The battle against Elsevier gains momentum

Check out this statement on “The Cost of Knowledge” released today, which (besides your humble blogger) has been signed by Ingrid Daubechies (President of the International Mathematical Union), Timothy Gowers, Terence Tao, László Lovász, and 29 others.  The statement carefully explains the rationale for the current Elsevier boycott, and answers common questions like “why single out Elsevier?” and “what comes next?”

Also check out Timothy Gowers’ blog post announcing the statement.  The post includes a hilarious report by investment firm Exane Paribas, explaining that the current boycott has caused Reed Elsevier’s stock price to fall, but presenting that as a great investment opportunity, since they fully expect the price to rebound once this boycott fails like all the previous ones.  I ask you: does that not want to make you boycott Elsevier, for no other reason than to see the people who follow Exane Paribas’ cynical advice lose their money?

In related news, the boycott petition now has 4600+ signatures and counting.  If you’ve already signed, great!  If you haven’t, why not?

Update (Feb. 9): There’s now a great editorial by Gareth Cook in the Boston Globe supporting the Elsevier boycott (and analogizing it to both the Tahrir Square uprising and the Boston Tea Party!).

46 Responses to “The battle against Elsevier gains momentum”

  1. Qiaochu Yuan Says:

    An argument could be made that a budding young (pre-)researcher, such as myself, would be too hasty in signing the Elsevier boycott now since an Elsevier journal might still be the best place for me to publish a paper a few years down the line. I haven’t made up my mind how much I care about this, so I’m spreading news about the boycott but not signing the petition for the time being. Sound fair?

  2. Henry Cohn Says:

    It’s certainly reasonable to be cautious about signing the boycott, and I wouldn’t advise anyone to risk real damage to their career. There are enough non-Elsevier journals of all sorts that I believe the risk is minimal, even for junior people; furthermore, senior mathematicians who have signed the boycott are effectively taking on a responsibility to help ensure that it doesn’t damage their colleagues’ careers. However, ultimately everyone has to make their own decision, based on their personal circumstances.

  3. fan Says:

    Why not? Because the main journal in my particular neck of the mathematical woods is J. Combin. Theory Ser. B, published by Elsevier. And I haven’t got tenure.

  4. Björn Brembs Says:

    I haven’t signed it, because I’m telling my library to cut subscriptions rather than telling my students to risk their job opportunities. Less money will hurt Elsevier much more and much more directly than a few submissions less.

  5. Scott Says:

    Qiaochu, fan, Björn: Of course, as Henry said, everyone has to make their own decision based on their own weighing of principle and circumstance. (Many of the signatories of today’s statement, including Terry Tao, were emphatic about that point.) And yes, asking libraries to cut subscriptions is a great idea as well.

    But let me submit the following two points for your consideration:

    (1) I started boycotting Elsevier years before I had a faculty position (and I still don’t have tenure). I’m not aware of any damage to my career that’s resulted—not even a tiny amount.

    (2) From now on, if I’m evaluating (say) a faculty or tenure candidate, and I see lots of Elsevier publications, I’m going to wonder about the reasons: “is this person simply unaware of the widely-discussed issues with Elsevier? is the person a timid conformist who feels that his or her papers need a ‘gold star of approval,’ even from a journal whose publisher is known to be mercilessly ransacking universities? if this person can’t even accept whatever minuscule or perceived career risk comes with open(er)-access publishing, why would the person take huge risks in the intellectual realm?” And I’m sure I won’t be the only one thinking this … so the career benefits of publishing with Elsevier (if indeed there are any) need to be balanced with the risks!

  6. Steven Says:

    It is a big mistake to trust senior mathematicians to take care of your career for you. It is also a mistake to take lessons from Scott’s career, since he’s been a special case.

