Why I still won’t review for or publish with Elsevier–and think you shouldn’t either

In 2012, I signed the Cost of Knowledge pledge, and stopped reviewing for, and publishing in, all Elsevier journals. In the four years since, I’ve adhered closely to this policy; with a couple of exceptions (see below), I’ve turned down every review request I’ve received from an Elsevier-owned journal, and haven’t sent Elsevier journals any of my own papers for publication.

Contrary to what a couple of people I talked to at the time intimated might happen, my scientific world didn’t immediately collapse. The only real consequences I’ve experienced as a result of avoiding Elsevier are that (a) on perhaps two or three occasions, I’ve had to think a little bit longer about where to send a particular manuscript, and (b) I’ve had a few dozen conversations (all perfectly civil) about Elsevier and/or academic publishing norms that I otherwise probably wouldn’t have had. Other than that, there’s been essentially no impact on my professional life. I don’t feel that my unwillingness to publish in NeuroImage, Neuron, or Journal of Research in Personality has hurt my productivity or reputation in any meaningful way. And I continue to stand by my position that it’s a mistake for scientists to do business with a publishing company that actively lobbies against the scientific community’s best interests.

While I’ve never hidden the fact that I won’t deal with Elsevier, and am perfectly comfortable talking about the subject when it comes up, I also haven’t loudly publicized my views. Aside from a parenthetical mention of the issue in one or two (sometimes satirical) blog posts, and an occasional tweet, I’ve never written anything vocally suggesting that others adopt the same stance. The reason for this is not that I don’t believe it’s an important issue; it’s that I thought Elsevier’s persistently antagonistic behavior towards scientists’ interests was common knowledge, and that most scientists continue to provide their free expert labor to Elsevier because they’ve decided that the benefits outweigh the costs. In other words, I was under the impression that other people share my facts, just not my interpretation of the facts.

I now think I was wrong about this. A series of tweets a few months ago (yes, I know, I’m slow to get blog posts out these days) prompted my reevaluation. It began with this:

Which led a couple of people to ask why I don’t review for Elsevier. I replied:

All of this information is completely public, and much of it features prominently in Elsevier’s rather surreal Wikipedia entry–nearly two thirds of which consists of “Criticism and Controversies” (and no, I haven’t personally contributed anything to that entry). As such, I assumed Elsevier’s track record of bad behavior was public knowledge. But the responses to my tweets suggested otherwise. And in the months since, I’ve had several other twitter or real-life conversations with people where it quickly became clear that the other party was not, in fact, aware of (m)any of the scandals Elsevier has been embroiled in.

In hindsight, this shouldn’t have surprised me. There’s really no good reason why most scientists should be aware of what Elsevier’s been up to all this time. Sure, most scientists cross path with Elsevier at some point; but so what? It’s not as though I thoroughly research every company I have contractual dealings with; I usually just go about my business and assume the best about the people I’m dealing with–or at the very least, I try not to assume the worst.

Unfortunately, sometimes it turns out that that assumption is wrong. And on those occasions, I generally want to know about it. So, in that spirit, I thought I’d expand on my thoughts about Elsevier beyond the 140-character format I’ve adopted in the past, in the hopes that other people might also be swayed to at least think twice about submitting their work to Elsevier journals.

Is Elsevier really so evil?

Yeah, kinda. Here’s a list of just some of the shady things Elsevier has been previously caught doing–and none of which, as far as I know, the company contests at this point:

  • They used to organize arms trade fairs, until a bunch of academics complained that a scholarly publisher probably shouldn’t be in the arms trade, at which point they sold that division off;
  • In 2009, they were caught for having created and sold half a dozen entire fake journals to pharmaceutical companies (e.g., Merck), so that those companies could fill the pages of the journals, issue after issue, with reprinted articles that cast a positive light on their drugs;
  • They regularly sell access to articles they don’t own, including articles licensed for non-commercial use–in clear contravention of copyright law, and despite repeated observations by academics that this kind of thing should not be technically difficult to stop if Elsevier actually wanted it to stop;
  • Their pricing model is based around the concept of the “Big Deal”: Elsevier (and, to be fair, most other major publishers) forces universities to pay for huge numbers of their journals at once by pricing individual journals prohibitively, ensuring that institutions can’t order only the journals they think they’ll actually use (this practice is very much like the “bundling” exercised by the cable TV industry); they also bar customers from revealing how much they paid for access, and freedom-of-information requests reveal enormous heterogeneity across universities, often at costs that are prohibitive to libraries;
  • They recently bought the SSRN preprint repository, and after promising to uphold SSRN’s existing operating procedures, almost immediately began to remove articles that were legally deposited on the service, but competed with “official” versions published elsewhere;
  • They have repeatedly spurned requests from the editorial boards of their journals to lower journal pricing, decrease open access fees, or make journals open access; this has resulted in several editorial boards abandoning the Elsevier platform wholesale and moving their operation elsewhere (Lingua being perhaps the best-known example)–often taking large communities with them;
  • Perhaps most importantly (at least in my view), they actively lobbied the US government against open access mandates, making multiple donations to the congressional sponsors of a bill called the Research Works Act that would have resulted in the elimination of the current law mandating deposition of all US government-funded scientific works in public repositories within 12 months after publication.

The pattern in these cases is almost always the same: Elsevier does something that directly works against the scientific community’s best interests (and in some cases, also the law), and then, when it gets caught with its hand in the cookie jar, it apologizes and fixes the problem (well, at least to some degree; they somehow can’t seem to stop selling OA-licensed articles, because it is apparently very difficult for a multibillion dollar company to screen the papers that appear on its websites). A few months later, another scandal comes to light, and then the cycle repeats.

Elsevier is, of course, a large company, and one could reasonably chalk one or two of the above actions down to poor management or bad judgment. But there’s a point at which the belief that this kind of thing is just an unfortunate accident–as opposed to an integral part of the business model–becomes very difficult to sustain. In my case, I was aware of a number of the above practices before I signed The Cost of Knowledge pledge; for me, the straw that broke the camel’s back was Elsevier’s unabashed support of the Research Works Act. While I certainly don’t expect any corporation (for-profit or otherwise) to actively go out and sabotage its own financial interests, most organizations seem to know better than to publicly lobby for laws that would actively and unequivocally hurt the primary constituency they make their money off of. While Elsevier wasn’t alone in its support of the RWA, it’s notable that many for-profit (and most non-profit) publishers explicitly expressed their opposition to the bill (e.g., MIT Press, Nature Publishing Group, and the AAAS). To my mind, there wasn’t (and isn’t) any reason to support a company that, on top of arms sales, fake journals, and copyright violations, thinks it’s okay to lobby the government to make it harder for taxpayers to access the results of publicly-funded research that’s generated and reviewed at no cost to Elsevier itself. So I didn’t, and still don’t.

