Boffin's blog blast births boycott of publisher Elsevier

Rage over high fees and SOPA support

The ongoing world protests against SOPA, PIPA, and ACTA have helped inspire a revolt among scientists over the role of academic publisher Elsevier and its business practices.

British mathematician Tim Gowers kicked-started the campaign with a scorching blog post outlining numerous complaints against the publisher, which sells over 2,000 academic journals such as The Lancet and Cell. Gowers claims that Elsevier charges unacceptably high prices and forces libraries to subscribe to bundles of publications en masse - some of which have little, if any, scientific credibility.

He also noted the company’s involvement in lobbying for SOPA, PIPA, and the Research Works Act (RWA) currently going through the US Congress, which would introduce charges to access publicly funded scientific research.

“I am not only going to refuse to have anything to do with Elsevier journals from now on, but I am saying so publicly. I am by no means the first person to do this, but the more of us there are, the more socially acceptable it becomes, and that is my main reason for writing this post,” he wrote.

The blog post touched a very raw nerve, judging from the response. An online petition was quickly set up and, as of Friday evening, over a thousand academics had signed up to join the boycott. Signers include some of the most prestigious names in their respective fields, and the petition is gaining more signatures by the hour. El Reg spoke to some of the petitioners, and found genuine grievances at the current state of play.

Elsevier does have a reputation for charging very high prices, even in the rarified atmosphere of academic publishing, but its practice of bundling subscriptions seems to cause the most concern. While there are some key journals that libraries feel they must subscribe to, they are forced by the bundling system to take out expensive subscriptions to journals of questionable value, according to petitioners with whom we spoke.

Rob Kirby a mathematics professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, explained to The Register that some of these journals cost up to $200 a page. He blamed iniertia on the part of libraries for continuing to pay these sums, but said there was also concern among academics that their careers could be harmed if they speak out.

“One fellow, a postdoctoral student, in my office 15 minutes ago, was asked to edit one of these journals,” he explained. “He said he wouldn’t do it, but was worried on the effect it might have on his career. I don’t think this case would, but it does cause concern.”

He pointed out that there were instances of much lower-cost journals, such as those published by the Academic Press, being bought out by Elsevier – which promptly jacked up the prices. While there are publications set up by academics that charge much less per page, they are fighting against inertia on the part of the buyers.

In this El Reg hack's opinion it’s difficult to see quite how Elsevier can get away with charging the prices it does. The content of the journals is submitted by the academic community free of charge, and they are usually peer-reviewed by fellow academics for a nominal – if any – fee. Elsevier simply has to print and sell them into libraries. In 2010 the company cleared over $2bn in revenues.

The company has certainly made some controversial decisions. A 2006 legal case in Australia exposed the claim that pharmaceutical company Merck & Co. paid Elsevier to set up the Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine. This gave every appearance of being a properly peer-reviewed journal, but in fact mostly contained papers that were favorable to Merck’s products.

“Our Australia office published a series of sponsored article compilation publications, on behalf of pharmaceutical clients, that were made to look like journals and lacked the proper disclosures. This was an unacceptable practice, and we regret that it took place,” said Michael Hansen, CEO of Elsevier's Health Sciences Division, in a statement at the time.

Questions have also been raised about the company’s journal “Chaos, Solitons & Fractals.” The publication carried over 300 articles written by the editor Mohamed El Naschie, and some have questioned if they went through a proper peer-review proces. One academic, who declined to talk on the record, claimed that the journal was essentially a “vehicle for him and his chums,” and that Elsevier let the situation persist.

“Elsevier has editorial practices that are scientifically unreliable – that is unforgivable,” Robin Blume-Kohout – a quantum information scientist at Los Alamos National Lab but speaking in a purely personal capacity – told The Register.

There are alternatives to the traditional academic publication system, he pointed out. The preprint archive, currently operated out of Cornell University, carries many important academic papers from the physical and computer sciences, and is increasingly being used to replace traditional academic journals. However, there is an enormous amount of material from pre-internet days that is unavailable – because Elsevier holds the copyright.

Blume-Kohout said that part of the reason the scientists' protests may have taken off is because of the growing mobilization of the online community against overly strict intellectual property legislation such a SOPA, PIPA, and RWA. “I’m certain the timing, coming after SOPA, PIPA protests, is crucial,” he said.

“Scientists make awful politicians – we’re allergic to action like this – it’s not the kind of thing we think we should be involved in,” he said. “But when scientists finally manage to get organized it can come to a severe shock to those who assume we will sit on our hands.”

El Reg tried repeatedly to contact Elsevier for its views on the boycott, but the company had no comment at time of this posting. ®

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