The Education of a Scientist

29 February, 2012

Why are scientists like me getting so worked up over Elsevier and other journal publishers? It must seem strange from the outside. This cartoon explains it very clearly. It’s hilarious—except that it’s TRUE!!! This is why we need a revolution.

(It’s true except for one small thing: in math and physics, Elsevier and Springer let us put our papers on our websites and free electronic archives… though not the final version, only the near-final draft. This is a concession we had to fight for.)

What can you do? Two easy things:

• If you’re an academic, add your name to the boycott of Elsevier.

• If you’re a US citizen, sign this White House petition before March 9.

Why the problem is hard

Why is it so hard it is to solve the journal problem? Here’s a quick simplified explanation for outsiders—people who don’t live in the world of university professors.

There are lots of open-access journals that are free to read but the author needs to pay a fee. There are even lots that are free to read and free for the author. Why doesn’t everyone switch to publishing in these? Lots of us have. But most haven’t. Two reasons:

1) These journals aren’t as “prestigious” as the journals owned by the evil Big Three publishers: Elsevier, Springer, and Wiley-Blackwell. In the last 30 years the Big Three bought most of the really “prestigious” journals – and a journal can’t become “prestigious” overnight, so while things are changing, they’re changing slowly.

Publishing in a “prestigious” journal helps you get hired, promoted, and get grants. “Prestige” is not a vague thing: it’s even measured numerically using something called the Impact Factor. It may be baloney, but it is collectively agreed-upon baloney. Trying to make it go away is like trying to make money go away: people would not know what to do without it.

2) It’s not the professors who pay the outrageous subscription fees for journals – it’s the university libraries. So nothing instantly punishes the professors for publishing in “prestigious” but highly expensive journals, except the nasty rules about resharing journal articles, which however are invisible if you live in a world of professors where everyone has library access!

So, the problem is hard to solve. The fight will be hard.

But we’ll win anyway, because the current situation is just too outrageous to tolerate. We have strategies and we’re pursuing lots of them. You can help by doing those two easy things.

Research Work Act Dead — What Next?

28 February, 2012

A larger victory for the rebel forces!

One day after Elsevier dropped its support for the Research Works Act, the people pushing this ugly bill—who coincidentally get regular contributions of cash from Elsevier—have decided to let it die! At least for now.

Here’s the joint statement from Representatives Darrell Issa and Carolyn B. Maloney, who proposed this bill… together with my translation into plain English:

“The introduction of HR 3699 has spurred a robust, expansive debate on the topics of scientific and scholarly publishing, intellectual property protection, and public access to federally funded research. Since its introduction, we have heard from numerous stakeholders and interested parties on both sides of this important issue.

Translation: the Association of American Publishers supported this bill because it would crush the Public Access Policy that makes taxpayer-funded medical research freely accessible online… and stop this practice from spreading to other kinds of research.

But then, scholars and ordinary people worldwide erupted in a wave of revulsion, even using this bill as an extra reason for boycotting the publisher Elsevier—the most vocal supporter of this bill.

For example, all way across the Atlantic, an editorial in the Guardian shouted: “The result would be an ethical disaster: preventable deaths in developing countries, and an incalculable loss for science in the USA and worldwide. The only winners would be publishing corporations such as Elsevier (£724m profits on revenues of £2b in 2010—an astounding 36% of revenue taken as profit).”

Since Elsevier is a global corporation, this is not what they want people to read in British newspapers.

As the costs of publishing continue to be driven down by new technology, we will continue to see a growth in open access publishers. This new and innovative model appears to be the wave of the future.

Translation: the big publishers are doomed in the long run.

The transition must be collaborative…

Translation: but Elsevier makes $100 million in profits every month now, so let's not move too fast.

… and must respect copyright law and the principles of open access. The American people deserve to have access to research for which they have paid.

Translation: we’re not evil. We’re for everything that sounds good, even things in direct contradiction to the bill we proposed!

This conversation needs to continue and we have come to the conclusion that the Research Works Act has exhausted the useful role it can play in the debate.

We’ve beaten, for now.

As such, we want Americans concerned about access to research and other participants in this debate to know we will not be taking legislative action on HR 3699, the Research Works Act. We do intend to remain involved in efforts to examine and study the protection of intellectual property rights and open access to publicly funded research.

But watch out: we’re not giving up.

