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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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February 14, 2012

An Elsevier Boycott

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Posted by Derek

There's been a movement afoot to boycott Elsevier journals. It's started over in the mathematics community, led by Timothy Gowers, a serious mathematician indeed. The objections to Elsevier are the ones you'd think: high prices, unsplittable bundles of journal subscriptions for institutions, and their strong support for legislation like the Research Works Act.

Writing about this is tricky, since I'm on the editorial board of an ACS journal that competes with Elsevier titles. Of course, as that link in the first paragraph shows, Nature Publishing Group has no problem talking about the issue themselves, and they're competing tooth and claw with Elsevier. At any rate, there's now a central website for the boycott movement, and it continues to gain publicity. There are, of course, some field where Elsevier is more prominent than others - biomedically, the Cell Press journals (and The Lancet) are heavy hitters, so a real test of this movement will be to see how many people from these fields it can attract.

Personally, I think that the current system of scientific publishing is increasingly outmoded, although I'm loath to forecast what will replace it. But we could be looking at another step in its demise.

Comments (22) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: The Scientific Literature


1. student on February 14, 2012 12:38 PM writes...

The fact that Elsevier charges exorbitant fees for bundled journals including those run by hucksters such as el naschie is appalling. It's about time.

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2. billswift on February 14, 2012 12:40 PM writes...

As an outsider that occasionally wants to read a paper, I have an even lower opinion of ACS (and IEEE and other professional union publishers) than of I do of Elsevier. The prices are just as bad, and it is even harder to find free pre-prints and other off-prints from ACS journals than from Elsevier's.

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3. nord on February 14, 2012 1:07 PM writes...

The americans have been badmouthing the elsevier journal tetrahedron letters in an attempt to promote their own rival organic letters for about 12 years. very successfully. that's great.

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4. johnnyboy on February 14, 2012 1:08 PM writes...

How do you boycott a scientific publisher ? Refuse to read the articles published in their journals ?

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5. MTK on February 14, 2012 1:28 PM writes...


Refuse to submit and refuse to review articles, I guess. If you could get a critical mass doing those two things, it would actually be a pretty big deal.

The publishers rely on free content and free review of that content. The quality of a journal would fall pretty fast if that happened.

Of course, I give it zero chance that you could get the critical mass needed.

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6. RSS devotee on February 14, 2012 2:25 PM writes...

I've been boycotting Elsevier journals for almost 5 months..just not on purpose. Their journal RSS feeds are all broken. Several months ago they said they're working on it, but it appears the project has been pushed back.

Tet. Lett. is not worth a daily check on their horribly designed ScienceDirect page.

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7. Virgil on February 14, 2012 2:33 PM writes...

Adding to the "ick" factor on this, is the fact that Carolyn Maloney (D, NY) is sponsoring it, and apprears to be in receipt of large lobbying contributions from Elsevier, which just so happens to be headquartered in her district. Some blogs out there have compared her prepared statements with emails from an Elsevier rep', and the resemblance is err... striking.

Thankfully some other congressional seat holders have stated their opposition to the bill (shout out to Louise Slaughter, a microbiologist). It hasn't been withdrawn yet though, so everyone needs to write their congressperson and urge them to oppose House Resolution #3699.

Of course, Elsevier supports SOPA too, so that's another reason not to like them.

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8. Derek Freyberg on February 14, 2012 4:07 PM writes...

@4 and 5:
If you look at the boycott site, the options are paraphrased as "Won't submit, won't referee, won't be editor" - pick one or more.
Since these are scientists, the boycott is not on purchasing, but on content creation - but if the content goes to hell, who will purchase?

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9. Canageek on February 14, 2012 4:23 PM writes...

As an undergrad I can't really comment on journal pricing, or publishing or whatnot: My universities library has most of the English language chemistry journal subscriptions, and if it doesn't then I can order it from another university (or *cough cough* as one of my friends at that university to look it up for me)

What does annoy me is how much harder Elsevier journals are to use then ACS journals. I goto the ACS website: I have a drop down list of all their publications. I have a 'goto citation' box right in every page. There are useful options clearly laid out and most are useful (Full text, download PDF, etc). Heck, it even looks nice.

