsevier, since they publish GCA, Chemical Geology, Precambrian Research, and the Journal of South American Geology. But I’m happy to aim for alternative publications whenever possible.

  • Keri

    I love this. Was so frustrated in med school and residency when my studies were constantly foiled by the amazing prices Elsevier charges. All I wanted was to find the best treatment for my patients.

  • Lab Lemming

    Further questions for Sean:
    What do you do if one of your students (either current or former) wants to submit a paper to Elsevier on which you are nth author? Do you take your name off? Do you encourage him to submit to a lower profile publication and hope his job prospects aren’t harmed?

  • Boy Cott

    I’d rather boycott Phys Rev D, for their policy of publishing anything that gets sent to them, including crap of the form “Eternal inflation predicts end of fiscal deficits in 2012/13”, etc etc etc

  • Baby Bones

    I was rather fascinated by the sheer number of publications Elsevier has, and found it mind-boggling how much they were charging for reports on publicly funded research.

    Interestingly, as well, Elsevier does have one high-profile mag that many non-scientists read: Variety.

  • A Publisher

    Do any of you realize that even if the “research” is publically funded, that it costs the publisher a considerable amount of money to set-up systems to have the articles reviewed, copyedited, typeset, coded so that they can appear online, indexed properly, and disseminated worldwide across many online platforms?

    Let’s be realistic, just because the research is publically funded, it doesn’t mean there aren’t real costs associated with publishing the material.

    An interesting commentary on the subject has appeared in The Guardian entitled “Branding academic publishers ‘enemies of science’ is offensive and wrong”

    Please read it….

  • I.P. Freeley

    Oh A Publisher, you are just a hoot!
    *Yes, the publisher arranges to have articles reviewed…by other scientists…for free.
    *Wow, they copyedit, typeset, and code the papers? As near as I can tell that mostly involves garbling the perfectly good LaTeX I sent you.
    *Nifty, on-line indexing? Yeah, NASA ADS does that just fine.
    *Cross-platform? Umm, html and pdf are not that complicated.

    I’m just impressed that publishing scientific journals for profit lasted as long as it did. Why didn’t it disappear a decade ago? One reason–there were still a few senior folks reading only printed journal articles. They have finally retired. That’s it, game over man. There’s no reason not to go fully on-line. Without the need to physically print and distribute, we just don’t see a need for for-profit publishers anymore. What do the publishers add that we can’t do better and cheaper ourselves?

  • Andrew Kantor

    Why just Elsevier? I worked for the American Chemical Society’s Publications division for years, and the scam is the same.

  • Hamish Johnston

    “What do the publishers add that we can’t do better and cheaper ourselves?”

    A good question — but another good question is “if it’s so easy, why haven’t physicists done it already?”

    Chad Orzel looks at one aspect of the challenge here

  • Phillip Helbig

    Since the situation in Astronomy seems only marginally better than in Physics, do you all have recommendations for good* open access Astronomy/Astrophysics journals to publish in?

    *Where good is probably defined as peer reviewed and not scoffed at when considered for jobs.

    Search the web for my name and similar topics and find several long essays on this topic in various blog comments.

    Key points:

    “Open access” often means that the author pays a very large fee. Don’t get distracted by weasel words.

    Essentially all astronomy journals allow (or even expressly encourage) posting papers on the arXiv, so access to the public is free; the only potential problem is the cost to authors, libraries, institutions or government agencies (depending on how the journal is funded; there are many different models).

    The prices of the leading astronomy journals seem, in my view, to be reasonable, and much lower than Elsevier prices.

    No major astronomy journals are published by Elsevier or Springer (anymore; A&A used to be published by Springer).

    Most journals (or an associated organization) retain the copyright, granting the author non-exclusive rights which cover all the normal stuff. MNRAS does the opposite: the author retains copyright but must grant MNRAS an exclusive license to publish. In practice it probably doesn’t matter, but I prefer the MNRAS model in this respect (other arguments, such as LaTeX macro packages, the way editing is handled etc might favour other journals).

    Bottom line: Astronomy is OK.

  • Phillip Helbig

    Another point: Don’t mix the discussion of journal prices with the issue of reforming the refereeing system. One can address both, but not at the same time.