So, we need to heed the words of open-access advocate Peter Suber:

This is a victory for what The Economist called the Academic Spring. It shows that academic discontent—expressed in blogs, social media, mainstream news media, and open letters to Congress—can defeat legislation supported by a determined and well-funded lobby. Let’s remember that, and let’s prove that this political force can go beyond defeating bad legislation, like the Research Works Act, to enacting good legislation, like the Federal Research Public Access Act.

So, folks, please:

1) Learn about the Federal Research Public Access Act. Blog about it, tweet about it: this is one of the few really good bills that Congress has considered for a long time.

2) If you’re a US citizen, sign the White House petition supporting the Federal Research Public Access Act. If 25,000 sign by March 9th, the president will review it.

3) No matter where you are, add a comment supporting the Federal Research Public Access Act to the Alliance for Taxpayer Access petition. And if you live in the US, sign the petition!

4) If you teach or study at a university, click on the picture below to get a PDF file of a poster explaining the boycott. Print it out and put it on your office door. While for some of us the Elsevier boycott is old news, a surprising number of people who should know haven’t heard of it yet! Within the field of mathematics, professional associations are planning a PR blitz to solve that problem. But if you’re in one of the bigger sciences, like biologist and chemistry, we really need you to help publicize what’s going on.

Elsevier Gives Up On Research Work Act

27 February, 2012

A small victory for the rebel forces:

Elsevier Withdraws Support for the Research Works Act.

Yay! Let’s keep up the pressure, crush the Research Works Act, and move to take the offensive!

In case you haven’t heard yet: this nasty bill would stop the National Institute of Health from making taxpayer-funded research freely available to US taxpayers. It’s supported by the Association of American Publishers (AAP)—but various AAP members, including MIT Press, Rockefeller University Press, Nature Publishing Group, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science have already come out against it. Now, put under pressure by the spreading boycott, Elsevier has dropped its support.

However, they make it crystal clear that this is just a tactical retreat:

… while withdrawing support for the Research Works Act, we will continue to join with those many other nonprofit and commercial publishers and scholarly societies that oppose repeated efforts to extend mandates through legislation.

I don’t know what position Springer and Wiley-Blackwell take on this bill: besides Elsevier they’re the biggest science publishers. If they all drop their support, the bill may die. And then we can take the offensive and push for the Federal Research Public Access Act.

This bill would make sure the people who pay for U.S. government-funded research—us, the taxpayers—don’t have to pay again just to see what we bought. It would do this by expanding what’s already standard practice at the National Institute of Health to some other big funding agencies, like the National Science Foundation.

On Google+, open-access hero Peter Suber writes:

This is a victory for what The Economist called the Academic Spring. It shows that academic discontent—expressed in blogs, social media, mainstream news media, and open letters to Congress—can defeat legislation supported by a determined and well-funded lobby. Let’s remember that, and let’s prove that this political force can go beyond defeating bad legislation, like the Research Works Act, to enacting good legislation, like the Federal Research Public Access Act.

Indeed, for companies like Elsevier, the great thing about bills like the Research Work Act is that they make us work hard just to keep the status quo, instead of what we really want: changing the status quo for the better. And they’re perfectly happy to stage a tactical retreat in a little skirmish like this if it distracts us from our real goals.

So, let’s keep at it! For starters, if you teach or study at a university, you can click on the picture below, get a PDF file of a poster that explains the boycott, print it out, and put it on your door. While for some of us the Elsevier boycott is old news, a surprising number of people who should know haven’t heard of it yet!

Luckily, a PR blitz in various math journals will start to change that, at least in the field of mathematics. And soon I’ll talk about some exciting plans being developed on Math 2.0. But if you’re a biologist or chemist, for example, you really need to start the revolution over in your field.

Elsevier and Springer Sue University Library

20 February, 2012

The battle is heating up! Now Elsevier, Springer and a smaller third publisher are suing a major university in Switzerland, the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich, or ETH Zürich for short. Why? Because this university’s library is distributing copies of their journal articles at a lower cost than the publishers themselves.

Aren’t university libraries supposed to make journal articles available? Over on Google+, Willie Wong explains:

My guess is that they are complaining about how the ETH Library (as well as many other libraries in the NEBIS system) offers Electronic Document Delivery.