Objections (and counter-objections)

In the 4 years since I stopped writing or reviewing for Elsevier, I’ve had many conversations with colleagues about this issue. Since most of my colleagues don’t share my position (though there are a few exceptions), I’ve received a certain amount of pushback. While I’m always happy to engage on the issue, so far, I can’t say that I’ve found any of the arguments I’ve heard sufficiently compelling to cause me to change my position. I’m not sure if my arguments have led anyone else to change their view either, but in the interest of consolidating discussion in one place (if only so that I can point people to it in future, instead of reprising the same arguments over and over again), I thought I’d lay out all of the major objections I’ve heard to date, along with my response(s) to each one. If you have other objections you feel aren’t addressed here, please leave a comment, and I’ll do my best to address them (and perhaps add them to the list).

Without further ado, and in no particular order, here are the pro-Elsevier (or at least, anti-anti-Elsevier) arguments, as I’ve heard and understood them:

“You can’t really blame Elsevier for doing this sort of thing. Corporations exist to make money; they have a fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders to do whatever they legally can to increase revenue and decrease expenses.”

For what it’s worth, I think the “fiduciary responsibility” argument–which seemingly gets trotted out almost any time anyone calls out a publicly traded corporation for acting badly–is utterly laughable. As far as I can tell, the claim it relies on is both unverifiable and unenforceable. In practice, there is rarely any way for anyone to tell whether a particular policy will hurt or help a company’s bottom line, and virtually any action one takes can be justified post-hoc by saying that it was the decision-makers’ informed judgment that it was in the company’s best interest. Presumably part of the reason publishing groups like NPG or MIT Press don’t get caught pulling this kind of shit nearly as often as Elsevier is that part of their executives’ decision-making process includes thoughts like gee, it would be really bad for our bottom line if scientists caught wind of what we’re doing here and stopped giving us all this free labor. You can tell a story defending pretty much any policy, or its polar opposite, on grounds of fiduciary responsibility, but I think it’s very unlikely that anyone is ever going to knock on an Elsevier executive’s door threatening to call in the lawyers because Elsevier just hasn’t been working hard enough lately to sell fake journals.

That said, even if you were to disagree with my assessment, and decided to take the fiduciary responsibility argument at face value, it would still be completely and utterly irrelevant to my personal decision not to work for Elsevier any more. The fact that Elsevier is doing what it’s (allegedly) legally obligated to do doesn’t mean that I have to passively go along with it. Elsevier may be legally allowed or even obligated to try to take advantage of my labor, but I’m just as free to follow my own moral compass and refuse. I can’t imagine how my individual decision to engage in moral purchasing could possibly be more objectionable to anyone than a giant corporation’s “we’ll do anything legal to make money” policy.

“It doesn’t seem fair to single out Elsevier when all of the other for-profit publishers are just as bad.”

I have two responses to this. First, I think the record pretty clearly suggests that Elsevier does in fact behave more poorly than the vast majority of other major academic publishers (there are arguably a number of tiny predatory publishers that are worse–but of course, I don’t think anyone should review for or publish with them either!). It’s not that publishers like Springer or Wiley are without fault; but they at least don’t seem to get caught working against the scientific community’s interests nearly as often. So I think Elsevier’s particularly bad track record makes it perfectly reasonable to focus attention on Elsevier in particular.

Second, I don’t think it would, or should, make any difference to the analysis even if it turned out that Springer or Wiley were just as bad. The reason I refuse to publish with Elsevier is not that they’re the only bad apples, but that I know that they’re bad apples. The fact that there might be other bad actors we don’t know about doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take actions against the bad actors we do know about. In fact, it wouldn’t mean that even if we did know of other equally bad actors. Most people presumably think there are many charities worth giving money to, but when we learn that someone donated money to a breast cancer charity, we don’t get all indignant and say, oh sure, you give money to cancer, but you don’t think heart disease is a serious enough problem to deserve your support? Instead, we say, it’s great that you’re doing what you can–we know you don’t have unlimited resources.

Moreover, from a collective action standpoint, there’s a good deal to be said for making an example out of a single bad actor rather than trying to distribute effort across a large number of targets. The reality is that very few academics perceive themselves to be in a position to walk away from all academic publishers known to engage in questionable practices. Collective action provides a means for researchers to exercise positive force on the publishing ecosystem in a way that cannot be achieved by each individual researcher making haphazard decisions about where to send their papers. So I would argue that as long as researchers agree that (a) Elsevier’s policies hurt scientists and taxpayers, and (b) Elsevier is at the very least one of the worst actors, it makes a good deal of sense to focus our collective energy on Elsevier. I would hazard a guess that if a concerted action on the part of scientists had a significant impact on Elsevier’s bottom line, other publishers would sit up and take notice rather quickly.

“You can choose to submit your own articles wherever you like; that’s totally up to you. But when you refuse to review for all Elsevier journals, you do a disservice to your colleagues, who count on you to use your expertise to evaluate other people’s manuscripts and thereby help maintain the quality of the literature as a whole.”

I think this is a valid concern in the case of very early-career academics, who very rarely get invited to review papers, and have no good reason to turn such requests down. In such cases, refusing to review because Elsevier would indeed make everyone else’s life a little bit more difficult (even if it also helps a tiny bit to achieve the long-term goal of incentivizing Elsevier to either shape up or disappear). But I don’t think the argument carries much force with most academics, because most of us have already reached the review saturation point of our careers–i.e., the point at which we can’t possibly (or just aren’t willing to) accept all the review assignments we receive. For example, at this point, I average about 3 – 4 article reviews a month, and I typically turn down about twice that many invitations to review. If I accepted any invitations from Elsevier journals, I would simply have to turn down an equal number of invitations from non-Elsevier journals–almost invariably ones with policies that I view as more beneficial to the scientific community. So it’s not true that I’m doing the scientific community a disservice by refusing to review for Elsevier; if anything, I’m doing it a service by preferentially reviewing for journals that I believe are better aligned with the scientific community’s long-term interests.

Now, on fairly rare occasions, I do get asked to review papers focusing on issues that I think I have particularly strong expertise in. And on even rarer occasions, I have reason to think that there are very few if any other people besides me who would be able to write a review that does justice to the paper. In such cases, I willingly make an exception to my general policy. But it doesn’t happen often; in fact, it’s happened exactly twice in the past 4 years. In both cases, the paper in question was built to a very significant extent on work that I had done myself, and it seemed to me quite unlikely that the editor would be able to find another reviewer with the appropriate expertise given the particulars reported in the abstract. So I agreed to review the paper, even for an Elsevier journal, because to not do so would indeed have been a disservice to the authors. I don’t have any regrets about this, and I will do it again in future if the need arises. Exceptions are fine, and we shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. But it simply isn’t true, in my view, that my general refusal to review for Elsevier is ever-so-slightly hurting science. On the contrary, I would argue that it’s actually ever-so-slightly helping it, by using my limited energies to support publishers and journals that work in favor of, rather than against, scientists’ interests.