  7. Henry Cohn Says:

    Steven, I agree that nobody should trust blindly that everything will be taken care of. What I’d recommend is talking with mentors about what the issues are and how one could deal with them. (It’s important for junior mathematicians to have trusted mentors, and finding some should be a priority for anyone who doesn’t have any.) I believe it is rare in mathematics for publication in a single journal to be truly important for someone’s career, with no adequate substitutes, but it’s important to get advice that is specific to one’s own situation.

  8. fan Says:

    Scott, would availability of all those publications on the arXiv counter your misgivings? It’s something I do anyway.

    A senior mathematician I spoke to a while back mentioned that he had the following policy regarding the review of applications (for jobs or otherwise): if he can’t download it from home, it doesn’t exist.

  9. dawn Says:

    As a person who already signed, what would be the easiest thing to do to help this gain momentum? (besides obvious things like telling my friends etc.) – are there facebook groups? tweets on this ? resigning from editorial boards of elsevier journals? founding new competing journals? other plans?

  10. Jiav Says:

    Although I agree with most of the statement, let me notice that it will hardly help involvment of the “(and other academics)”.

    The primary objection I can hear is the focus on a single compagny. The primary reason listed for this exclusive focus is “Elsevier does not have a comparable tradition of involvement in mathematics publishing” [as Springer has].

    Should other academics sign only if Elsevier has little tradition of involvement in their particular field of knowledge? What about the other publishers?

  11. Paul Beame Says:

    I hope the boycott succeeds, though I am not big on signing petitions. I’ve almost completely avoided Elsevier since the mid-1990s when I was horrified to learn of the cost of Annals of Pure and Applied Logic when I was checking out the published paper. (4 issues per year at $1700.) Their automated referee request system makes this easy – I don’t even bother responding on the assumption that not responding is more effective at gumming up the works, but I do see the value in boycotting publicly. (If editors send personal e-mail reminders I do let them know why.)

    Unfortunately, it hasn’t always been easy to avoid Elsevier. I had one paper in a JCSS STOC/FOCS Special Issue that was submitted when JCSS was an Academic Press journal but appeared after it was bought by Elsevier. I refused to sign their copyright transfer agreement. (I have an e-mail to that effect.) However, they published it anyway pretending that I had, sticking their own copyright on it. I’ve always wondered how to use that action against them.

  12. Abuzer Says:

    Scott, do you have a list of preferable journals on (classical and/or quantum) TCS?

  13. Snipe Says:

    I was holding back on signing till Terry Tao threw his (considerable) support behind the petition. He is the conscience of the mathematics community. We ought to let him led us more often.

  14. Scott Says:

    fan #8:

      Scott, would availability of all those publications on the arXiv counter your misgivings?

    Well, it solves the problem of the papers being hidden behind a paywall. It doesn’t solve the problem of universities paying megabucks to Elsevier. For the latter, it seems like the only long-term solution is to extricate ourselves from Elsevier.

  15. Scott Says:

    dawn #9:

      As a person who already signed, what would be the easiest thing to do to help this gain momentum?

    Excellent question! Tell your friends to sign. Blog/tweet about it. Submit to open-access journals, review for them, and serve on their editorial boards. If you get asked to review something for an Elsevier journal, propose instead that the editors resign and start an open-access journal. Stay tuned to Tim Gowers’ blog, Michael Nielsen’s blog, this blog, etc. for more you can do.

  16. Scott Says:

    Abuzer #12:

      Scott, do you have a list of preferable journals on (classical and/or quantum) TCS?

    Theory of Computing is my favorite, as it’s completely open-access.

    SIAM Journal on Computing, Journal of the ACM, Transactions on Computing Theory, Physical Review, Proceedings of the Royal Society, and Quantum Information & Computation are not open-access, but I still publish and review for them since they’re run by scholarly societies or (in QIP’s case) a small, reasonably-priced independent publisher.

    Stay away from Computational Complexity, JCSS, and Information Processing Letters. (Note added: Theoretical Computer Science is the one run by Elsevier, and is a much worse offender than Computational Complexity run by Springer. I may have inadvertently confused the two—sorry about that!)

