Friends Don’t Let Friends Publish in Elsevier Journals

by Henry Farrell on May 11, 2009

Via “BoingBoing”:, Ben Goldacre tells us that the Elsevier journal scam “went even further then originally reported”:

In a statement to The Scientist magazine, Elsevier at first said the company “does not today consider a compilation of reprinted articles a ‘journal'”. I would like to expand on this ­statement: It was a collection of academic journal articles, published by the academic journal publisher Elsevier, in an academic ­journal-shaped package. Perhaps if it wasn’t an academic journal they could have made this clearer in the title which, I should have mentioned, was named: The Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine.

Things have deteriorated since. It turns out that Elsevier put out six such journals, sponsored by industry. The Elsevier chief executive, Michael Hansen, has now admitted that they were made to look like journals, and lacked proper disclosure. “This was an unacceptable practice and we regret that it took place,” he said.

You’ve got to love that ‘mistakes were made’ passive-voice shtick. But the interesting question for me as an academic, is how we should treat Elsevier journals going forth? I really think that the base presumption has to be that if Elsevier was pulling manifestly dishonest stunts like this, it has also been up to lots of borderline unethical activities too. When you see the creation of a _complete line_ of astroturf journals, presumably with the sign-off of senior executives in the company, you aren’t just talking about a couple of bad apples. So what do we do?

Most obviously, we shouldn’t publish in Elsevier journals. This is easy for me to say – I am in a field where Elsevier isn’t especially strong – but I hope that I would say it if I were in a field where Elsevier journals dominated. In general, I would prefer my own work not to be used to add cover and credibility to manifestly bogus and unethical publication strategies. Furthermore, I don’t think we should review for Elsevier journals either. There are obviously a lot of honest scholars who edit journals for Elsevier (one would hope that they are in a majority), but they should really be devoting their efforts elsewhere – and polite but firm negative responses to review requests might help generate the necessary norm shift that would encourage them to move. Finally, I am quite attracted to the idea of registering disapproval when one cites to work that has been published in Elsevier journals. Some boilerplate language along the lines of

bq. Timewaster(2009) finds _x_ to be the case. Although these results were reported in a journal published by Elsevier, the company responsible for deliberately publishing pseudo-journals such as _The Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine_, there is no reason whatsoever to believe that these particular findings are problematic.

might usefully serve to communicate to academics that publishing with Elsevier is a net reputational negative.

Also, and by the way, there is plenty more in Goldacre’s piece about Merck’s response to critics – hitlists of doctors to be ‘neutralized’ or ‘discredited,’ hints of drying up of funds to academic institutions that asked unfortunate questions etc. Discovery can be an awful lot of fun.



anon 05.11.09 at 3:22 pm

I wish I could avoid publishing in Elsevier journals, but in my field (psychology/neuroscience), several of the major journals are part of Elsevier. As a young researcher, I can’t afford to not submit to those journals, or even to stop reviewing for them. Any other solutions?


harry b 05.11.09 at 3:25 pm

Well, anon, you might consider using Henry’s citation language when you publish in Elsevier journals. That would be fun!


Bill Gardner 05.11.09 at 3:34 pm

From the Guardian:

The first fun thing to emerge in the Australian case is email documentation showing staff at Merck made a “hit list” of doctors who were critical of the company, or of the drug. This list contained words such as “neutralise”, “neutralised” and “discredit” next to the names of various doctors.

“We may need to seek them out and destroy them where they live,” said one email, from a Merck employee. Staff are also alleged to have used other tactics, such as trying to interfere with academic appointments, and dropping hints about how funding to institutions might dry up.

There have been allegations of interference with academic appointment in the past. If they can document this, it is really important.


Ginger Yellow 05.11.09 at 3:44 pm

If academics can organise themselves to boycott Israel, surely they can boycott Elsevier.


Bloix 05.11.09 at 3:56 pm


Sherman Dorn 05.11.09 at 3:56 pm

Never mind the righteousness: there’s the U.S. False Claims Act that allows for qui tam lawsuits if federal funding was used fraudulently.


The Raven 05.11.09 at 4:12 pm

Has the time come to switch over to peer-reviewed internet publication?


Keith 05.11.09 at 4:50 pm

Raven: definitely.

I’m a librarian at a university with a large health sciences school. We’ll be reviewing our Elsevier subscriptions shortly. We may not be able to cancel outright, at least immediately, but you bet your ass we’ll be calling up our rep and seeing what sort of massive discounts they’ll give us for not canceling altogether.