At ScienceDirect I have odd things poping up, things are hard to find, and it is harder to browse journals. The one plus is that it has a better citation export feature.

It would be nice if as a response to this Elsevire updates things, makes their website more user friendly, etc, rather then relying on the fact that since they have good content users have no choice but to use their interface.

Also: Why the ACS hate? I thought they spoke up against that legislation really early and publicly?

Oh, and while I'm making pointless wishes: ACS please update your LaTeX install, please.

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10. Mike on February 14, 2012 4:26 PM writes...

Derek Freyberg said, "but if the content goes to hell, who will purchase?"

For institutions that purchase electronic access rather than paper journals, they will still need to pay the same money to maintain access to the older, better content.

From what I can discern, unless this spreads significantly beyond the mathematics community and continues for many years (unlikely in my mind), Elsevier has little chance of losing much in this battle. More likely this will all be forgotten in a year.

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11. petros on February 14, 2012 5:16 PM writes...

while the elsevier journal prices have long been excessive, referees do benefit from a short period of free access to scopus.

I was amused last week to get the invite, for referees, from the ACS to a drink in San Diego. Rather less useful

I'd also agree will billswift's comments about access to ACS journal articles

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12. Conflicted on February 14, 2012 5:40 PM writes...

I hope to soon be hanging out my own shingle as a researcher in chemistry and frankly I don't know which open access journals (OAJs) to trust. My main concerns are what gets read, what will be around in ten years, and if it goes under will it leave a trace. Its easy to say that the quality of your work will speak for itself but if nobody reads it because you published in the Clown Town Gazette you're out in the cold. Does anything like SciFinder even cover OAJs?

Its the quality of the work which lends prestige to a journal and if the heavy hitters at the top don't start favoring certain OAJs, none of this will go anywhere. Which leads me to the question of if there is any incentive for established researchers to publish in OAJs. Nearly everyone of consequence who reads their work is somewhere with institutional access to the big publishers, so why should they take the risk to go elsewhere?

I would like to publish in an OAJ. I do not like that the publishing houses keep publicly funded material locked behind a pay wall, treat the scientific literature as a license to print money, and that the authors who actually produced that material don't get any cut. I'm not even asking for a cut. All I want is a place to read about and report developments, but I'm not seeing any real alternative to the current system.

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13. luysii on February 14, 2012 5:54 PM writes...

Don't beat up on Carolyn Maloney. She a highly intelligent and nice woman, and the sudden (and unexpected) widow of a classmate (Cliff) who died in his tent the day after he climbed one of the highest peaks in the Himalayas.

For the mountaineers among you, I tried to stop Cliff from attempting to pre-acclimate himself to the hypoxic conditions of high altitude by placing himself in low oxygen environments. I told him his 3 pound brain was consuming 20% of the oxygen he breathed as he sat there, and has essentially no metabolic reserve.

Carolyn begged him to listen, but I don't think he did. I'm not sure this caused his death, but it couldn't have helped. Boisjoly anyone?

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14. Student on February 15, 2012 1:32 AM writes...

This could actually collapse rather quickly. Just don't cite it. People won't want to submit if they known their articles won't be cited, and also if they know the impact factor will be dropping. You don't even have to have a cohesive banding of chemists for this to work, a simple rumor would get the ball rolling and it would snowball in a years time.

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15. johnnyboy on February 15, 2012 8:55 AM writes...

@9: "As an undergrad I can't really comment on journal pricing, or publishing or whatnot: My universities library has most of the English language chemistry journal subscriptions"

Thus it may appear to you that access to these journal is free (as it did to me when I was at university). However your university is shelling out thousands and thousands of dollars for these subscriptions, so YOU are paying for them, through your tuition (or if you're in Canada, through your (or your parents') tax dollars).

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16. RD on February 15, 2012 10:35 AM writes...

