(This story has been updated to include a comment from Elsevier.)
The business practices of Elsevier, the giant Anglo-Dutch publisher of more than 2,000 scientific, technical, and medical journals, have become the target of a boycott that appears to be gaining momentum
Timothy Gowers, of the University of Cambridge and a winner of the Fields Medal, criticized Elsevier on his blog on January 21 for charging exorbitantly high prices, obliging libraries to purchase either a large bundle of journals (including ones they do not want) or none at all, and supporting legislation, such as the Research Works Act, that Gowers said undermines open access.
“… I am not only going to refuse to have anything to do with Elsevier journals from now on, but I am saying so publicly,” Gowers wrote. “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,” the post reads.
“If libraries attempt to negotiate better deals, Elsevier is ruthless about cutting off access to all their journals,” Gowers wrote.
An online petition has now emerged organized by Tyler Neylon where academics can pledge they won’t publish, referee, or do editorial work for any Elsevier journals “unless they radically change how they operate.” The petition had 2284 signatures on Tuesday afternoon, and it contains numerous comments critical of Elsevier. It also has generated a lot of other commentary.
“Since their entire business model depends on our donating free labor to them, all it will take to bring them down is for enough of us to decide we’re through being had,” wrote Scott Aaronson, an associate professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT on his blog. He also signed the petition.
Our business is based on people using the journals that we publish and ensuring access to such titles is absolutely core to what we do. A case in point is our attempt to make our journals available in developing countries through the Hinari and Agora initiatives, amongst others, our liberal copyright policies and exchange of data with the arXiv and other community tools.
[UPDATE] Tom Reller, Elsevier’s vice president for global corporate relations, said the company was happy to discuss any concerns but he said that the petitioners had their facts wrong and that Elsevier “is in the business of expanding access to content, not restricting it.” He added:
Access to published content is greater and at its lowest cost per use than ever. This is a direct result of the investments publishers have made to digitize and disseminate content. The reality is that the introduction of optional packages have added enormous access at fractions of the list prices; and resulted in reduced cost per use.
The company, coincidentally, announced today that it has signed an agreement with OCLC that will make the full text from Elsevier’s SciVerse ScienceDirect journals and ebooks available to users of OCLC’s WorldCat Local.
Gowers acknowledged, in a subsequent blog post, that Elsevier’s involvement with arXiv “considerably weakens the argument that Elsevier papers, once published, disappear behind a very expensive paywall.” But he said it still was an inconvenience since page references in the arXiv version are different from the journal.
A similar, earlier petition effort by the Public Library of Science to convince scientific and medical publishers to make research literature available for distribution through free online public archives drew nearly 34,000 signatures from 180 nations, “but the publishing landscape remained largely unchanged until PLoS became a publisher itself to affect change,” according to PLoS’s website.