Thursday, February 16, 2006

A Referee's Boycott

As an editor of Information and Computation I made a request to a scientist to referee a paper. I got the following response.
I while ago I decided that I would no longer provide my unpaid referee services to certain publishers like Information & Computation's Elsevier, so I can't help you with this.
Be careful what you wish for. JCSS floated a proposal to pay editors and referees but rescinded it after backlash from the editorial board and the community.

The authors have submitted their paper to I&C, a respected journal, and deserve to have their paper properly reviewed. We all have a responsibility to do our fair share of refereeing and it takes no more effort to referee a paper for I&C than for any other journal.

If you truly dislike a certain publisher then don't submit your papers to their journals. But to take a symbolic stand by not refereeing papers only hurts the authors and our community.


  1. But if I do not submit a paper to a journal or a conference, why should I referee papers from this venue?

    And what about sites that asks you to sign an agreement of fair usage before you can download the paper that you do not want to referee anyway. A good excuse right there.

  2. I think it mainly because he hates Elsevier. It has the reputation of charging a lot for their journals.

    The unpaid here comes from the complain that why Elsevier charges so much as other people are serving it freely.

  3. Elsevier, the company, also hosts DSEi, the world's largest arms fair. It's reasonable to say that this is one of the most damaging things that a corporation can do to the developing world (Nestle and tobacco companies are in close competition, though).

    I don't know if that's related to the objection of this referee, but to me it seems a reasonable reason not to donate refereeing services.

  4. In fact, a boycott of Elsevier is the ONLY thing this reviewer can do if they feel strongly about the matter. It would of course be hypocritical to take this stance and continue to send papers to Elsevier journals, so let's assume that the reviewer is already doing that. If so, what is wrong with expressing one's displeasure in this way.

    I sympathize with your plight as editor: if all reviewers take this stance, the journal is in trouble. But isn't that precisely the point of objecting ? As for the authors, there are other journals they can choose if they are unable to get reviewers to review for this journal. Again, ultimately the journal is hurt the most, and this is the reason to boycott in the first place.

  5. quite frankly, elsevier has been a negative force in our community and in the world. I no longer submit papers to elsevier journals, and I encourage others to do the same. I also encourage editorial boards of elsevier journals to resign (with the possibility of forming a new journal like the ACM Transactions on Algorithms).

    the point of the would-be referee was not that he wanted to be paid (though you seem to miss this in your post thereby chalking his stance up to greed?), the point was that there is no reason to _volunteer_ his services to a journal that is so anti-author in many of its practices (I'm not just talking about price per page and so forth, but other things like copyright issues, and not letting google index their database).

    I also refuse to referee for elsevier publications, and to imply that I have some responsibility to do this is a really myopic stance. if you are willing to submit papers to a journal, you should also be willing to referee them. but if someone is refusing to cooperate with a journal that is anti-academic (possibly to the detriment of their career!) they should be applauded for sticking up on behalf of the community, not guilted into following the herd.

  6. Similarly, when Philip Morris calls you up for unpaid cigarette-rolling duty, it's your responsibility as a citizen of the world to agree. If you truly dislike them then don't buy their cigarettes. But Philip Morris is a respected company, and not to help them by donating labor hurts shareholders and smokers alike.

  7. What everyone else said. Any scientist is perfectly within her rights to decide that a journal is not respectable and refuse to support its continued existence. Whether their grounds are scientific or ethical, or whether you happen to agree with their decision, is utterly irrelevant. Despite what you suggest, Lance, it does take more effort to referee for a journal that one finds ethically disagreeable.

    Yes, refusal to referee a paper hurts the authors, and it hurts the editors. That's the point! But if the publisher really is acting against the best interests of the community�as Elsevier certainly is�the long-term effect on the research community is positive.

  8. Elsevier stands out in that it was given several warnings, including the letter(s) from Knuth, and refused to act.

    To be fair, Kluwer proved a lot more flexible when it came to "Machine Learning Journal" and still it wasn't enough, 41 board members resigned.

  9. Often I find myself coming to Lance's defense on some point where commenters are largely disagreeing with him.

    But not this time.

    People should of course referee. If you submit papers, you should referee papers, that's part of the system. But, of course, you also have the right to choose what papers you wish to review for any reason -- as long as you are "paying back" sufficiently.

    The only objection I can see to this framework is that it begs the question of who is going to review all those bad papers that nobody wants to review. My opinion is that if an editor can't find willing reviewers, it's a sign the article shouldn't be published.

    Extending this argument to the present case, if you can't find willing reviewers for I&C articles, it's a sign that the community feels I&C isn't serving its interests, and the journal should disappear.

  10. As I'm the referee in question, let me reply to this as well. I no longer referee for Elsevier because of its pricing policies. Simple as that. The journal Information and Computation is a perfect example of this reason.

    For 2005, Information and Computation comprised 1699 pages, while its current institutional subscription price is US$ 2642 (unless you are unfortunate enough to live in Japan where you will have to pay US$ 2970, or in Europe where it is a whopping US$ 3982, go figure). Let's play devil's advocate and stick with the cheapest US average of $1.56 per page and compare it with a number of journals that are on Lance's list of publications. It is not surprising that journals published by learned societies are cheaper, but it is remarkable by how much: SIAM Journal of Computing averages $536/1530 = $.35/page and Journal of the ACM costs $235/865 = $.27/page. Even if you look at comparable journals published by Springer, the people at Elsevier definitely start to look greedy: Algorithmica goes for $958/872 = $1.10/page, Theory of Computing Systems sets you back $629/787 = $.80/page, and Theoretical Computer Science can be had for $6224/9079 = $.69/page. Truth be told, Springer's Computational Complexity is on the same level of I&C with its $528/~328 = $1.61/page rate, which is probably due to its original publisher Birkhauser, who are also on my no-refereeing list.

