Submit to Elsevier with gusto and abandon! A Modest Proposal

by Henry Farrell on April 18, 2014

As long time readers may recall, I am not a big fan of Elsevier and was a public advocate of the position that no-one should submit to Elsevier journals at a time when it was neither profitable or popular. However, reading this article about Elsevier’s new policy of issuing take-down notices against authors who publish their work on university websites has made me change my mind. Now, I think that everyone should submit as much of their work to Elsevier as they possibly can. Any article that has even a modest chance of success. People should bear through the revise and resubmit process as many times as it takes. Once the piece has finally been accepted, then, and only then, should they withdraw the article from consideration, and then publish it on their university or personal website with an “accepted by Elsevier Journal x and then withdrawn in protest,” together with a copy of the acceptance email (containing the editor’s email address etc).

I do foresee a couple of possible wrinkles in this plan. Perhaps disgruntled elder colleagues might frown upon this (although in some fields at least, disgruntled elder colleagues seem entirely on board with pushing against Elsevier). Non-tenured faculty might want to think a little about the benefits and disadvantages before deciding they wanted to do this. This said, I could imagine senior faculty or tenure letter writers who would find this kind of thing wholly admirable, and to be congratulated, not punished (I know that I would). If this campaign actually took off, Elsevier would doubtless try to disrupt it, by e.g. obliging prospective authors to sign a contract agreeing to publish in the journal if accepted. However, I could also see any such efforts backfiring – most journals would be damaged by such a policy, since many academics (especially prominent and well published ones), would see forced contracts as presumptuous and insulting. Doubtless, there are other flaws that readers can point out.

However, I can’t imagine that the journal’s peer reviewers would have much ground for complaint. Their job is to help improve academic work that is eventually publicly circulated (in other words their loyalty should be to the field, rather than to the journal). Journal editors would probably be unhappy, but really, at this point, no-one should want to be the editor of an Elsevier journal. I’m perfectly OK with academic publishers who don’t try to extract monopoly rents, just as I’m OK with various forms of open publishing (I happily do both). But Elsevier relies both on the willingness of scholars to submit work and their willingness to review it, to make extortionate profits by effectively selling academics’ labor back to the academy. Current proposals to target Elsevier seek to withdraw this labor in one or the other way. Another possibility (which is the one I’m suggesting, albeit without a great deal of serious thought) is to subvert the current system and make it unsustainable in other ways, by extracting the kudos that acceptance in some Elsevier journals can bring out from the obligatory signing away of rights that goes together with agreeing to let the journal actually publish your piece. In a world where ever fewer academics discover articles by actually picking up the journals, this kind of strategy is at least thinkable.



Phil 04.18.14 at 5:59 pm

Non-tenured faculty might want to think a little about the benefits and disadvantages

I think for ‘non-tenured faculty’ you might want to read ‘anyone with any degree of insecurity or uncertainty about their future tenure’. I’ve got a contract without a time limit, which is nice, but it’s a 0.5 contract; I’m disinclined to take any action which might make it less likely that I’ll eventually get it replaced with a full-time contract. Equally, even if my employer decided I should totally have a full-time post, nobody’s going to give me a senior lectureship just for the asking. And so on.

I’ve known a few outspoken, applecart-kicking academics – but every one of them, without exception, was a full Professor.


Moby Hick 04.18.14 at 8:49 pm

In my field, nearly every paper has enough authors that they couldn’t fit in a minivan. There’s always somebody non-tenured on the paper. Also, grant rules usually require that you actually publish.

Those same grant rules (NIH) also require that the article go to PubMed within 12 months of publication. That’s been successful and maybe more grant-giving bodies should insist on something like that.


nnyhav 04.18.14 at 10:01 pm

yeah so a gentlemen’s agreement isn’t worth the paper it’s not written on

but thx4 giving new meaning to “satire is what closes in New Haven”

and for monkeywrenching done proper:


Thomas Lumley 04.19.14 at 12:32 am

Some medical journals (don’t recall if it’s Elsevier ones) already do ask for copyright assignment at submission, and say they will return the rights if they don’t accept the paper.


Warren Terra 04.19.14 at 12:53 am

You really ought to read more carefully, or more cautiously:

All 23 of the takedown notices targeted published editions of articles from Elsevier journals posted to websites on the domain, including for example lab sites, faculty sites, and course websites hosted on iSites

Unless they’re being really very sneaky in their phrasing, I take this “published editions” to mean that the faculty members posted on their sites PDFs of the papers they published, in the journal format and reflecting the work of the journal’s staff to modify and arrange the figures; use of house style, fonts and logos; etcetera. Heck, the PDF contains a copyright statement from the publisher! These digital reprints contain the labor and the property of the journal publisher, and you’re really not supposed to distribute that stuff without permission – and, critically, you don’t need to post the journal’s PDF to share the information it contains – you’ve got the manuscript you submitted for publication, a collection of word processor and digital image files (plus spreadsheets, movies, etcetera). Post that!

If on the other hand the journals demanded takedowns of the published works posted in manuscript format – that is to say, all of the same information but lacking the distinctive style of and the modifications by the journal – that would be a monstrous act by Elsevier. And it’s remotely possible that’s what happened here: because the final manuscript version submitted for publication has inevitably been edited since the initial version was submitted in response to comments by (unpaid) peer reviewers and perhaps in response to comments by the journal’s editors, some journal publishers have been known to claim the final manuscript contains the fruit of the journal’s review process and should not be distributed except through the journal – but I don’t know of anybody writing articles who agrees with this position, or who hesitates to distribute final manuscripts not formatted by the journal.

Look: Elsevier is a blight on the scientific community, extracting money for few services and gouging university libraries. We really need open-access, fewer journals, and more meta-journals that highlight publicly available papers they didn’t themselves published. Developments like the Public Library of Science journals are hugely important. But it looks like you may have in this particular instance jumped the gun, and managed to find an actual defensible action of Elsevier to protest against.


Louis Proyect 04.19.14 at 12:51 pm


engels 04.21.14 at 3:43 pm

For some reason I’m imagining citations to Farrell, Gusto and Abandon (2014).


Moby Hick 04.21.14 at 8:46 pm

I just got notice that two articles I’m on will be published in an Elsevier journal. I blame my personal powerlessness and not getting into the journal we tried first.

9 04.24.14 at 11:08 pm

How common is it that article authors request that they retain copyright on their journal publications? I’m at a large US midwestern state school and still very much in the “non-tenured” group that might be cautious about these things, but our libraries actively encourage us to retain copyright when we submit or accept publication with journals. So far I’ve encountered no opposition from journal editors or managers, and if the final journal prepared article says © The Author(s) then there’s no threat of takedown notices. So why isn’t this more common?

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