“If everyone did as you do, Elsevier journals might fall apart, and that would impact many people’s careers. What about all the editors, publishing staff, proof readers, etc., who would all lose at least part of their livelihood?”

This is the universal heartstring-pulling argument, in that it can be applied to virtually any business or organization ever created that employs at least one person. For example, it’s true that if everyone stopped shopping at Wal-Mart, over a million Americans would lose their jobs. But given the externalities that Wal-Mart imposes on the American taxpayer, that hardly seems like a sufficient reason to keep shopping at Wal-Mart (note that I’m not saying you shouldn’t shop at Wal-Mart, just that you’re not under any moral obligation to view yourself as a one-person jobs program). Almost every decision that involves reallocation of finite resources hurts somebody; the salient question is whether, on balance, the benefits to the community as a whole outweigh the costs. In this case, I find it very hard to see how Elsevier’s policies benefit the scientific community as a whole when much cheaper, non-profit alternatives–to say nothing of completely different alternative models of scientific evaluation–are readily available.

It’s also worth remembering that the vast majority of the labor that goes into producing Elsevier’s journals is donated to Elsevier free of charge. Given Elsevier’s enormous profit margin (over 30% in each of the last 4 years), it strains credulity to think that other publishers couldn’t provide essentially the same services while improving the quality of life of the people who provide most of the work. For an example of such a model, take a look at Collabra, where editors receive a budget of $250 per paper (which comes out of the author publication charge) that they can divide up however they like between themselves, the reviewers, and publishing subsidies to future authors who lack funds (full disclosure: I’m an editor at Collabra). So I think an argument based on treating people well clearly weighs against supporting Elsevier, not in favor of it. If nothing else, it should perhaps lead one to question why Elsevier insists it can’t pay the academics who review its articles a nominal fee, given that paying for even a million reviews per year (surely a gross overestimate) at $200 a pop would still only eat up less than 20% of Elsevier’s profit in each of the past few years.

“Whatever you may think of Elsevier’s policies at the corporate level, the editorial boards at the vast majority of Elsevier journals function autonomously, with no top-down direction from the company. Any fall-out from a widespread boycott would hurt all of the excellent editors at Elsevier journals who function with complete independence–and by extension, the field as a whole.”

I’ve now heard this argument from at least four or five separate editors at Elsevier journals, and I don’t doubt that its premise is completely true. Meaning, I’m confident that the scientific decisions made by editors at Elsevier journals on a day-to-day basis are indeed driven entirely by scientific considerations, and aren’t influenced in any way by publishing executives. That said, I’m completely unmoved by this argument, for two reasons. First, the allocation of resources–including peer reviews, submitted manuscripts, and editorial effort–is, to a first approximation, a zero-sum game. While I’m happy to grant that editorial decisions at Elsevier journals are honest and unbiased, the same is surely true of the journals owned by virtually every other publisher. So refusing to send a paper to NeuroImage doesn’t actually hurt the field as a whole in any way, unless one thinks that there is a principled reason why the editorial process at Cerebral Cortex, Journal of Neuroscience, or Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience should be any worse. Obviously, there can be no such reason. If Elsevier went out of business, many of its current editors would simply move to other journals, where they would no doubt resume making equally independent decisions about the manuscripts they receive. As I noted above, in a number of cases, entire editorial boards at Elsevier journals have successfully moved wholesale to new platforms. So there is clearly no service Elsevier provides that can’t in principle be provided more cheaply by other publishers or plaforms that aren’t saddled with Elsevier’s moral baggage or absurd profit margins.

Second, while I don’t doubt the basic integrity of the many researchers who edit for Elsevier journals, I also don’t think they’re completely devoid of responsibility for the current state of affairs. When a really shitty company offers you a position of power, it may be true that accepting that position–in spite of the moral failings of your boss’s boss’s boss–may give you the ability to do some real good for the community you care about. But it’s also true that you’re still working for a really shitty company, and that your valiant efforts could at any moment be offset by some underhanded initiative in some other branch of the corporation. Moreover, if you’re really good at your job, your success–whatever its short-term benefits to your community–will generally serve to increase your employer’s shit-creating capacity. So while I don’t think accepting an editorial position at an Elsevier journal makes anyone a bad person (some of my best friends are editors for Elsevier!), I also see no reason for anyone to voluntarily do business with a really shitty company rather than a less shitty one. As far as I can tell, there is no service I care about that NeuroImage offers me but Cerebral Cortex or The Journal of Neuroscience don’t. As a consequence, it seems reasonable for me to submit my papers to journals owned by companies that seem somewhat less intent on screwing me and my institution out of as much money as possible. If that means that some very good editors at NeuroImage ultimately have to move to JNeuro, JCogNeuro, or (dare I say it!) PLOS ONE, I think I’m okay with that.

“It’s fine for you to decide not to deal with Elsevier, but you don’t have a right to make that decision for your colleagues or trainees when they’re co-authors on your papers.”

This is probably the only criticism I hear regularly that I completely agree with. Which is why I’ve always been explicit that I can and will make exceptions when required. Here’s what I said when I originally signed The Cost of Knowledge years ago:


Basically, my position is that I’ll still submit a manuscript to an Elsevier journal if either (a) I think a trainee’s career would be significantly disadvantaged by not doing so, or (b) I’m not in charge of a project, and have no right to expect to exercise control over where a paper is submitted. The former has thankfully never happened so far (though I’m always careful to make it clear to trainees that if they really believe that it’s important to submit to a particular Elsevier journal, I’m okay with it). As for the latter, in the past 4 years, I’ve been a co-author on two Elsevier papers (1, 2). In both cases, I argued against submitting the paper to those journals, but was ultimately overruled. I don’t have any problem with either of those decisions, and remain on good terms with both lead authors. If I collaborate with you on a project, you can expect to receive an email from me suggesting in fairly strong terms that we should consider submitting to a non-Elsevier-owned journal, but I certainly won’t presume to think that what makes sense to me must also make sense to you.

“Isn’t it a bit silly to think that your one-person boycott of Elsevier is going to have any meaningful impact?”

No, because it isn’t a one-person boycott. So far, over 16,000 researchers have signed The Cost of Knowledge pledge. And there are very good reasons to think that the 16,000-strong (and growing!) boycott has already had important impacts. For one thing, Elsevier withdrew its support of the RWA in 2012 shortly after The Cost of Knowledge was announced (and several thousand researchers quickly signed on). The bill itself was withdrawn shortly after that. That seems like a pretty big deal to me, and frankly I find it hard to imagine that Elsevier would have voluntarily stopped lobbying Congress this way if not for thousands of researchers putting their money where their mouth is.