  • Greg Stegeman

    Not that I think Elsevier is the only culprit but publishing in its current form is slow and out of date for our age.

  • Phillip Helbig

    While Elsevier is being justly criticized, not just for their price policy but because they also published fake journals (i.e. really advertisements for a drug company but intentionally disguised as journal articles which made a certain drug look good) and had an editor who published many of his own papers in “his” journal, this doesn’t mean that the whole idea of a journal is antiquated. One reason arXiv works is because most articles are also submitted to journals. Journals provide a type of quality control. Also, good journals will offer suggestions for improving the presentation, referees will offer constructive comments etc. The actual costs of paper copies exist but probably aren’t the main costs. Note also that some traditional journals, such as MNRAS, publish letters only online, i.e. not on paper anymore at all. But people still submit them, rather then posting the stuff only on arXiv. Why? Because acceptance by a good journal still means something.

    As soon as the paper is accepted, the accepted version can go on the arXiv, so who cares if the paper copy doesn’t appear until some time later?

  • j. knowles

    I’m not weighing in on the debate over prices or open aceess. Rather, I challenge the notion that “publicly funded research” should be free to access. There are lots of consumer goods that result from publicly funded programs that are in no way free to the consumer. Let’s start with the internet itself…

  • Mike

    They are also a thorn in the side of the mathematical community.

  • Phillip Helbig

    #32 misses the point. Consumer goods, running the internet etc cost money. Once the research is done, the cost to distribute it is $7 per paper (in total, not per view or whatever) (this is a number for arXiv). This is negligible compared to the cost of the research. All that should be free to the taxpayer (since he has already funded the research) is the paper resulting from the research, nothing else.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    I’m a big fan of PLoS, myself.

  • Jonn Mero

    YES to making all research papers readily available to ALL interested!
    The publications should be accessible from the world’s major public library, the internet, without exorbitant fees .

  • lexicon

    The problem here are Elsevier’s shareholders, who will sooner fire Elsevier’s executives than accept lower profit margins on their investments. Which is an interesting point, because some of the people commenting here may unknowingly be Elsevier shareholders themselves through their IRAs and pension funds…

  • Hellsevier

    There has already been a response to this “problem”: the recent proliferation of “open access” journals. There are 4 problems with that: 1, most of these are run by ripoff experts, far more piratical than Elsevier [they “invite” you to send them an article, and mention in the fine print that it will cost you a few thousand bucks “if” it gets accepted; 2, who knows how long your favorite newly-created journal will continue to exist? As J Baez says, it’s very easy to start such a thing; what he neglects to mention is that it’s even easier to stop it.
    3, most of these new journals are crap. Famous recent example:
    but that’s just an extreme example of the general tendency.
    4, tenure committees etc tend to be unimpressed with publications in these journals. In my case, they warned me that they didn’t even like JHEP. They wanted NPB, and that’s what they are getting. And believe me, getting published in NPB is still no walk in the park. That still counts for something.

    One more point: denial of access to the general public is not necessarily such a bad thing. Because “general public” really means “crackpots”. Denying them access does everyone a favor, including the cranks, because it might force them to do something else, eg, get a life.

  • Warrick

    If anyone is going to try to instigate real change, what we need is serious thought about why the journals exist in the first place, what value they presently add and how we can either remove or automate those tasks to get the cost down.

    IMO, the only thing, but a big repeatedly-mentioned thing, that the journals add is the co-ordination of the peer-review process. That is, identify a suitable referee, get substantial critical analysis of a paper’s content, and require incorporation of those comments for the published paper. It’s not the same as peers reading the paper and making up their own minds. You need someone with suitable knowledge to look through the scientific details and comment on their validity.

    The people I’d like to hear from most in this discussion are the editors. As far as I know, these are scientists themselves who are involved in the peer-review process and I’d like to know what they think about how well it works, how it can be improved, or what it is that the journals do or don’t do for us anymore.

  • Jeff

    Dear Publisher (#24): I appreciate that it costs a lot to properly and professionally edit, review, typeset, index, etc. However, I still remain convinced that when scientific work is publicly funded, the results of that scientific work should be in the public domain. I guess that means that the authors, or their grant agencies, should bear the cost of making their work publicly accessible.

