Scientists and scholars boycott Elsevier over bad business practices and copyright maximalism

Over 1,000 academics and scholars have signed a petition against science-publishing titan Elsevier, taking issue with the company's exploitative and abusive dealings with its writers, and with its support of laws that hinder good scientific collaboration, like SOPA and the Research Works Act. The signatories vow to withhold their work from Elsevier journals "unless they radically change how they operate."

Academics have protested against Elsevier's business practices for years with little effect. The main objections are these:

* They charge exorbitantly high prices for their journals.
* They sell journals in very large "bundles," so libraries must buy a large set with many unwanted journals, or none at all. Elsevier thus makes huge profits by exploiting their essential titles, at the expense of other journals.
* They support measures such as SOPA, PIPA and the Research Works Act, that aim to restrict the free exchange of information.

The key to all these issues is the right of authors to achieve easily-accessible distribution of their work. If you would like to declare publicly that you will not support any Elsevier journal unless they radically change how they operate, then you can do so by filling in your details in the box below.

The Cost of Knowledge (via Copyfight)


  1. It’s nice to see the scientific community coming together around an issue like this.  More often than not the scientist is the “tool” rather than the activist.

  2. On the whole I agree with this, but I wonder if there’s possibly a better way to phrase #2:

    They sell journals in very large “bundles,” so libraries must buy a large set with many unwanted journals, or none at all. Elsevier thus makes huge profits by exploiting their essential titles, at the expense of other journals.

    Granted I think Elsevier could cut their prices by a significant amount and still make a profit, but I have qualms about describing certain journals as “unwanted”. If a journal gets zero use a library should have the option of being able to drop it, but I assume every journal is relevant to a specific group of researchers. It still doesn’t justify the prices of the most expensive journals, but I assume some part of that amount goes to subsidize less popular–but not unwanted–journals.

    I’m also surprised this doesn’t cite the non-disclosure agreements that Elsevier requires most of their customer libraries to sign so that libraries don’t know what their peer institutions are paying.

    1. I shelved books in the science and engineering library when I was a student at a research-focused university. There were certain journals in the stacks that clearly nobody ever touched, except when people like me had to move them to new locations in the stacks occasionally.

      It’s hard to say for some if people simply got the articles they wanted online, but some of these journals went back way before online journal access was common. Clearly no one at that particular university wanted these journals – so they really were “unwanted”, though that doesn’t mean that nobody anywhere wants or needs them.

      The point is that the library doesn’t have the option of dropping these journals in many cases, because of the way Elsevier bundles them.

      As you say, it’s presumably to subsidize less popular journals. But I think there must be a better way to do this. Most university libraries will need certain unpopular journals depending on what kind of research is being done at the university – let the library bundle those unpopular journals with the popular ones, not some random ones that nobody at that university uses.

  3. FWIW, that second point gets passed around a lot, but it’s not actually true. Elsevier offers institutional subscribers a pretty broad range of different bundles of journals; my university has a custom package that the librarians negotiated directly with Elsevier. And it’s actually offered as a cost-savings measure, since individual journal subscriptions, even at the institutional rate, can be quite expensive.

    It is, indeed, a shame that academic publishing is subject to the market, when scientific knowledge is certainly more valuable than a simple commodity. But if it wasn’t Elsevier, it would be another for-profit publisher. I’ve been working with them for 8 years as a client, not an employee, and our journal (and its sponsoring society) unquestionably benefit from Elsevier’s reach and resources. 

    To put it simply, if our society self-published our journal, we would get fewer papers and they would be of lesser quality. Our society, and consequently our field, would be worse off if not for our publishing contract with Elsevier.

    1. That’s like saying artists are better off signing with a major label, when we have a number of recent social experiments that prove otherwise.

      1. As someone who has managed the peer review of nearly 10,000 academic papers over almost a decade — an effort that has involved coordinating the work of over 12,000 individual academics from nearly every country on earth — I feel safe in saying that publishing a monthly peer-reviewed scientific journal has very little in common with creating and distributing a single album of music by oneself or with a few friends.

        I hear these kinds of complaints a lot, but individual authors and reviewers rarely have the perspective to appreciate the sheer scale of academic publishing in the early 21st century. Ours is a small, nichy public health journal, but it is an immense effort. 

