Please take the pledge not to do business with Elsevier. 404 scientists have done it so far:
You can separately say you
1) won’t publish with them,
2) won’t referee for them, and/or
3) won’t do editorial work for them.
At least do number 2): how often can you do something good by doing less work? When a huge corporation relies so heavily on nasty monopolistic practices and unpaid volunteer labor, they leave themselves open to this.
This pledge website is the brainchild of Tim Gowers, a Fields medalist and prominent math blogger:
In case you’re not familiar with the Elsevier problem, here’s something excerpted from my website. This does not yet mention Elsevier’s recent support of the Research Works Act, which would try to roll back the US government’s requirement that taxpayer-funded medical research be made freely available online. Nor does it mention the fake medical journals created by Elsevier, where what looked like peer-reviewed papers were secretly advertisements paid for by drug companies! Nor does it mention the Chaos, Solitons and Fractals fiasco. Indeed, it’s hard keeping up with Elsevier’s dirty deeds!
The problem and the solutions
The problem of highly priced science journals is well-known. A wave of mergers in the publishing business has created giant firms with the power to extract ever higher journal prices from university libraries. As a result, libraries are continually being forced to cough up more money or cut their journal subscriptions. It’s really become a crisis.
Luckily, there are also two counter-trends at work. In mathematics and physics, more and more papers are available from a free electronic database called the arXiv, and journals are beginning to let papers stay on this database even after they are published. In the life sciences, PubMed Central plays a similar role.
There are also a growing number of free journals. Many of these are peer-reviewed, and most are run by academics instead of large corporations.
The situation is worst in biology and medicine: the extremely profitable spinoffs of research in these subjects has made it easy for journals to charge outrageous prices and limit the free nature of discourse. A non-profit organization called the Public Library of Science was formed to fight this, and circulated an open letter calling on publishers to adopt reasonable policies. 30,000 scientists signed this and pledged to:
publish in, edit or review for, and personally subscribe to only those scholarly and scientific journals that have agreed to grant unrestricted free distribution rights to any and all original research reports that they have published, through PubMed Central and similar online public resources, within 6 months of their initial publication date.
Unsurprisingly, the response from publishers was chilly. As a result, the Public Library of Science started its own free journals in biology and medicine, with the help of a 9 million dollar grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.
A number of other organizations are also pushing for free access to scholarly journals, such as Create Change, the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, and the Budapest Open Access Initiative, funded by George Soros.
Editorial boards are beginning to wise up, too. On August 10, 2006, all the editors of the math journal Topology resigned to protest the outrageous prices of the publisher, Reed Elsevier. In August of this year, the editorial board of the Springer journal K-Theory followed suit. The Ecole Normale Superieure has also stopped having Elsevier publish the journal Annales Scientifiques de l’École Normale Supérieure.
So, we may just win this war! But only if we all do our part.
What we can do
What can we do to keep academic discourse freely available to all? Here are some things:
1. Don’t publish in overpriced journals.
2. Don’t do free work for overpriced journals (like refereeing and editing).
3. Put your articles on the arXiv or a similar site before publishing them.
4. Only publish in journals that let you keep your articles on the arXiv or a similar site.
5. Support free journals by publishing in them, refereeing for them, editing them… even starting your own!
6. Help make sure free journals and the arXiv stay free.
7. Help start a system of independent ‘referee boards‘ for arXiv papers. These can referee papers and help hiring, tenure and promotion committees to assess the worth of papers, eliminating the last remaining reasons for the existence of traditional for-profit journals.
The nice thing is that most of these are easy to do! Only items 5 through 7 require serious work. As for item 4, a lot of math and physics journals not only let you keep your article on the arXiv, but let you submit it by telling them its arXiv number! In math it’s easy to find these journals, because there’s a public list of them.
Of course, you should read the copyright agreement that you’ll be forced to sign before submitting to a journal or publishing a book. Check to see if you can keep your work on the arXiv, on your own website, etcetera. You can pretty much assume that any rights you don’t explicitly keep, your publisher will get. Eric Weisstein didn’t do this, and look what happened to him: he got sued and spent over a year in legal hell!
Luckily it’s not hard to read these copyright agreements: you can get them off the web. An extensive list is available from Sherpa, an organization devoted to free electronic archives.
If you think maybe you want to start your own journal, or move an existing journal to a cheaper publisher, read Joan Birman’s article about this. Go to the Create Change website and learn what other people are doing. Also check out SPARC—the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition. They can help. And try the Budapest Open Access Initiative—they give out grants.
Also: if you like mathematics, tell your librarian about Mathematical Sciences Publishers, a nonprofit organization run by mathematicians for the purpose of publishing low-cost, high-quality math journals.
Which journals are overpriced?
