Elsevier: The beginning of the end?

I’ll admit, I got some satisfaction out of telling the editor of the “Journal of Functional Analysis” last week that I will not referee the paper he had sent me because I am boycotting everything Elsevier. I was less thrilled by his non-reaction. Actually, very few editors of Elsevier-exploited math journals have resigned their editorial positions so far. Their argument as to why they haven’t is well rehearsed, but their invariably defensive attitude betrays an acute awareness of this historical juncture. “BTW, 66 faculty members from UBC have already signed the boycott at the Cost of Knowledge page,” wrote our head librarian for Science & Engineering. Yes, and only six from Math, I noted to myself, disappointed. But all this may not matter anymore, since things are starting to unravel at an astonishing speed.

More than 11,000 have already signed off on Elsevier worldwide. The number of mathematicians is creeping up to 2,000, leading Tim Gowers to express his wish, “that it will pass that milestone soon, and keep on climbing.”  Will we ever succeed?

On May 02, Elsevier sent its second communiqué to the world’s mathematics community. I wonder if they are also doing the same with the other disciplines, or is it that mathematics –thanks to Gowers and the likes– is again punching above its weight on behalf of all disciplines. Actually, whole fields of research are conspicuous by their virtual absence from the Cost of Knowledge list. Could they be the fields, where Elsevier own most of the high-impact journals? This could make a good case for getting disciplines to diversify their publication and dissemination outlets!

In the letter, Elsevier wants “to inform you of some new initiatives we have undertaken based upon the feedback we have received from the community.” Fortunately, Tim Gowers is here to explain and clarify for the rest of us the subtleties in some of Elsevier’s proposals for “reform”, including their commitment to a “Freedom Collection”, which can’t help but remind Tim and the rest of us of the famous Freedom Fries“Nothing that Elsevier has said gives us any reason to end the boycott. They are behaving much as one would expect: offering minimal concessions that will look as good as possible while keeping their profits intact.”  

I will surely take Tim’s word and his analysis over the statements of the Elsevier PR personnel anytime. I wish more academic editors of Elsevier journals would, and let’s face it, the campaign would have led to reform more quickly, had many of the editorial boards proceeded to resign, or at least threaten to resign “en masse”. It is indeed intriguing and troubling to see the denial that some of our colleagues are living while hanging on to their positions in order “to serve” the community and “to protect” its academic standards. “Elsevier is reaching out and we are having our say in meetings with their managers.” But why didn’t you speak up before the Gowers’ call for a boycott? And would these managers have bothered to call for a meeting with your editorial board if it wasn’t for this initiative?

A couple of months ago, there was a bold comment from MIT’s Scott Aaronson indicating that non-participation in the Elsevier boycott could lead to professional stigmatization, at least while  “evaluating  (say) a faculty or tenure candidate”. However, I am yet to see any attempt to shame Elsevier editors out of their –apparently coveted– positions “to serve” the community?

In any case, there appears to be a significant movement towards open-access mandates, at least in Europe and the United States. There was recently,

I think the war on the exploiters of scientific publishing is being won. They said it would never happen — but it just has. Hopefully, we can soon turn our attention to the textbook racket.

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1 Response to Elsevier: The beginning of the end?

  1. You may want to read an antitrust analysis of the big deal pricing by Edlin and Rubinfeld.


    Rubinfeld was a former Deputy Assistant Attorney General head of the Economic Analysis Group of the US DOJ. He was involved in pushing the Microsoft antitrust case.

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