Steve LaBonne 05.11.09 at 5:07 pm

Even the “normal” business model of journals has always been a scam. Content acquired for LESS than free in some fields (i.e. page charges), all editorial and reviewing services provided by volunteers- no costs at all but physical printing and distribution (an obsolete technology for quite a while now), and yet they get scholars to pressure libraries into paying humongous subscription fees which must surely generate obscene profits given how limited their expenses are. I’ve been wondering for years how they’ve gotten away with it for so long.


Salient 05.11.09 at 5:09 pm

Anyone reasonably familiar with Elsevier’s market share/prominence:
Is Elsevier too big to fail?

[reason for question: I think all of the journals I’ve referenced in the past month, e.g. JMPS, are Elsevier-published]

Also: I’m not familiar with the history of publishing companies pulling stunts like this. Is there anything Elsevier could do from this point forward to atone and redeem their rep?


paul 05.11.09 at 5:20 pm

Interesting to note that Elsevier is also the publisher of the peer-reviewed journal Homeopathy.

For cash-strapped departments, 0ne of the biggest attractions of publishing with Elsevier is the lack of publication fees. It’s very easy to think of other uses for those few hundred dollars or euros charged for internet or learned society publication.


Philip 05.11.09 at 7:07 pm

Bloix, ‘they were made to look like journals’ is a passive voice construction.


John Quiggin 05.11.09 at 8:42 pm

The list of economics journals published by Elsevier is depressingly long. I estimate that (excluding policy-oriented or Australian local journals) at least half of my publications have been in Elsevier journals, and that’s probably typical of economists, except maybe those at a university with its own journal. But, at least for sole-authored papers, I am going to try very hard to find non-Elsevier outlets from now on.

And libraries are always short of money (right now, in Australia, desperately so), so a plausible reason for cutting some of their most expensive subscriptions will be welcome in a lot of places.


Salient 05.11.09 at 9:04 pm

I don’t know very much about the independence of a given journal relative to its publisher. Would it be possible for some of these individual journals to publish through a different publisher, or are the journals themselves owned by Elsevier (essentially or literally)?


Colin Danby 05.11.09 at 9:08 pm

Another thing we can do is start raising this question within any professional associations we belong to that publish journals via Elsevier. Contracts are typically multi-year so switching publishers can’t happen quickly, but why not get the ball rolling.

I’m sure if we combined efforts, we could come up with a list of social-science journals whose Elsevier contracts are up for renewal in the next year.


Jake 05.11.09 at 9:13 pm

Elsevier is one of the biggest, if not the absolute biggest player in the academic publishing world. They’re probably the closest to too-big-to-fail out there.


jackie 05.11.09 at 9:47 pm

Ted Bergstrom, econ prof at UCSB, has been on a mission to get people (at least tenured ones) to boycott Elsevier and other over-priced for-profit academic publishers for some time. He was motivated by the pricing and the latest incidents only make it worse. His many writings on the topic are at the link. I don’t know what success he has had but you may find some of his research and arguments helpful if you decide to go this route.


Matt 05.11.09 at 9:50 pm

I guess that its lucky for philosophers that relatively few philosophy journals are published by Elsevier- as far as I could see, only the “Studies in the History and Philosophy of Biology/Science/Physics” journals. Those are good enough journals, but hardly indispensable for the field. Philosophers, even philosophers of science, could easily boycott them. (I guess the flip side is that a boycott by philosophers is less likely to be harmful to Elsevier.)


MSS 05.11.09 at 10:09 pm

Their profile in political science is not large. Alas, however, they do publish the premier journal in my subfield.

In fact, just now I owe them a review and am finishing up an article I was planning to send to them. Sigh…


jacob 05.11.09 at 11:06 pm

Salient at 14-

An instructive case might be that of Labor History, which was the main journal for U.S. labor and working-class history. Several years ago, its non-profit owner sold the journal to Taylor and Francis, which wanted to make more money off of it. T&F demanded that the editor increase the number of publications per year, which the editor claimed would destroy the quality of the journal. He left and took the entire editorial board with them. They founded Labor, published by Duke Press, and affiliated it with the labor historians’ professional organization, LAWCHA; eventually most of the subscribers went with him. The original journal still exists, but it’s greatly reduced in stature. It also had to change its focus and become much more international, since the new journal was getting all of the US-centered articles.

The point being that a journal is really its editor, its editorial board, its writers, and its subscribers. If you can take those to a different publisher, all Elsevier is left with is an empty shell of a name.