        I don’t mean to poo-poo this effort — the organizers hearts are in the right place — but you guys just have no idea. The Cost of Knowledge is creeping toward 2,300 signatories. I have 12,000 names in my database of authors and reviewers. And it’s a tiny little journal! 

        The vast majority of researchers who publish in and review for Elsevier titles will never hear of this boycott. Again, I totally agree that it would be awesome if academic publishing were publicly owned, but at least in the U.S., in this budgetary culture, there’s no way that will happen.

      1. Switch to an iTunes-type pricing model: $1 per article, $5 per issue, and volume discounts/subscription plans, e.g. a hundred articles for $50. That might expand their customer base and give them a workable business model, rather than the current nonsense of asking $25-30 per article for anyone who doesn’t get access “free” through a university.

  4. I work at a well-endowed (LOL) educational institution (another LOL).  Anyways, subscription costs to journals and aggregators have risen precipitously.  It is extremely freakin’ maddening to go onto PubMed looking for something and clicking through to the fulltext, I CAN’T FRIGGIN GET THE ARTICLE I NEED because stupid Elsevier won’t let me have it.  Can’t tell you how annoying these people are to my research.  I wish they would go away and be replaced by… free and open access to all scholarly content.  I don’t care if I pay higher taxes for it at this point.

  5. I hope this goes beyond just the journals.  We can get all huffy about the RIAA, MPAA, the consumer publishing Big 6 and their ilk, but the textbook cartel of Elsevier, McGraw Hill, Cengage, et al has possibly taken more money from our consumers for less value than those other higher profile offenders.

  6. What’s even more despicable, these journals are edited (and the articles read and peer-reviewed) by unpaid academics/scholars. The writers/scholars are not paid by Elsevier either. The university and the government pay these scholars (in the form of salaries and research grants) whose work is then hawked by Elsevier and sold back to universities and students (whose taxes and tuition pay for those salaries and grants…you get the idea). Tax-payer subsidized profit-driven business=Elsevier. We should own this work and have unlimited access to it. We paid for it.

    1.  I think this is the key point of the argument. I don’t think many outside academia realize this.

      People are glad to edit and peer-review without compensation – it’s essentially part of the job of being a professor, and it brings you respect and prestige within your field. People would do it regardless of who is publishing the articles.

      Elsevier and the like do provide some theoretical value, but most of the work (including, often, typesetting and things like that which you might expect the publisher to take care of) is done by the academics whose work is being published. And these academics pay Elsevier for the privilege of doing this extra work and being published in their journals.

      I’m not sure what the solution is for the future of academic publishing, but I’m sure it will look more like arXiv than Elsevier.

      1. It’s a corrupt system.  There isn’t any money in it, so the little money there is needs to be squeezed from the turnips participating in the nonsense.

  7. Just had my 5th title published by a division of Elsevier (not the journals one). While in the past I’ve found their standard contract to be, well, standard, the last one had crap in about digital rights that I found unacceptable. I had to go back and forth with my editor a number of times to clearly define reversion of rights, etc., refusing to accept their verbal “well, we know it’s in the contract, but we would never enforce it…” line. I have to wonder how much their business strategy relies on riding hard and nasty with the copyright lawyers.

  8. It strikes me as odd that on the one hand many academics can summarize arguments which dismiss the value provided by academic journals published by Elsevier, but on the other hand, seem reluctant to start competing journals which they could then price any way they like. If journal publishing is truly just a matter of selling back to academics their own content, then it would seem starting a journal would be easy.

    Except that few people do it. My understanding is that it is actually incredibly hard to start a new journal. It seems to requires a lot of tedious editorial work and a significant investment of time and money that may not pay off for decades.

    I wish that instead of signing petitions to protest how Elsevier operates, academics would instead start competing journals. Or, at the very least, petition the government to change how copyright works; after all, the root of Elsevier’s ability to charge high prices is the way that copyright creates an artificial restraint on the reproduction of content.

    If you really believe that the value provided by journals isn’t worth the price, don’t buy them. It seems to me that if you feel that suitably priced journals don’t exist to meet a market need, you might be better served starting your own journal than signing a (likely to be) ineffectual petition.

    Full disclosure: I used to work at Elsevier, and know many fine people who work there.


    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 researcherssign 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 least1994, 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.)

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