  • Phillip Helbig

    At least in some fields, the problem of the results of research (whether publicly funded or not) being publicly available is a red herring, since practically all papers are on the arXiv. While there might be problems with the refereeing system, they are best addressed separately from the issue of journal prices. Not publishing in journals is also not an option, since acceptance by a journal is a (usually justified) stamp of quality. If the solution were that simple, people wouldn’t still be discussing it. There is also no problem in a journal costing something. The entire issue is whether certain journals are charging too much. If we conflate various issues, no progress will ever be made.

    By the way, “being in the public domain” means something different than “being publicly available”.

    The best solution would be for journals to be produced by professional societies and funded by those societies, subscriptions, grants from the government or some combination. Some are, and they are good journals.

    Many “open access” journals are funded by a hefty fee the author has to pay. The socialist in me says that this might prevent articles from poor but good authors.

  • Philip Gibbs

    “Another point: Don’t mix the discussion of journal prices with the issue of reforming the refereeing system. One can address both, but not at the same time.”

    I disagree. In fact I would say the opposite. These two things can only be addressed together. To put it another way, reforming the peer-review system well is the only realistic way to sort out the problem of journal pricing.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    Is the problem lack of open access, or fees? If open access comes with fees, and those fees are paid with government grant money, isn’t that still perfectly in keeping with the “open access” model? Once it gets published, taxpaying citizens can see it. That’s the whole point, right?

    I’m a big believer in the notion that you get what you pay for, and free = crap more often than not. That said, open access journals seem to be quite the bargain, from a societal standpoint. If more people supported them, I think impact might improve, but it will take established (i.e. tenured) investigators getting over some snobbery. Then the poor slobs sweating their first post-doc don’t have to feel like it’s the kiss of death to get published there.

  • Sam Gralla

    I signed the petition, but frankly I’d be pretty close to signing a similar petition for all journals. I don’t see the point of traditional print journals anymore. Peer review is a very useful service, but as far as I can tell it’s the only useful service they provide. And while I don’t know any details, I’m pretty sure that the amount they charge to libraries dwarfs the cost of a peer-review-only service.

    So libraries are being overcharged because journals are doing a lot of useless stuff (or in some cases because they are engaging in unfair business practices). How do we fix this? The only way is for libraries to stop buying journals until the cost becomes fair. So, go tell your local library that we actually don’t need a subscription to Physical Review, and that they should just stop buying it until the cost becomes X, where X is the amount it costs to run a good peer-review service plus a reasonable profit. Simple.

  • Sesh

    As I understand it, the problems with Elsevier, compared even to other publishers, are that they charge truly exorbitant amounts (there is no way that the cost of arranging for some reviewers to provide their services for free can justify a subscription cost of >$15,000 per annum per university for Nucl. Phys. B); they “bundle” journals together so you have to pay for ones you don’t want to get ones you do want; and some of the journals included in these bundles are in fact non-peer reviewed rubbish (such as – until recently – Medical Hypotheses, which gave space to unjustified claims about HIV not causing AIDS).

    I think even if you generally support the model of traditional print journals charging for access, this is clearly a case of immoral exploitation of that model by a publishing house. Or even if you perhaps don’t agree it is immoral, you must surely agree that it is in the interest of universities and academics around the world to take collective action to obtain a better service at a better price.

  • aaa

    To Low Math, Meekly Interacting:
    PLoS is a nice idea, but it has the same problem as Physical Review X: huge page charges for authors. This seems to be a problem with many (most?, all?) “reputable” open access journals. While these open access journals are good for general public, it hardly helps poorly funded universities or research institutions when the total page charges for articles are more than what the institutional subscription to a non-open access journal would be.

    I understand that some fees are necessary for open access authors, and it has to be more that $7 per paper that arxiv uses, if we want refereeing and all that. However, $2000+ that PLoS journals charge seems excessive.