It is free for staff and researchers, and private individuals who purchase a library membership can ask for articles for a fee. It is a nice service: otherwise most of us would just go to the library, borrow the printed journal, and scan it ourselves (when the electronic copy is not part of the library’s subscription). This way the library does the scanning for us (so we benefit from time better used) and the library benefits from less undesired wear-and-tear and loss from their paper copies.

The publishers probably think the library is illegally reselling their journal articles! But here’s an article by the head of the ETH library, making his side of the case:

• Wolfram Neubauer, A thorn in the side for science publishers, ETH Life, 17 February 2012.

He says the delivery of electronic copies of documents is allowed by the Swiss Copyright Act. He also makes a broader moral case:

• More or less all scientifically relevant journals rely on the results of publicly funded research.

• The brunt of evaluating scientific findings (i.e. peer reviewing) is borne by the scientific community, with the publishers playing only a supporting role.

• By far the most important customers for all major science publishers are academic libraries, the vast majority of which are themselves supported by public funding.

He concludes:

In the legal proceedings, the aim must therefore be to strike a balance between the services provided by the ETH-Bibliothek for the benefit of science and research on the one hand and the commercial interests of the publishers on the other.

It’ll be interesting to see how this goes in court. Either way, a kind of precedent will be set.

Math 2.0

16 February, 2012

Building on the Elsevier boycott, a lot of people are working on positive steps to make expensive journals obsolete. My email is flooded with discussions, different groups making different plans.

Email is great, but not for everything. So Andrew Stacey (the technical mastermind behind the nLab, Azimuth Wiki and Azimuth Forum):

and Scott Morrison (one of the brains behind MathOverflow, an important math question-and-answer website):

have started a forum to talk about the many issues involved:

Math 2.0.

That’s good, because these guys actually do stuff, not just talk! Andrew describes the idea here:

The purpose of Math 2.0 is to provide a forum for discussion of the future of mathematical publishing. It’s something that I’ve viewed as an important issue for years, and have had many, many interesting conversations about, but somehow nothing much seems to happen. I’m hoping that the momentum from Tim Gowers’ recent blog posts might lead to something and I’d like to capitalise on that.

However, most of the discussion currently is happening in the comments on blog posts. This is hard to follow, and hard to separate out the new suggestions from the discussions on old ones. I think that forums are much better for discussion, hence this one.

The name, Math2.0, is intended to signify two things: that it’s time for an upgrade of the mathematical environment and that I think we can learn a lot from looking at how software—particularly open source software—works. By “mathematical environment”, I don’t mean how we actually do the mathematics but what happens next, particularly communicating the ideas that we create. This is where the internet can really change things for the better (as it has started to do with the arXiv), but where I think that we have yet to figure out how to make best use of it.

This doesn’t just include journals, but I think that that’s an obvious place to start.

So: welcome to Math2.0. Please join in. It’s important.

Andrew Stacey has also emphasized a principle that’s good for reducing chat about starry-eyed visions and focusing on what we can do now:

In all these discussions, there is one point that I would like to make at the start and which I think is relevant to any proposal to set up something new for mathematicians (or more generally, for academics). That is that whatever system is set up it must be:

Useful at the point of use

This is something that I’ve learnt from administering the nLab over the past few years. It keeps going and there is no sign of it slowing down. The secret of its success, I maintain, is that it is useful at the point of use. When I write something on the nLab, I benefit immediately. I can link to previous things I’ve written, to definitions that others have written, and so link my ideas to many others. It means that if I want to talk to someone about something, the thing we are talking about is easily visible and accessible to both (or all) of us. If I want to remember what it was I was thinking about a year ago, I can easily find it. The fact that when I come back the next day, whatever I’ve added has been improved, polished, and added to, is a bonus—but it would still be useful if that didn’t happen.

For other things, then I need more of an incentive to participate. MathOverflow was a lot of fun in the beginning, but now I find that a question needs to be such that it’s fairly clear that I’m one of the few people in the world who can answer. It’s not that my enthusiasm for the site has gone down, just that everything else keeps pushing it out of the way. So a new system has to be useful to those who use it, and ideally the usefulness should be proportional to the amount of effort that one puts in.

A corollary of this is that it should be useful even if only a small number of people use it. The number of core users of the nLab is not large, but nevertheless the nLab is still extremely useful to us. I can imagine that when a proposal for something new is made, there will be a variety of reactions ranging from “That’ll never work” through to “Sounds interesting, but …” with only a few saying “Count me in!”. To have a chance of succeeding, it has to be the case that those few can get it off the ground and demonstrate that it works, without the input of the wider sceptical community.