  17. Mayer B. Says:

    Actually, Computational Complexity is Springer’s, not Elsevier, AFAIN. It’s one of my favorites.

  18. Mayer B. Says:

    Also, Oded Goldreich, and others, in 2004 has endorsed Computational Complexity:
    “We would like to encourage you to submit adequate papers to Computational Complexity (CC).”

  19. Paul Beame Says:

    Computational Complexity is actually with Birkhauser which is a low-cost subsidiary of Springer. Springer, unlike Elsevier, has a record of being responsive w.r.t. costs – they produce an array of low cost specialized textbooks for the field as well as excellent high end textbooks.

    Springer does have a number of overpriced journals outside of TCS and their Springer-Verlag LNCS series, which has published proceedings of good conferences like ICALP and Crypto, is awash in proceedings of low quality conferences that seem to be there for the sole purpose of boosting content volume. BTW: LNCS changed their copyright form a few years ago to make the transfer more enforceable and more objectionable. For two recent ICALP papers I edited the form to say instead that it was a non-exclusive license to publish and re-publish.

    Bottom line … Springer is both a good and bad actor, but not obviously worthy of a boycott. I agree with the recent petition on this score.

    What is the real objective for this Elsevier boycott? Is it to completely put for-profit journal publishing out of business? Or is it to inflict enough pain that other publishers (and they?) – radically reform their practices? While some may want the former, choosing to make an example of Elsevier says that the consensus intent is the latter. In that case, one should severely punish bad practices but reward good ones among publishers.

    Where is the EATCS on all this?: I haven’t heard about whether EATCS still supports the egregious Elsevier journal Theoretical Computer Science in light of the current boycott. (The EATCS logo has appeared on each issue.)

    EATCS also recently voted on moving ICALP proceedings from LNCS to open access. I hope that they did.

  20. Richard Cleve Says:

    Does anyone remember an incident several years back where the entire editorial board of a journal resigned (or “defected”) simultaneously, moving to another publisher deemed more reasonable? I think the journal was on the subject of mathematical logic. The editorial board announced that, even though the title of the new journal was slightly different, it should be treated as the replacement of the previous one (in terms of stature, etc) since the editorial practices would be the same.

    If that worked out well then this could be a strategy for journals such as Information and Computation or Information Processing Letters, which aren’t such bad journals, except for their association with Elsevier.

  21. Richard Cleve Says:

    Sorry, I should have done a Google search before posting my comment.

    From the Wikipedia page on Elsevier: “In November 1999 the entire editorial board (50 persons) of the Journal of Logic Programming (founded in 1984 by Alan Robinson) collectively resigned after 16 months of unsuccessful negotiations with Elsevier Press about the price of library subscriptions. The personnel created a new journal, Theory and Practice of Logic Programming, with Cambridge University Press at a much lower price, while Elsevier continued publication with a new editorial board and a slightly different name (the Journal of Logic and Algebraic Programming).”

    And the new journal still exists.

  22. Aram Says:

    In terms of benefits to your own career, it’s worth noting that open-access articles get cited more, presumably including articles on This has been observed when universities mandate that articles go in open-access institutional repositories and citations go up (so we can be sure of the causal relation).

  23. Raoul Ohio Says:

    Re Elsevier vs. Springer:

    All of these publishers have their good and bad points. But I think Elsevier has long “pushed the envelope” on the bad/good ratio.

    On the other hand, Springer publishes a HUGE number of advanced textbooks and research level books in Math, Applied Math, Physics, and other areas (not so much in CS). As I recall these are slightly expensive, but not too bad. I own a few dozen of them. As I write this, I reach out and grab Kato’s “Perturbation Theory for Linear Operators”. I see I bought it in 1987, but did not write down the price. Right now Amazon is selling new ones for $49. This book is priceless if you work with matrices or linear operators, and Springer has plenty more essential books. That is one reason to cut them a lot of slack compared to Elsevier.