Beyond that clear example, it’s hard to imagine that 16,000 researchers walking away from a single publisher wouldn’t have a significant impact on the publishing landscape. Of course, there’s no clear way to measure that impact. But consider just a few points that seem difficult to argue against:

  • All of the articles that would have been submitted to Elsevier journals presumably ended up in other publishers’ journals (many undoubtedly run by OA publishers). There has been continual growth in the number of publishers and journals; some proportion of that seems almost guaranteed to reflect the diversion of papers away from Elsevier.

  • Similarly, all of the extra time spent reviewing non-Elsevier articles instead of Elsevier articles presumably meant that other journals received better scrutiny and faster turnaround times than they would have otherwise.

  • A number of high-profile initiatives–for example, the journal Glossa–arose directly out of researchers’ refusal to keep working with Elsevier (and many others are likely to have arisen indirectly, in part). These are not insignificant. Aside from their immediate impact on the journal landscape, the involvement of leading figures like Timothy Gowers in the movement to develop better publishing and evaluation options is likely to have a beneficial long-term impact.

All told, it seems to me that, far from being ineffectual, the Elsevier boycott–consisting of nothing more than individual researchers cutting ties with the publisher–has actually achieved a considerable amount in the past 4 years. Of course, Elsevier continues to bring in huge profits, so it’s not like it’s in any danger of imminent collapse (nor should that be anyone’s goal). But I think it’s clear that, on balance, the scientific publishing ecosystem is healthier for having the boycott in place, and I see much more reason to push for even greater adoption of the policy than to reconsider it.

More importantly, I think the criticism that individual action has limited efficacy overlooks what is probably the single biggest advantage the boycott has in this case: it costs a researcher essentially nothing. If I were to boycott, say, Trader Joe’s, on the grounds that it mistreats its employees (for the record, I don’t think it does), my quality of life would go down measurably, as I would have to (a) pay more for my groceries, and (b) travel longer distances to get them (there’s a store just down the street from my apartment, so I shop there a lot). By contrast, cutting ties with Elsevier has cost me virtually nothing so far. So even if the marginal benefit to the scientific community of each additional individual boycotting Elsevier is very low, the cost to that individual will typically be still much lower. Which, in principle, makes it very easy to organize and maintain a collective action of this sort on a very large scale (and is probably a lot of what explains why over 16,000 researchers have already signed on).

What you can do

Let’s say you’ve read this far and find yourself thinking, okay, that all kind of makes sense. Maybe you agree with me that Elsevier is an amazingly shitty company whose business practices actively bite the hand that feeds it. But maybe you’re also thinking, well, the thing is, I almost exclusively publish primary articles in the field of neuroimaging [or insert your favorite Elsevier-dominated discipline here], and there’s just no way I can survive without publishing in Elsevier journals. So what can I do?

The first thing to point out is that there’s a good chance your fears are at least somewhat (and possibly greatly) exaggerated. As I noted at the outset of this post, I was initially a bit apprehensive about the impact that taking a principled stand would have on my own career, but I can’t say that I perceive any real cost to my decision, nearly five years on. One way you can easily see this is to observe that most people are surprised when I first tell them I haven’t published in Elsevier journals in five years. It’s not like the absence would ever jump out at anyone who looked at my publication list, so it’s unclear how it could hurt me. Now, I’m not saying that everyone is in a position to sign on to a complete boycott without experiencing some bumps in the road. But I do think many more people could do so than might be willing to admit it at first. There are very few fields that are completely dominated by Elsevier journals. Neuroimaging is probably one of the fields where Elsevier’s grip is strongest, but I publish several neuroimaging-focused papers a year, and have never had to work very hard to decide where to submit my papers next.

That said, the good news is that you can still do a lot to actively work towards an Elsevier-free world even if you’re unable or unwilling to completely part ways with the publisher. Here are a number of things you can do that take virtually no work, are very unlikely to harm your career in any meaningful way, and are likely to have nearly the same collective benefit as a total boycott:

  • Reduce or completely eliminate your Elsevier reviewing and/or editorial load. Even if you still plan to submit your papers to Elsevier journals, nothing compels you to review or edit for them. You should, of course, consider the pros and cons of turning down any review request; and, as I noted above, it’s fine to make occasional exceptions in cases where you think declining to review a particular paper would be a significant disservice to your peers. But such occasions are–at least in my own experience–quite rare. As I noted above, one of the reasons I’ve had no real compunction about rejecting Elsevier review requests is that I already receive many more requests than I can handle, so declining Elsevier reviews just means I review more for other (better) publishers. If you’re at an early stage of your career, and don’t get asked to review very often, the considerations may be different–though of course, you could still consider turning down the review and doing something nice for the scientific community with the time you’ve saved (e.g., reviewing openly on site like PubPeer or PubMed Commons, or spend some time making all the data, code, and materials from your previous work openly available).

  • Make your acceptance of a review assignment conditional on some other prosocial perk. As a twist on simply refusing Elsevier review invitations, you can always ask the publisher for some reciprocal favor. You could try asking for monetary compensation, of course–and in the extremely unlikely event that Elsevier obliges, you could (if needed) soothe your guilty conscience by donating your earnings to a charity of your choice. Alternatively, you could try to extract some concession from the journal that would help counteract your general aversion to reviewing for Elsevier. Chris Gorgolewski provided one example in this tweet:

Mandating open science practices (e.g., public deposition of data and code) as a requirement for review is something that many people strongly favor completely independently of commercial publishers’ shenanigans (see my own take here). Making one’s review conditional on an Elsevier journal following best practices is a perfectly fair and even-handed approach, since there are other journals that either already mandate such standards (e.g., PLOS ONE), or are likely to be able to oblige you. So if you get an affirmative response from an Elsevier journal, then great–it’s still Elsevier, but at least you’ve done something useful to improve their practices. If you get a negative review, well, again, you can simply reallocate your energy somewhere else.

  • Submit fewer papers to Elsevier journals. If you publish, say, 5 – 10 fMRI articles a year, it’s completely understandable if you might not feel quite ready to completely give up on NeuroImage and the other three million neuroimaging journals in Elsevier’s stable. Fortunately, you don’t have to. This is a nice example of the Pareto principle in action: 20% of the effort goes maybe 80% of the way in this case. All you have to do to exert almost exactly the same impact as a total boycott of Elsevier is drop NeuroImage (or whatever other journal you routinely submit to) to the bottom of the queue of whatever journals you perceive as being in the same class. So, for example, instead of reflexively thinking, “oh, I should send this to NeuroImage–it’s not good enough for Nature Neuroscience, but I don’t want to send it to just any dump journal”, you can decide to submit it to Cerebral Cortex or The Journal of Neuroscience first, and only go to NeuroImage if the first two journals reject it. Given that most Elsevier journals have a fairly large equivalence class of non-Elsevier journals, a policy like this one would almost certainly cut submissions to Elsevier journals significantly if widely implemented by authors–which would presumably reduce the perceived prestige of those journals still further, potentially precipitating a death spiral.

