There is a growing list of famous scientists who have pledged to boycott Elsevier as a publisher. If I were in charge of Elsevier, I would be very nervous: academic publishers need famous authors more than the famous authors need the publishers. After all, famous scientists could simply post their work online, and people would still read it.

Elsevier has committed too many sins to give an exhaustive list: they have created fake academic journals so that pharmaceutical corporations could claim that certain facts appeared in a journal, they have sponsored evil regulations, and they have restrictive views on what constitutes fair use. Unbelievably, they were also involved in arms trade. They probably have the devil on their board of directors.

The boycott is currently lead by a famous mathematician, Timothy Gowers. Gowers accuses Elsevier of charging exorbitant prices for its journals.

Focusing solely on database-related journals, I decided to look at how much journals charge per article.

journal publisher price per article
Distributed and parallel databases Springer 61.50
Information systems journal Wiley 58.16
Information Systems Elsevier 53.44
Knowledge and information systems Springer 25.39
Data & knowledge engineering Elsevier 24.55
VLDB journal Springer 22.19
Information Sciences Elsevier 21.67
IEEE Trans. knowledge & data engineering IEEE 10.80
ACM Trans. on database systems ACM 6.64
SIGMOD Record ACM 0.00

Observations:

  • The price distribution appears almost random. I can see no relation between prestige or paper length and prices.
  • Elsevier is hardly alone at charging high prices for papers. Wiley and Springer are just as expensive. Of course, it is possible that Elsevier ends up charging more through deals and bundling.
  • ACM is very inexpensive on a per-article basis. However, ACM often asks the authors to pay page charges whereas Elsevier rarely does in my experience.
  • Though SIGMOD Record is limited to short contributions, its price is unbeatable. And it has no page charge. Moreover, it is generally a well regarded publication venue among database researchers.

My take: The evidence is strong that high-quality inexpensive journals are possible. Current journals are up to an order of magnitude too expensive. However, Elsevier is selling what we want to buy: prestigious journals that people outside the best schools cannot afford. Just like middle-income Americans get into debt to keep up with the top 1%, colleges increase their library budgets to keep up with Stanford and Harvard.

The solution to overpriced journals is to reduce library purchasing power. Most colleges do not have the infinite budgets Harvard and Stanford have, and they should not act like they do. In fact, if we could reduce the purchasing power of most libraries to zero, then researchers and students would be forced to pay $20 or more per article. You can be quite certain that they would mostly read the cheaper (and more competitive) journals. And Stanford researchers want to be cited by the researchers from the lesser institutions so they would also migrate away from overpriced journals. Reduced budgets would still allow publishers like Elsevier to make generous profits, but they would only profit by offering great services at an affordable price.

Disclosure: I am currently reviewing a paper for Pattern Recognition (an Elsevier journal), and I recently published in Discrete Applied Mathematics (another Elsevier journal).

Update: Though you can get articles from SIGMOD Record for free if you to the SIGMOD Record home page, ACM sells them through its Digital Library for over $10 a piece.

20 Comments

  1. Have you considered telling the journal that you will no longer review until they drop their support to RWA?

    Comment by Mr. Gunn — 23/1/2012 @ 16:33

  2. This was irritating me last week, when a *review* of a book, published in a journal of philosophy, was going to cost $35.

    Um, no.

    Comment by Jordan Peacock — 23/1/2012 @ 16:47

  3. “The solution to overpriced journals is to reduce library purchasing power.”

    I’m not sure that this is the right approach. What I think would be very effective is to group university libraries into big buying cartel with a huge negociation power. Imagine if all the US universities and colleges were to negociate as one voice with Elsevier. They could lamost choose the price they want to pay: “Here, wa have x million dollars for you, for the whole US market, take it or leave it, it’s your call.”.

    Comment by p4bl0 — 23/1/2012 @ 16:48

  4. You mean like the California Digital Library, p4bl0? They’ve been doing this for years and just had a huge fight with Nature over a price hike. Clearly, just forming buying consortia isn’t the answer, or this would have worked already.

    Comment by Mr. Gunn — 23/1/2012 @ 16:50

  5. @p4bl0

    What I think would be very effective is to group university libraries into big buying cartel with a huge negociation power.

    It already works that way. It is ineffective.

    What you describe would only work if the schools faced a bunch of small publishers. Yet they are facing a few large publishers.

    In fact, it is probably counterproductive because it prevents smaller publishers from getting good prices. So it helps the big publishers by keeping the competition small.

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 23/1/2012 @ 16:59

  6. @Gunn: I didn’t knew there were already some experiment with this approach. Maybe just California Digital Libraries” is not big enough to have sufficient negociation power? Or maybe it’s not right answer like you said.

    Comment by p4bl0 — 23/1/2012 @ 16:59

  7. This is ultimately not about price, but about freedom. Freedom of the world to control how science is published. We owe it to patients, to small businesses, to policymakers, to teachers, to everyone to have free access to scientific information and be equal partners. It will be cheaper that way but the real benefit will be the huge number of people outside academia who should be part of the scientific community

    Comment by Peter Murray-Rust — 23/1/2012 @ 20:07

  8. @Peter

    (1) The most efficient way to solve the problem of free access is to make all government funded research copyright-free (that is, in the public domain). I don’t think open access is strong enough because, as you have shown conclusively on your blog, it does not really ensure free access.

    (2) Meanwhile, I try to make my work as widely and freely available as possible, hoping that I will contribute (by epsilon) to changing the culture. If we change the culture, we win. If we get new regulations, who knows what will happen down the line?