  24. Matthew Emerton Says:

    Jiav raised the issue in comment #10 of the role of other academic disciplines. As one of the signatories of the statement, my view in helping to craft it was that as mathematicians, it made sense for us to discuss the mathematicians point of view on Elsevier and our reasons for boycotting.

    I certainly know (both from looking at the names at the boycott web-page, and from talking with scientists in other fields) that academics in other fields are also unhappy with Elsevier. However, as mathematicians, we weren’t in a position to comment on the details of the relationship between Elsevier and journal publishing in their fields, or the detailed history and role of journals in their field. So it seemed sensible to restrict ourselves to what we know — the situation with regard to mathematics.

  25. A Says:

    #6: Someone on the Internet thinks that if you are not aiming to be a special case, then you will probably not get very far. And wherever you get, will be a boring conformist place.

  26. Ronald de Wolf Says:

    Re Richard Cleve #20/21: in addition to Journal of Logic Programming, other examples of journals that moved as a whole from Elsevier to cheaper alternatives are Journal of Algorithms (see Donald’s Knuth’s 2003 letter), Topology, and Annales Scientifiques de l’Ecole Normale Superieure.

    For the record: I wholeheartedly support this petition, and have not contributed anything to Elsevier since 2005.

  27. Reed Elsevier stock price is dropping but … | Piece of Mind Says:

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  28. Anon Says:

    Signed. Hope the boycott succeeds. Keep up the great work!

  29. Jiav Says:

    Matthew Emerton #24,

    I fully agree, and never said otherwise, that the statement you contributed to is excellent to get the mathematicians point of view.

    All I’m saying is that it will hardly convince academics at large, as it makes the boycott look like restricted to mathematicians concerns. This is a pitty as any academic could share your concerns with undue overpricing, and maybe you could use a hand with that.

    Good luck anyway!

  30. Boaz Barak Says:

    I support the boycott, though realistically it won’t change much in theoretical CS, where journals are not so important anyway, and Elsevier journals even less so.

    What can we do to make sure all our conference proceedings become open access? Is it impossible for example for SIGACT to demand that ACM make all future (and past?) STOC papers freely available?

    I guess STOC/FOCS PC chairs could say that it’s a mandatory condition for publication to post the paper on arxiv/eccc/eprint before the camera-ready deadline. But, it would be nice to do something more official.

  31. Bernard Chazelle Says:

    I just signed.

    In 2003, we all resigned from the board of Elsevier’s J. Algorithms (all credit to Don Knuth for that!) — and I’ve been boycotting Elsevier ever since. So I am extremely pleased by the initiative of Tim and his signatories.

    This time could be different. Because we might reach a tipping point where, as Scott said, there is a cost not in boycotting but in *not* boycotting. Which researcher will want to risk their reputation by publishing with the Great Satan (my friendly moniker for Elsevier — too friendly perhaps in view of Elsevier’s involvement with a “large arms fair” — see wikipedia). And once all good researchers are gone , then Elsevier may have no choice but to rebrand itself as a writing outfit for the Comedy Channel. This, I assume, was the motivation behind Chaos, Solitons, and Fractals, a journal that, Wikipedia tells us, has published 322 papers with its own editor-in-chief as an author, with the last issue including no fewer than 5 of them! (Presumably the editor-in-chief now works at Exane-Paribas.)

  32. Mayer B. Says:

    There’s now a great editorial by Gareth Cook in the Boston Globe supporting the Elsevier boycott (and analogizing it to both the Tahrir Square uprising and the Boston Tea Party!).

    Let’s just hope that the outcome of the boycott will not be a radical Islamic reign over Elsevier, as in the case of the Tahrir uprising.

  33. Orr Shalit Says:

    “If you haven’t, why not?”