  • Go cold turkey. Lastly, you could always just bite the bullet and cut all ties with Elsevier. Honestly, it really isn’t that bad. As I’ve already said, the fall-out in my case has been considerably smaller than I thought it would be when I signed The Cost of Knowledge pledge as a post-doc (i.e., I expected it to have some noticeable impact, but in hindsight I think it’s had essentially none). Again, I recognize that not everyone is in a position to do this. But I do think that the reflexive “that’s a crazy thing to do” reaction that some people seem to have when The Cost of Knowledge boycott is brought up isn’t really grounded in a careful consideration of the actual risks to one’s career. I don’t know how many of the 16,000 signatories to the boycott have had to drop out of science as a direct result of their decision to walk away from Elsevier, but I’ve never heard anyone suggest this happened to them, and I suspect the number is very, very small.

The best thing about all of the above action items–with the possible exception of the last–is that they require virtually no effort, and incur virtually no risk. In fact, you don’t even have to tell anyone you’re doing any of them. Let’s say you’re a graduate student, and your advisor asks you where you want to submit your next fMRI paper. You don’t have to say “well, on principle, anywhere but an Elsevier journal” and risk getting into a long argument about the issue; you can just say “I think I’d like to try Cerebral Cortex.” Nobody has to know that you’re engaging in moral purchasing, and your actions are still almost exactly as effective. You don’t have to march down the street holding signs and chanting loudly; you don’t have to show up in front of anyone’s office to picket. You can do your part to improve the scientific publishing ecosystem just by making a few tiny decisions here and there–and if enough other people do the same thing, Elsevier and its peers will eventually be left with a stark choice: shape up, or crumble.

48 thoughts on “Why I still won’t review for or publish with Elsevier–and think you shouldn’t either”

  1. For what it’s worth, the next time someone gives you this argument:

    “they have a fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders to do whatever they legally can to increase revenue and decrease expenses.”

    … tell them that they are completely, utterly wrong about what “fiduciary responsibility” means.

    This is what fiduciary duty ACTUALLY entails: (1) the duty of care, (2) the duty of loyalty, and (3) the duty of good faith. (A good overview: https://www.themalawyer.com/fiduciary-duties-minority-shareholder-rights/)

    In concise English, these three concepts mean that a fiduciary must (1) act on an informed basis after due consideration of all information, (2) not place their personal financial interests ahead of the financial interests of the principals to whom they owe the duty, and (3) exercise care and prudence in making business decisions.

    Note that there is NOTHING in there about maximizing the financial value of their decisions. The concept that maximizing profit is the sole goal of an enterprise and anyone involved with it is not “fiduciary duty”, it is the “cult of shareholder value.” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2013/09/09/how-the-cult-of-shareholder-value-wrecked-american-business/)

    In other words, shareholders of a company may decide to fire everyone who places ethics above profits – that is their right. But until and unless they are fired, fiduciaries may choose to place ethics above profits as long as they don’t violate any of the above principles. Fiduciaries are certainly NOT required to skirt the outer edge of law and decency in pursuit of every possible penny of profit.

      1. Elsevier ended their access to DeepDyve today suddenly and without notice or subsequent explanation. But the reasons are clear, DeepDyve is making scientific literature affordable to independent researchers small businesses and the disadvantaged. To the tune of 3 million customers worldwide. Even if Elsevier could convert 3,000 of those to paying customers at the cost of leaving the rest without access, they would surely do so. And WHAT BETTER TIME TO DENY ACCESS TO MEDICAL SCIENCE RESEARCH THAN IN THE MIDDLE OF CORONAVIRUS. It’s absurd to decry the wealth of Jeff Bezos when you yourself shop on Amazon. Either you support him AND his wealth or you don’t. Scientists keep Elsevier running, only science writers can choose to support science and the spirit of science, or the wealth of a small group of financial speculators they’ll never even know. Where you publish is your choice.

    1. They also didn’t help out with the hash Asics project. Elsevier sucks and they borrow greedy BP management that is cheap and won’t invest in safety. They could have made several hundred million to a billion with Bitcoin Asics.

  2. Great post, Tal. I had a chat with an Elsevier representative at the GigaScience party at SFN last month in San Diego. I can’t remember his name, but when I brought up Elsevier’s poor record and your stance, he claimed that Elsevier had seen the error of it’s ways and was now working to embrace open science.

    From your point of view, do you see any sign that Elsevier is trying to change or make amends for past transgressions?

    1. I can’t say that I’ve seen any signs of positive change lately, no. Some of the things I mentioned in my list (e.g., buying SSRN and selling other people’s articles) have happened in the last few months. I would be pretty surprised if an Elsevier representative ever said anything other than “we don’t do that kind of stuff any more”; I mean, I would hardly expect them to say, “no, we’re going to keep behaving badly.” From what I’ve seen, Elsevier’s idea of “open science” amounts to charging authors exorbitant fees for OA, so that in practice, they’re benefiting twice–once from library subscriptions, and once for authors who want to make their articles OA. I’ve seen nothing to suggest any serious commitment to any openness of a kind that actually benefits scientists.

  3. Is there is any condition where you’d rescind your boycott? Which component of the Elsevier corporate structure could be “fixed”? Or is the brand itself forever tainted? If the board of directors was changed, would that matter? It seems the top shareholders in RELX, the corporate parent, are Invesco and Bank of America. Should your boycott extend to these banks, or other corporations which are backed by these banks/funds? They are arguably part of the chain of responsibility. What if they sold their shares?

    But that isn’t really an argument against what you’re doing. Including ethics in your business choices at a surface level is still a valid and laudable strategy. Presumably, if a Bank of America happened to own stakes in both Elsevier and also a different publishing firm, and your boycott hurt one and promoted the other, then it could still influence business practices in a positive way. In theory.

    1. Probably not, no. But that’s because staying away from Elsevier costs me almost nothing, so it’s not clear what reason there would be for me to go back. The policy is not meant to be punitive, it’s about investing my resources where I think they do some good. So it’s not enough for Elsevier not to be completely shitty; they also have to be at least as good as the other available options–and I’m not holding my breath. I think it’s much more likely that I’ll expand my policy to include other publishers as time goes on and we move increasingly towards alternative evaluation models.

  4. Very illuminating, good write up.

    @ppicalino – The fiduciary responsibility point is a red herrring. They are entitled (not compelled) to enter the free market and compete for customers and maximum profit legally. It’s just that their product is not price and feature competitive, and their brand has been damaged due to mismanagement.

    Its surprising that this happens so often because even a company with no ethics, should account for customer reaction to their ethics. It’s like armed robbery of a gas station. It’s a poor risk/reward choice even if your objective is to be a thief.

  5. I am not a scientist. As a patient and board member of a patient-advocacy organization, I am interested in knowing about current research in the relevant area. I once subscribed to an Elsevier list. They send me questionnaires as though I were a scientist and have attached my e-mail address to many of their lists on topics of no interest to me. I regularly unsubscribe. I suspect that large numbers of subscribers may somehow give them bragging rights. They are an annoyance.

