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Mathematicians organising “Occupy Elsevier” January 28, 2012

Posted by Tomboktu in Business, Capitalism, Science.

Timothy Gowers, professor of mathematics at Cambridge, has suggested that mathematicians should boycott leading journals published by Elsevier. He lists four reasons:

1. It charges very high prices — so far above the average that it seems quite extraordinary that they can get away with it.

2. One method that they have for getting away with it is a practice known as “bundling”, where instead of giving libraries the choice of which journals they want to subscribe to, they offer them the choice between a large collection of journals (chosen by them) or nothing at all. So if some Elsevier journals in the “bundle” are indispensable to a library, that library is forced to subscribe at very high subscription rates to a large number of journals, across all the sciences, many of which they do not want. (The journal Chaos, Solitons and Fractals is a notorious example of a journal that is regarded as a joke by many mathematicians, but which libraries all round the world must nevertheless subscribe to.) Given that libraries have limited budgets, this often means that they cannot subscribe to journals that they would much rather subscribe to, so it is not just libraries that are harmed, but other publishers, which is of course part of the motivation for the scheme.

3. If libraries attempt to negotiate better deals, Elsevier is ruthless about cutting off access to all their journals.

4. Elsevier supports many of the measures, such as the Research Works Act, that attempt to stop the move to open access. They also supported SOPA and PIPA and lobbied strongly for them.

And now there is a site where academics can sign up to “occupy Elsevier”.

I left maths behind a long time ago (Gowers’s department is holding seminars on “C^{1,α} regularity of solutions of degenerate elliptic equations” and “Scaling limits for anisotropic Hastings-Levitov type clusters” — crikes, I really have left it behind). I recently took an interest in what is known about apples and their genetic diversity, and was irritated to find publicly-funded research held behind pay-walls, at €34 a pop. And I used to work for a sub-contractor to Elsevier’s Shannon outfit, where we dealt with medical journals (and one on forensic science). All in all, I am glad to see this initiaitve.

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1. Ed - January 28, 2012

I must admit that ‘Chaos, Solitons and Fractals’ had passed me by, but I’m very glad you brought it up, because I’ve now read this memorable wiki entry:

“There was speculation that the editor-in-chief of Chaos, Solitons & Fractals, Mohamed El Naschie, misused his power to publish his work without appropriate peer review. The journal had published 322 papers with El Naschie as author since 1993. The last issue of December 2008 featured five of his papers.”


Whoever would have thought the world of maths could be so sordid


Michael Carley - January 28, 2012

The way (some) academics behave when they think nobody is looking would disgrace a Fianna Fail selection convention.


WorldbyStorm - January 28, 2012


The old saw about “Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low” is one I’ve seen time and again over the past decade. Not everyone, not a majority, but a large enough minority to leave me with the sense that some academic workplaces of my experience are bitterly dysfunctional workplaces.


EWI - January 28, 2012

Richard Tol’s an editor at an Elsevier journal.

Just sayin’


2. Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » Mathematicians organising ‘Occupy Elsevier’ - January 28, 2012

[…] “Timothy Gowers, professor of mathematics at Cambridge, has suggested that mathematicians should boycott leading journals published by Elsevier. He lists four reasons …” (more) […]


3. itsapoliticalworld - January 28, 2012

Signing of the ACTA treaty in the EU this week is another tightening of the economic stranglehold on knowledge. The internet presented the possibility of human knowledge being opened up in an unprecedented way to billions of people. Knowledge, transformed into “intellectual property” is restricted and its impact and influence stunted. As much as anything, this is an indication to me that the current system is a blockage on human development.

I’m glad to see your post Tomboktu. Elsevier is a monster. But how can it be circumvented or brought down? Academics want the rewards on offer from their work. They won’t all publish their work on free and open formats. Should the copyright period be made much shorter?

Personally, I look forward to the day when all advances in knowledge are “creative commons.”


Michael Carley - January 28, 2012

I haven’t sent anything to Elsevier since 2004 and I haven’t refereed for them, either, including on one occasion when I would have been paid (precious little) for it.

I’m lucky in that there are top class journals in my field(s) which are published by learned societies which don’t charge stupid subscription fees and/or allow distribution of papers by the author, without infringing copyright, so I can publish in good journals and still avoid Elsevier. I can also give my bit back by reviewing for some of those journals, when they ask.

Personally, I don’t object to journals charging a subscription, since even a web-only journal has costs, but Elsevier are gouging us, not only in what they charge for subscriptions, but also in the restrictions they place on redistribution.


urardo - January 28, 2012

In the UK, public and charitable funders of research are beginning to require (and pay for) open access to publications, and universities are creating open depositories. How this is squared with the publishers is part of the ugly battle ahead… but not all academics are keen to hide behind paywalls.


Michael Carley - January 28, 2012

It varies: the commercial publishers are trying to concede the bare minimum on open access. The learned societies (at least the ones I deal with) are quite happy to have authors distribute PDFs of the final version of the paper.


4. Michael Carley - January 28, 2012

And, butting in again, Tim Gowers is FRS and a winner of the Fields Medal, which means he is as serious a mathematician as you can imagine.


WorldbyStorm - January 28, 2012

And it probably needs someone with that background and base to be able to go toe to toe in this sort of event.

In my own area sadly Ireland and internationally has a very very limited range of journals, none of which in Ireland are now peer-reviewed [not that that’s the be all and end all either]. But in a way a greater number hidden behind pay walls would be as bad.


Michael Carley - January 28, 2012

In my area, there are plenty of journals (though many are Elseveri) but I did have a paper published in the RIA Proceedings, which is quite well regarded.

The problem is that Ireland is small and if you had Irish journals serving an Irish market, the pool of reviewers would be very small.


WorldbyStorm - January 28, 2012

Hah, one piece I submitted which was published had two peer reviewers. Feedback I heard subsequently was that the piece was seen by one of them in part as a thinly veiled apologia for a certain EH who figures here every once in a while on this site [the topic was related to some degree to political studies]. I was highly amused, not least because that wasn’t the thrust of the paper at all but also because in terms of politics [at least mine] so wide of the mark.

The other side to that following on from what you’re saying is that one tends to have an idea of who might be doing peer reviewing. That’s never good.


Michael Carley - January 28, 2012

His ideas on collaborative mathematics are interesting, especially when he talks about stupid ideas:



5. Michael Carley - January 28, 2012

@WBS I have once or twice had a suspicion of who a reviewer might be, and recently, a suspicion of who the other reviewer might be on a paper I was reviewing. I haven’t had too many grossly insulting reviews, though I once had five pages of abuse in response to a revision, where the reviewer said, inter alia, `get it right this time.’


WorldbyStorm - January 28, 2012

There’s little more disheartening than that.


Michael Carley - January 28, 2012

Responded with a straight bat; pointed out where the reviewer was wrong (the phrase `toy problem’ appeared); paper published.


WorldbyStorm - January 28, 2012

Job done!


6. Garibaldy - January 28, 2012

Monbiot wrote about the locking up of publicly-funded research last summer



7. EWI - January 28, 2012

The Register actually has a decent article up summarising the reasons why this is happening (editor Andrew Orlowski, close to the Living Marxism crowd, must be on leave).


Crooked Timber too:



8. popeepopt - January 29, 2012

Superb. Thanks Tombuktu – I missed this.


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