Cost of Knowledge, the Elsevier Boycott

23 02 2012

This week’s On the Media reported on the Elsevier Boycott that was initiated in December by Cambridge University mathethematics professor Timothy Gowers. The boycott seeks commitments from academics to refrain from participating in publishing, refereeing and editorial work for Elsevier publications.  New Scientist has dubbed this movement, now with 7,000 petition signees,  the “Academic Spring.

The Boycott singles out Elsevier’s business practices as being counterproductive to the spirit and goals of academic publishing–disseminating academic research and knowledge. The boycott’s Statement of Purpose  portrays Elsevier as, ”a publisher motivated purely by profi t, with no genuine interest in or commitment to mathematical knowledge and the community of academic mathematicians that generates it.” As it goes on to explain, there are many publishers that could have been targeted, but Elsevier was chosen as a eggregious example of a publishing company that acts in opposition to the  exchange of information in academia.

Below are the three objections to Elsevier’s business practices spelled out at the petititon website

  1. They charge exorbitantly high prices for subscriptions to individual journals.
  2. In the light of these high prices, the only realistic option for many libraries is to agree to buy very large “bundles”, which will include many journals that those libraries do not actually want. Elsevier thus makes huge profits by exploiting the fact that some of their journals are essential.
  3. They support measures such as SOPA, PIPA and the Research Works Act, that aim to restrict the free exchange of information.

For their part, Elsevier has issued their own statement claiming the boycott is based on erroneous information and dispute the assertion that the price increases are unjustified. I’ve gleaned the following points from their press releases and whilst listening to interviews with company spokespersons:

  • Per article cost of scholarly publication hasactually fallen in past years,
  • Rising costs are associated with the company’s efforts in quality control and for tasks associated with:
    -      Finding and staffing full-time scientific editors
    -      Finding reviewers for articles
    -      Ensuring article integrity
  • Elsevier costs are also rising  because of the proliferation of research from China and India
  • The digitization process is also costly

The petition, signees and statement of pupose can be found at Cost of Knowledge.