  6. I cannot agree more. Thanks for sharing your arguments.

    Concerning the review requests, I find it sometimes hard to turn them down, especially when they come from good colleagues. However, I made the experience that with the *conditional* acceptance you can earn a lot of understanding.

    My condition is that the fee to make the article Open Access is waived. So far, the editors either just did not respond or promised to discuss this with the chief editors.

  7. Hi Tal, Thanks for taking the time to write this. I have a couple of points that I tried to make on twitter, but I will repeat them here in more detail, and some other ones I didn’t/couldn’t say in 140 characters. Maybe I haven’t really thought as hard as you about this. So this is just my first attempt at trying to figure out what I think.

    I have one general comment. I am surprised by the complete certainty of your position. This is something that I see standardly in scientists. They have a belief (about some phenomenon in their area) and have 100% certainty that their position is correct. There is a probability distribution of possible beliefs about the right thing to do, and I would have been even more impressed with the sophistication of your arguments if you had been a bit more open about your position being possibly wrong. The problem with this kind of hunkering down to a set position that one can’t ever question oneself and one’s beliefs.

    I understand your arguments against Elsevier. I’m also ambivalent about Elsevier journals and want to act against them, but there are quite a few things stopping me from signing on to The Cost of Knowledge list.

    1. You are in the first-world of science—top US university, nice brand recognition. You and your students have an inherent advantage. The editor sees your affiliation and thinks, wow, this guy must be good. I know (of) a lot of psych-types wandering around in, say, Harvard, publishing 25 articles a year, who wouldn’t last five minutes in a statistics exam, and yet they are running around like they own the world, and they do. I work in a no-name university; I had to move to Germany rather than staying in the US because of the pathetic medical care in the US (I’m a former kidney transplant patient, now on dialysis), and when I moved here, I didn’t really understand what an adverse impact it would have on me and my students to be in a no-name university in the middle of nowhere. When a university, esp. in the US, hires someone, they seem to look at where the person came from. I am lucky that way, because I did my PhD at Ohio State, which has a reasonably good reputation in linguistics. But my students are much, much better trained than I ever was and can do much more than I could as a grad student (actually, they are much better than me period), but they stand absolutely no chance against someone coming from a brand-name university. It’s not that the US students are better trained than mine, quite the opposite. They are trained to capitalize on their branding. Nobody seems to read the papers a new hire writes; they look for brand name markers on journals and affiliation, and go with that. Add to that my unpronounceable and obscure (to westerners) name, and that hurts both my a priori credibility and my students’ chances. Your arguments for boycotting Elsevier are great ones. But they are useless for people like my grad students and me. It’s like the US trying to tell India and China to cut emissions. You have climbed the ladder and can do afford to forego a few things. Not others. My students have only one way to be competitive against brand-name universities, and that is through raw performance.

    2. I understand the “evilness” of Elsevier; I’m with you there. However, I find it even more appalling that APA condones torture and is opposed to open data. Torture is a single thing versus the long list of problems you display for Elsevier. But it is much bigger than all the malpractice that Elsevier engages in, because torture costs people their lives and souls. You seem to think that is not as bad as Elsevier? You should think about that again. And about their opposition to open data; now, in 2016, for the APA to come out against open data is flabbergasting for me. I just can’t understand how you can boycott Elsevier but say that APA is not *that* bad. Springer price-gouges students with their overpriced books, Wiley too. I will never publish a book with Springer again for that reason alone. If I can avoid buying a Springer book, I do it. The next books I will write will be with Cambridge Uni Press. I think that you have a moral obligation to boycott APA. I suspect you have convinced yourself that they are not *as* bad as Elsevier just because you are a psychologist, and psychologists stick together.

    Your boycott is a symbolic gesture. If you are really interested in change, put your money where your mouth is. Trigger the kind of political activism that led to Germany just saying no to Elsevier. I would do this myself if my chronic illness did not limit my energies. Your symbolic gesture seems hypocritical to me esp. given your implicit condoning of torture and closed data, by your advocating that APA journals are a good alternative. Your argument is that they are less evil for you. That may really be true, but I feel that you have convinced yourself that they are less evil because you really have no choice. No rational person would accept an organization that condones torture and rejects open data. Your acceptance of APA as a lesser evil is really just a variant of my point (1) above—just as I can’t afford to reject Elsevier, you can’t afford to reject APA. That’s fine, but then at least be up-front about what is driving you; I can’t believe that you think APA is the lesser evil.

    3. Much of the work that is highly relevant to my research is published in the Journal of Memory and Language. The editors and reviewers are my community and so it’s natural for my students and me to submit there. Given point 1 above, that my students and I cannot afford to walk away from this journal, and point 2 that I don’t see other outlets as morally less reprehensible, to me it feels hypocritical to just say no to Elsevier.

    To summarize, I feel that your position is completely right in principle, but it’s spotty and inconsistent in execution. I feel like you might be fooling yourself into a feel-good state, when you should be questioning yourself and asking whether you are doing enough to destroy this hegemony of journals. There, I also took a hard-liner stance! 🙂 Just take these comments as me thinking aloud. I didn’t mean to attack you personally, although reading this again it feels like I did. My apologies in advance!

    1. Thanks for the comments, Shravan. I think you’re reading much more into my post than is actually there, so let me clarify a few things, because I actually don’t think your position is substantively different from mine.

      I am surprised by the complete certainty of your position. … There is a probability distribution of possible beliefs about the right thing to do, and I would have been even more impressed with the sophistication of your arguments if you had been a bit more open about your position being possibly wrong.

      I’m not sure what gave you this impression. I’m never entirely certain about any of my positions, certainly including the ones expressed here. I explicitly said that I welcome critical feedback (“I thought I’d lay out all of the major objections I’ve heard to date, along with my response(s) to each one. If you have other objections you feel aren’t addressed here, please leave a comment, and I’ll do my best to address them”). I take it as a foregone conclusion that I could be wrong about pretty much anything that comes out of my mouth, but if you need to see that stated explicitly, then here you go.

      Your arguments for boycotting Elsevier are great ones. But they are useless for people like my grad students and me.

      I’m not in any position to determine what does or doesn’t work for you or your students. If you don’t think you’re in a position to walk away from Elsevier, that’s perfectly reasonable. But note that the central point of my argument was that this isn’t an all-or-none matter. If you reduce your submissions to Elsevier by 50%, that’s exactly half as good as reducing them by 100%. And while I can’t say that I’m very familiar with the linguistics world, it surely isn’t the case that there are no non-Elsevier journals that are equivalent to the Elsevier journals you regularly submit to. So the following argument should not be useless to you or your students: “write down a list of all the journals that you view as being in roughly the same class. Then, for each paper, once you determine which class you’re targeting, prioritize the Elsevier journals over the non-Elsevier journals.” My contention is that this simple policy, if widely implemented, would have a very large impact on the number of submissions Elsevier journals receive.