So: if you’re a mathematician or programmer interested in revolutionizing the future of math publishing, go to Math 2.0, register, and join the conversation! You’ll see there are a number of concrete proposals on the table, including one by Chris Lee, and Marc Harper and myself.

I’ll say more about those later. But I want to add a principle of my own to Andrew’s ‘useful at the point of use’. The goal is not to get a universal consensus on the future of math publishing! Instead, we need a healthy dissensus in which different groups of people develop different systems—so we can see which ones work.

In biology, evolution happens when some change is useful at the point of use—and it doesn’t happen by consensus, either. When some fish gradually became amphibians, they didn’t wait for all fish to agree this was a good move. And indeed it’s good that we still have fish.

Jan Velterop has some interesting thoughts on the evolution of scholarly publishing, which you can read here:

• Richard Poynder, The open access interviews: Jan Velterop, February 2012.

Velterop writes:

As a geologist I go so far as to say that I see analogies with the Permian-Triassic boundary and the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary, when life on Earth changed dramatically due to fundamental and sudden changes in the environment.

Those boundary events, as they are known, resulted in mass extinctions, and that’s an unavoidable evolutionary consequence of sudden dramatic environmental changes.

But they also open up ecological niches for new, or hitherto less successful, forms of life. In this regard, it is interesting to see the recent announcement of F1000 Research, which intends to address the major issues afflicting scientific publishing.


The evolution of scientific communication will go on, without any doubt, and although that may not mean the total demise of the traditional models, these models will necessarily change. After all, some dinosaur lineages survived as well. We call them birds. And there are some very attractive ones. They are smaller than the dinosaurs they evolved from, though. Much smaller.

The Federal Research Public Access Act

10 February, 2012

As of this minute, 5030 scholars have joined the Elsevier boycott. You should too! But now is the time to go further and take positive steps to develop new, better systems for refereeing and distributing scholarly papers.

Everyone I know is talking about this now. Today, quantum physicist Steve Flammia pointed out to me that U.S. Representative Mike Doyle has a good idea:

The Federal Research Public Access Act.

It’s simple: we should get to see the research we paid for with our tax dollars. We shouldn’t have to pay for it twice: once to have it done, and once more to see the results.

As Doyle puts it:

Americans have the right to see the results of research funded with taxpayer dollars. Yet such research too often gets locked away behind a pay-wall, forcing those who want to learn from it to pay expensive subscription fees for access.

The Federal Research Public Access Act will encourage broader collaboration among scholars in the scientific community by permitting widespread dissemination of research findings. Promoting greater collaboration will inevitably lead to more innovative research outcomes and more effective solutions in the fields of biomedicine, energy, education, and health care.

But what does the bill actually do? It says this: any federal agency that spends more than $100 million per year funding research must make that research freely available in a public repository no later than 6 months after the research has been published in a peer-review journal.

This is already done by the National Institute of Health: the bill would expand this practice to the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, and other agencies.

What we should do

Someone with technical brains should make it easy for US citizens to contact Congress and support this bill. Google got 4.5 million people to sign their petition against SOPA, the so-called Stop Online Piracy Act. But we’ve been playing defense for too long. Let’s go on the offense and do something like this for a bill that’s good!

Emailing your congressperson incredibly easy, but telephone calls are even better, precisely because they’re a bit more work.

Here’s a sample of what you could write or say:

I am your constituent, and I urge you to support the Federal Research Public Access Act. As a taxpayer, I help support scientific research out of my own pocket. I deserve to see the results! The National Institute of Health already demands this for all the research they support, and the system works well. Broadening this policy will advance science and improve the lives and welfare of all Americans.

I believe an emphasis on ‘taxpayers getting their money worth’ and ‘improving the lives of all Americans’ may resonate well with the U.S. Congress: that’s why I’ve worded the message this way. Taxes and patriotism are hot-button issues. But of course you should feel free to modify this text!

Why it’s important

I think this bill is important: even if it doesn’t pass, it changes the debate and puts the publishers on the defensive.

Remember: the Association of American Publishers is still supporting the Research Works Act, a bill that would prevent federal agencies from requiring that the research they fund be made freely available online. It seems this bill would even roll back the existing requirement that research funded by the National Institute of Health be made freely available at PubMed Central!

