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Elsevier – My part in its downfall (2012) (gowers.wordpress.com)
111 points by LolWolf on July 30, 2016 | hide | past | web | favorite | 37 comments

I experienced the other side of this, as someone working for a library technology company. Getting licenses to index just the metadata of non-open access journals can be extremely costly, even when the journal publishers derive a net benefit from the arrangement (if discovery software surfaces a result from your journal, and the academic clicks through, the library link resolver records it and the figures are used to justify a continued subscription).

It's a massive racket, the source material (academic papers) are free, the editorial staff are not paid, e-journals have obviated the need for printing and distributing paper copies ... Elsevier and their ilk are a parasite, feeding on the spoils of academic research that is often publicly funded.

But then, in a "publish or die" mentality that researchers are forced into, publishing in journals with higher impact ratings help them keep their job; unless every single researcher agrees to stop publishing in the paid-for journals and move en-masse to open access this sorry situation will continue unabated.

(edits for structure. disclaimer: these views are my own, not my employers' or the communities' or publishers')

Publishers do provide a necessary service: financial support for meetings. One significant problem with "Open Access Everywhere!" is that many conferences are a huge financial net loss even after the registration fees, so they need the publisher's financial support to actually hold a meeting. In this way, most of the smaller conferences that publishers support are subsidized by the heavy hitters. It would be a shame for those smaller meetings to disappear.

It's easier for top tier conferences to choose how to publish. For example, in computer vision, CVPR and ICCV (two top-tier conferences in the field) are currently co-sponsored by IEEE (the publisher) and the Computer Vision Foundation, which is run by well-respected members of the computer vision community. As part of this arrangement, papers from these conferences appear in IEEE Xplore as well as the CVF's open access website, free for everyone: http://www.cv-foundation.org/openaccess/menu.py Of course, only a very small number of heavy-hitting conferences can afford the kind of leverage that CVPR and ICCV needed to pull this arrangement off. In their unique situation, everyone (publishers and academics) benefit from the arrangement. That's not usually the case.

In an open-access-only "Ditch the Publishers!" world, it's unclear how we can continue to support smaller conferences. Not every field has big industry players that can sponsor the meeting, and not many students or advisors have enough grant money to afford increased registration fees.

But the academics pay the publishers, who then oh so generously put on these conferences. If they didn't pay the publishers in the first place there would be more money for attending conferences. That's eerily similar to a protection racket or something.

Should conferences raise registration fees in such a system?

Most students already can't attend conferences on their own because registration is so expensive. Making it even more so would prevent the students that could benefit the most form attending.

(I should know, I'm a student) One would like to think that there would then be more scholarship funds available to students interested in attending. Many conferences I'm aware of also offer reduced registration fees to students. In my experience the travel expenses tend to be the greater portion for students attending.

Why do we pay taxes if they won't support such conferences?

How are taxes connected to conference support?

Taxes are connected to the NSF/NIH, which are connected to academics via grants. Then what? Professors should just donate to the conferences they wish to support out of their grant money?

The governments should support scientific gatherings of any type. Your interpretation of my comment seems unlikely, but sorry if that was unclear anyways.

How do the libraries get the money to subscribe?

A better bottom-up strategy is one based on assurance contracts. Some scientists might not be willing to immediately part with Elsevier because of other constraints. But they can publicly declare a promise: if scientists X,Y,Z (perhaps their direct competitors, or the editorial board of a journal) promise to not work with Elsevier, neither will I. Scientists X,Y,Z might then have their own promises. If these promises are recorded publicly, that can start a growing movement where today no one has to do anything, but in a few months or years a lot of people have no disincentive not to work with Elsevier.

Great idea. But then Elsevier might refuse to work with people who have such contracts.

I don't think Elsevier has editorial control over the journals.

Prisoners Dilemma

Tim Gowers is an amazing mathematician and a person of great integrity, but this is not exactly news given that the boycott has gone on for so long now (see the date on the article). More recently, in March 2016 he founded a new ultra-low-cost journal (Discrete Analysis) which publishes all articles on arXiv. https://gowers.wordpress.com/2016/03/01/discrete-analysis-la...

Note - this from 2012. An update is published here - https://gowers.wordpress.com/2015/11/10/interesting-times-in...

He mentions that the editorial board of Topology resigned to found Journal of Topology. This is counted as a success story, but when I try to read a paper there I get this message:

"You may access this article for 1 day for US$40.00."

Great deal.

It's tough because academic disciplines are so provincial; each has its own short list of (typically closed) journals that garner respect.

To get people to switch to an upstart open access journal takes momentum out of the gate. You need to convince qualified volunteers to do peer review for a journal they've never heard of and that might vanish tomorrow. You need to convince influential insiders to submit quality papers. And you need to repeat this process for each insular sub-discipline.

i like the idea of papers getting stored and cataloged in arxiv. the new-journals can reference the paper on arxiv. I don't have the links handy but there was a recent Overlay Journal that did just that.

one could make their own journal from a git repo or subreddit. they are just lists

The link you were looking for probably is in the "Related" section of that page: https://gowers.wordpress.com/2015/09/10/discrete-analysis-an...

The formal launch was a few months After: https://gowers.wordpress.com/2016/03/01/discrete-analysis-la...

I like that idea too, but my point's that this isn't a technical problem. It's a social problem. It's the problem of convincing a critical mass of influential people to simultaneously put their reputation on the line for a new e-journal that nobody's ever heard of.

I understand, and agree with you. Almost no problems in the world are technical. We have everything we need, right here, right now.