If people are interested in organizing this sort of thing, I’d suggest researching the Labor History/Labor story–there were articles at the time in the Chronicle of Higher Ed, and you could speak to the participants.


Emma 05.11.09 at 11:44 pm

Persuade your university library to get into open access publishing and take your work to the open access journals that exist. There are now thousands of them, and they need eminent scholars to write for and review for them.
At least two university libraries in Sydney, where I work, have taken on this challenge and are moving into academic publishing online, and print-on-demand. It has the virtue of making the research that their academics do, which is publicly funded after all, available to the general public, reducing their costs for expensive subscriptions and using their infrastructure and staff in a really productive way. It will be a slow process, but Elsevier and the others are genuinely alarmed, and they should be. Antics like this latest one might be evidence, I think, that they are seeking funding elsewhere.

Open Journal System, from the Public Knowledge Project, is just one of the publishing options. There are now installations at the University of Sydney library and at the University of Technology, Sydney. You can see the full list of OJS titles at the site, but I can’t seem to put another link in this post.


Fr. 05.11.09 at 11:51 pm

“The point being that a journal is really its editor, its editorial board, its writers, and its subscribers.” Enough said.


Neil 05.12.09 at 12:16 am

Matt, for philosophers working in cognitive science the opportunity costs are much bigger. Trends in Cog Sci, in particular, would be a big loss.


The Raven 05.12.09 at 1:03 am

And, in other news, Amazon has made a deal with three textbook publishers for Kindle content. “Study hard. Be evil.”


c.l. ball 05.12.09 at 1:24 am

Some journals generate income for the academic associations that publish them. ISA at one point got a six-figure stream from Blackwell for ISQ.


josh 05.12.09 at 1:42 am

Happily, Elsevier doesn’t publish much in the area of political theory/history of political thought.
Unhappily, I managed to find one of the few journals that they do publish in that area — and publish my (thus far, only) journal publication in it. Well, never again.
(This is actually a very useful discussion, as a friend and I were contemplating trying to publish a set of articles in the same journal; now I’ll suggest we take our business elsewhere. Thanks, Henry!)


Laura Wimberley 05.12.09 at 1:42 am

For anyone in the position to foment a rebellion at a journal or scholarly society, SPARC has a useful list of resources to help you pull off an open access digital version of the Labor/Labor History shift.


Bloix 05.12.09 at 2:24 am

#12 – I was referring to the quotation from the Elsevier executive, Hansen, not to what Goldacre wrote. When Henry wrote “You’ve got to love that ‘mistakes were made’ passive-voice shtick” he was presumably mocking Hansen, not Goldacre.


F 05.12.09 at 4:55 am

It’s a little unfair to good people who serve as editors for perfectly respectable journals that just happen to be published by Elsevier. On the other hand, Elsevier has been notorious recently for a significant drop in quality accompanied by extortionate subscription fees. Maybe a boycott would send a message, even though it would hurt honorable people who worked hard for many years. University libraries across the country will be forced to cancel subscriptions in the current budget crisis, and I would imagine that canceling Elsevier subscriptions would give the biggest bang for the buck.


Zamfir 05.12.09 at 8:32 am

Bloix, the sentence was: Michael Hansen has now admitted they were made to look like journals, and lacked proper disclosure. “This was an unacceptable practice and we regret that it took place,”

“they were made to” might be, but doesn’t have to be the literal text by Hansen.
But still, even the quote does a fine job of not using “we” in combination with the unacceptable. “a practice took place” is a nice way of not saying “we did”


Lindsay 05.12.09 at 9:15 am

Dear Elsevier,

No doubt you are aware of the allegations made against Elsevier, specifically that you are publishing phoney journals, including but not restricted to The Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine. For a summary and opinion comment on the allegations, see here:… Read more

I am dismayed by such allegations, not least because as a co-editor and contributor to a recent (March 2009) special issue of Utilities Policy, I am concerned that I may have allowed my adademic integrity to be used (as Henry puts it) “to add cover and credibility” to unethical practices.

Accordingly, I wish to speak to the executives responsible to hear their assurance that the allegations made against them are false, and that in the event that they are not false, to hear what measures Elsevier intends to take to reverse any damage to my academic reputation.

Yours faithfully,

Lindsay Stirton (Dr)


Laleh 05.12.09 at 9:52 am

From G.W. Bowersock, “The Scholar of Scholars” (NYRB, Volume 56, Number 8 May 14, 2009):

“The Faculty of Arts and Sciences [at Harvard] voted in February last year that all scholarly articles by its professors should be placed online with open access before they are printed elsewhere” with the ability to waive such a requirement.

