Wednesday, 15 February 2012

On the boycott of Elsevier publications by academics and scientists

At the time of writing, more than 10,000 academics and scientists, mainly in mathematics and the physical sciences, have signed up to a boycott of publications produced and marketed by Elsevier, one of the largest international academic publishing houses, which is headquartered in Amsterdam.  This action has been widely reported in Nature, Science and the quality newspapers. Its justification is Elsevier's allegedly high prices and restrictions on access to its products. The argument runs that public funds paid for science and so the public should have open access to its fruits. That is sometimes, but not always, a plausible argument, but it tends to assume—wrongly—that publication is cost-free.

So far, the boycott has had little or no impact on the earth and environmental sciences operations of Elsevier and no discernable effect on disciplines connected with disaster management. However, it raises some interesting and quite complex questions about academics and how they publish their work.

Let me start by clarifying my position. I have edited more than 3,000 articles and was a Springer editor for 18 years (I knew Konrad Springer in person) and a Blackwell one for nine, as well as a published book author for 22 years. I am now the editor of a new Elsevier serial title, the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, which will shortly start publication. Thus I have a fair experience of commercial publishers. I understand that there are diverse business models. As set out below, I do not fully agree with some of them—but not to the point of wanting to join a boycott.

Even though we all engage repeatedly in publication, many academics are remarkably ignorant about all sorts of aspects of it: the mechanics, graphics, logistics, economics—and the readership (or market, if you prefer). We all support open access, because, for the most part, one of our objectives is to get our material read by as wide an audience as possible. However, no model of publishing is free of costs and commercial risk. Yet few academics are prepared to assume any risks or pay the costs. As the originator of the intellectual property one's rights are not absolute, especially if one shares the responsibility of producing it with a professional publishing house.

I am not convinced that Elsevier is any more guilty than the other major publishersand a good many of the small ones, whose business models are sometimes considerably less viable and more debatable than those of the publishing giants.

Additionally, there is an important economic relationship between journal and book publishing, in which the funds from one may provide the income stream for investment in the other. Moreover, one should not ignore other cost-benefit relationships regarding longevity of product, continuity of brand and reputation in publishing.

If there is a concern about commercial publishers, it ought to be about the variable balance between unit costs and size of individual markets. I was once the editor of a book series under the auspices of a major player in academic publication. Whereas certain university presses in the USA have a policy of remaindering academic books after four years, the company I served keeps huge inventories indefinitely. That is a good thing. However, it is one reason why the unit costs of their books tend to be very high. The other is innate commercial conservatism. This endows the company in question with a reputation for dependability and high quality production, but it stifles economic risk-taking. As a result, sales of particular books can be very low. One book I was responsible for sold 36 copies in its first year, and this made me feel rather sorry for the author. Such a predicament can be remedied by adopting a more liberal balance sheet for marginal costs and profits in relation to projected sales figures.

Although it is not fair to adopt a "two wrongs make a right" approach, academics themselves are not free of blame. They have many restrictive practices and often suffer from disciplinary insularity. I discussed one of the restrictive practices, academic territoriality, at length in Chapter 1 of my book Confronting Catastrophe (Alexander 2000).

One thing that deserves serious opposition is the journal impact factor system, sometimes identified as the primary bibliometric tool. I believe it is not worthy of intellectual activity to have such an absurd and biassed measure, and I think it does much harm to academic work and no good whatsoever. The whole concept of impact measurement can be dismissed in three words: Thornthwaite, Horton and Huntington. In the 1950s the climatologist Colin Thornthwaite published his seminal field results on evapotranspiration on a Roneo, the ancestor of the modern photocopier machine. The document was distributed all over the world, ending up in many university libraries, and helped make his name synonymous with potential evapotranspiration, a key concept in drought measurement. The publication impact factor was zero. Robert Horton published only one substantial paper in his entire life (Horton 1945), but it made him the father of stream hydrology. And finally, Samuel Huntington published The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order in 2002. It had an enormous impact and was, in my opinion, a deeply flawed book.

The net result of the use of impact factors to characterise journals has been to boost massively the hegemony of physical over social sciences, as well as to create the illusion that inspiration, cleverness and industry are being recognised. In reality it does nothing for good ideas except, perhaps, restrict their distribution.

While commercial publishers have not opposed impact factors (but neither has anyone else), they are not any more responsible for it than the rest of us.

Nevertheless, there are many ways of ensuring that one's ideas reach a wide audience, or different audiences, but only a minority of academics know how to write well and rigorously in non-academic forms, means by which they can increase their readership at small or no cost. I refer the reader to a paper of mine on exactly that topic (Alexander 2007).

Looked at from a pragmatic point of view, for authors, the first objective is to get published. Average readership of individual academic articles is low (not merely because of any restrictions upon access, but also because of the specialised nature—dare I say the unattractiveness?—of much of what is written. Hence, dissemination is a secondary factor. One can in any case disseminate one's own work to key colleagues.

I would estimate that 70 per cent of academic publishing is motivated by personnel reasons: getting a job, keeping a job, getting tenure (where it exists), getting a higher salary or getting promotion. When I was an academic in the USA a good article in a good journal was worth $500 on my annual salary in perpetuity, thanks to merit raises. These are extraordinarily strong incentives to individuals. The rise of bibliometrics has reinforced this process, as personnel committees tend to "measure the unmeasurable" in order to make comparative assessments of academics.

The whole boycott debate is remarkably uninformed by statistics. In my field, which has 96 journals in it, some of the smaller companies are no cheaper than the major ones. However, Taylor & Francis, Springer, Wiley-Blackwell and Elsevier have much larger distribution networks. Hence, from my own point of view as an author, I can send my work to a high-cost journal published by De Gruyter, Henry Stewart or Inderscience and effectively bury it or I can send my work to Springer, Wiley, Elsevier & co. and be assured of a certain distribution, and hence a significant readership. Incidentally, the same argument does not apply to books, which have a rather different market to journals.

As for the idea of referees boycotting journals, they do that all the time. This is the pinnacle of hypocrisy, as there are plenty of academics who are very vocal when their own work takes a long time to get to review but are always "too busy" when asked to review someone else's work. Being an editor really does teach one about the underbelly of human nature!

In conclusion, I recently submitted a paper to a journal that at the start of the current year ceased to be open access. I am not quite sure why this is so, but I imagine it is because the charitable funding that kept it free to readers simply ran out. Yet someone has to foot the bill, and governments have so far proved remarkably reluctant to do so, whatever the arguments about 'knowledge in the public domain' may or may not be.


Alexander, D.E. 2000. Confronting Catastrophe: New Perspectives on Natural Disasters. Oxford University Press, New York, 282 pp.

Alexander, D.E. 2007. Making research on geological hazards relevant to stakeholders' needs. Quaternary International 171/172: 186-192.

Horton, R.E. 1945. Erosional development of streams and their drainage basins: hydrophysical approach to quantitative morphology. Bulletin of the Geological Society of America 56: 275-370.

Huntington, S.P. 2002. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. Free Press, New York, 368 pp.