The academics that already have tenure need to be the ones leading the charge. The niche and "low quality" journals all need to go overlay+openaccess. While Elsevier and Springer are pointed as these rent seeking machines, even the ACM and IEEE have a pretty tight noose on the flow of information.

Maybe it is as easy as a federal law that states, if federal money ever comes within 3 meters of your research, the researcher cannot assign copyright to another entity.

Its amazing that our phones say it's 2016, we have a database about literally every episode of every popular TV series, yet we can not have a database of scientific findings, measurements and methods that everyone can search, download, analyze, use it to train models, even though taxpayers paid for it. We have in part sacrificed the disemmination of knowledge to the egos of scientists. I think it's shameful.

> the structure of the job market for academic scientists

Fixed that for you. Few scientists are anti-open access, especially for reasons of ego. In physics and mathematics, for example, virtually all papers are published on arxiv unless a particular journal forces them not to. It instead has to do with publishing in high impact journals as well being required for (a) people to read your paper, as their peer review processes are a first filter to separate the wheat from the chaff and (b) because they generally keep their jobs by virtue of such publications.

Unless you're a rockstar in your field, nobody is going to read your paper if all you did was put it on arxiv, and as a result it won't be taken as evidence you should keep your job. This isn't the scientists fault, it's just a relic of a time when the publishers of journals did provide a worthwhile service.

There are some fields where people tend to be greedy about hiding their research before its done lest anybody steal it, but this seems to me to be an acceptable level of "ego". Would you object to an open source developer wanting his authorship to remain clear in any derivative works of his code?

This is from 2012, and his then idea of a website listing academics who publicly boycott Elsevier was long ago implemented here: http://thecostofknowledge.com/

The US Government is trying to address access to publicly funded research by requiring that most government agencies have open access plans.


This was started government-wide from a memo by John Holdren.


Each agency comes up with their own plan, but they have to make access to the research possible without charge.

Many agencies provide access to submitted manuscripts.

Another good avenue to address access would be to get states to adopt similar policies based on research by state employees.

It is often easier to get states to pass laws than it is to deal at the federal level.

Is anyone interested in writing up some legislation?

From Holdren's memo:

> Specifically, each agency: i) shall use a twelve-month post-publication embargo period as a guideline for making research papers publicly available

Twelve month? Seems Europe is heading in a better direction:


From 2012

And Elsevier is still going strong, and annoying people. It seems that piracy[1] is the only way to bring them down.

[1]: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=11177957

pretty much the route i went.

review when asked. promote sci hub at every opportunity.

in fact sci hub is reaching the point of reliability now that university libraries could loose journal access and no one would notice or complain. since its easier to just stick the id in sci hub than check the library its becoming the default choice.

piracy is an act of breaking copyright by copying one's work. who is copyright holder of scientific papers? definitely, not Elsevier.

Yes, Elsevier definitely is the copyright holder to most of the non-open-access papers it controls.

Elsevier, like most other no-OA journals, requires a copyright transfer. Quoting https://www.elsevier.com/about/company-information/policies/... :

> In order for Elsevier to publish and disseminate research articles, we need publishing rights. This is determined by a publishing agreement between the author and Elsevier. ...

> For subscription articles: Authors transfer copyright to the publisher as part of a journal publishing agreement, but have the right to: ...

(There are some exceptions. Obviously Elsevier does not control the copyright to materials which are not covered under copyright, like papers produced by employees of the US government as part of their job.)

I won't eat at McDonald's.

It's funny, the whole complaint about the tactic of bundling.

This is something that punk and hard core music has done, pretty much since the beginning. Most punk rock discographies are filled with repetitive overlaps of the same songs, and re-recorded versions, or versions of songs performed at live shows.

For a while, I had just assumed it was part of the whole small budget, DIY, low fidelity aspect of the genre. Bands might have tracks on EP's and 7 inches, that go out of print and become rarites, or the band might just be disorganized, or have extra space on a disc, and pile in a few more tracks, because what the hell?

But after a while, collections become bloated with all kinds of pointless cruft, and you look through some catalogs, and it's pretty obvious that some bands would just get desperate to make sure they have something in the new releases section every six months, to stay visible, and they'd obviously record one new track, bundle it with four or five other tracks, and dump it into their catalog to indicate signs of life.

It's not unlike like baseball cards, where doubles are a known factor, and concentrations of rare desirable items are controlled and designed, to fuel collector's habits.

I guess the difference with scientific journals is that the fanbase doesn't have the same sort of emotional investment in their collectables.

A particular band's music [1] is not a public good paid for largely out of taxpayer money. Private enterprise can do whatever it wants to do, as long as it is not actively hurting anyone else.

[1] Music as a whole is a public good, but any one band forced out of business does little to diminish this public good.

> A particular band's music [1] is not a public good paid for largely out of taxpayer money.

Actually, many countries do actually partially compensate bands through taxes, which makes the whole thing even more messed up. See the various blank media taxes, or even government-run record labels (such as BD Pop).

Bundling is an old technique. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Product_bundling

The animosity towards Elsevier is perhaps better explained as reaction against product tying. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tying_(commerce)

What you describe with punk and hard core music is not tying, because "a song by band X" is very similar to "a song by band X". Eg, people used to buy a single for the song on the A side, and get the song on the B side as well, even if they didn't want it.

> I guess the difference with scientific journals is that the fanbase doesn't have the same sort of emotional investment in their collectables.

No, the difference is that we have a cold-hard-cash investment in the product already.

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