I’m signing the pledge at http://thecostofknowledge.com/ and thought I’d say a bit here about why I’m doing so.
In case you haven’t heard, this was set up in response to a blog post of Tim Gowers proposing such a site, and has gained several thousand signatories in the first few weeks. See also his follow-up post and the PolyMath journal publishing reform page, where a large number of links are posted, many to articles, editorials and blog posts that have rapidly appeared in the two weeks since Gowers’s original post.
I have been mostly boycotting Elsevier for several years. In particular I have not submitted a paper to the Journal of Computational Physics since they were acquired by Elsevier, and rarely referee for this journal any more, in spite of the fact that I was once on the editorial board and was a big fan of the journal. But Elsevier has had a reputation for decades for being the worst sort of the commercial publisher from the viewpoint of scientists. Of course some point out they are a business and they can run it as they see fit, but we are equally free to take our business elsewhere. Except that we’re not quite, which is part of the problem. They now bundle many journals in such a way that libraries cannot buy the ones essential to research without buying a bunch of other low-quality and/or un-needed journals at inflated prices. Elsevier made profits of more than a billion dollars last year. Meanwhile, the University of Washington libraries (a major academic library system) had to cancel several thousand journal subscriptions in the past few years due to severe budget cuts. The requirement to spend huge sums on journals that nobody on campus needs or wants is impairing our ability to access the journals we do need, or to use the funds for other worthy research or educational purposes.
Here are some of my thoughts when deciding to sign. For many more discussions (and opposing viewpoints) you should see the links above.
- Elsevier has a reputation for publishing more bogus papers (and entire journals) than any other publisher I know. For a discussion of some specific cases, see this post by Doug Arnold explaining why he is signing on to the boycott. Doug looked into these issues extensively as part of a joint working group on rankings of mathematical journals for the IMU and ICIAM, and while investigating plagiarism as President of SIAM (see also his article on this topic in SIAM News).
- Commercial publishers add relatively little value to articles these days, beyond giving a stamp of approval via the prestige of the journal and the hard work of the editorial board and referees (who are generally unpaid volunteers). Once upon a time publishers were necessary for typesetting and copy editing, but these days every mathematician I know does all their own typesetting using LaTeX. This is hardly new; I started using TeX at Stanford in 1977 and within a few years it was available everywhere. Some commercial publishers (particularly Elsevier, I’ve heard) don’t even provide much copy editing these days.
- Rather than volunteering our time to write papers, typeset them, referee them, edit them, etc., only to be forced to buy them back at high prices from companies that add little value, we should be smart enough to figure out better ways. Until we do, commercial publishers have a stranglehold on libraries. People have been bemoaning this for years and I’m happy to see some action being taken that might get their attention.
- Elsevier is probably not the only commercial publisher who should be targeted. My last blog post was a draft of an article I’m writing for the Encyclopedia of Applied and Computational Mathematics to be published by Springer. When I searched for it to add a link I was rather shocked to see the list price will be “approximately $5000″. As far as I know authors are being paid nothing (beyond a 33% discount on Springer books and online access to the encyclopedia, which I may have anyway if our library feels compelled to buy a copy). However, as Gowers says in his original blog post, we have to start somewhere and Elsevier is the obvious first choice for many people I know. For the time being some researchers must rely on journals from commercial publishers and we can’t expect people to boycott all publishers. But I do try to favor non-profit journals in general, particularly when prioritizing accepting the many invitations I receive to referee papers. I often point editors to my webpage on refereeing.
- I’m not opposed to selling journals at reasonable prices. Many professional societies publish journals and make money on them, including my main society SIAM (full disclosure: I’m chair of the SIAM Journals Subcommittee). But there’s an order of magnitude difference in the prices being charged, and SIAM does copy editing and still makes enough of a profit on the journals that they help support many other aspects of the society. This is another advantage of nonprofit society journals: whatever profits there are go back to the members one way or another.
- I would not necessarily encourage young (un-tenured) people to sign this pledge, particularly in fields where Elsevier journals are prevalent. And I have some qualms about doing so myself since I often write papers with students and younger colleagues whose careers depend on publishing in the recognized top journals. But for the most part I’ve managed to avoid publishing in Elsevier journals for several years now and haven’t missed it. One exception was a recent paper for a special issue of Advances in Water Resources on software, but in the future I can find plenty of other alternative venues for publishing in my field. (On the flip side, some comments on Gowers blog suggest that soon it may be seen as a negative for young people to publish with Elsevier. Probably not soon, but perhaps some day.)
- I’m often surprised that so many mathematicians and scientists are oblivious to the issue of journal pricing and I hope this campaign will raise awareness if nothing else. Personally I was introduced to the issue very early in my career. My father was Executive Director of the American Mathematical Society in the 1980′s when the Society was threatened with a lawsuit by Gordon & Breach for publishing a survey of journal pricing and value. Other societies (and authors) were sued. The suits went nowhere and I understand that the name of Gordon & Breach was so tarnished in academic circles that it eventually disappeared (acquired by Taylor & Francis). Elsevier take note!