Why I signed the Cost of Knowledge

Boycotting Elsevier

It has been almost a year since Tim Gowers’ blog post about boycotting Elsevier triggered the Cost of Knowledge movement. The boycott has been signed by more than 13,000 people. But the vast majority of academics – including most of my own friends and collaborators – continue to support Elsevier by gifting to it much of their research output and their labor, enabling Elsevier to operate at greater profits than Starbucks, Amazon, or Nike.

One of the most common arguments I’ve heard for this continued support goes as follows:

Sure, it would be better if journal prices were lower, but it’s not such a big deal that we should all get worked up about it. Corporations always seek to maximize profits – why focus on academic publishers?

Commercial publishers are pillaging academia

In September, I spoke with a colleague who is a professor at a small university in Spain. She told me that she currently has no Ph.D. students and sees no possibility of supervising students “in the next 5-6 years” due to the financial situation at her university. Furthermore, she confided that each month she is uncertain whether her next paycheck will come. Last year, all faculty at her university took an involuntary 5% pay-cut as the university struggled to pay its bills. Another colleague from a major university in Texas told me that the Math department lost 20% of its faculty in the last two years over funding problems, as the university’s budget has decreased by 25%.

Of course, both of these universities continue to pay a huge sums for Elsevier journal bundles – that’s a cost they simply can’t cut if they want to continue as a respected institution of higher learning. Elsevier continues to pillage academic institutions through its strangle-hold on scientific publishing, while professors face salary cuts and students cope with ever-rising tuition.

Who is to blame?

Many people on both sides of the boycott have argued that we shouldn’t expect commercial publishers to behave any better. As corporations, the argument goes, their highest allegiance is to their shareholders, not their stakeholders. Commercial publishers simply can’t be expected to do anything but plunder academia and the general public in order to enrich themselves. But then who is responsible for channeling funds that should support scientific research but instead go to pay for overpriced journals? The guilty party must be the academics who prop up commercial publishers by providing all the content and labor!

It’s not you, it’s me

Researchers who continue to support Elsevier can pretend that they are passively “staying out of the fight”, but they are deluding themselves. Submitting or refereeing a paper is a very active and expensive decision. When I submit a paper, I decide where to deposit a huge investment of my own time and my instution’s (or funding agency’s) money. That is why I joined the boycott – why I had to. It is the scientific publishing equivalent of the Hippocratic oath: First, do no harm. Locking away publicly-funded research for the profit of a few is harmful. Forcing my own university (and taxpayers) to buy back the research they already paid me to do is harmful. I’m not boycotting in order to stop Elsevier from doing harm, I’m boycotting to prevent myself from doing harm.

One editor-in-chief of an Elsevier journal pointed out to me that SIAM also operates its journals “at a profit”, meaning that the subscription fees generate more revenue than what it costs to run the journal. This is true! But where does that extra revenue go? It is used to subsidize SIAM conferences, reducing the registration fees I pay. This can be seen as a shrewd way of leveraging central university budgets (which pay for journal subscriptions) to support my discipline specifically.

Why would I send my work to a publisher like Elsevier that aims primarily to enrich shareholders when I could send it to a journal of the same quality with a non-profit publisher (like SIAM) that charges much lower prices and uses its income to benefit its customers (members)?