Elsevier: Strangling Libraries Worldwide


After academics worldwide began a boycott against Elsevier, this publisher claimed it would mend its ways and treat mathematicians better.

Why just mathematicians? Maybe they didn’t notice that only 17% of the researchers boycotting them are mathematicians. More likely, they’re trying a ‘divide and conquer’ strategy.

Despite their placating gestures, the overall problem persists:

Elsevier’s business model is to get very smart people to work for free, then sell their results back to them at high and ever-rising prices.

Does that sound sustainable to you? It works better than you might think, because they have control over many journals that academics want, and they sell these journals in big ‘bundles’, so you can’t stop buying just some of them. In short, they have monopoly power.

Worse, the people who actually buy the journals are not the academics, but university libraries. Librarians are very nice people. They want to keep their customers—the academics—happy. So they haven’t been very good at saying what they should:

Okay, you want to raise your prices? Fine, we’ll stop subscribing to all your journals until you lower them!

And so, libraries world-wide are slowly being strangled by Elsevier.

A while back, when the economic crisis hit here at U. C. Riverside, our library’s budget was cut. Journals eat up most of the budget, but librarians felt they couldn’t drop subscriptions to all the Elsevier journals, and Elsevier’s practice of bundling meant they couldn’t drop just some of them. The only ways to cut costs were to cut library hours, lay off staff, cut journals published by smaller—and cheaper!—publishers, and buy fewer books. Books can always be bought later… in theory… so they took the biggest hit. Our book budget was slashed to about a tenth of its original level!

The people most hurt were not mathematicians or scientists, but people working in the humanities. They’re the ones who use books the most.

And here’s a shocking story I recently got in my email. I’ll paraphrase, because the details of cases like this are kept secret thanks to Elsevier’s legal tactics:

I wanted to inform you that the University of X is negotiating our new contract with Elsevier for 2013–2015, and what effect Elsevier’s proclaimed changes have.

First of all, the university library has a 42% smaller budget in 2013 than in 2010 for books, journals, etc. So they are negotiating with many publishers, to be able to cancel more subscriptions than allowed in the existing contracts.

The Elsevier contracts for journal subscriptions ends in 2012, and for the so-called “Freedom Collection”—a bundle providing access to all non-subscribed journals—it ends in 2013. I asked the librarian whether there was a price reduction for the new contracts. He reported:

At the beginning of the negotiations he told the Elsevier sales representative, Mister Q, that the University of X has its back to the wall due to the 42% budget cut. Q offered the new contract with moderate price increase of around 5%. A price decrease was out of the question.

Our librarian asked whether he could cancel various subscriptions, many more than allowed in the expiring contract. Q agreed in principle—as long as the total price does not decrease! He was quite cooperative, and essentially offered various different knives to be stabbed with, such as:

• a price increase for the Freedom Collection


• an increase of the content fee: this fee, charged in addition to the subscription if one wants electronic access, could go up to 25%. This fee is charged even if one wants only the electronic access and no printed volumes.

Then our librarian asked Q what he should reply to my question about price decreases. Q sent a long reply including that:

– our national science foundation bought the Elsevier archive already some years ago. Therefore we would not benefit from the fact that the archives are now partly free.

– our university cancelled all its math subscriptions already in 2007. Therefore we do not benefit from the price decrease of math journals.

Then he explained at length that we would benefit from what they were doing “as part of our ongoing project to address the needs of the mathematics community”: “holding down 2013 prices, launching a Core Mathematics subject collection, convening an advisory Scientific Council for Mathematics – designed to meet the specific needs of the mathematics community, members of which were critical of Elsevier in the wake of the Cost of Knowledge petition.”

I hope you see why we all need to boycott Elsevier. Stop publishing our papers with them, stop refereeing papers for them, stop working as editors for them, and convince your librarian that it’s okay to unsubscribe to their journals. Please go to this website and join over 12,000 top researchers in this boycott.

For more information, click on this:

10 Responses to Elsevier: Strangling Libraries Worldwide

  1. […] John Baez just posted Elsevier: Strangling Libraries Worldwide, yeehaw! […]

  2. I recommend this funny and instructive video as a lesson and an encouragement for the followers of the cost of knowledge movement.

  3. Todd Trimble says:

    Hey John: the still shown at the top of the post of the man being strangled. What’s that from? (My first association was Alien, but I don’t think that’s right.)

  4. John Baez says:

    My source writes:

    As a reaction to this post, three senior directors of Elsevier are traveling to University X on Monday October 29 to discuss the University’s relationship with Elsevier and to clear up misunderstandings. Hopefully Elsevier will realize that the continuing governmental savings in the academic sector and the 42% cut in the library budget needs to be respected and must lead to noticeable price reductions. With annual revenue in Elsevier’s “Science & Technology” branch of 1 billion GBP and costs of 50 million GBP, there should be room for price reductions.

  5. Not about Elsevier, but MIT and JSTOR:

    http://lessig.tumblr.com/post/40347463044/prosecutor-as-bully – Aaron Swartz, who hacked JSTOR, killed himself yesterday, January 11, 2013.

  6. The faults of the current subscription model have been obvious for years, but it has been very hard to do anything about it because of bundling, which means that you can’t easily cancel subscriptions. (For a great description of the problem, try this blog post of John Baez.) Suppose now that we lived in a world where all maths journals were open access […]

  7. M.E. says:

    John, I hope you are planning to say something about the death of Aaron Swartz.

    In his honour, let me try to post a quote in markdown style (one of his many contributions):

    Aaron Swartz, Coder and Activist, Dead at 26
    Kevin Poulsen
    13 Jan 2013

    > We often say, upon the passing of a friend or loved one, that the world is a poorer place for the loss. But with the untimely death of programmer and activist Aaron Swartz, this isn’t just a sentiment; it’s literally true. Worthy, important causes will surface without a champion equal to their measure. Technological problems will go unsolved, or be solved a little less brilliantly than they might have been. And that’s just what we know. The world is robbed of a half-century of all the things we can’t even imagine Aaron would have accomplished with the remainder of his life.

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