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Margin Notes

Elsevier journal boycott: first skirmish in a longer battle

The entire model of restricted-access knowledge dissemination through journal publishing needs to change.


Dutch publishing giant Elsevier, one of the largest academic publishers in the world, appears to have been the first to blink in its standoff with frustrated researchers. Since Jan. 22, researchers from around the world have been signing their names to a boycott called the Cost of Knowledge, vowing not to publish their work in any Elsevier journal. As of yesterday, more than 7,500 researchers had signed on, including some from Canada.

Elsevier owns 2,000 journals and publishes roughly 250,000 articles a year in a wide variety of fields, and its archive contains seven million publications. In 2010, the company made $1.6 billion and had an operating profit margin of 36 percent.

The boycott was a response to a call to action posted a few days earlier by Tim Gowers, a mathematician at Cambridge University. Dr. Gowers had had enough and declared, “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.”

Among the many reasons Dr. Gowers listed for his boycott of Elsevier was the company’s support of efforts that “attempt to stop the move to open access publishing,” including Elsevier’s support of the Research Works Act. The proposed U.S. legislation, introduced to the House of Representatives last December, contained provisions to prohibit open access mandates for federally funded research. These provisions would have effectively undone the Public Access Policy of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, which requires scientists to submit final peer-reviewed journal manuscripts that arise from NIH funds (i.e., taxpayer-supported research) to the digital archive PubMed Central upon acceptance for publication. The Canadian Institutes for Health Research introduced similar requirements back in 2007 that all research papers generated from the projects they fund are freely accessible through the publisher’s website or an online repository within six months of publication.

But, on Monday, Elsevier withdrew its support of the Research Works Act and said in a statement that it hopes this move “will address some of the concerns expressed and help create a less heated and more productive climate for our ongoing discussions with research funders.” Hours later, the sponsors of the legislation declared the bill dead.

It seems unlikely Elsevier’s change of heart will resolve the central issue of concern to many researchers, which is really the current controlled-access model of knowledge dissemination through journal publishing. As Mike Taylor, an earth scientist at University of Bristol, put it:

At this point, it seems clear that the old publishers aren’t going to change … . To fix the academic publishing mess, researchers need to stop sending their work to barrier-based journals. And for that to happen, we need funding bodies and job-search committees to judge candidates on the quality of their work, not on which brand name it’s associated with.

Happily, there are signs of movement in this direction: for example, The Wellcome Trust says “it is the intrinsic merit of the work, and not the title of the journal in which an author’s work is published, that should be considered in making funding decisions.” We need more funding and hiring bodies to make such declarations. Only then will researchers will be free of the need (real or apparent) to prop up parasitic publishers by sending their best work to big-name, barrier-based journals.

So will the boycott hold, and even spread? University of British Columbia mathematician and blogger Nassif Ghoussoub notes that in 2001, more than 30,000 scientists signed an open letter in which they pledged to exclusively publish in, review for and serve as editors of journals that placed their contents in the then newly launched PubMed Central with no more than a six-month delay. However, “publishers did not respond to the call, and the campaign fizzled away as very few followed through on their pledge.”

Will this time be different? I think it could be. I share the view of an online commenter to a CBC story, who had this to say:

The entire scientific publishing system is past due for a complete overhaul. Fifty – even twenty-five – years ago, the journals served an important function in the dissemination of research. For that service, institutions and libraries paid subscription fees and researchers proudly gave up their work for free, or even used part of their grant money to pay the publishing costs through page fees.

Today, any researcher can publish their own work online for anyone to read. The only thing that keeps the journals in business is the perception that only “peer-reviewed studies” published in journals are authoritative. But the truth is that a researcher’s blog posting is open to more extensive (and constructive) peer review by other people in their field — who can follow along with work in progress and offer suggestions along the way — than the journals’ process of sending out a final manuscript for comment by two or three reviewers. In fact, the biggest obstacle to free discussion of research-in-process is the journals’ refusal to publish research results that have been previously published elsewhere, or discussed in the news media pre-publication.

Incidentally, University Affairs has a feature story on open peer review in its upcoming April print edition, which will be posted online on March 5 – and freely accessible to all.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is a former editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Linnet Humble / February 29, 2012 at 18:07

    The CBC commenter quoted at the end of this article seems to conflate issues of peer review with controlled access. I still consider peer review to be a valuable process: it helps ensure quality control and assists with fact-checking, which the editor of a journal often doesn’t have time for. More to the point, peer review is NOT the source of inflated journal subscription costs: bundling and for-profit publishing are.

    I also disagree with the implicit suggestion that journals may themselves be obsolete. They are a formal channel for scholarly communication. Faculty blogs and institutional repositories may provide alternative spaces for discussion (just as conferences do), but they are not curated in the same way, nor do they have the same level of visibility in the research world. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water.

  2. Ruth / March 29, 2012 at 09:51

    The journal I was managing in Ottawa has now gone to England to be part of a for-profit publisher. This when all over the continent universities are making a commitment to open access. Academic journals are about two things: disseminating knowledge and building a CV. There is no need for profit in the mix. It merely subverts yet another good idea to the capitalist system.