There’s a built-in imbalance at work here. Publishers pays lobbyists to work full-time on advancing their agenda. Scientists and other scholars prefer to spend their time thinking about more interesting things. So, we’re usually reactive: we wait until something becomes intolerable before taking action. That’s why we’re fighting against a crisis of journal prices that bankrupt our libraries, and battling bad bills like the Research Works Act, when we should be developing better systems for communicating the results of our research, and supporting good bills…

… like the Federal Research Public Access Act!

For more

For more, see:

• David Dobbs, Open science revolt occupies Congress, Wired, 9 February 2012.

Call to action: Tell Congress you support the Bipartisan Federal Research Public Access Act (FRPAA), Alliance for Taxpayer Access, 9 February 2012.

• Scholarly Publishing & Academic Resources Council, SPARC FAQ for university administrators and faculty: Federal Research Public Access Act (FRPAA).

The original sponsors of the Federal Research Public Access Act were Reps. Kevin Yoder (R-KS) and Wm. Lacy Clay (D-MO). Identical legislation is also being introduced in the U.S. Senate by Sens. John Cornyn (R-TX), Ron Wyden (D-OR), and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX).


The Cost of Knowledge

8 February, 2012

As of this moment, 4760 scholars have joined a boycott of the publishing company Elsevier. Of these, only 20% are mathematicians. But since the boycott was started by a mathematician, 34 of us wrote and signed an official statement explaining the boycott:

The Cost of Knowledge.

It’s also below. Please check it out and join the boycott! I’m sure more than 34 mathematicians would be happy to sign, but we wanted to get the statement out soon.


This is an attempt to describe some of the background to the current boycott of Elsevier by many mathematicians (and other academics) at, and to present some of the issues that confront the boycott movement. Although the movement is anything but monolithic, we believe that the points we make here will resonate with many of the signatories to the boycott.

The role of journals (1): dissemination of research.

The role of journals in professional mathematics has been under discussion for some time now.

Traditionally, while journals served several purposes, their primary purpose was the dissemination of research papers. The journal publishers were charging for the cost of typesetting (not a trivial matter in general before the advent of electronic typesetting, and particularly non-trivial for mathematics), the cost of physically publishing copies of the journals, and the cost of distributing the journals to subscribers (primarily academic libraries).

The editorial board of a journal is a group of professional
mathematicians. Their editorial work is undertaken as part of their scholarly duties, and so is paid for by their employer, typically a university. Thus, from the publisher’s viewpoint the editors are volunteers. (The editor in chief of a journal sometimes receives modest compensation from the publisher.) When a paper is submitted to the journal, by an author who is again typically a university-employed mathematician, the editors select the referee or referees for the paper, evaluate the referees’ reports, decide whether or not to accept the submission, and organize the submitted papers into volumes. These are passed on to the publisher, who then undertakes the job of actually publishing them. The publisher supplies some administrative assistance in handling the papers, as well as some copy-editing assistance, which is often quite minor but sometimes more substantial. The referees are again volunteers from the point of view of the publisher: as with editing, refereeing is regarded as part of the service component of a mathematician’s academic work. Authors are not paid by the publishers for their published papers, although they are usually asked to sign over the copyright to the publisher.

This system made sense when the publishing and dissemination of papers was a difficult and expensive undertaking. Publishers supplied a valuable service in this regard, for which they were paid by subscribers to the journals, which were mainly academic libraries. The academic institutions whose libraries subscribe to mathematics journals are broadly speaking the same institutions that employ the mathematicians who are writing for, refereeing for, and editing the journals. Therefore, the cost of the whole process of producing research papers is borne by these institutions (and the outside entities that partially fund them, such as the National Science Foundation in the United States): they pay for their academic mathematician employees to do research and to organize the publications of the results of their research in journals; and then (through their libraries) they pay the publishers to disseminate these results among all the world’s mathematicians. Since these institutions employ research faculty in order to foster research, it certainly used to make sense for them to pay for the dissemination of this research as well. After all, the sharing of scientific ideas and research results is unquestionably a key component for making progress in science.

Now, however, the world has changed in significant ways.
Authors typeset their own papers, using electronic typesetting. Publishing and distribution costs are not
as great as they once were. And most importantly,
dissemination of scientific ideas no longer takes place via the physical distribution of journal volumes. Rather, it takes place mainly electronically. While this means of dissemination is not free, it is much less expensive, and much of it happens quite independently of mathematical journals.