In 1997 Robion Kirby urged mathematicians not to submit papers to, nor edit for, nor referee for overpriced journals. I think this suggestion is great, and it applies not just to mathematics but all disciplines. There is really no good reason for us to donate our work to profit-making corporations who sell it back to us at exorbitant prices! Indeed in climate science this has a terrible effect: crackpot bloggers distribute their misinformation free of charge, while lots of important serious climate science papers are hidden, available only to people who work at institutions with expensive subscriptions.
But how can you tell if a journal is overpriced? In mathematics, Up-to-date information on the rise of journal prices is available from the American Mathematical Society. They even include an Excel spreadsheet that lets you do your own calculations with this data! Some of this information is nicely summarized on a webpage by Ulf Rehmann. Using these tools you can make up your own mind which journals are too expensive to be worth supporting with your free volunteer labor.
What about other subjects? I don’t know. Maybe you do?
When I first learned how bad the situation was, I started by boycotting all journals published by Reed Elsevier. This juggernaut was formed by merger of Reed Publishing and Elsevier Scientific Press in 1993. In August 2001 it bought Harcourt Press—which in turn owned Academic Press, which ran a journal I helped edit, Advances in Mathematics. I don’t work for that journal anymore! The reason is that Reed Elsevier is a particularly bad culprit when it comes to charging high prices. You can see this from the above lists of journal prices, and you can also see it in the business news. In 2002, Forbes magazine wrote:
If you are not a scientist or a lawyer, you might never guess which company is one of the world’s biggest in online revenue. Ebay will haul in only $1 billion this year. Amazon has $3.5 billion in revenue but is still, famously, losing money. Outperforming them both is Reed Elsevier, the London-based publishing company. Of its $8 billion in likely sales this year, $1.5 billion will come from online delivery of data, and its operating margin on the internet is a fabulous 22%.
Credit this accomplishment to two things. One is that Reed primarily sells not advertising or entertainment but the dry data used by lawyers, doctors, nurses, scientists and teachers. The other is its newfound marketing hustle: Its CEO since 1999 has been Crispin Davis, formerly a soap salesman.
But Davis will have to keep hustling to stay out of trouble. Reed Elsevier has fat margins and high prices in a business based on information—a commodity, and one that is cheaper than ever in the internet era. New technologies and increasingly universal access to free information make it vulnerable to attack from below. Today pirated music downloaded from the web ravages corporate profits in the music industry. Tomorrow could be the publishing industry’s turn.
Some customers accuse Reed Elsevier of price gouging. Daniel DeVito, a patent lawyer with Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, is a fan of Reed’s legal-search service, but he himself does free science searches on the Google site before paying for something like Reed’s ScienceDirect—and often finds what he’s looking for at no cost. Reed can ill afford to rest.
Why should we slave away unpaid to keep Crispin Davis and his ilk rolling in dough? There’s really no good reason.
To fight against the free journals and the arXiv, publishing companies are playing sneaky tricks like these:
• Proprietary Preprint Archives. Examples included ChemWeb and something they called "The Mathematics Preprint Server". The latter was especially devious, because mathematicians used to call the arXiv "the mathematics preprint server".
However, the Mathematics Preprint Server didn’t fool many smart people, so lots of the papers they got were crap, like a supposed proof of Goldbach’s conjecture, and a claim that the rotation of a galactic supercluster is due to a "topological defect" in spacetime. Eventually Elsevier gave up and stopped accepting new papers on their preprint server. Now it’s a laughable shadow of its former self. Similarly, ChemWeb was sold off.
• Web Spamming. More recently, publishers have tried a new trick: “web spamming”, also known as “search engine spamming” or “cloaking”. The company gives search engine crawlers access to full-text articles — but when you try to read these articles, you get a "doorway page" demanding a subscription or payment. Sometimes you’ll even be taken to a page that has nothing to do with the paper you thought you were about to see!
Culprits include Springer, Reed Elsevier, and the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers. The last one seems to have quit — but check out their powerpoint presentation on this subject, courtesy of Carl Willis.
If you see pages like this, report them to Google or your favorite search engine.
• Journal Bundling. Worse still is the strategy of "bundling" subscriptions into huge all-or-nothing packages, so libraries can’t save money by ceasing to subscribe to a single journal. It’s a clever trap, especially because these bundled subscriptions look like a good deal at first. The cost becomes apparent only later. Now universities libraries are being bankrupted as the prices of these bundles keep soaring. The library of my own university, U.C. Riverside, barely has money for any books anymore!
Luckily, people are catching on. In 2003, Cornell University bravely dropped their subscription to 930 Elsevier journals. Four North Carolina universities have joined the revolt, and the University of California has also been battling Elsevier. For other actions universities have taken, read Peter Suber’s list.
• Legal bullying. Large corporations like to scare people by means of threats of legal action backed up by deep pockets. A classic example is the lawsuit launched by Gordon and Breach against the American Physical Society for publishing lists of journal prices. Luckily they lost this suit.
• Hiring a Dr. Evil lookalike as their PR consultant.
Click either of the pictures for an explanation.