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Lockwood Memorial Library

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Can We Afford This? The Elsevier Boycott

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If you follow publishing news sources or social media, you may have read about a scholars’ boycott of Elsevier, the largest science, technical, and medical journal publisher in the world. This boycott originated with a blog post by Timothy Gowers, a mathematician at the University of Cambridge, UK, and a winner of the Fields medal, mathematics’ highest honor.

This triggered the creation of a web site, the Cost of Knowledge,  by others that encourages scholars to join the boycott to not edit, write, and/or review for any Elsevier journal. The rationale for the boycott as given by the web site is the high cost of Elsevier journals, the bundling of journals into large “Big Deals”, and their support for certain legislation designed to limit free access to scholarly materials. Over 8,000 people have signed up for the boycott, though the only verification is a one-time email message to the registrant.

This boycott has been widely reported on the internet including in Nature magazine and the Chronicle of Higher Education. One tangible result of the boycott seems to be that Elsevier withdrew its support of the Research Works Act which  contains provisions that would prohibit  open access mandates for federally funded research. To be fair to Elsevier, it should be noted that:

  • Elsevier publishes an immense spectrum of journal, varying greatly in cost, cost per page, and prominence in the field.
  • Other publishers such as Taylor and Francis have journals with high prices (in excess of $8,000 per year) and high cost per page.
  • Elsevier disputes the allegations and undoubtedly is unhappy about being singled out. [Read the Chronicle article cited above.]

One can search the Cost of Knowledge to see which scholars have signed up from any given city or institution. Although it is not the intention of the library to, in any sense, dictate where our scholars should publish, the boycott does call attention to the long developing, but extremely serious crisis, in journal pricing. Over the past few years, journal price increases have finally moderated slightly, inflating an average of about 8% per year, but they have inflated annually at an unsustainable double-digit rate for over three decades. This graph shows the trends from 1986-2003.

Whether you personally decide to join the boycott or not, we suggest that affordability, which can directly affect the availability of your scholarly work, be a regular part of your decisions as to where you publish. Many disciplines now have peer-reviewed open access options where anyone in the world can read your material freely with no subscription barriers.