The snowballing petition on which scholars pledge to boycott Elsevier is gaining a good deal of attention.  There is an article in today’s Chronicle of Higher Education, and this more general article about the future of Elsevier’s business model from Forbes.  As of today the boycott pledge has over 2100 signatures.

As the Chronicle article points out, the petition lists three “charges” against Elsevier:  their extremely high prices, the practice of “bundling” so that institutions have to buy journals they do not want in order to get the ones they do and hence have less money to buy other things, and corporate support for the Research Works Act and other legislation that would threaten the free flow of information.

While I agree that all of these things are significant problems in the current scholarly communications environment, I have to say that Elsevier is not the only “sinner” guilty of these infractions, or necessarily even the most culpable among commercial publishers.  This does not mean I am particularly sympathetic to Elsevier, and I am glad to see the petition for a couple of reasons.

First, the boycott movement is coming from scholars themselves.  It is not simply a matter of radical militant librarians (some of my favorite people, btw) who are upset about high prices.  This petition represents a growing awareness amongst scholarly authors that traditional publication models not only are no longer the only option, but in fact may be bad choices for those concerned with the overall dissemination of knowledge.  It is simply becoming clearer to many scholars that the values they hold are not the same as the ones that commercial publishers are pursuing.

Second, when framed as a divergence of values it is much easier to see that the core issue in this movement is who will control the the changing course of scholarly communications and the scholarly record.  It seems less and less acceptable to trust commercial publishers with the responsibility for scholarship now that we no longer will be dependent on the printed artifacts they created.  As scholarship becomes digital, we are quite rightly seeking new models of control that serve the needs of scholars first, regardless of the business models that may thereby be left behind.

One of the reasons I do not believe in the “abolish copyright” movement is because I think the control over how a work is disseminated and used by others will continue to remain important to scholarly authors.  Copyright desperately needs reform (or else it needs more scholarly authors who use Creative Commons licenses to leverage their economic rights to protect things like attribution, which actually matter to academics) but it is not likely to become irrelevant in the digital environment.  Instead, scholars will seek new ways to use the rights that vest in them (not their publishers) to control their works in ways that best serve their own needs and the interests of their particular discipline.  Boycotting Elsevier may not bring about that revolution by itself, but it is a step toward demanding that the rights and concerns of scholarly authors themselves actually drive decisions about how scholarship is shared in the digital environment.

 

7 Responses to Why boycott Elsevier?

  1. Dave Hansen says:

    Thanks for the update on this. I am also a fan of the radical militant librarian!

    In line with your general point, it is interesting to look at some of the comments now posted and available on the OSTP site in response to their request for information, comparing the large number of responses from those in academia (both faculty and librarians) with those of publishers (and especially Elsevier). The same divide is evident.

    http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2012/01/30/your-comments-access-federally-funded-scientific-research-results

  2. [...] Mathematician Timothy Gowers recently started a project to allow academics to publicly pledge that they will not publish in Elsevier journals, serve as referees, or do editorial work for Elsevier publications. The list of signatures has grown quickly, including a number of individuals affiliated with the University of Michigan. Gowers explains his reasoning for the project in a detailed blog post. The boycott has also received coverage in Forbes, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and notable scholarly communication blogs. [...]

  3. Why are researchers yet again boycotting instead of keystroking?

    I am haunted by a “keystroke koan”:

    Why did 34,000 researchers sign a threat in 2000 to boycott their journals unless those journals agreed to provide open access to their articles – when the researchers themselves could provide open access (OA) to their own articles by self-archiving them on their own institutional websites?

    Not only has 100% OA been reachable through self-archiving as of at least 1994, but over 90% of journals have even given author self-archiving their explicit green light. Over 60% of them, including Elsevier — have given their green light to self-archive the refereed final draft (“postprint”) immediately upon acceptance for publication…

    So why are researchers again boycotting instead of keystroking?

  4. [...] degli accademici americani perché pubblica tutti i posti di lavoro nei paesi di lingua inglese, ed esperti universitari di comunicazione scientifica, che non sempre si trovano d’accordo con tutti i punti delle rivendicazioni. Già nel 2005 però [...]

  5. [...] that those academics “instigated” the campaign, “(as opposed to librarians, who have been banging on about these issues for ages, or indeed other interested parties) is in my view positive — anything that makes academics [...]

  6. [...] Kevin Smith on Why Boycott Elsevier? [...]