    I have much sympathy to the ideals behind this movement (your old blog post about this was pretty good).
    I also respect the people who have been boycotting Elsevier for some years, and it is a good idea that people who have been doing this for a while will have their names on a list, to support each other and people who wish to start. But I don’t like how somebody writes a blog and then suddenly there is a rally.

    Let me give an example of why I don’t like this. You write in comment #5 : “From now on, if I’m evaluating (say) a faculty or tenure candidate, and I see lots of Elsevier publications, I’m going to wonder…”

    Why “from now on”? What has changed just now? Is it that now Tim Gowers and Terry Tao said that is OK to boycott, so now we should?
    You mention a “timid conformist”, but would you like to be someone that scares timid conformists into joining a boycott?
    I would like to warn that we should not replace biblio-metrics by biblio-ethics.
    Snipes’s comment above, where Terry Tao is referred to as “the conscience of the mathematics community”, is another side of this coin.

    Imagine someone writing this: “From now on, if I’m evaluating (say) a faculty or tenure candidate, and I see lots of publications in ISRAEL JOURNAL OF MATH, I’m going to wonder about the reasons: “is this person simply unaware of the widely-discussed issues with Israel?” “.

    We should try to avoid mixing such matters with academic decisions. I hope you take that item (2) in comment #5 back.

    To Henry Cohn: You wrote in comment #2 : “senior mathematicians who have signed the boycott are effectively taking on a responsibility to help ensure that it doesn’t damage their colleagues’ careers.”
    I trust your good intentions. But how can this be done fairly? People with no Elsevier publications get bonus points (to make up for their papers appearing slower or in lower tier journals), or is it only people who have signed on to “The Cost Of Knowledge” who get bonus points?
    There is a way, but it would be incredibly hard: ignore completely all journal titles when evaluating a candidate, but judge the person according to their work and their letters. That would truly be a revolution.

    I think that the current hype will not lead to such a revolution, but might lead to some twisted decisions, as Scott honestly revealed above.

  34. Scott Says:

    Dear Orr,

    You raise some interesting points.

    The reason for the “from now on” is simple: before the current protest (which, incidentally, was sparked at this time and not some other because of Elsevier’s support for the Research Works Act), the “obvious,” overwhelmingly-probable reason why a junior researcher would publish with Elsevier is that they were unaware of the issues, just as I was for most of grad school. Most junior researchers don’t spend a lot of time thinking about their universities’ library budgets—which, if the system is working properly, is exactly how it should be!

    Regarding “peer pressure”: I confess that, if Tim Gowers and Terry Tao blogged about why all academics should show up to work wearing clown suits, I’d give their arguments serious thought before (I think!) ultimately deciding against. If you had to pick anyone on earth to follow blindly, they’d be pretty good choices. But while they lend the movement visibility, you’re obviously right that no one should support open-access just because they do. (And might I remind you that, for their leadership in this boycott to have influenced my anti-Elsevier stance, not just “peer pressure” but time travel back to 2005 would be needed! 🙂 )

    Now regarding your Israel Journal of Math thought experiment, let’s vary the example a bit more. What about a faculty candidate who’d published otherwise-unobjectionable papers in the white-nationalist Occidental Quarterly? Or who proudly listed the Nazi Journal of Combinatorics or the Pedophiles’ Complexity Symposium on his or her CV?

    Thinking the matter over more leads me to two conclusions:

    (1) As far as possible, we should strive to judge faculty candidates by the actual quality of their work. So in particular, the reactions I mentioned above, to people who publish in Elsevier journals, are biases that I should try to minimize. (Though of course, people’s positive reactions to a paper appearing in a brand-name journal also involve huge elements of bias! Indeed, the entire source of the problem we’re dealing with today is that, e.g., hiring committees might judge exactly the same paper more highly if it’s published in the Elsevier-owned Cell than in an open-access journal.)

