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Why I haven’t joined the Elsevier boycott (yet)

March 5, 2012

I have been thinking quite a bit about the current Elsevier boycott. I do agree with many of the objections that were raised about Elsevier’s practices. I am not going to defend Elsevier – there is little excuse for their practice of bundling, the publication of fake journals, or their (former) support of RWA. But let me explain why I am not joining in at the moment. I have spoken with a number of people about this, some of whom have joined, but many who have not, for reasons similar to the ones below.  (I should disclose right here that I am an editor for the Elsevier journal Physica D, for which I receive a small fee from Elsevier).

I collaborate with biologists, a number of whom are at the beginning of their careers.  For them boycotting Elsevier is not an option. For instance, Neuron and other high profile neuroscience journals are published by Elsevier.  Tenure-track faculty need to attempt to publish in at least some of them, unless they are the next Karl Deisseroth.  The system of sending your paper to the highest impact journal you can, and then letting it settle to the right level is inefficient and crazy – but that’s what biologists are expected to do. The whole process is somewhat of a lottery – you win if the editor likes your stuff enough to send it out to review, and if you then get reviewers who are well disposed. Restricting your number of draws is not a wise career move. I would like to keep collaborating with biologists, but I cannot ask them not to publish in Elsevier journals.

Moreover, it is somewhat unclear to me what the demands are.  The main boycott website http://thecostofknowledge.com/ lists three main problems with Elsevier, and I fully agree that these should be addressed.  However, it is unclear to me whether the boycott is supposed to end if Elsevier addresses these three issues.  I doubt that the boycott will drive Elsevier out of business, but I  hope that it will make them reconsider their business practices.

I would argue that the three main problems pointed to by the boycotters are just the tip of the iceberg.  The real issue is that scientific publishing as a whole needs to undergo a fundamental change.   I hope that the boycott is the first step, and the next is a serious conversation about how science will be published, and scientific contributions evaluated in the future (these two issues are intertwined and need to be discussed together). If we are able to agree on a way to modernize the current way of publishing, then the problems with Elsevier will be resolved as a corollary.

Addendum (3/8): I have gotten a bit of feedback on this post.  Some have pointed out that I am not being consistent: I criticize Elsevier, and agree with the reasons for the boycott. The argument is that if I feel this way, then I should not be associated with a company that behaves so unethically, regardless of what my collaborators decide.

This is a good point – except once you go down that road, where do you stop? While Elsevier seems to be the worst of the lot, Springer engages in many similar practices, and society journals have their own problems.  Perhaps to be consistent, one would have to stay away from for-profit journals altogether. However, few have argued that course of action. One could say that since Elsevier is the worst we should go after them first. This is pragmatic, but again not fully consistent.

I wrote this to explain that the decision to boycott Elsevier is not necessarily an easy one. It will have little impact on the career of some, while it could seriously affect others – here’s a good blog entry on this.  For the record, I try to publish largely in open access journals, and post preprints on arXiv and my webpage whenever possible, and I encourage all to do the same.

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4 Comments
  1. anon permalink

    “The whole process is somewhat of a lottery – you win if the editor likes your stuff enough to send it out to review, and if you then get reviewers who are well disposed”

    Kind of off topic, but does that strike anyone else as *egregiously vulnerable to corruption*, and generally all-round anti-scientific?

    • josic permalink

      I exaggerated a bit here. I do trust that good papers are far more likely to make it in high-profiel journals than bad papers. But the process is somewhat random.

  2. Chinmaya permalink

    Yes, I agree with your points. I think the Elsevier boycott is kind of like OWS in that it takes a stand against an inefficient system (or an unfair one) but doesn’t really formulate clear goals.

    At the same time, I don’t know why the publishing industry needs to exist now in any fashion that is not completely digital, and why, should the publishing industry go digital, can the costs not be picked up by universities (in terms of hosting servers, archiving etc) so that the material can be freely available without pay-walls.

    Almost everything that the publisher does is now done by either an unpaid reviewer, or by an editor, or the authors themselves. Papers are submitted in a near camera-ready fashion.

    ArXiV is already a repository where authors upload papers which are fairly close to the versions that appear in print in subscription-only journals. It is not inconceivable to add a layer of peer review to ArXiV or to another such system, and drive the publishing industry out of the equation altogether.

    • josic permalink

      I think a large problem is how to evaluate scientific work. Currently the impact-factor (or prestige) of journals is used – or at least perceived to be used – to evaluate a scientist’s work. If we dispense with traditional journals this system will be upset. There is no guarantee that whatever replaces it will be fair, or less amenable to manipulation. I believe that this is one of the main reasons that traditional journals are still around.

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