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Why Are We Boycotting Elsevier?
February 24, 2012 - 3:10am

In my circles, the answer to this question is fairly obvious. But as I was trying to explain to undergraduates how messed up scholarly publishing is, I realized it's hard to grasp unless you already have been bruised by current practices. When you're just learning how information works and have only gotten as far as "you ought to use scholarly sources," it's very puzzling indeed. So I thought I'd try to break it down.

Here are the reasons over 7,000 scholars are boycotting a publisher of over 2,500 scholarly journals.

  • Elsevier's business model depends on limiting access to our work, and we publish it to make it accessible.
  • Though other publishers have the same model, Elsevier is really big and has a particularly bad record, so it gets to go first.

Huh. That wasn't as hard as I thought.

What makes it complicated for students is that they don't understand why we would write articles, give them away, and be okay with it showing up on the Internet with a $35 price tag in the first place. Why make it so hard to get scholarly articles when sharing your research findings is the whole point?

In case you're not familiar with the boycott, here's a brief rundown. It started when mathematician and Field medalist Timothy Gowers explained why he would no longer write, review, or do editorial work for Elsevier journals and encouraged others to join him.

I don’t think it is helpful to accuse Elsevier of immoral behaviour: they are a big business and they want to maximize their profits, as businesses do. I see the argument as a straightforward practical one. Yes, they are like that, as one would expect, but we have much greater bargaining power than we are wielding at the moment, for the very simple reason that we don’t actually need their services. That is not to say that morality doesn’t come into it, but the moral issues are between mathematicians and other mathematicians rather than between mathematicians and Elsevier. In brief, if you publish in Elsevier journals you are making it easier for Elsevier to take action that harms academic institutions, so you shouldn’t.

Tyler Neylon then created a handy site titled The Cost of Knowledge where we could do so publicly, and within days the numbers began to climb.

Soon @FakeElsevier began tweeting satirical and biting comments. The author (or authors) of those tweets dropped the sarcasm long enough to explain what this is all about in an excellent blog post. There's lots there worth reading, but here's the money quote:

"In the internet age, Elsevier is doing an unbelievably shitty job of accomplishing its ONE AND ONLY PURPOSE: to distribute our work as broadly as possible."

Last week, I issued a call to action to librarians to not only sign the boycott, but to boycott other abusive publishers which publish and make scarce lots of library and information science journals. If anyone should be able to figure out how to do this right, we should. Why haven't we? The existence of toll access journals published by notoriously abusive corporations in our field makes no sense to me.

Today, I bumped into another reason to change the system. Apart from it being difficult to get our hands on current research, preservation is not in publishers' mission. Even if big publishers can be persuaded to let libraries archive their contents, the majority of journals are not preserved in any systematic way. How many fugitive journals will join the massive orphanage for books whose rights holders can't be found and whose copyright status cannot be determined?

At Discover, blogger Mike Taylor explained why the boycott isn't an attempt to change Elsevier's policies; it's an affirmation that we don't have to keep doing things this way.

Why haven’t we simply deserted the old publishers, walked away and started our own? Well, to some extent we have: that is what the Cost Of Knowledge boycott is about. It’s sometimes been described as a petition, but isn’t trying to persuade Elsevier to do something. It’s a declaration of independence.

Walking away isn't always easy. It means we won't be able to submit our work to many journals, some of them with strong reputations. We may have to turn down review requests from friends who serve as editors. We may have to explain to tenure and promotion committees that our choices were made to further knowledge, and furthering knowledge is at least as important as building our reputations. This is why we should congratulate all those who are willing to put their tenure on the line to do the right thing. So here's a shout-out to my heroes, pre-tenure colleagues who are committed to making a difference.

  • Abigail Goben, also known as The Hedgehog Librarian.
  • Amy Buckland, who blogs at In Forming Thoughts
  • Jason Puckett, sometimes known as Librarian X ("With great power comes great bibliography")
  • Catherine Pelegrino, who blogs at Spurious Tuples
  • Margaret Smith, physical science librarian at New York University
  • Courtney Fuson, Electronic & Educational Resources Librarian at Belmont University
  • Maura Smale who blogs brilliantly at ACRLog
  • Alycia Sellie, whose research interests include radical librarians and zines
  • Jill Cirasella, who knows a lot about open access publishing
  • Amy Ballmer, yet another CUNY conscientious objector to Elsevier
  • Cynthia Tobar, rounding out a CUNY win
  • Heather Piwowar, a scientist and postdoc currently working on data sharing and reuse in evolution and ecology

I'm sure there are others I've missed. I hope you'll forgive me for overlooking you and add your name in the comments.




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