Trouble for Elsevier, the Leading Academic Publisher

Friday, February 17, 2012


Late last month, a Cambridge Mathematician wrote a blog post that launched a massive boycott of the largest publisher of academic journals in the world. The boycott, now more than 6,000 academics strong, has ignited a discussion over the cost of, and access to, information published by academics. Rick Karr reports on rising discontent with the current academic publishing model.

Comments [18]

Hello from Bridgeport CT. We can all thank OTM for doing this story.
A follow-up on this could include what the World Bank is doing with open source publishing, and the Berlin 9 with central figures at Univ of Kansas.

Feb. 23 2012 05:34 AM
Chris Gray from New Haven, CT

As as proud high school graduate who spent numerous years broadcasting on Yale's radio station and several years selling their students texts, I am delighted to see these academics in revolt against a crucial portion of this exploitative (my word processor insists on an extra t & a) system of higher education and credentialing.

Likewise, I was delighted to read what a librarian, Jennifer of CT, had to contribute. While still a small child, my Mom left me standing, leaning against our neighbor Mrs. Ewer , the town's children's librarian, so that I learned upon waking that I could trust her as I did my mother and I did. Teachers often believe in themselves. Librarians tend to believe in you.

Feb. 23 2012 02:49 AM
Jane from Berkeley, CA

Same goes for Elsevier's floundering and but still highly profitable textbook publishing business. A fair proportion of Authors are NIH employees or grantees and they contribute their chapters for free. Then their works are all behind a big pay wall and Elsevier gobbles up all of the profits.

Feb. 22 2012 05:47 PM
Jennifer from CT

"Would it not be hard for someone to design a site like Wikipedia but ran entirely by the researchers and academics themselves? "

Encyclopedia of Life is a growing, freely available resource. ArXiv is a preprint server for Math, physics, computer science, and quantitative fields. PLoS and BioMedCentral are low cost alternatives to scholarly publishing. BTW you don't have to 'convince' librarians; we've juggled budgets for years in order to deal with journal costs well ahead of the rate of inflation.

Feb. 21 2012 12:15 PM
Dagmar Riedel from New York City

Well, Elsevier's profits were stated after all the labor had been paid off, and Paul Dobbs is therefore right that Elsevier is bluffing. Point taken.

While I am all in favor for Open Access, I find it mind boggling that the question of who is trolling websites for broken links etc., guarantees the functionality of legacy data, ensures satisfactory full-text searches, and cataloging of digital resources with embedded metadata so that students and scholars can find them, is never mentioned. Is there any study of the longevity of open access online journals? In addition, I have the impression that the adaptation of Digital Humanities is linked to size of the scholarly community that adapted these journals for its international communication. From my perspective, Elsevier and other academic publishers only get a hold academic journals, if the scholarly community is large and wealthy enough so that libraries feel obliged to cough up the money for expensive journal descriptions, drawing either on specific endowments or other revenues. To put the argument the other way around, the smaller and internationally dispersed an academic community, the more of its resources are available for Open Access on the internet. As case in point, I would refer to the AWOL blog which traces Open Access material for Ancient Near Eastern Studies:

Feb. 20 2012 05:22 PM
Karen Schmidt from Bloomington IL

Good to hear Columbia University Librarian Jim Neal on the front end of this story. I have to say in reaction to some of the mathematicians' comments that librarians are very much already "on board" in pushing back and have been for years. This is how SPARC was born. Frustrated academic librarians coined the phrase "El Severe" many years ago for all the reasons that are noted on this very interesting broadcast.

Feb. 20 2012 05:10 PM
Paul Dobbs from Boston

The costs of server space is dropping dramatically all the time. The cost of maintenance and software development is real, but doesn't seem to be inhibiting the impressive rise of quality open access journals. Elsiveir and their fellows are Emperors with New Clothes. They're bluffing They're dinosaurs. It's time they begin to adapt ethically or if that's too much of a challenge for them, they can just all get re-trained in some other industry (preferably far away from academics, thank you).

To respond to the earlier question about Berlin 9. Yes, and there are many many examples of excellent open acccess journals. Look at the Public Library of Science ( and the directory of open access journals ( Finally quietly, behind the scenes of this dramatic boycott, the faculty of more than 100 universities including Harvard and MIT have voted to adopt "open access Policies" which protect them from predatory publishers and preserve open access possiblities for their works. For example see

Feb. 20 2012 01:50 PM
Dagmar Riedel from New York City

I agree with the first comment that a follow-up on journal pricing in the Humanities would be desirable.

Robert Darnton touched on the question of online journals and their pricing structure in the NYRB essay (December 23, 2010):
Darnton mentioned the pressure exerted by faculty on their institutional libraries to provide research literature pace online subscriptions to individual computers, yet most faculty have no idea about the costs of online subscriptions, that is: the prices charged by the publisher.