    (2) On the other hand, sometimes there’s no way to escape the need for evaluative judgments. As an example, I don’t see any way to explain why academics who boycott Israel are wrong on purely “procedural” grounds (e.g., “no academic institution should ever be boycotted for any reason”). At some point, you have to discuss the values and beliefs that motivate the boycotters, and whether they’re good or bad ones.

  35. Daniel Moskovich Says:

    I’m not positive that Exane Paribas are wrong… (they are, after all, experts in their field)… even if mathematics has a decent chance of extricating ourselves from Elsevier (if we work hard at it), mathematicians are a very small percentage of the scientific population and of the contributors to Elsevier. So, were I an investor, I would seriously consider buying Elsevier stocks right now… and selling them again very quickly once an editorial board in biology or medicine shows signs of resigning!

  36. Scott Says:

    Daniel: I’m also not positive that Exane Paribas is wrong—I just want to help make them wrong!

  37. Bernard Chazelle Says:

    Recently, the president of the US National Academy of Sciences sounded the alarm about studies showing a growing loss of faith in science among Americans. There are many factors at play. But it’s hard to see how *this* helps:

    Merck paid an undisclosed sum to Elsevier to produce several volumes of [Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine], a publication that had the look of a peer-reviewed medical journal, but contained only reprinted or summarized articles—most of which presented data favorable to Merck products—that appeared to act solely as marketing tools with no disclosure of company sponsorship
    (ref: wiki)


    Maybe I’ll tap into my vast financial holdings with Exane-Paribas and pay Elsevier to create “The Journal of Advanced Chazellology,” whose mission will be to reveal the true life-saving, epoch-making, revolutionary nature of every crappy little utterance made by Bernard Chazelle on science blogs. And to my collaborators, I say, don’t you worry: no one will think ill of you if you keep working with me.

  38. Henry Cohn Says:

    I trust your good intentions. But how can this be done fairly? People with no Elsevier publications get bonus points (to make up for their papers appearing slower or in lower tier journals), or is it only people who have signed on to “The Cost Of Knowledge” who get bonus points?

    I agree that no approach like that would be appropriate. Here are some examples of what I envision:

    (1) Mentors should offer advice on issues like how to choose other journals to submit to, or how to decide whether joining the boycott represents a career risk.

    (2) Members of hiring or promotion and tenure committees should be alert for statements like “I would have expected to see more publications in journal X”, and they should try to ensure that decisions are made on the basis of good evidence.

    (3) If someone does suffer unfair career consequences because of the boycott, for example if an Elsevier journal editor were to take offense, then those who are able should try to intervene.

    These are all things I think everyone should do anyway, quite independently of the boycott, but people who have signed the boycott have a particular responsibility to try to help.

  39. Jon Sneyers Says:

    Just a quick historical note: in November 1999, all 50 editors of the Elsevier Journal of Logic Programming (JLP) collectively resigned and founded the new journal “Theory and Practice of Logic Programming” (TPLP) with Cambridge University Press, which has an open access policy, asking all authors to put their articles also in the CoRR. More journals should follow this example!

    Some links to more information are here:

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  42. Chris W. Says:

    NPR’s On the Media covered the Elsevier boycott this week. A commenter on the story observes that:

    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.

    Also see this OTM interview:

    “It’s the best time in history to be a seeker of knowledge. It’s also the best time in history to be a complete idiot.”

  43. Elsevier: The beginning of the end? | Piece of Mind Says:

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  44. (^.^) Says:
    Elsevier accepts proof of Parallel axiom.

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  46. sp Says:

    Well, we are now in 2014 and the people who thought that Elsevier’s stock would rise after the boycott fuss died down , were right. The ‘cost of knowledge’ boycott achieved some limited journal pricing reductions, but not across the board. Most libraries are still purchasing bundles of journals at high cost and incidences of institutional boycotts are rare. Charges are even higher, for making an Elsevier paper open access. Those signing the Cost of Knowledge petition are in an awkward position – do we honour what we signed in 2012? The petition has fizzled out and there seems to be no direction behind it.