Elsevier responds to the boycott

It appears that Elsevier has responded to the boycott by potential authors that I wrote about last week.  In a statement signed by the senior VPs for the physical sciences, Elsevier announced that it was dropping its support of the Research Works Act, making 14 mathematics journals publicly available with a four year rolling wall (back to 1995, when they first went online), and cutting the prices on “core mathematics titles” to $11/per article or less, which they claim will put them below their major commercial competitors (statement here, story via Inside Higher Education here).

Of course, it’s unclear whether any of this will actually mollify those who signed on to the boycott.  While announcing that Elsevier would no longer back the RWA, the company made clear that it still wants a legislative ban on any mandate that makes recipients of federal research grants make the resulting peer-reviewed papers open access – which means that what Elsevier has renounced is the name of the act, not it’s intent.

As for the pricing change on math journals, this is probably only going to be fuel on the fire.  Elsevier’s anti-boycott PR pushed the line that their current journal pricing was a fair representation of their costs and the value they added: if Elsevier can cut prices here and still make a profit (and nothing suggests the new rates make the journals loss leaders), scholars are going to ask why the same principles don’t apply elsewhere in the business.  Take a look at this blog post, by an economist who edits an Elsevier journal.  Tim Leunig’s piece makes it clear just how infuriating it is to see a publisher ignore cost comparisons and repeat “our prices are reasonable” like a mantra.  The only way for Elsevier to really get out from under this burden is by some transparency on costs or an attack on their peers, showing why Elsevier is better value for money than Wiley or the university presses.  The fact that the publishers insist on confidentiality clauses in their pricing agreements only enhances the sense that they’re gouging their customers and trying to hide it.

You can feel a little bit of sympathy for the managers who have to maximize shareholder value while claiming that they’re in a partnership with researchers to keep up a steady flow of free writing.  There’s no solution to that, except for some real honesty about the business.  If Elsevier can’t convince scientists that what they do is worth the pricing, they can hardly complain if their business suffers.

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