More reasons to support the Elsevier boycott

Tim Gowers’s excellent blog posting focused the long-standing discontent of the search community with Elsevier and nucleated a boycott which may prove to be a historic moment in scholarly publishing. I urge others to join the thousands of researchers who have signed on at the website Tyler Neylon created at Recent articles in publications like Forbes and The Economist indicate that Elsevier and the rest of the business community are taking note.

The arguments Gowers laid out focus on Elsevier’s high prices, their bundling arrangements and subscription agreements, and their support for new laws that seem aimed at increasing publishers’ profits at the expense of wide dissemination of scholarly research. These are all very convincing reasons for the boycott. The fundamental mechanism of capitalism, that prices are contained by consumers’ choices not to pay high prices for what is available elsewhere more cheaply, is augmented in this case by the fact that the consumers—researchers and their institutions—also freely donate the most crucial ingredients in Elsevier’s products, that is, papers, referees, and editors.

However, there is another reason for researchers to disassociate from Elsevier, which I find even more compelling: their many lapses in ethical and quality publishing practices. Here are some examples:

The Elsevier journal Chaos, Solitons and Fractals published more than 300 papers by the journal’s Editor-In-Chief (58 in a single year). That these papers were not subject to peer review was later confirmed by the EIC’s declaration that “senior people are above this childish, vain practice of peer review.” Although the copious self-publication had begun nearly 20 years earlier, the EIC’s retirement from the journal occurred only in 2009.

Elsevier journals have repeatedly published plagiarized work and duplicate publications. A search turns up over thirty papers in Elsevier mathematics journals published in the last decade which have had to be formally retracted, mostly for these reasons. On more than one occasion, the same paper has been published in two different volumes of the same Elsevier journal (presumably by accident).

Elsevier math journals have published a number of papers that make me doubt that they were subject to any peer-review whatever. An egregious example is the 2-page paper “A computer application in mathematics” in Computers and Mathematics with Applications, vol. 59 (2010) pp. 296-297, which purports to prove the parallel postulate (!) with no formulas, no references to other published works except for two papers by the same authors, and, as best as I can tell, no meaningful content whatever. This paper remains unretracted and available for sale on the Elsevier web site.

On several occasions, entire editorial boards have collectively resigned from Elsevier, usually citing discontent with their pricing. In 1999, the entire 50 person editorial board of the Journal of Logic Programming resigned after 16 months of unsuccessful negotiations with Elsevier over pricing, and created a new journal with a different publisher. In 2003, the entire board of Journal of Algorithms did likewise. A well known-case is that of the journal Topology, whose distinguished editorial board resigned en masse in 2006, again to found a different, less expensive, journal. Elsevier has continued to publish Topology since then, even though the web page for the journal gives no indication of its editorial board or even that the journal has an editorial board!

From 2000 to 2005 Elsevier published six phony biomedical journals, with titles such as the Australasian Journal of Cardiology, in return for an undisclosed sum from a large pharmaceutical company. The journals’ contents were provided by the pharmaceutical company and published without further review, mostly reporting data favorable to their products. In 2009, after the practice came to light in a law suit against the pharmaceutical company and was reported in the press, Elsevier admitted that they had “published a series of sponsored article compilation publications, on behalf of pharmaceutical clients, that were made to look like journals and lacked the proper disclosure” and expressed regret.

In 1998, the Elsevier journal Lancet published one of the most significant examples of fraudulent scientific research in recent times, in which evidence was fabricated to link autism to measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine, thereby setting off a health scare that led to deaths and severe injuries and which continues to this day. Brian Deer, the award-winning investigative reporter whose articles in the Times of London and the British Medical Journal (BMJ) exposed the fraud and led to the inquiry by the UK General Medical Council which struck Wakefield from the UK medical register, also published a detailed and damning article in BMJ about the response of the Lancet editorial staff when confronted with the evidence of fraud. Deer describes how the Lancet responded to his carefully documented accusations, not with a formal investigation, but rather with a “5000 word avalanche of denials” and “a scramble to discredit my claims”. Lancet’s retraction of the paper did not come until 2010, 12 years after the original publication and for reasons that a British Medical Journal editorial describes as “far narrower misconduct than is now apparent.”

Of course, Elsevier produces many journals. Without a doubt they publish good articles, as well as bad, and include excellent scientists in their editorial boards, as well as others. But the number and the nature of the incidents like those listed, cause me to doubt their commitment to and/or ability to achieve the quality and ethical standards that I believe crucial. There are many other publishers, including especially scholarly society publishers and university presses, but also some commercial publishers, that have earned my confidence and respect.  I will happily dedicate my efforts of authorship and editorial work to them and not to Elsevier.

