July 27, 2017

Petition Targeting Elsevier’s Business Practices Begins to Snowball

(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.

Gowers blog post generated 213 responses as of Tuesday afternoon, including one from David Clark, a senior vice president for Elsevier (whose identity LJ confirmed). Clark’s post reads in part:

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.

Michael Kelley About Michael Kelley

Michael Kelley (mkelley@mediasourceinc.com) is the former Editor-in-Chief, Library Journal.

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  1. All these scientists/academics criticizing Elsevier, have benefited in the past from publications in Elsevier’s high quality (and high impact factor) journals to get their present jobs/positions (in MIT, Cambridge…). Why the criticism when the US law did not attempt to block the creation and growth of open access publications, but simply protect the copyright owned by publishers such as Elsevier? Want to support open access? Publish in open access journals, that will be more than enough.

  2. Joel Lutes says:

    Correction: Elsevier is not giving away access through Worldcat; it is simply making its full text searchable (not available) then *subscribers* can access the full text of the articles.



    While the worldwide researcher community is again busy working itself up into an indignant lather with yet another publisher boycott threat, I am still haunted by a “keystroke koan”:

    “Why did 34,000 researchers sign a threat in 2000 to boycott their journals unless those journals agreed to provide open access to their articles – when the researchers themselves could provide open access (OA) to their own articles by self-archiving them on their own institutional websites?”

    Not only has 100% OA been reachable through author self-archiving as of at least 1994, but over 90% of all refereed journals (published by 65% of all refereed journal publishers) have already given their explicit green light to some form of author self-archiving — with over 60% of all journals, including Elsevier’s — giving their authors the green light to self-archive their refereed final drafts (“postprint”) immediately upon acceptance for publication…

    So why are researchers yet again boycotting instead of keystroking, with yet another dozen years of needlessly lost research access and impact already behind us?

    We have met the enemy, Pogo, and it’s not Elsevier.

    (And this is why keystroke mandates are necessary; just keying out boycott threats to publishers is not enough.)