In conclusion, the cost of journal publishing has gone down
because the cost of typesetting has been shifted from
publishers to authors and the cost of publishing and distribution is significantly lower than it used to be.
By contrast, the amount of money being spent by university libraries on journals seems to be growing with no end in sight. Why do mathematicians contribute all this volunteer labor, and their employers pay all this money, for a service whose value no longer justifies its cost?

The role of journals (2): peer review and professional

There are some important reasons that mathematicians haven’t just abandoned journal publishing. In particular, peer review plays an essential role in ensuring the correctness and readability of mathematical papers, and publishing papers in research journals is the main way of achieving professional recognition. Furthermore, not all journals count equally from this point of view: journals are (loosely) ranked, so that publications in top journals will often count more than publications in lower ranked ones. Professional mathematicians typically have a good sense of the relative prestige of the journals that publish papers in their area, and they will usually submit a paper to the highest ranked journal that they judge is likely to accept and publish it.

Because of this evaluative aspect of traditional journal publishing, the problem of switching to a different model
is much more difficult than it might appear at first. For
example, it is not easy just to begin a new journal (even an electronic one, which avoids the difficulties of printing and distribution), since mathematicians may not want to publish in it, preferring to submit to journals with known reputations. Secondly, although the reputation of various journals has been created through the efforts of the authors, referees, and editors who have worked (at no cost to the publishers) on it over the years, in many cases the name of the journal is owned by the publisher, making it difficult for the mathematical community to separate this valuable object that they have constructed from its present publisher.

The role of Elsevier

Elsevier, Springer, and a number of other commercial publishers (many of them large companies but less significant for their mathematics publishing, e.g., Wiley) all exploit our volunteer labor to extract very large profits from the academic community. They supply some value in the process, but nothing like enough to justify their prices.

Among these publishers, Elsevier may not be the most expensive, but in the light of other factors, such as scandals, lawsuits, lobbying, etc. (discussed further below), we consider them a good initial focus for our discontent. A boycott should be substantial enough to be meaningful, but not so broad that the choice of targets becomes controversial or the boycott becomes an unmanageable burden. Refusing to submit papers to all overpriced publishers is a reasonable further step, which some of us have taken, but the focus of this boycott is on Elsevier because of the widespread feeling among mathematicians that they are the worst offender.

Let us begin with the issue of journal costs. Unfortunately, it is difficult to make cost comparisons: journals differ greatly in quality, in number of pages per volume, and even in amount of text per page. As measured by list prices, Elsevier mathematics journals are amongst the most expensive. For instance, in the AMS mathematics journal price survey, seven of the ten most expensive journals (by 2007 volume list price) were published by Elsevier. (All prices are as of 2007 because both prices and page counts are easily available online.) However, that is primarily because Elsevier publishes the largest volumes. Price per page is a more meaningful measure that can be easily computed. By this standard, Elsevier is certainly not the worst publisher, but its prices do on the face of it look very high. The Annals of Mathematics, published by Princeton University Press, is one of the absolute top mathematics journals and quite affordably priced: $0.13/page as of 2007. By contrast, ten Elsevier journals (not including one that has since ceased publication) cost $1.30/page or more; they and three others cost more per page than any journal published by a university press or learned society. For comparison, three other top journals competing with the Annals are Acta Mathematica, published by the Institut Mittag Leffler for $0.65/page, Journal of the American Mathematical Society, published by the American Mathematical Society for $0.24/page, and Inventiones Mathematicae, published by Springer for $1.21/page. Note that none of Elsevier’s mathematics journals is generally considered comparable in quality to these journals.

However, there is an additional aspect which makes it hard to compute the true cost of mathematics journals. This is the widespread practice among large commercial publishers of “bundling” journals, which allows libraries to subscribe to large numbers of journals in order to avoid paying the exorbitant list prices for the ones they need. Although this means that the average price libraries pay per journal is less than the list prices might suggest, what really matters is the average price that they pay per journal (or page of journal) that they actually want, which is hard to assess, but clearly higher. We would very much like to be able to offer more concrete data regarding the actual costs to libraries of Elsevier journals compared with those of Springer or other publishers. Unfortunately, this is difficult, because publishers often make it a contractual requirement that their institutional customers should not disclose the financial details of their contracts. For example, Elsevier sued Washington State University to try to prevent release of this information. One common consequence of these arrangements, though, is that in many cases a library cannot actually save any money by cancelling a few Elsevier journals: at best the money can sometimes be diverted to pay for other Elsevier subscriptions.