  • Lynn DeMaria

    Unfortunately Elsevier’s policies do not only affect the research end of Academia. Last summer I was looking for a book for a new class that I was teaching. I called my rep, was told she was on vacation. After much persistance on my part, I found that pretty much everyone in the sales staff was on a week long vacation in Hawaii, on the company of course. I never did get the book. This year, again, while trying to develop a course for online, I asked the rep for a copy of the book. I was allowed an ebook, but the company flat out refused to send me a paper copy because the school had only ordered 5 books in the past year and if I wanted a copy I could buy one from amazon. They require a minimum of 15 book ordered to send a hard copy, it is not profitable enough for them to send hard copies. I explained that it is difficult to use an ebook while also developing an online course, toggling between screens is impossible. Their response – too bad. Not only should the research community boycott this company ( who extorts money from not only institutions but from students in order to send the company to hawaii for a week) but Professors should find another company for their textbooks as this would be a 2 pronged assualt. They are greedy and furthermore the sales staff are downright nasty and rude.

  • Phillip Helbig

    “Another point: Don’t mix the discussion of journal prices with the issue of reforming the refereeing system. One can address both, but not at the same time.”

    I disagree. In fact I would say the opposite. These two things can only be addressed together. To put it another way, reforming the peer-review system well is the only realistic way to sort out the problem of journal pricing.

    Referees work for free. So, refereeing has nothing to do with the price of journals. The two things are orthogonal.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    OK, so maybe for the present open access journals aren’t for poor institutions. How about rich ones? (:cough: harvard :cough:)

  • Stevan Harnad


    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.)

  • BBBShrewHarpy


    Whilst refereeing is done for free, it is a real burden on those of us who referee papers, and we don’t want to be swamped with papers to referee that have not gone through any vetting by the journal, or papers from authors who find the barrier to entry (i.e., the price of submitting to the journal) too high. In that way, the price of the journal and the refereeing process are currently inextricably linked.

  • Sara Garcia

    Radiology is actually a medical specialty that employs the use of imaging to both diagnose and deal with illness visualised within the human body. Radiologists apply an effective array of imaging solutions (similar to x-beam radiography, sonography, calculated tomography (CT), atomic drugs, positron emission tomography (PET) and permanent magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)) to identify or deal with diseases. Interventional radiology would be the performance of (often minimally invasive) health-related techniques with all the guidance of imaging technologies. The acquisition of health-related imaging is often carried out by the radiographer also radiology technician.

  • Phillip Helbig

    @50: Please read before you post. The current issue is not open access but price of the journals.

    @51: If the journal weeds out obvious crackpot papers before they are sent to referees, that’s fine. However, I think you are doing a disservice to science as a referee if you don’t want to referee a paper from someone who finds the price of the journal too high. (At least in astronomy, there are enough well respected journals without page charges that this is not an issue.) Do you think that only rich people, or people from rich institutions, can write good papers?

  • BBBShrewHarpy

    I have often refereed papers from journals with no page charges, so to the extent that a field supports such journals this is an obvious way out for people who are not from rich institutions. My desire for the barrier to entry is the weeding out of crackpot papers, but also LPUs (Least Publishable Units to those who don’t live in a publish-or-perish world). Crackpot papers are often so obvious that they are easy to reject, but much better that it be done before the referee gets them, because really, who wants to spend their time doing this. The LPU is a more insidious phenomenon as it results in the creation of many, many papers. When cost per paper is a consideration to a research group, at least some of the papers will end up being combined. The result is less burden on the refereeing population, and more scientific substance per paper.

    So it is not that I think that only rich people can write good papers, but I like there to be some way of enforcing discipline on authors who even think of writing a paper whenever they feel they have some pearl of wisdom to convey. Price is one way, probably not the only one.

  • Billie

    No more outlandishly priced articles!

  • Phillip Helbig

    “Maybe I am missing something here, but why boycott Elsevier especially, and not, say, Springer, which also has a fair amount of locked-access articles with an exorbitant price?”

    Timothy Gowers addresses this. Basically, a boycott has to be large enough to be visible, but not so broad that it is impractical. Why Elsevier and not Springer? Because Springer, though some costs are high, also publish books on which they probably earn next to nothing. Also, there is a long tradition with Springer while Elsevier (which has nothing to do with the company which once bore this name) seems to be in it only for the money.

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  • Gary Hurd

    I would suggest that if you really want to bust their nuts you need to stop citing their journals.

    If you want to effect a change, you must propose one. For example, all publicly funded research publications must be open access on-line within 6-12 months. AAAS makes their entire Science catalog free within one calendar year.

    And, when will we smack Nature? They are very stingy even with a paid subscription and should be the very next target.

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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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