A sleeping giant: Vision scientists wake up, drink some coffee and start boycotting Elsevier

The recent calls for a boycott of traditional, closed-access scientific publishers – especially the Fred Goodwin-esque pariah-of-the-moment, Elsevier – have caused much discussion over the last week in the vision science community. Elsevier publishes the long-running flagship journal Vision Research and many of my fellow researchers are expressing frustration at providing free content and peer-review services to a journal whose owner makes money by restricting access to research, rather than disseminating it. Suggestions made in the past few days have ranged from black-and-white suggestions that we simply boycott all non-open journals, to boycotts of specific publishers, to more subtle discussions of the role of copyright in this battle, a battle which is widely being perceived as a tipping point in the open access revolution.

Elsevier’s £724 million (36%) profit last year, combined with their support of the controversial Research Works Act and a series of campaign “donations”, widely perceived as bribery of elected representatives in a blatant attempt to grease the passage of said Act, piled on top of existing ethical qualms about the company (such as their support for the arms trade), appears to have woken a sleeping giant as hundreds of thousands of researchers worldwide ask themselves: “why the bloody hell are we doing free peer-review for these bastards?”

This came hard on the heels of a recent lively discussion on the Colour & Vision Network and Applied Vision Association mailing lists regarding the astounding cost of the journal Experimental Brain Research, published by Springer. The issue was raised by Simon Rushton, Tom Freeman and Petroc Sumner of Cardiff University, who pointed out that the cost to libraries of a yearly subscription to Experimental Brain Research was (at $11,751) roughly 6.2 standard deviations (SD = $1656) above the mean ($1360), which due to the positive skew of the data is actually an overestimate of the representative cost of a Springer journal!

The price of Experimental Brain Research compared to other journals from Springer (in USD). These stats came from the Nov 10th 2011 pricelist. Thanks to Simon Rushton for this graphic.

This issue crystallised in many people’s heads when Bristol academic Mike Taylor wrote a stark, polemical comment in the Guardian, and Fields-medal-winning Mathematician, Timothy Gower wrote a widely-read call for a boycott of peer-review against Elsevier, which in turn gave rise to an online petition.

An online pledge calling for researchers to only peer-review for open-access journals followed, and now, with most of the vision community thoroughly up in arms about the issue, University of Sydney academic Alex Holcombe plans to organize a satellite event at the Vision Sciences Society conference in May to discuss these issues.

In recent years, vision science has been invigorated by the introduction of the open-access, pay-to-publish (or get-your-funding-body-to-pay-to-publish) Journal of Vision, which already ranks alongside Vision Research and IOVS in terms of impact factor and has far outstripped several other vision journals. It has forced the other vision journals to raise their game, review their policies and improve their customer service, and for that, I tip my hat. Whether its success leads to any other journal’s downfall remains to be seen, but suffice to say, this is an exciting time. The question now is how traditional scientific publishers like Elsevier and Springer will respond to this challenge of their increasingly-unjustifiable hegemony. In the meantime, I intend to use what little power I have by politely declining to review papers for Elsevier journals and thinking long and hard about to which journals I submit in the future.

One thought on “A sleeping giant: Vision scientists wake up, drink some coffee and start boycotting Elsevier

  1. “why the bloody hell are we doing free peer-review for these bastards?”
    These bastards must be the shareholders of Reed Elsevier, which includes the USS ( Universities) pension scheme( 40th largest in the world), UK insurance companies, Lloyds Bank, Fidelity and other UK institutions.

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