      I think that you have a moral obligation to boycott APA. I suspect you have convinced yourself that they are not *as* bad as Elsevier just because you are a psychologist, and psychologists stick together.

      I don’t have any love for the APA, and I do try to minimize my interactions with their journals. I haven’t submitted any papers to an APA journal since the torture story broke, and have no plans to send anything there any time soon. That said, my view is that Elsevier is in fact a worse company to do business with than the APA. As I said explicitly in the post, mistakes happen–even egregious ones. The APA’s collaboration with the CIA was a terrible thing, and we shouldn’t forget it any time soon. But note that heads did roll at APA (at least 3 senior officials were fired, including the CEO and deputy CEO), whereas, as far as I know, no one senior has ever lost their position at Elsevier over any of the scandals that have come to light. My objections to Elsevier are not a reflection of any single incident, but of a repeated pattern of actively undermining the scientific community’s best interests.

      Your boycott is a symbolic gesture. If you are really interested in change, put your money where your mouth is. Trigger the kind of political activism that led to Germany just saying no to Elsevier.

      I don’t understand this at all. Your argument here seems to be that unless I’m willing to dedicate my life (or a large part of it) to this particular cause, I shouldn’t express my views or try to convince anyone else to take the same actions I have. Perhaps you can unpack this for me.

      As for whether my gesture is merely symbolic, I think I’ve addressed that above: Elsevier likely withdrew its support for the RWA because of 5,000+ scientists’ “symbolic gesture”. If a large fraction of scientists adopted the same policy of reducing their interactions with Elsevier, that “symbolic gesture” would almost certainly be sufficient to cause Elsevier some serious economic damage (and hence, presumably, to alter its policies). I see this as a net benefit for the scientific community, and I’m sorry that you don’t think it (as well as this blog post, which took a rather long time to produce) counts as a meaningful effort.

      Your symbolic gesture seems hypocritical to me esp. given your implicit condoning of torture and closed data, by your advocating that APA journals are a good alternative. Your argument is that they are less evil for you. That may really be true, but I feel that you have convinced yourself that they are less evil because you really have no choice. No rational person would accept an organization that condones torture and rejects open data. Your acceptance of APA as a lesser evil is really just a variant of my point (1) above—just as I can’t afford to reject Elsevier, you can’t afford to reject APA. That’s fine, but then at least be up-front about what is driving you; I can’t believe that you think APA is the lesser evil.

      Again, I’m not sure where you got the idea that I think the APA journals are a good alternative. I don’t. As I said, I don’t intend to submit any papers to APA journals any time soon (for what it’s worth, I’m quite confident that I could walk away from the APA too without seriously impairing my career). I think the APA’s views on data sharing are very unsatisfactory. But I think it’s a bit insulting for you to intimate that I’m either lying or deluded when I say that I view Elsevier as a bigger evil than the APA. You’re free to disagree with me, of course, but that is my genuinely-held position, and I don’t appreciate the insinuation that any rational person would see it your way. That seems like a rather strong expression of certainty in your position, no?

      3. Much of the work that is highly relevant to my research is published in the Journal of Memory and Language. The editors and reviewers are my community and so it’s natural for my students and me to submit there. Given point 1 above, that my students and I cannot afford to walk away from this journal, and point 2 that I don’t see other outlets as morally less reprehensible, to me it feels hypocritical to just say no to Elsevier.

      Again, I’m not sure what you’re actually objecting to. What you say here is completely consistent with the position I laid out. If you genuinely believe that the APA’s actions are much more egregious than Elsevier’s, then sure, don’t do business with the APA, and go on doing business with Elsevier. And if your students really cannot afford to prioritize other journals over JML even some of the time, then sure, keep submitting there. I was very explicit in my post that I’m not laboring under any impression that everyone can completely sever ties with Elsevier on a moment’s notice.

      To summarize, I feel that your position is completely right in principle, but it’s spotty and inconsistent in execution. I feel like you might be fooling yourself into a feel-good state, when you should be questioning yourself and asking whether you are doing enough to destroy this hegemony of journals. There, I also took a hard-liner stance! 🙂 Just take these comments as me thinking aloud. I didn’t mean to attack you personally, although reading this again it feels like I did. My apologies in advance!

      To be perfectly frank, it does actually come off as a personal attack. I completely get your pushback regarding the APA and your students’ situations (even if I disagree on the former and find the latter beside the point), but I’m a bit insulted by the notion that if I’m not busting my ass to “destroy this hegemony of journals”, then I must be a self-fooling hypocrite. I don’t think I’m fooling myself at all: what I take myself to be doing is something that takes very little effort, and has a very, very, small beneficial impact. I also think it’s worth my time to try and motivate other people to behave in the same way, because I think if more people behaved in the same way, the cumulative impact would not be so small any more. I’m not laboring under any pretense that one blog post and a few redirected reviews are going to save science, Shravan; but I also don’t think that I need to embark on a self-sacrificing mission to “trigger the kind of political activism that led to Germany just saying no to Elsevier” before I can feel comfortable sharing my opinion with others.

      1. Hi Tal, It seems it was my misunderstanding that you were in favor of APA. I don’t know how I got that impression, maybe it was something you said on twitter. I can also see that my comments sound insulting (not to mention tangential and meandering)—my apologies for that.

        There are in fact lots of non-Elsevier journals for ling and psycholx; I just did a quick count of my students’ and my publications and I think that we have published in non-Elsevier journals in most cases. I’ve been experimenting with publishing in open access journals like PLoS ONE and Frontiers and the Journal of Eye Movement Research; I think it’s too early to tell if people ignore this work, but at least one senior psycholinguist did ask me why I didn’t publish a (for them) interesting paper in a mainstream journal. So I have n=1, but it could be that people disregard papers that don’t appear in high-profile outlets like JML. I do know another psycholinguist who once told me he only reads papers that come out in Cognition, because nothing else is worth reading (a fairly ridiculous position, but it’s an extreme version of the way people do think when evaluating the quality of a paper).

        I wonder if one useful thing you could maybe do apart from boycotting Elsevier (and I would count this as activism) is to become an editor of one of these journals (Elsevier or not) and try to institute change from the inside, at least in some of the practices that are problematic.

        I realize that I haven’t yet worked out what exactly is bothering me about the boycott and related issues. Your post is a good summary of most of the issues, and gives people like me something to think about; thanks for taking the time for writing it. Maybe what bothers me is that I think it’s better to stay within the system and try to change it from within. Maybe instead of talking about it I’ll put *my* money where my mouth is and try to do something about the big problems that bother me most about the way journals exercise control over the field.

