Consumer choice and the Elsevier boycott

In Today’s post over at Library Babel Fish, Barbara Fister gives a rundown on the recent boycott of academic publishing corporation Elsevier by mathematicians and scientists.  Started by a blog post from mathematician Tim Gowers, it’s a supply-side move to not write for, review for, or edit for Elsevier’s many journals.

The argument is three-fold, that their pricing (for libraries) is exploitatively high, that their use of bundling in that price structure tends to saddle libraries with lots of journals they don’t want to buy, and that their support for the Research Works Act (which prevents US government agencies from requiring takers of federal research funds make the final versions of their articles available online) and other recent legislation like SOPA and PIPA hinders scholarly work.

The boycott seems to have garnered a fair bit of support, with 7,000+ researchers signing on at thecostofknowledge.com as of today. It’s also sparked plenty of discussion about Elsevier, open access, and the what obligations scientists have to their scholarly community. Elsevier has a fairly anodyne response here which basically says that people don’t think the availability of their journals is so costly/bad (no mention of their 30%+ corporate profits, though) and that they don’t like government regulation that might hurt their business model.

Similar arguments are circulating in support of Elsevier in the other discussions, to the effect that choosing not to publish in Elsevier journals will hurt the job prospects of young researchers, Elsevier’s practices aren’t that different from their for-profit peers, those leading the boycott are open-access ideologues who are using the boycott to push their preferred mode of publishing.

None of these arguments get at the heart of the boycott’s argument, which is that scholars need to evaluate the communal consequences of their publishing decisions. Yes, according to Elsevier, 93% of university researchers reported their access to journal articles is “fairly easy or very easy,” but they weren’t the ones paying for that access, nor did they probably know what could have also been bought if those journals were cheaper. Between 2002 and 2005, Elsevier was paid to bundle reprints favorable to Merck into six publication series it passed of as peer-reviewed journals. Preventing the US government from attaching open access mandates to grants is good for Elsevier’s business, but not necessarily for scientists and the general public.

What it comes down to is consumer choice. Scholars are consumers of journal publishing services (even if the price they pay is indirect), and there’s nothing wrong with consuming that service in a way that supports the entirety of their interests. If one can’t afford not to publish with Elsevier, don’t boycott Elsevier. But if you think that their corporate practices are bad for your community (and the combination of pricing, deception and regulatory capture is bad for the scholarly community), taking your business elsewhere seems like a basic choice.

Of course, as a business Elsevier is out to make money. That’s their job. But that’s no reason to choose to use them, and it’s no reason to ignore the externalities of their business choices.

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One thought on “Consumer choice and the Elsevier boycott

  1. Pingback: More Thoughts on MOOCs | The Devil of History

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