“The impetus for total online access before publication is clearly driven by the sciences, where the cost of print journals is outrageously high. Elsevier, which is described as ‘the world’s largest for-profit scientific publisher,’ charges, according to Grafton, $21,744 per year for one of its periodicals, Brain Research . No one could object to wiping out subscriptions that require such sums, which consume large parts of library budgets, and may limit the funds available to acquire new books.”


Philip 05.12.09 at 11:37 am

Bloix, I misread the quote last night the passive voice bit is reported speech but doesn’t come under the quotation marks. But in “This was an unacceptable practice and we regret that it took place,” using ‘practice’ as the subject achieves the same thing as a passive voice construction, i.e. not making who was responsible clear.


Bill Gardner 05.12.09 at 1:26 pm

I too support public access journals. I’d like to hear from any readers who know about the economics of these ventures, but I have been deterred from submitting to some of them by the publication fees. PLoS Medicine, for example, charges a $2850 publication fee. They offer discounts if your university is an institutional member (some but far from all of the the tier 1 research universities), and they “offer a complete or partial fee waiver for authors who do not have funds to cover publication fees.” So, in practice, who pays these fees, and how much do they pay? Does anyone here participate in the management of such a journal, and if so how do you decide who has to pay? In my corner of academia, people do not pay publication fees, and grants are not written with budgets to cover them. Perhaps we should re-examine that.


beamish 05.12.09 at 1:57 pm

Finally, I am quite attracted to the idea of registering disapproval when one cites to work that has been published in Elsevier journals.

You’re probably going to want to put a grandfather clause in there, since Galileo and Descartes published with Elsevier. (‘Although the Law of Fall was first published in a book published by Elsevier, the company responsible for deliberately publishing pseudo-journals such as The Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine, there is no reason whatsoever to believe that that particular result is problematic.’)


Katherine 05.12.09 at 2:17 pm

Why would Elsevier be “too big to fail”? Would their failure lead to the catestrophic collapse of academic journal publishing? Honest question, not snark.


Matt W 05.12.09 at 2:18 pm

Hansen’s statement contains the following sentences:

“our Australia office published a series of sponsored article compilation publications, on behalf of pharmaceutical clients, that were made to look like journals and lacked the proper disclosures.”

so the passive voice was in the original. But ironically, on the question of what people usually are complaining when they talk about “passive voice,” the full statement does specifically say who’s responsible — the Australia office; instead of obscuring the agency it pins it quite squarely on a fall guy.

[Really, I think it’d be useful to have a term for things like “this was an unacceptable practice” that aren’t grammatically passive voice but have the same function of obscuring the agent; perhaps we could just call them “passive formulations.”]


Matthew B. 05.12.09 at 2:55 pm

Certainly Hansen was trying to avoid an admittance of guilt. That has nothing to do with the passive voice, which occurs nowhere in his quoted comment, and sometimes conceals responsibility and sometimes (“Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth”) does not.


Matthew B. 05.12.09 at 3:00 pm

Hell, didn’t notice Matt W’s post before making my own. So just ignore mine, and look at his instead.


Timothy Burke 05.12.09 at 3:02 pm

Elsevier journals are generally among the more expensive. They are in no respects “too big to fail”, however, given that their failure as a publisher would have few implications for the journals they publish. As noted above, journals are 100% mobile given that publishers provide nothing except print costs and print distribution costs. The editorial boards and their networks of peer reviewers are what really make a particular journal. Even if you had to retitle it the journal, I don’t think you’d lose much: the old journals are the old journals, residing in libraries. It’s not as if a modest retitling would somehow break a connection to the great players of yesteryear, or as if journal editorial boards are surrounded by dull portraits of their renowned predecessors. Not publishing with (or agreeing to edit) an Elsevier journal seems like an easy thing to do except for junior faculty in disciplines that are heavily locked into the company’s publications. That’s where senior people and administrations need to step in, and start rewarding or protecting junior faculty who publish open-access work. For Elsevier itself (and any similar journal publisher) failure would be a great contribution to the production of knowledge.


carolyne 05.12.09 at 5:41 pm

Anyone know the names of the other pseudo”journals” published?


Felix 05.12.09 at 6:15 pm

[Really, I think it’d be useful to have a term for things like “this was an unacceptable practice” that aren’t grammatically passive voice but have the same function of obscuring the agent; perhaps we could just call them “passive formulations.”]