Doug Arnold

11 thoughts on “More reasons to support the Elsevier boycott

  1. David Roberts Post author

    Topology is officially discontinued (as of January 2012). The last published issue (a conference proceedings) was June-December 2009, the previous issue was only 40 pages (2 papers) in March 09. Though there was a four-page Corrigendum published December 2011, correcting a 1995 paper. You can buy this for $31.50, if you like!

  2. Clay Breshears Post author

    OMG! The citing of “A computer application in mathematics” should be enough to convince any credible scientist that there are problems with Elsevier. I haven’t seen a paper that bad since I read a “proof” of P not equal NP by likening the two classes to exponential functions, graphing the functions, and showing that there is no intersection of those functions.

  3. Gary Hansen Post author

    Another reason for boycott
    If you are an author, your published work with Elsevier may not be read. As a practicing physician, I regularly consult the internet to find answers to current medical questions relevant to patients in my practice. Whenever I see a link to Elsevier, I skip it and continue to search for other journal articles. Reason? Elsevier only offers fee-based content on the internet, in contrast to many other medical journals. Some journals do have 6 to 12 months of restricted access to content, after which articles enter the public domain. If someone publishes with Elsevier, I am never going to read it. Others may also be skipping the Elsevier content.

  4. Doug Arnold Post author

    Boston Globe opinion piece on the boycott
    Pulitzer Prize-winning science journalist Gareth Cook has written a powerful opinion piece in the Boston Globe about the boycott. He concludes:

    Researchers should sign the boycott petition and encourage
    colleagues to sign. Those on an Elsevier editorial board should
    resign — and take fellow board members with them. This will
    not just send a message to Elsevier, but to an industry that
    needs to change.

    Read his piece here:

  5. Volker Mehrmann Post author

    I am editor-in-chief of an Elsevier Journal: Linear Algebra and its Applications.

    Elsevier is a commercial publisher and making profits is their business. They are making plenty of money with commercial publishing, but so do other publishers like Springer, Wiley, Taylor and Francis, etc. Commercial publishers essentially have two tuning parameters: cost cutting and raising the prices. They all do this whenever they can. They provide a product, a journal: typically print and electronic, they usually support quality control (not always as we have seen), and they are investing in building up electronic systems and databases. This must be honored by a fair price (I really mean fair). They should not be blamed for charging for journals and for making money.

    Calling for a boycott of Elsevier is singling out one publisher that admittedly has failed in many respects and is a key player in the game of agressive selling and milking the public cow to make high profits.But I cannot judge whether Elsevier makes more money or is worse than other publishers.

    Professional societies show that it is possible to publish very high quality journals in a not-for-profit manner and their work should be highly supported and I definitely do so. It would be great if the scientific publishing could be operated fully in this way, but let us be realistic. The societies certainly cannot take over all current commerically operated journals. Moreover, it will be very hard to run all these journals on a non-profit basis without a lot of voluntary extra work of the community. Are we ready for this?

    The boycott call is coming from an idealistic group and I highly respect this. But we should be also self-critical within the mathematical community. In hiring or grant evaluations we look at publications, some colleages even look at numbers of papers, impact factors and other indices. Unless we change this, and I am heavily in favor of changing this, the commercial publishers will be needed, and they know this, this gives them the power to raise prices. We have to be realistic about our own behavior. I have been on enough committees where, to give an example, papers in ‘Inventiones’ were rated as the top criteria to define the high quality of a colleague. But this is the most expensive journal in mathematics from a commerical publisher, who is not attacked by a boycott. Why? Is there a bias here?

    I fully agree to raise our concerns loudly and to criticize unethical behavior as well as high prices, but we should not single out just one ‘bad guy’ but work together to improve the system as a whole.

  6. Doug Arnold Post author

    Thanks, Volker, for your comments. I was perhaps too inflammatory in posting the quote from the the journalist Gareth Cook calling for those on Elsevier editorial boards to resign. I certainly think that is an individual choice, and I know that there are good reasons and motives behind the choice of those people who decide to continue working on Elsevier journals, as well as behind those who decide to stop. I also understand that it is a much easier decision for people like me, who have not invested much effort into Elsevier journals recently. But I do agree with Cook’s comment that the boycott “will not just send a message to Elsevier, but to an industry that needs to change,” and I would like to defend to decision to initiate and support this boycott.