        Rereading this I feel that this is also meandering and tangential. I was going to delete it, but I’ll post it anyway and deal with it 🙂

      2. OK, hang on a second. I agree with everything in your original post regarding Elsevier, Tal, but I cannot fathom how you can rationally make the judgement that Elsevier is less reprehensible than the APA; the latter [i]actively colluded in torture[/i]! Doing any number of the things Elsevier has done regarding predatory pricing, erroneous takedowns, all of the items you astutely outline in your post, is certainly vile and damaging (and I boycott submitting to or reviewing for any Elsevier journal just like you) but it doesn’t compare to [i]actively having their members engaging in torturing someone[/i].

        Can you please expand on your reasoning behind this, as I’m actually very interested in how we can both agree on something so entirely (I agree wholeheartedly with every single point in your original post), and yet can disagree entirely at the same time (in that the crimes, and they are crimes, that the APA has done far overshadow Elseviers shady practices). For me, both directly engaging in torture and ‘enhanced interrogation’, and drafting policies that facilitate said engagement, trumps extorting university libraries, setting up shill journals and shill reviews, and the rest of the bad stuff Elsevier has done.

        1. @Jay, for me it’s simple. One has been arguably remediated and clearly repudiated, the other is an ongoing act that continues to do damage.

          I assume you’re aware of everything they’ve done to try and make amends. Whether they should be forgiven so quickly is another matter. However wouldn’t you agree the resources of activism should be directed toward future change?

        2. Jay Banlo: To be clear, I’m not condoning the APA’s behavior in any way, and I have no plans to submit any papers to APA either any time soon. That said, I think I addressed this in the post: the problem in Elsevier’s case is that its behavior cannot be explained as an isolated failure (even an egregious one), because (a) it keeps pulling the same kind of shit over and over, and (b) as far as I’ve seen, no one in a major leadership position has ever suffered any serious consequences as a result of Elsevier’s actions–which is what it would take to convince me that the organization is serious about doing better.

          While the APA’s actions in colluding with the Pentagon to condone and facilitate torture were utterly reprehensible, note that (a) people responsible for this complete lapse of judgment at the highest level of the organization lost their jobs for it, (b) the APA itself commissioned the most damning report (released last July), and has accepted its conclusions, and (c) the APA has worked extensively to revise its code of conduct as a result. As whitneyland1 notes, that may or may not be enough to justify forgiving the APA enough to publish with them again, but either way, I don’t buy the suggestion that because the APA did something individually worse than anything Elsevier has done, we should be harder on APA than on Elsevier going forward. What an organization does to address its failings–and whether or not the same people are still in charge over time–is, in my view, just as (and possibly more) important. The fact that the Pentagon condoned and used torture in 2005, for example, does not strike me as a valid reason to want to cease doing all business with the United States government in perpetuity. An organization’s policies, people, and behaviors can change; the problem in Elsevier’s case is that they demonstrably haven’t.

  8. I have not done any business with Elsevier since the early 80s. At the time I was a young assistant professor at an American university. I did not have a high salary, but still I wrote a letter to Elsevier asking for a quote on all the issues they had published of a journal they had started to publish a few years before. I received an insulting answer, accusing me of something I cannot even remember, so absurd it was. Perhaps of trying to buy the collection at prices for individuals instead of the institution price. Whatever. I was so upset by their attitude that I never had any dealings with them anymore.

  9. I signed the Cost of Knowledge declaration. A major problem is that campaign has not really been active much, to my knowledge, in recent years. So those who signed, many of whom were mathematicians and they got some concessions from Elsevier, really need a statement from the petition organisers. Have any of the issues been addressed? Where does the campaign stand?
    Secondly, my response was to develop a ‘white list’ of decent OA journals, most of which are free and run by academics and professional societies, where we can publish – in fact many of these need some support. This was a lot of work and I try to maintain it. See what you think (sorry, no psychology). https://simonbatterbury.wordpress.com/2015/10/25/list-of-open-access-journals/ . With the ‘big five’ companies now publishing well over half of all articles in the social sciences (in the WoS) we are seeing their control over knowledge growing, at least for decent work. We need to take back publishing, as well as identifying its true cost. This is not as difficult as it sounds.

  10. Hi Tal – Great post as usual. You probably already saw this (I’m not really on twitter so don’t know if it was posted there), but either way thought it might be useful addition to the comments section of your post


    It provides some historical context to what you wrote about here and the major issues of the scientific publishing industry.

  11. Just submitted one paper to Cercor last week instead of going to NeuroImage after getting rejected by JNeuro. Have to say, the color fig charges at Cercor are INSANE. If our paper does get accepted, the PI will end up spending around $7-8K to publish this paper. If this isn’t abuse of taxpayer money, I don’t know what is. Unfortunately, at my career stage, I cannot simply boycott Cercor given that the PI agreed to pay these charges. If I had my way, I’d just publish all my papers in Frontiers, PLoS one, Sci Rep, etc. They have reasonable fees that translate directly to open access and in my experience so far, have decent turnaround times and fair and rigorous reviews at least in my field. Unfortunately, search committees are going to frown upon a publication list of all Frontiers/PloS articles. So I’ll reserve that for after tenure (but again, as long as it doesn’t affect my trainees at that point, which is a difficult problem to solve… unless hiring and promotion committees stop focusing on JIFs and other meaningless metrics, we’re not going to be able to fully boycott shady publishing companies).

  12. I have no feelings for or against any publishing company. However I have everything against exploitation (or rather self-imposed exploitation). If you do not value your copyright by all means give it away. Then I would say your copyright is not worth much at all. The writing is on the wall. Just use a preprint server like bioRviv instead. Yes indeed not peer reviewed however is that such a big deal anyway. If your work is as important as you think it is it will surely withstand any scrutiny over time. Within 10 years I am sure journals will be begging you for your slave labour just to remain in business! Have some self-respect and just walk away.

  13. Hi Tal – thanks for the valuable blog. I’d be really interested to know the view that you (and likeminded others) take with respect to specific Elsevier journals which tick some of the important boxes: For example, NeuroImage Clinical is fully Open Access, and the OA fee is $1750, making it considerably cheaper than (e.g.) eLife and Frontiers.

    So – would you consider “separating out” individual journals from specific publishers, given that the “profit” can actually be so much lower in some cases – and consider reviewing/publishing in such cases? I could see an argument for that, and even possibly an argument that this might be one route to causing change within publishers.

    Thanks, Steve.

  14. Elsevier has one of the slowest production processes in the industry. Authors can return proofs and then wait 3 to 4 months before ELS/CHN provides revisions. And after that, several more proofs may be needed to get the errors out. It’s really sad, since Elsevier used to be a very reliable publisher.

  15. Your steadfast commitment to principles of integrity in academic publishing is commendable. Your decision not to review for or publish with Elsevier reflects a strong stance against practices that undermine the scientific community’s best interests. Your thoughtful analysis of the situation and willingness to engage in dialogue about the issue are important contributions to fostering awareness and promoting ethical publishing practices.

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