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 23/1/2012 @ 21:46

  9. Agreed,
    We are not fighting the war that needs to be fought – the one to change the culture of science publishing. But we are facing current disasters and we have to fight them anyway as else we perish

    Comment by Peter Murray-Rust — 24/1/2012 @ 5:00

  10. I disagree that squeezing libraries is the answer. Universities are doing a fine job of that by cutting funds steadily. Publishers doing their part by raising prices far above inflation and have been for years.

    The way out of this mess is to shut down the supply of papers to publishers who don’t:

    1) Permit authors to retain copyright to their work.

    2) Permit users to redistribute and repurpose journal content for any use.

    Forget about lobbying the federal government for a bailout in the form of Public Access Policies – it won’t work. Debating RWA is a waste of time and effort.

    We as scientists need to get off our slacktivist backsides, and take the risky and sometimes painful actions that will actually solve the publishing problem. See:

    http://bit.ly/yJYvyN

    Comment by Rich Apodaca — 24/1/2012 @ 13:05

  11. I disagree that squeezing libraries is the answer. Universities are doing a fine job of that by cutting funds steadily. Publishers doing their part by raising prices far above inflation and have been for years.

    Something does not add up. Elsevier cannot have a sustained exponentially increasing revenue stream while universities are collectively cutting their budget. It is one of the other.

    The way out of this mess is to shut down the supply of papers to publishers who don’t:

    1) Permit authors to retain copyright to their work.

    2) Permit users to redistribute and repurpose journal content for any use.

    How many journals are left if you apply these conditions?

    Forget about lobbying the federal government for a bailout in the form of Public Access Policies – it won’t work.

    I agree that relying solely on the government to solve our problems is weak and dangerous.

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 24/1/2012 @ 14:11

  12. Knuth resigned from Elsevier.

    Elsevier is also (among others) behind the new legislature that will harm the Pubmed Central

    http://chronicle.com/article/Hot-Type-Who-Gets-to-See/130403/

    Comment by Itman — 24/1/2012 @ 16:03

  13. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elsevier#Resignation_of_editorial_boards

    Comment by Itman — 24/1/2012 @ 16:04

  14. @Itman

    Yes, yes, Elsevier (the corporation) is evil. Let us consider this issue as settled.

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 24/1/2012 @ 16:45

  15. “Something does not add up. Elsevier cannot have a sustained exponentially increasing revenue stream while universities are collectively cutting their budget. It is one of the other.”

    Elsevier is a big company with many divisions and product lines, of which journal publishing is just one. So profits can go up despite some laggard products. I’m not saying this is or isn’t happening, but Elsevier’s finances are not as black-and-white as you suggest.

    I’ve seen no data to indicate the profitability over time of their journal publishing business. Have you?

    “How many journals are left if you apply these conditions? I cannot name one where I could publish. Honestly.”

    Check out the Directory of Open Access Journals:

    http://www.doaj.org/

    There’s not a single journal you could publish in there? None that meet the basic requirements? Really?

    How about the one on whose board you serve – Open Research Computation:

    http://www.openresearchcomputation.com/

    Comment by Rich Apodaca — 25/1/2012 @ 10:29

  16. @Rich

    (1) Yes. I stand corrected, a few journals related to Computer Science leave the copyright to the authors including Open Research Computation.

    (2) Most journals in the Directory of Open Access Journals ask you to grant them the copyright. So the impressive list you have should be considerably trimmed down.

    If you require “open access”, “let the author keep the copyright”, “part of major journal indexes” and “reasonable publication fees”, then you are left with a very small list of journals in Computer Science. Very small. A handful at most.

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 25/1/2012 @ 10:52

  17. Locked in the Ivory Tower: Why JSTOR Imprisons Academic Research

    http://m.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/01/locked-in-the-ivory-tower-why-jstor-imprisons-academic-research/251649/

    Comment by Denzil Correa — 25/1/2012 @ 12:25

  18. @Daniel,

    sorry just cannot get over it. We should all publish either on-line, or in open-access journals, or in ACM. In ACM, they have a service AuthorIZE. You can place a link to your articles to your web-site and everybody can use this link to download articles for free!

    Comment by Itman — 25/1/2012 @ 18:47

  19. We should all publish either on-line, or in open-access journals, or in ACM.

    My follow-up blog post (http://lemire.me/blog/archives/2012/01/25/open-access-journals-in-computer-science/) explains why I think it is not happening.

    “We should all publish in ACM” is probably solid advice but I think their AuthorIZE program is more a reaction to researchers who post a copy of their paper from their home page *anyway*, thus challenging the rather strict ACM rules. It is hardly very progressive.

    You have to wonder why ACM didn’t simply decide to allow the authors to post a copy of their own papers on their home pages. The reason, quite simply, is that it allows Google to find the free copy. With the AuthorIZE program, people who search for your content found in your paper on Google end up in the ACM Digital Library were they are charged $10 or $20 for the paper. They can’t find your paper *unless* they decide to look for your home page. And unless you are famous, people won’t go through your home page when looking for research papers… they will go through Google, so the AuthorIZE program is of dubious value. All it does is allow ACM to say that they give back to the authors all the rights that they need.

    This is, of course, backward. The authors should give the rights that ACM needs, and they should keep the rest. If I pay $1800 to publish a paper, I don’t think it is unreasonable to think I should get to keep ownership over the paper. With the current system, ACM asks me to pay page charges *and* to give away all of my rights. Again, ACM is not very progressive here.

    This being said, I have published and will continue to publish with ACM because they are (by far) the lesser over several evils.

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 25/1/2012 @ 19:09

  20. Daniel – I strongly encourage you to sign up to the boycott. It may not go far enough for you, but I really can’t see how not signing will be more effective at bringing about the new system we want and need. I disagree that “we” want expensive, overly selective journals. If other ways (such as article metrics) were adopted by a few institutions more officially, change could happen rather quickly.

    Comment by Mark C. Wilson — 8/3/2012 @ 11:43

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