    There is much discussion in the boycott statement of purpose (at ) on the question of “Why just Elsevier?”. It comes down to two main points:

    1) A boycott of one large commercial publisher who exemplifies a great deal of what is wrong with the current system of publishing of math journals has a chance to be effective, while a very broad boycott of the entire industry does not. There is a long record of such protests, some of historical importance. One apparently successful example is on the front page of today’s New York Times which reported that “Responding to a growing outcry over conditions at its overseas factories, Apple said Monday that an outside organization had begun to audit working conditions at the plants where the bulk of iPhones, iPads and other Apple products are built, and that the group would make its finding public.” And from the same article: “‘This is a really big deal,’ said Sasha Lezhnev at the Enough Project, a group focused on corporate accountability. ‘The whole industry has to follow whatever Apple does.'” My hope is that our boycott will prove similar in that focussing large pressures on Elsevier will provoke major changes from them, and also much more widely in the scholarly publishing enterprise.

    2) Then there is the question whether Elsevier is the right target. The reasons for this choice are discussed at length in the statement, and I think that there are a lot of good ones. Elsevier has not built up the store of goodwill with the community that some other publishers have through more open communications and other projects, Elsevier has had a continuing sequence of ethical and quality lapses that have alarmed the community and hurt the literature, Elsevier has gone to great lengths to hide information from the community thereby stifling informed debate, Elsevier chose to be a major advocate for the Research Works Act while the other big math journal publishers were mostly against it or took no position, etc. The best evidence that Elsevier was the right choice, was the huge response the boycott had. Tim Gowers just mentioned the idea, without any expectation of starting a mass movement, but within days there was a massive response.

    By the way, I certainly am not against for-profit publishers making decent profits, nor, I think are the other people I have heard from who are supporting the boycott. But I am not comfortable with the 36% profit margin Elsevier got in 2010, and I am not comfortable with many of their business practices, independent of their profit margin. Thus I do not wish to cooperate with them, and I hope that, together with many other people who feel similarly, we can force some change.

    Concerning your penultimate paragraph, I agree strongly with you that there are many things to we should be looking to change in our own behavior, inside the math community. There is much more to say on all of this, and I hope that we keep the discussion going. Thanks again for your contributions to it.

  7. Vittorio Coti Zelati Post author

    Let me give another piece of information about Elsevier pricing. Elsevier has different subscription print subscription price lists for customers in Europe (in EUR), in Japan (in YEN) and outside Europe and Japan (in USD). This is a quite common business practice.

    For example the list price for Linear Algebra and its Applications lists 5202 EUR (6977 USD at today exchange rate) or 5820 USD.

    For other journals the situation is even more intriguing:

    Advances in Mathematics is listed at 4994 EUR or 3878 USD

    J. Differential Equations: 5777 EUR or 4614 USD

    J. Functional Analysis: 5143 EUR or 4022 USD

    J. Math. Anal. Appl.: 10210 EUR or 8119 USD

    J. of Algebra: 7226 EUR or 5677 USD

  8. Henry Cohn Post author

    Other remarkable failures of peer review at Elsevier journals
    Here are some other remarkable failures of peer review at Elsevier journals.

    I know of several problems at Nonlinear Analysis. For example, they accepted for publication a nonsense claim of a solution to Hilbert’s 16th problem (see for news coverage of the claim, and for a refutation).

    Nonlinear Analysis also published the following ludicrous paper, which remains unretracted despite severe criticism (see ):

    Carvalho, L. A. V., On some contradictory computations in multi-dimensional mathematics, Nonlinear Analysis 63 (2005), 725-734.

    The journal Applied Mathematics and Computation actually accepted for publication randomly generated text produced by the program SCIgen, with no actual meaning at all:

    Amusingly, Elsevier’s copyeditors had eight questions and corrections for the authors, despite the fact that the text was utter nonsense.

    Applied Mathematics Letters retracted the following weird paper:

    I’m sure there are other cases beyond these, because this list is not based on an exhaustive search. How could this be happening? Each case is ridiculous – these aren’t borderline papers involving a judgement call, but rather completely unpublishable in any reputable journal, no matter how low its standards are.

    One case could just be a freak coincidence: maybe a paper accidentally got moved to the publication queue without going through peer review. However, there are enough of them that it suggests a systematic problem. And this is at five different journals (Chaos, Solitons & Fractals; Computers and Mathematics with Applications; Nonlinear Analysis; Applied Mathematics and Computation; Applied Mathematics Letters), so it’s not likely to be one rogue editor.

    Elsevier owes the community an explanation. Are they actually publishing papers without any peer review? If not, what kind of peer review process could possibly lead to results like these? Either way, this problem must be fixed.

  9. Douglas N Arnold Post author

    New article on the boycott and paths going forward
    This paper was just released on the arXiv, and will appear in the Notices of the AMS.

    Mathematicians take a stand, by Douglas N. Arnold and Henry Cohn

    Abstract: We survey the reasons for the ongoing boycott of the publisher Elsevier. We examine Elsevier’s pricing and bundling policies, restrictions on dissemination by authors, and lapses in ethics and peer review, and we conclude with thoughts about the future of mathematical publishing.

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