One reason for focusing on Elsevier rather than, say, Springer is that Springer has had a rich and productive history with the mathematical community. As well as journals, it has published important series of textbooks, monographs, and lecture notes; one could perhaps regard the prices of its journals as a means of subsidizing these other, less profitable, types of publications. Although all these types of publications have become less important with the advent of the internet and the resulting electronic distribution of texts, the long and continuing presence of Springer in the mathematical world has resulted in a store of goodwill being built up in the mathematical community towards them. This store is being rapidly depleted, but has not yet reached zero. See for instance the recent petition to Springer by a number of French mathematicians and departments.

Elsevier does not have a comparable tradition of involvement in mathematics publishing. Many of the mathematics journals that it publishes have been acquired comparatively recently as it has bought up other, smaller publishers. Furthermore, in recent years it has been involved in various scandals regarding the scientific content, or lack thereof, of its journals. One in particular involved the journal Chaos, Solitons & Fractals, which, at the time the scandal broke in 2008–2009, was one of the highest impact factor mathematics journals that Elsevier published. (Elsevier currently reports the five-year impact factor of this journal at 1.729. For sake of comparison, Advances in Mathematics, also published by Elsevier, is reported as having a five-year impact factor of 1.575.) It turned out that the high impact factor was at least partly the result of the journal publishing many papers full of mutual citations. (See Arnold for more information on this and other troubling examples that show the limitations of bibliometric measures of scholarly quality.) Furthermore, Chaos, Solitons & Fractals published many papers that, in our professional judgement, have little or no scientific merit and should not have been published in any reputable journal.

In another notorious episode, this time in medicine, for at least five years Elsevier “published a series of sponsored article compilation publications, on behalf of pharmaceutical clients, that were made to look like journals and lacked the proper disclosures”, as noted by the CEO of Elsevier’s Health Sciences Division.

Recently, Elsevier has lobbied for the Research Works Act, a proposed U.S. law that would undo the National Institutes of Health’s public access policy, which guarantees public access to published research papers based on NIH funding within twelve months of publication (to give publishers time to make a profit). Although most lobbying occurs behind closed doors, Elsevier’s vocal support of this act shows their opposition to a popular and effective open access policy.

These scandals, taken together with the bundling practices, exorbitant prices, and lobbying activities, suggest a publisher motivated purely by profit, with no genuine interest in or commitment to mathematical knowledge and the community of academic mathematicians that generates it. Of course, many Elsevier employees are reasonable people doing their best to contribute to scholarly publishing, and we bear them no ill will. However, the organization as a whole does not seem to have the interests of the mathematical community at heart.

The boycott

Not surprisingly, many mathematicians have in recent years lost patience with being involved in a system in which commercial publishers make profits based on the free labor of mathematicians and subscription fees from their institutions’ libraries, for a service that has become largely unnecessary. (See Scott Aaronson’s scathing but all-too-true satirical description of the publishers’ business model.) Among all the commercial publishers, the behavior of Elsevier seemed to many to be the most egregious, and a number of mathematicians had made personal commitments to avoid any involvement with Elsevier journals. (Some journals were also successfully moved from Elsevier to other publishers; e.g., Annales Scientifiques de l’école Normale Supérieure which until recent years was published by Elsevier, is now published by the Société Mathématique de France.)

One of us (Timothy Gowers) decided that it might be useful to
publicize his own personal boycott of Elsevier, thus encouraging others to do the same. This led to the current boycott movement at, the success of which has far exceeded his initial expectations.

Each participant in the boycott can choose which activities they intend to avoid: submitting to Elsevier journals, refereeing for them, and serving on editorial boards. Of course, submitting papers and editing journals are purely voluntary activities, but refereeing is a more subtle issue. The entire peer review system depends on the availability of suitable referees, and its success is one of the great traditions of science: refereeing is felt to be both a burden and an honor, and practically every member of the community willingly takes part in it. However, while we respect and value this tradition, many of us do not wish to see our labor used to support Elsevier’s business model.

What next?