Wikipedia calls them “weasel words”; I think that’s just as good a term as any. And much more honest than “passive formulations” which seems to be a way of criticising someone without actually out-and-out being critical. In fact, I’d say that “passive formulation” is a passive formulation for “weasel words”.


theo 05.12.09 at 11:58 pm

You’re probably going to want to put a grandfather clause in there, since Galileo and Descartes published with Elsevier.

There is no direct succession from the 17th C. Elzevir family and the decreasingly relevant Reed Elsevier publishing group.

Wikipedia: “The family ceased printing in 1712, but a contemporary publisher Elsevier takes its name from this early modern business.”


Gene O'Grady 05.13.09 at 12:52 am

Glad to learn from Theo that this isn’t the same Elsevier. I’ve got a four volume edition of both Senecas, with notes by the likes of Gronovius and Lipsius, that I paid all of ten pounds for. Sounds like it would have been a lot more expensive if the new guys had had a hand in it.


onymous 05.13.09 at 2:47 am

The most troubling thing about Elsevier is that they control access to the archives of their journals. In my field it’s easy to get new (or new-ish) papers online for free, but if you want to read something important from the 70s or 80s, chances are you’re going through the Elsevier website to get to it.


onymous 05.13.09 at 2:48 am

(There is the “walk to the library, find the bound volume, and make a photocopy” option, but that’s so… tedious.)


Alex 05.13.09 at 9:37 am

(There is the “walk to the library, find the bound volume, OCR the article and upload it to…” option. If you want to get medieval, or at least 18th century, on them.)


andrew_m 05.13.09 at 10:00 am

Re #20: The vegetation ecologists did much the same thing to Dr W Junk back in 1990. The International Association for Vegetation Science abandoned Vegetatio and started Journal of Vegetation Science just as I finished my PhD, with pretty much the same effect as Labor History/Labor.

Elsevier journals are prominent in agricultural & ecological sciences, and in a milieu driven by impact factors it would be hard to get away from them as an individual; a clear majority of my peer-reviewed work would have been published by Elsevier.


Chris Williams 05.13.09 at 10:51 am

Check out also the saga of ‘Topology’ -> ‘Journal of Topology. Shorter: Elsevier journal editorial board gets fed up with price-gouging, complain to no avail, jump ship en masse to set up rival journal on the web.

There’s a remarkably cool open access journal here:
[Interest to declare – I’ve reviewed for it and published in it]

The directory of open access journals is here:


beamish 05.13.09 at 2:00 pm

There is no direct succession from the 17th C. Elzevir family and the decreasingly relevant Reed Elsevier publishing group.

I’m glad to learn it and am sorry for spreading falsehoods.


David Cook 05.13.09 at 5:01 pm

Is Elsevier the only publisher to be doing this sort of thing ? Or just the only one to get caught ? Or maybe the first one to get caught ?

(disclaimer: I’m not involved in any sort of academic work, just an interested bystander)


James Rice 05.16.09 at 4:21 am

Disturbingly, as well as publishing journals, Elsevier also operates Scopus, which is the only reasonably credible alternative to Thomson Reuters’ ISI Web Of Knowledge for citation-based analysis. Citation-based analysis, of course, is used more and more in the evaluation of research performance. Given Elsevier’s track record of unethical practices with this and other pseudo-journals, should we be concerned about Scopus?


Richard Baron 05.16.09 at 7:52 pm

Katherine at post 36 is right. Going rather beyond what she said, and contemplating the collapse of traditional journal publishing arrangements with equanimity:

The papers are the important thing. What do journal titles add?

1. Access to a peer review service. We could organise that outside the context of established journals.

2. Knowledge that there has been reputable peer review. We could deal with that problem by publishing the names of reviewers. I know that’s not traditional, but I don’t see the problem. We are happy to be named in criticisms of other people’s papers after their publication, when we write papers demolishing other people’s arguments.

Why do 1. and 2. matter?

A. They give some quality control over the allocation of taxpayers’ money that takes place when it is decided who gets a job. It helps to have published in the right journals. But reports from named referees could do just as well.

B. They direct our attention to what we really must read in order to keep up. Read the top journals, and you’re probably OK. But an informal rumour mill (“Have you seen X’s great new paper?”) could do that job. Most things would get looked at by someone, and once two or three people you respected had told you about X’s great new paper, you would go and read it. Come to think of it, one could set up an Internet-based voting system, and viewers could decide whose votes they wanted to be taken into account in generating recommendations for them.

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