Scientists boycott Elsevier

What started as a protest from a few mathematicians has exploded into a worldwide boycott of publisher Elsevier by scientists from all disciplines.

(Illustration: Auke Herrema)
(Illustration: Auke Herrema)

About 7000 scientists signed a petition that was put online three weeks ago, stating that they will no longer publish in and do any reviews or editing work for journals that belong to Elsevier.

Among the protesters are ten TU Delft researchers, including mathematician, Professor Jan van Neerven (EEMCS faculty).

Why is Elsevier under attack? “Costs for publishing have diminished due to all of the digitalization that has occurred over the years,” Van Neerven says. “Yet the fees Elsevier charges the scientific community for subscriptions is rising continuously.”

What’s more, according to the petitioners, Elsevier imposes package deals to universities, including many journals no one is really interested in.

Elsevier is a large publisher, and boycotting it will likely harm ones career. Van Neerven: “There are still enough other journals to publish in, but I do not encourage young researchers, who have to think more about their career, to do the same. This is something seniors should do.”

Van Neerven says he hesitated before signing the petition, because it is not just Elsevier that is to blame – all the other big publishers are as well.

Yet in the end he was susceptible to the arguments put forward by the initiator of the petition, Timothy Gowers, from the University of Cambridge, who in an accompanying pamphlet wrote that among all publishers, Elsevier behaves the worst of all.

The pamphlet states that for instance Elsevier made a series of sponsored article compilation publications, on behalf of pharmaceutical clients, which were made to look like real journals, and Elsevier also artificially increased the impact factor of one of its journals by using mutual citations. Van Neerven: “Elsevier is regarded by many as a parasite of science.”

Economist, Professor John Groenewegen (TPM faculty), also signed the petition. He believes the business model of these big publishers is nearing its end. “In a few years time all publications will go over the internet and be open access,” he says.

According to Prof. Groenewegen, companies like Elsevier, but also Thomson Reuters, which rank the journals, behave like monopolists, and they can do so because researchers need to publish in journals with high impact factors for their careers.

Describing Elsevier as a parasite is a bit too blunt for Wilma van Wezenbeek, the director of the TU Delft Library. “Companies like Elsevier play an important role,” she says. “They organize peer reviews for instance and do lots of hosting and marketing.”

Van Wezenbeek does however confirm that the prices Elsevier charges are steadily increasing. All university libraries and the Royal library combined have seen the price of their subscriptions to Elsevier journals increase by 9 percent over the last three years, she says. 

Like Prof. Groenewegen, Van Wezenbeek also sees a shift happening in the publishing world: “There are more and more open access journals set up by researchers themselves. This movement is encouraged by subsidizers of scientific research.”

In a reaction on its website, Elsevier writes that the cost of downloading an article has never been lower than it is today — on average one-fifth of what it was just ten years ago and that libraries are never forced to take “bundled” packages.