Journal Boycott

by Brian on October 27, 2003

The SF Chronicle reports that two UCSF scientists are leading a boycott of six journals published by Cell Press, a division of Reed-Elsevier. The immediate cause of the boycott is that Cell wants the UC system to pay $90,000 for electronic subscriptions to the six journals, and the scientists regard that as exorbitant.

A few things stand out about the boycott.

It is being supported by the university administration. The vice dean of research and the vice chancellor of academic affairs at UCSF are quoted in the article supporting the boycott. This is not just the kind of peasant revolt that I’ve occasionally encouraged.

I don’t know enough about the area to judge whether this is accurate, but one of the journals being targetted, Cell is described in the article as a ‘must-read’ journal. It looks like this is no mere skirmish over third-tier publications. We’ll see how serious the scientists really are when they have to decide whether to boycott the New England Journal of Medicine, or The Lancet if similar disputes arise. But if Cell did publish important work on AIDS in recent years, as the article says, this is already an important dispute.

Finally, this isn’t something that can be solved by going electronic, because the dispute is over the cost of electronic subscriptions. I know UC is a big system, and it’s fair that they should pay more than your average site for a licence, but $90,000 for six journals still seems ridiculous, especially if they are not available unbundled, and really only one of the six is strongly wanted.

Thanks to Kent Bach for passing along this link.



Alan 10.27.03 at 6:09 pm

I’m not familiar with the others in the boycott package, but Cell really is a must-read if you’re in the field. When my wife was doing a molecular-cellular biology fellowship a handful of years ago, Cell was the target of all the top-tier research in that area. My sense is that a boycott of Cell by scientists who do relevant work would be rather equivalent in significance to a boycott of The New England Journal of Medicine by medical researchers.


Aaron Bergman 10.27.03 at 6:12 pm

There’s been a boycott by many in theoretical high energy physics of the Elsevier journal Nuclear Physics B. I heard it joked once that the new building at the Institute for Advanced Studies, Princeton, was built in part from the endowment money that was used to pay for the NPB subscription.

In physics, of course, we have the ArXiv so we don’t need journals so much. There are also plenty of other journals like JHEP and PRD, also.


Philip 10.27.03 at 8:24 pm

With sites like this their may be alternatives

I’m not sure where the 90K goes but 15 grand a year per journal eats up a bunch of research.


martin 10.27.03 at 9:32 pm

This would be a very significant development if it comes to pass. Cell and the other journals in this group are top notch. I work at a University that cannot afford all – we do not get Molecular Cell. Time and again, I have to order poor quality fax copies of papers from it. And teaching senior level courses is hindered by an inability to get figures for used in lectures.


Matt Weiner 10.28.03 at 12:40 am

Speak of the devil–Cell was the journal at which I was a copy editor, as I mentioned in the comments to Chris’s thread on Norman.
If you look at the call to boycott, you’ll see that UCSF makes what I think is an excellent point: Cell Press jourmals are immensely profitable, and they derive their worth from the uncompensated labor of academics–those who review papers for them, serve on their editorial boards, and submit papers to them. (When I was there, authors had to pay to publish in Neuron though not in Cell.)
This is a point that Kent Bach made earlier in one of Brian’s threads. Academics need journals to disseminate their work and to credential them (the old publish or perish), but there’s no reason that those journals have to be for-profit enterprises. If the publisher is profiting from the journal, why should academics help them pile up cash?
(Copy editors, of course, were compensated, though not well.)


Jack #2 10.28.03 at 3:12 am

Cell, its value, and the price may not be the issue. What is, however, might be more closely tied to the revenue lost through electronic distribution. This is not trivial for E-publishers. Even if excessive profits at the expense of underpaid (or unpaid) researchers was factored in.

Before E, one paid for a paper copy. Yes, it was pretty easy to make photocopies. But of an entire issue? Hardly — though possible.

So we passed around a handful of key articles. Some of us made photocopies of copies. But in reality, if you wanted to be “on top”, well you justified a subscription on that very point. “I don’t want to wait to get in the loop, just so I can make a copy of a copy”. Department heads would fold. Budgets would be adjusted. Those who had a need would get their subscription.

Today, I can convert nearly anything to PDF, and pass it around. To anyone I want. Anytime. In any quantity. I usually don’t – that’s not to say that I don’t receive articles (usually worthless) from others who regularly do.

The publishers aren’t stupid. If you don’t price for the enterprise – you’re going to find that the masses (albeit educated ones) are buying limited subscriptions, then copying, pasting and PDFing copies to their peers, in or out of house. Why buy a site license, when you can license a handful of employees then simply E-copy everything else.

And, so, it all comes down to economics – including, if you will, the value of exploitation and competition. If Cell is consistently top-notch, then Reed-Elsevier wins. If Cell can’t keep it’s audience because alternatives become equally respected (or nearly so), then market economics change.

So it appears that Reed-Elsevier is putting their reputation on the line. If they are as good as $90,000 will buy, then they’ll continue at that price point or higher. If the researchers who must pay to get in the door choose to vote with their feet (er… postage stamps) then Reed-Elsevier will either have to compete, perish, or be relegated to niche status.

So, USCF boycotts. That’s irrelevant. Unless, of course, hundreds of others do. And there are solid alternative sources. Which are reasonably respected. And which grab a sizeable audience. And that, my friends, is called capitalism (or is it freedom? I forget).


des 10.28.03 at 1:18 pm

The USCF boycott isn’t “irrelevant” – by doing this and announcing it they help build momentum in their discipline for a break away from the publishers and their business model (usually “squeeze them until the pips squeak” as far as anyone can tell). Physics has already begun divorce proceedings, my branch of applied maths appears to be thinking about a trial separation, and others will surely follow. And hoorah for that!


Randolph Fritz 10.29.03 at 11:16 pm

Shades of Richard Stallman! Oh, wait, he’s not dead… The guy’s a pain, and I don’t like his writing…but he’s a brilliant software engineer, and a moderately effective political activist, and it sure looks like he called this one.

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