As suggested at the very beginning, different participants in the boycott have different goals, both in the short and long term. Some people would like to see the journal system eliminated completely and replaced by something else more adapted to the internet and the possibilities of electronic distribution. Others see journals as continuing to play a role, but with commercial publishing being replaced by open access models. Still others imagine a more modest change, in which commercial publishers are replaced by non-profit entities such as professional societies (e.g., the American Mathematical Society, the London Mathematical Society, and the Société Mathématique de France, all of which already publish a number of journals) or university presses; in this way the value generated by the work of authors, referees, and editors would be returned to the academic and scientific community. These goals need not be mutually exclusive: the world of mathematics journals, like the world of mathematics itself, is large, and open access journals can coexist with traditional journals, as well as with other, more novel means of dissemination and evaluation.

What all the signatories do agree on is that Elsevier is an exemplar of everything that is wrong with the current system of commercial publication of mathematics journals, and we will no longer acquiesce to Elsevier’s harvesting of the value of our and our colleagues’ work.

What future do we envisage for all the papers that would
otherwise be published in Elsevier journals? There are many
other journals being published; perhaps they can pick up at
least some of the slack. Many successful new journals have been founded in recent years, too, including several that are electronic (thus completely eliminating printing and physical distribution costs), and no doubt more will follow. Finally, we hope that the mathematical community will be able to reclaim for itself some of the value that it has given to Elsevier’s journals by moving some of these journals (in name, if possible, and otherwise in spirit) from Elsevier to other publishers. One notable example is the August 10, 2006 resignation of the entire editorial board of the Elsevier journal Topology and their founding of the Journal of Topology, owned by the London Mathematical Society.

None of these changes will be easy; editing a journal is hard work, and founding a new journal, or moving and relaunching an existing journal, is even harder. But the alternative is to continue with the status quo, in which Elsevier harvests ever larger profits from the work of us and our colleagues, and this is both unsustainable and unacceptable.

Signed by:

Scott Aaronson
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Douglas N. Arnold
University of Minnesota

Artur Avila
IMPA and Institut de Mathématiques de Jussieu

John Baez
University of California, Riverside

Folkmar Bornemann
Technische Universität München

Danny Calegari
Caltech/Cambridge University

Henry Cohn
Microsoft Research New England

Jordan Ellenberg
University of Wisconsin, Madison

Matthew Emerton
University of Chicago

Marie Farge
École Normale Supérieure Paris

David Gabai
Princeton University

Timothy Gowers
Cambridge University

Ben Green
Cambridge University

Martin Grötschel
Technische Universität Berlin

Michael Harris
Université Paris-Diderot Paris 7

Frédéric Hélein
Institut de Mathéatiques de Jussieu

Rob Kirby
University of California, Berkeley

Vincent Lafforgue
CNRS and Université d’Orléans

Gregory F. Lawler
University of Chicago

Randall J. LeVeque
University of Washington

László Lovász
Eötvös Lor´nd University

Peter J. Olver
University of Minnesota

Olof Sisask
Queen Mary, University of London

Terence Tao
University of California, Los Angeles

Richard Taylor
Institute for Advanced Study

Bernard Teissier
Institut de Mathématiques de Jussieu

Burt Totaro
Cambridge University

Lloyd N. Trefethen
Oxford University

Takashi Tsuboi
University of Tokyo

Marie-France Vigneras
Institut de Mathématiques de Jussieu

Wendelin Werner
Université Paris-Sud

Amie Wilkinson
University of Chicago

Günter M. Ziegler
Freie Universität Berlin

Appendix: recommendations for mathematicians.

All mathematicians must decide for themselves whether, or to what extent, they wish to participate in the boycott. Senior
mathematicians who have signed the boycott bear some
responsibility towards junior colleagues who are forgoing the
option of publishing in Elsevier journals, and should do their
best to help minimize any negative career consequences.

Whether or not you decide to join the boycott, there are some
simple actions that everyone can take, which seem to us to be

1) Make sure that the final versions of all your papers, particularly new ones, are freely available online— ideally both on the arXiv. (Elsevier’ electronic preprint policy is unacceptable, because it explicitly does not allow authors to update their papers on the arXiv to incorporate changes made during peer review). When signing copyright transfer forms, we recommend amending them (if necessary) to reserve the right to make the author’s final version of the text available free online from servers such as the arXiv, and on your home page.

2) If you are submitting a paper and there is a choice between an expensive journal and a cheap (or free) journal of the same standard, then always submit to the cheap one.


The PDF version of this statement has many useful references not included here.