I am not a radical, but I am boycotting Elsevier

I’ve signed the Elsevier boycott declaration at the costofknowledge site inspired by Tim Gowers’ blog post on the many problems with Elsevier’s behavior.

I am not a publishing reform radical. I value the traditional model of subscription journal publishing and have invested time and effort in making peer review work.* I suspect that lots of people in similar positions are among the majority of mathematicians who have not signed the boycott declaration yet.

So, why do I think we should boycott Elsevier?

The mathematical scholarly community operates under a strong social compact — this is one reason so many of us do so much for free. With very rare exceptions, mathematicians hold themselves to a higher standard than the minimal criterion of what they can get away with. So should the publishers we deal with. Scholarly society and university press publishers, for the most part, do. Springer used to but is in transition. Elsevier does not. Elsevier has demonstrated again and again that it will cross the boundaries of acceptable behavior on pricing, on editorial integrity, on legislative lobbying.

None of what Elsevier does is illegal. There is no law against running a journal as Chaos, Solitons and Fractals was run. There is no law against political donations to elected officials who bring forward advantageous legislation. There is, apparently, no law against bundling and ruthless pricing that produces a profit margin in line with what monopolies achieve.

There is, however, social sanction — if we’ll use it. I won’t deal with Elsevier as if it’s part of the mathematical community when it shows little commitment to the standards of behavior that membership implies.

*I was co-editor of Proceedings of the LMS from 2003 to 2008, and am currently a managing editor of Compositio Mathematica.


Filed under math, opinions, publishing

6 responses to “I am not a radical, but I am boycotting Elsevier

  1. jmartinezgarcia

    I generally support this point of view but as a young researcher about to publish my first paper, I find hard to actively support the boycott for selfish (but critical) reasons. A young researcher may as well find (especially if this boycott goes successful) that his only chances to publish, review, do eidtorial board (obviously at different stages) may as well be through Elsevier journals.

    For instance, say I knew that my paper has high chances to be accepted in an Elsevier journal but it is not clear about a non-Elsevier one. Should I join the boycott, or should I submit even if I support the boycott because I need one more paper publish in order to apply for a job? I think it is harder for young researchers to support this boycott and it is not that easy to break the status quo, even if everyone strongly agrees with it.

    I am not in this situation now, but it is not absolutley unlikely, and I think it would be good for a successful boycott to think on a plan of action or an alternative for these cases.

    • Several people have asked similar questions on other websites, and the answer from not-so-young researchers has always been the same: look after your interests. No one expects people without permanent jobs to risk damaging their chances.

      This boycott is about making the world of science a better place, and losing talented, ethically-minded people will not help us.

  2. I feel differently from Tom about this. We all, young and old, have to balance our own self-interest with what is good for the wider world. If you agree with me that Elsevier’s current tactics are hurting the mathematical (and scientific) community (which you might not), and you support the boycott — meaning you value the fact that several thousand people have publicly put their names to a pledge not to work with Elsevier (which you might not), then you have some responsibility to put your name to it. I do mean *some*. How much is for you to judge. I agree with Tom and you that young mathematicians face a different set of pressures from older ones. Each of us has to make his own decision.

  3. plm

    You can recognize a person is a mathematician when s/he uses “compact” instead of “contract”. 🙂

    Regarding the comment of J. Martinez García I liked Scott Aaronson’s reply very much (which I had thought independently):

  4. Toy problem: Suppose I am about to publish a paper with my supervisor. He says to publish in an Elsevier journal. He doesn’t care about this story much (I don’t say it is the case, I am just supposing). What to do? Go in a row with the supervisor?
    Yes, there is a need to be brave, but it is easier to be brave if we have a good strategy. I’ve written a post about it: http://travelsthroughflatland.wordpress.com/2012/02/26/boycotting-elsevier/
    Possible things to do are:
    1 Contacting the members of Elsevier Journal editorial boards to lobby Elsevier to change its policy or resign, with a deadline for change to happen. Among the policies to change include at the very least the end of bundling and reducing the prices of the journals. This should be done by senior, well-established mathematicians. It is enough to convince one member to discuss it with the others to get the snowball moving.
    2 A database (a wiki in wikia would be enough) with alternatives to each of the journals of Elsevier (similar subject, similar impact factor). This would help young researchers to find alternatives. It is easy to set it up, but to fill it in is harder.
    3 An easy way of creating alternative journals for each of those that Elsevier is willing to lose before they agree to change their policy. I think the Journal of Topology is the way to go. In case they have doubts they may not the impact factor was doubled after the change. It is necessary to contact alternative publishers who are reasonable is a good idea.
    4 Some incentive for those who behave like mushrooms to take action (I’m not sure what this incentive would be).

    Any more ideas?

  5. Pingback: I support UCLA and the UC Libraries | Geometry Bulletin Board

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