All of this has happened before. A group of scientists, upset with the extraordinarily profitable Elsevier, have announced its intention to boycott the publisher. In 2012, mathematicians led the Cost of Knowledge boycott. This time, it’s University of California (UC) scientists upset about the breakdown of negotiations that sought to combine journal subscriptions with open-access publishing. Unfortunately, on its own, this boycott will do little to change science publishing.

Many scientists struggle to see the value Elsevier provides. Elsevier usually demands a high price to publish a paper—on the order of $4,000–$5,000—and has also shown a willingness to play hardball in negotiations with whole countries. Importantly, Elsevier’s authors, reviewers, and most editors never receive any of this money.

Boycotting Elsevier is therefore a reasonable response from dissatisfied stakeholders. In theory, if boycotters provide their authoring, reviewing, and editing expertise for publishers with better copyright...

Scientists already have many of the tools needed to change science publishing.

Unfortunately, the UC boycott is not likely to put much of a dent in Elsevier’s global operations. This would be a tough ask for the 1,000 signatories, given that each year Elsevier receives 1.8 million submissions and its 20,000 editors publish just 26 percent of them across its portfolio of 2,500 journals.

History suggests that Elsevier’s shareholders can hardly tell that thousands of academics have been boycotting them for years. In 2012, when the Cost of Knowledge boycott began, Elsevier’s adjusted operating profit was £780 million. Despite the petition accumulating more than 17,000 signatures, by 2018, Elsevier’s adjusted operating profit grew to £942 million

A key reason for Elsevier’s success is that sticking to a boycott is much costlier for authors than it is for Elsevier. A 2016 analysis found that of those who pledged not to publish with Elsevier, nearly 40 percent who published papers within 4 years of signing actually broke their pledge. It makes sense when the funding and job security of scientists is predicated on publishing in outlets deemed to be high impact. 

In contrast, Elsevier needs to do very little thanks to help from science policymakers. For example, Plan S, an initiative by funders to require grant recipients to publish in open-access formats, encourages the use of “transformative agreements” that combine journal subscriptions and open-access publishing. Librarians naturally focus their negotiating resources on the largest contracts, effectively locking independent society publishers out of open-access deals. This pushes society publishers  to partner with major publishers, further entrenching Elsevier and other corporate giants. 

Meanwhile, the scourge of predatory publishers hoping to collect open-access author fees has prompted academic leaders to push for greater reliance on commercial journal databases for evaluation. Elsevier owns top journals such as Cell and The Lancet and has deliberately focused on publishing high-impact papers to increase the prestige value of its journals. Boycotters therefore need to contend with increasing pressure to stay in Elsevier’s orbit if they want their research funded.

But let’s assume that enough momentum gathers behind this latest Elsevier boycott. The papers produced by boycotting scientists will need to be sent elsewhere. Most of them will go to the other market leaders—Springer Nature and Wiley, for instance—boosting the value and prestige of their journals. Combine this prestige boost with the institutional lock-in created by transformative open-access agreements and the result is simply a different multinational commercial publishing giant in charge.

Unfortunately, there is no evidence that Elsevier’s competitors are much better than they are. Recently, scientists began boycotting the American Psychological Association after receiving takedown notices for posting their own articles on their own websites. And is it any more ethical to support commercial open-access publishers whose regular increases to article processing charges consistently outpace inflation?

Boycotting Elsevier is a good first step, but it needs follow-through to support open infrastructure and systemic reforms. Latin America’s academy-owned non-commercial platforms now publish hundreds of thousands of articles a year and have actively opposed the toxic pay-to-publish business model. We need to lobby our institutions and funders to support open science infrastructure and do something similar in the so-called developed world.

We also need to build open access into our career and incentive structures. We currently don’t employ, fund, or promote scientists who publish in open-access journals or use open science practices, so it is no surprise that the vast majority of scientific papers are not “born free.” Aside from Plan S, most funders’ open-access policies offer neither carrot nor stick. For example, the NIH Public Access Policy offers no rewards for compliance and only administrative consequences for non-compliance.

Scientists already have many of the tools needed to change science publishing. For example, I was frustrated by the lack of quality, fee-free, open-access journals in behavioural neuroscience, so I got some colleagues together and started one. There is a plethora of free open source software for running journals and typesetting articles, which leaves us with very minimal costs. Our main challenge is cultural—convincing scientists it doesn’t have to cost $3,000 to publish an article and to take a risk with a new and unproven outlet.

A fair and equitable system is possible if scientists push to change our system of science publishing and career advancement. But if we just boycott one publisher without changing the systemic roots of the problem, in six or seven years, all of this will happen again.

Shaun Khoo is a postdoc at the University of Montreal and is supported by a fellowship from the Fonds de Recherche du Québec–Santé. He is also President of Episteme Health Inc., a non-profit association that publishes a fee-free open-access journal, Neuroanatomy and Behaviour. He has published with and/or reviewed for journals published by Elsevier and its competitors, including Springer Nature and Wiley, and is a reviewing editor at Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience and Animals.

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