Mathematicians Spark Boycott of Elsevier Journals

March 18, 2012

In a January 21 blog post, Timothy Gowers, a mathematician at the University of Cambridge, declared his intention "to refuse to have anything to do with Elsevier journals from now on."

Gowers, a 1998 Fields Medalist, was making public his earlier personal decision neither to publish papers in any of Elsevier's journals, nor to referee papers or serve on the editorial boards of any of them. His statement initiated a boycott that, as this issue of SIAM News goes to press, has been joined by more than 6200 scientists, with mathematicians accounting for about 20% of the total.

Elsevier, based in Amsterdam, is a large commercial publisher of scientific and medical journals, including about 90 in mathematics. Four of particular interest to the SIAM community are Journal of Computational Physics, Linear Algebra and Its Applications, Journal of Computational and Applied Mathematics, and Applied and Computational Harmonic Analysis; leading Elsevier biomedical journals include Cell and The Lancet.

In a follow-up statement released shortly after the boycott began, Gowers and 33 other mathematicians, including current and former SIAM presidents Nick Trefethen and Doug Arnold, Randy LeVeque, chair of the journal subcommittee of SIAM's Publications Committee, and Ingrid Daubechies, president of the International Mathematical Union, expanded on Gowers's reasons for the actions against Elsevier. In the statement, titled "The Cost of Knowledge," the group cited the high cost of subscriptions to Elsevier journals, as well as the publisher's practice of requiring that libraries purchase journals in bundled packages, making the "journals that they actually want" extremely expensive. Other commercial publishers engage in similar practices, but the group settled on Elsevier as the most conspicuous offender.

Along with cost issues, the follow-up statement made several charges related to Elsevier's standards for its journals. Specifically, the statement claimed that in some cases papers or material from papers published elsewhere have appeared in Elsevier journals, without credit to the original authors, and that, when alerted to the plagiarism, Elsevier failed to take action. Also cited was the publisher's manipulation of commonly used quality measures, such as impact factors, to inflate the reputations of some of its journals.

The boycott occurs at a time when a host of questions have been raised about the future of scholarly publishing. Some groups advocate a new publishing model whereby author fees, similar to the page charges of decades ago, would replace subscription fees. Others propose that articles be deposited in an open repository like arXiv, with peer review of selected articles only. Some advocate more modest changes, with greater reliance on non-profit publishers, such as professional societies and university presses. The world of math journals is sufficiently large that, in the words of the boycott statement, "open access journals can coexist with traditional journals, as well as other, more novel means of dissemination and evaluation."

Many experiments will be tried, says SIAM executive director Jim Crowley, and those that prove successful will emerge as new models for scholarly publishing, either alongside or replacing the traditional model. How all this plays out, like the boycott of Elsevier, will depend on the choices made by members of the research community.

The boycott statement can be found at www.thecostofknowledge.com. The URL for Gowers's blog post is http://gowers.wordpress.com/2012/01/21/elsevier-my-part-in-its-downfall.



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