Occupy Elsevier

There is an academic boycott of Elsevier going on now that is getting a lot of press and social media chatter. (See “The Cost of Knowledge.”) I know Rick Anderson has written a post about the boycott over at Scholarly Kitchen, but I am going to refrain from reading his thoughts until I get this post down. (Perhaps a follow-up after I read it.) In the interest of disclosure, I should say that I work in a library that is a big customer of Elsevier. In fact, we recently licensed the “Freedom Collection” of bundled journals from that publisher.

The point of the boycott is to encourage scientists and scholars to sign a pledge not to publish in, referee for, or do editorial work with any Elsevier journals. The rationale given on the web page is three-fold (my paraphrase): 1) their prices are high, 2) their practice of bundling journals saddles libraries with a lot of titles they don’t want, 3) they support SOPA, PIPA, and the Research Works Act.

I do not deny that each of these points is bad for libraries and for scholarly communication generally, nor that they apply to Elsevier. But I do want to raise a couple of points of concern about the boycott.

  • The boycott seems a bit like déjà vu all over again. Our discourse regarding scholarly communication has been vilifying Elsevier specifically for at least 20 years. I often have conversations with faculty in which they say, “I know Elsevier is bad, but…” or “I thought we were supposed to avoid Elsevier…” And, yet, with that knowledge, faculty continue to publish in Elsevier journals and serve on Elsevier editorial boards. In short, all that negative publicity has done little to affect the bottom line of Elsevier, but more importantly, has not changed the high rating and impact of many Elsevier journals.
  • All three of the issues raised by the boycott apply equally to dozens of other scholarly publishers. Why are they not included in the boycott? What can the boycott hope to achieve if other publishers simple take up what Elsevier loses? Are we to believe that an open access paradise will be achieved by taking on the large scholarly publishers one at a time? We will have a sequence of boycotts for Wiley, Springer, Sage, Taylor & Francis?
  • I have always thought that libraries were always stuck between a rock and a hard place regarding high-priced scholarly journals. The solution has never been that libraries should simply cancel their subscriptions. The very process of promotion and tenure in higher education requires that faculty publish in the highest rated journals, regardless of the sales practices of those journals. I don’t think, however, that the boycott as it is currently organized presents a coordinated effort that will get the desired results.

I admit to be at a loss to how this boycott ought to be organized. The rot here goes to the very heart of the P&T system in higher eduction. Individual scientists can sign the boycott, but that will have little impact if, at the point of tenure review, entire academic departments (or even entire universities) do not discount the value high-price journals and take predatory publishing into account. It is difficult to see how that kind of journal evaluation can take hold without coordination that goes even beyond department and university, encompassing entire academic disciplines and all the journals serving those disciplines.

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