Yet neither Darnton nor the author of the segment discusses the costs of maintaining physical servers and the continual development of hardware and software to maintain a functional website in this continually changing digital environment. Elsevier's profit margin seems outrageous, but it also needs be acknowledged by academics that the people whom academics do not consider their peers and whose labor allows for the online infrastructure to be available need be payed in order to make a living. I would love to know to which degree Elsevier has outsourced the maintenance of its servers, the software development, and its website maintenance to countries such as India. It may reflect the US culture of human labor as a pool not worthy of respect that most Digital Humanities debate are completely detached from the labor by an army of literally invisible people of whom we usually know as little as of the people who sweep the streets, clean our offices, or deliver our mail.

Feb. 20 2012 12:10 PM

This post-and-riposte sort of thing is helpful. I would like to echo and agree with this person, but ask if the Berlin 9 is doing this already, to some extent.

Mimi S. Daitz from New York, NY... I'd appreciate a follow up presentation on journals in the humanities which, in my experience, present a somewhat different picture.

Feb. 20 2012 09:03 AM
Paul Dobbs from Boston

Good news! James DeWitt, you are, indeed NOT simplifying the matter too much. Such online publications, known as open-access journals do exist, and respect for them grows steadily, fortunately even among University tenure review committees. See the website of Heather Joseph’s organization SPARC:

Feb. 19 2012 09:46 PM
Paul Dobbs from Boston

Alicia Wise’s argument that scholars need to pay Elsevier to ensure they are publishing in bias-free journal is outrageously brazen. Consider the case of The Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine that drug-giant Merck paid Elsivier to publish. It masqueraded as a peer-reviewed medical journal, but was not peer-reviewed and contained only re-printed articles and summaries. And, gosh, what a coincidence, a high percentage of those reprints and summaries presented data that was favorable to Merck products. There was no disclosure that the "journal" was really only a marketing device. See this 2009 post in The Scientist:

Feb. 19 2012 09:33 PM
James DeWitt from Indiana

Would it not be hard for someone to design a site like Wikipedia but ran entirely by the researchers and academics themselves? If they are doing all the editing and reviewing as well as all the information-gathering, then why not start a new site that assigns a proportionate amount of editors and "quality control managers" to each field before electronically publishing a "journal" or paper. This way universities and private individuals can pay a lower cost for access to research and information and the middle-man is removed from the equation. I could be simplifying this too much, but this just seems to make more sense to me since Elsevier does not reimburse anyone but seeks to make a profit.
I recall an old hacker saying form the late 80s: "Information wants to be free."

Feb. 19 2012 09:28 PM
Ed Wells

I noted with interest the movement in our Congress to end free access to tax payer supported research. Some time ago it was proposed by a leading Presidential candidate (when he was a U.S. Senator) that free radio broadcast of weather by NOAA be ended so that private companies be able to use such information as a fee based business. This despite the fact that the public as already paid for the information through their taxes. This seems to be a trend in our current Congress.

Feb. 19 2012 10:53 AM
David States from Michigan

Dr. Drazen's remarks included a subtle and misleading remark on which he was not challenged. He said that the New England Journal of Medicine makes all articles supported by NIH funding available 6 months after publication. What he did not say is that editorials, reviews and non-NIH supported research remain behind a paywall even 20 years after publication.

Feb. 19 2012 09:12 AM
Mimi S. Daitz from New York, NY

Extremely interesting subject and information, but I didn't hear anyone say that they were ONLY discussing journals publishing research in the sciences and math. I'd appreciate a follow up presentation on journals in the humanities which, in my experience, present a somewhat different picture.

Feb. 18 2012 04:39 PM
David States from Michigan

Many audiences beyond big university scientists need access to the research literature. Patients, nurses, community physicians, technology startups and small to mid sized businesses. The current bundled subscription model locks most of the groups out. Open access is a health care and economic development issue.

Feb. 18 2012 02:23 PM
Evan from Santa Monica

Some clarification--in the piece, Rick Karr states that investigators who get federal support for health science research must submit their papers to be read by the public for free.

This policy only applies to funding from the National Institutes of Health--it's possible to be doing health sciences research without NIH funding, so papers resulting from that research would not need to be submitted to PubMedCentral (the repository for these articles). Also, one could be doing research into subjects that don't seem obvious medical topics with NIH funding. Also, papers must be submitted within 12 months of their original publication date, so a widely-read article could be left out of PubMedCentral for almost a year and still be within the policy.

It should also be pointed out that most investigators have no problem with this policy, but some publishers do.

Feb. 18 2012 02:20 PM
Hugh Sansom

Elsevier is lying badly in your segment on the muzzling of scientists.

Anyone who has had to wade through the online morass that Elsevier and others call "provision" or "openness" or whatever knows that they are working to make research _inaccessible_.

If I remember correctly, scholar Juan Cole spoke on this several months ago. There is a video available online. cole makes the point that scholars should _want_ their work out there, but the journal culture today runs directly counter to the principle of disseminating knowledge.

Feb. 18 2012 07:30 AM

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