Two things:
1.) I brought up the high cost of downloading journal articles to a local ACS rep back in May last year. Those of us who are newly unemployed and trying to set up free lance businesses can't do without the journals but we also can't shell out $30.00/paper. The ACS dude was completely inflexible. He suggested that we find a professor at a local college to mooch off of. In actuality, I have to trek to my nearest university to use the science library and although it's only 10 miles away, it's still not as convenient as downloading from the browser at home, especially when one paper leads to another.
I asked him to consider moving to a iTunes type of model. The advantage is that the ACS could collect obscene gobs of cash from people no longer affiliated with a corporation. If he charged a more reasonable price, like $5/paper, he might even be making money. He looked at me like I had two heads. Well, he was probably almost 80 years old so maybe he'd never used iTunes. I dunno. But the other disturbing thing was that the guy just didn't have a clue just how many of us are out of work and need access to journals. He's living in a different century. The world has changed.
2.) I suggested to a friend of mine who develops programs for apple (specifically the iPad in the education area) that it would be really cool to have an iPad app for chemists in the lab. Instead of rushing back to your computer to look stuff up and record notes, you just take your iPad into the lab. The app would have access to the corp database, journals, have a chemdraw type feature for drawing structures, dilution calculator, etc. Friend thought it was a good idea and thought he'd test out a related idea for the classroom with the ACS. So, he scheduled a pitch meeting with ACS dudes. He said it was the worst experience of all of the science professional groups he had met with. The Physicists were cool. The ACS was arrogant. They were condescending and dismissive. They had no interest in his application proposals. He told me they were just a bunch of old guys who liked the way things were and that was that. End of story. Friend crossed ACS off his list. Vowed to never go back. Too bad because the friend is making money hand over fist in the education area with other science fields. Chemistry will not be one of them.

Houston, we have a problem.

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17. MIMD on February 15, 2012 11:36 AM writes...

Personally, I think that the current system of scientific publishing is increasingly outmoded

The problems are worse than on first glance.

As pointed out on the Healthcare Renewal blog here, "ghostwritten articles could comprise a major proportion of the apparently scholarly literature relevant to Risperdal."

I'd say 'outmoded' is an understatment.

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18. MIMD on February 15, 2012 11:44 AM writes...

#10 Mike

I agree, I found, at least in the 2003 timeframe, that one did not save much on institutional subscriptions to scientific journals by eliminating paper. I do not know if that has changed.

Maurice Hilleman at Merck had very strong feelings about eJournals and eBooks vs. paper, see letter here.

He was largely addressing the cognitive and functional differences between screens and paper, and my belief as former head of the MRL science libraries is that both have a role.

Personally, I like to read grant proposals and medical informatics articles on paper.

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19. NJBiologist on February 15, 2012 12:35 PM writes...

@12 Conflicted: "I hope to soon be hanging out my own shingle as a researcher in chemistry and frankly I don't know which open access journals (OAJs) to trust."

Don't trust journals (of any kind).

After you sink enough of your career into replicating other people's work, you may find certain labs that merit less suspicion, but you still don't want to stake an important decision on published work without trying to replicate it.

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20. Anonymous on February 15, 2012 4:50 PM writes...

We write the articles, we review the articles, we referee the articles, all for free. Somehow, Elsevier and others charge bazillions of dollars for the fruits of our labor. We never see a dime of that money. How does this work? Rent-seeking. There is no reason to allow this behavior to continue.

The computer scientist Scott Aaronson wrote a short and scathing article about this corrupt state of affairs, couched as a book review: Review of The Access Principle. Worth reading.

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21. GG on February 16, 2012 2:36 AM writes...

If I were Elsevier or Wiley I would be very scared of the day when Google announces they are entering the scientific publishing business.

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22. Anonymous on February 16, 2012 1:04 PM writes...

I like RD's idea - I work at a small company with no journal access, and I have to make do with what I can find for free online. I'd be willing to buy papers for a few dollars apiece, but I can't justify spending $30 a pop.

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