Your library $$ at work: Elsevier offering $60 to editors for each paper they process

A little over a year ago, a petition for boycotting everything Elsevier was initiated following a blog post by Tim Gowers about his position on the issue. I vaguely remember talking about it with my UBC colleague, Greg Martin, who is on the editorial Board of the Journal of Number Theory (JNT), another one of Elsevier’s journals. He told me then that he wanted to give the publisher a chance to improve or change its ways. Yesterday, he decided to resign from the editorial board of JNT, and sign the petition. Today, another UBC colleague, Mike Bennett wrote: “After much reflection, I will follow Greg’s lead and also resign from the editorial board of JNT after 9 years.” Greg also received today an interesting response from Elsevier publisher, Laura Schmidt, where she comments, among other things, about Elsevier’s offer for editorial honoraria. More about that later. For now, I am reproducing  below Greg’s resignation letter, with his permission. See also Tim Gowers’ blog and the related comments.

Dear colleagues,

I am writing to inform you of my resignation from the editorial board of the Journal of Number Theory, effective immediately. I will also be adding my name publicly to the list of people who refrain from volunteering for, or submitting manscripts to, Elsevier journals.

It has been a little over a year since the boycott against Elsevier went public. The petition at http://thecostofknowledge.com has been signed by thousands of mathematicians (indeed, over 13,000 researchers in total). There was a flurry of communication back and forth between Elsevier and our editorial board (and those of other journals, I’m sure). But now the dust has settled, and I must conclude that essentially nothing has changed.

Financial hardships remain in place for our libraries and institutions (even more so, as budgets tighten these days), despite all the good reasons that access to our own research should be becoming less expensive, not more. I’m sure you all know these points well; a lucid summary appears at:

            http://gowers.files.wordpress.com/2012/02/elsevierstatementfinal.pdf

It is disappointing to read that statement’s “What next?” section, which proposes several levels of possible improvement to the status quo, and realize that not a single one of them is gaining significant ground.

As far as I can tell, Elsevier’s responses to our concerns ended up being limited to a slight easing off of support for legislation limiting access to our research, together with a nominal reduction in individual journal prices. Regarding the latter, however, Elsevier’s “bundling” practice remains in place, making individual journals’ prices essentially irrelevant. Their (aggressively defended) lack of pricing transparency from one institution to another also speaks volumes, in my mind, to the limits of their desire to seriously address our pricing concerns.

More recently, we were told of Elsevier’s new policy that editors would receive $60 for every article they process for the Journal of Number Theory. To me, this policy demonstrates a true inability (or unwillingness) to understand the key part of our observation that “all the work is done for free by volunteers, but access to that work is exorbitantly expensive”. We want access to be less expensive; we’re not looking for extra dough in our pockets. The most generous interpretation of this new policy’s effect is that it continues to take money away from the research community at large, but now puts some of it in the personal pockets of a small subset of mathematicians who don’t need it. (My personal reaction, to be honest, was to view this as too close to bribery not to be somewhat insulting.) But this policy uncontroversially shows, at least, the extent of Elsevier’s robust profits on its research journals.

It might well be that a commercial company such as Elsevier is simply unable to adapt to a publication model more appropriate to our 21st-century ability to easily format, store, and transmit research around the globe. This is why my resignation does not contain any condemnation of the people who work for Elsevier. But I do not wish to continue supporting a system, however entrenched, that forces our institutions to make a choice between giving up increasingly expensive research resources and throwing more and more of their educational budget into the closed coffers of commercial publishers.

Of course, any issue as complicated as this one admits a wide range of reasonable opinions and strategies, and I respect the judgment and good intentions of everyone receiving this email. However, if any of you continue to be troubled by this situation, I submit that now is as good a time as any to join me in resigning from JNT.

Sincerely yours,

Greg Martin, Professor, Department of Mathematics, University of British Columbia

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4 Responses to Your library $$ at work: Elsevier offering $60 to editors for each paper they process

  1. I suggest these two ex-editors email Elsevier and ask their names be removed from list of editors for JNT, as they are still listed on Elsevier’s website.

  2. As a science librarian, doing mathematics in UBC, this is the first time I hear about a honorarium for reviewing papers with Elsevier. We do spend a massive amount of $$$ each year on Elsevier journals and this practice of paying the editors/reviewers rather than unbundling the journal packages or reducing the cost of journals makes me uncomfortable.

  3. Mike Taylor says:

    It’s important for Elsevier that they do this quickly. One of Jeffrey Beall’s criteria for identifying a predatory publisher is that its journals “include scholars on an editorial board without their knowledge or permission”.

  4. Pingback: As the dust settles … nothing has changed at Elsevier | Quantum Moxie

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