    I find the bottom line pretty obvious. Like everybody else I'm pressed for time, so why would I spend hours refereeing articles, which my university then has to buy back for staggering prices? I'm already refereeing more articles than I receive referee reports, so I don't feel any guilt when I turn down a referee request and try to get some research done instead.

    Obviously I don't submit my work to Elsevier, to think that I would comes close to an insult. From my experiences (and that of my co-authors) I know that such a self imposed limitation makes it far more concrete than just "a symbolic stand" as Lance suggested.

    I am of course delighted to learn that my boycott is causing troubles for the editors and the authors that work with Elsevier.

    - Wim van Dam

  11. that said, elzevier does host a lot of good journals. good specialty journals too, with high impact factors and all.

    i'd rather be submitting my current paper to a PLoS journal, but there really isn't an appropriate one.

    pragmatically, i'm a grad student, so i'm not yet asked to review stuff, perhaps my attitude will change once i'm in that boat.

    and let me say i'd be happy to review low quality publications in my area, it is better than them getting through due to poor reviewers that didn't understand why their were low quality. and hey, maybe useful suggestions would be taken and everyone would end up a winner.

  12. Unlike all other journal-related interactions, personally I view the refereeing work as 100% for the authors, so I do not apply boycotting principles there. As an author, whenever the decision is mine to make (and not a coauthor's), I will not publish in Elsevier due to reduced availability (institutions rightfully refusing to pay the high subscription price) and reduced visibility (the banning of Google Scholar, which is also a bad indication for the future).

  13. My dear Dr. van Dam,

    You are an inspiration.

  14. I agree completely with Wim. Academics' free refereeing for commercial journals is an indirect government subsidy to an industry that doesn't need it.

    -- Ronald de Wolf

  15. I support van Dam's right to refuse to referee a paper for I&C. However, the poster who writes:

    Elsevier, the company, also hosts DSEi, the world's largest arms fair...

    (with the implication that this is a valid reason for refusing to referee), should just be aware that this is quite a slippery slope. What next: can we refuse to referee papers by authors whose political views we don't agree with? Or who work at institutions with policies we don't like? Or work in countries whose politics we don't support (this has already happenned, in other scientific areas, with faculty from Israel).

    Where do you draw the line?

  16. Where do you draw the line?

    Good point. Generally we should draw the line where science ends and other realms start. Elsevier's position is damaging to science and as such boycotts such as this are justifiable.

    At the end of the day Elsevier is a business. I wonder how long their anti-google scholar stand would last if all editors reported a substantial drop in the number of submissions.

  17. It is easy to understand the consternation of editorial boards for journals like I&C, JCSS, RSA, etc. These are good journals which (along with Journal of Algorithms) were published by Academic Press until their takeover by Elsevier three years ago. Academic Press had its flaws but they were not predatory in their pricing. These journals have a long history and their back issues contain some of the best papers in the field. Editors' have invested much more of their time in these journals than any reviewer. It makes it hard to move on, even given the Journal of Algorithms example.

    Elsevier has been a bad actor in publishing in our field for a long time. They lowered the stature of the journals TCS and IPL over a decade ago by diluting the quality control so that they could publish so many pages that $3500/year didn't look so high relative to other commercal journals on a per page basis; now it is over $6000 per year! (At the time they also had even more ridiculous prices on journals like APAL which was around $2000 per year for 4 issues.)

    There is one question that is even more pointed than whether an individual researcher is going to submit or review for Elsevier journals: The journal TCS (Theoretical Computer Science) has continued to be sponsored as the main journal of EATCS (European Association for Theoretical Computer Science). Why? Why has EATCS not demanded changes in how the journal is priced and run or withdrawn its support?

    Paul Beame

  18. They lowered the stature of the journals TCS and IPL

    How was that accomplished? Were the editors told to be less strict or were they just informed that there would be so many more issues a year, hence putting pressure on the number of accepted papers? Something else?

  19. Bravo Wim.

    Lance, I&C is indeed a respected journal. The editorial board would carry that respect with them if they made a Journal of Algorithms-style shift to a journal run by a professional society or a university. Has this been discussed?

    Volunteer-run electronic journals like Theory of Computing offer a lot of hope. (Having been accepted once by them and rejected once, I can testify to the quality of their reviewing process ;-)
    There is no reason why the top theory conferences could not consistently choose open-access journals like ToC to publish their special issues.

  20. They lowered the stature of the journals TCS and IPL.

    How was that accomplished?

    TCS went to a highly distributed editorial board and the number of editors was increased substantially. (Check out the enormous size of the current board.) Several editors at the time resigned over the change.

    This is the problem with thinking that a boycott by individual researchers will cause Elsevier much concern. (Notice that JoA is not going away.) They simply will replace the contents by lower quality papers. The only thing that has influence is mass action by editorial boards and submitters and even then it is limited. (Elsevier has even insulated itself from this by bundling its journals in on-line packages.)

    We should just make sure that all their good journals have a home elsewhere. (We may have to give up some good journal names though.)

    Paul Beame

  21. Maybe someone can shed some light on my youthful grad-student ignorance: Aren't there any non-profit publishers?

  22. One simple way that authors can
    help the community is by making
    their papers available on their
    web pages. It is amazing how
    many people still don't do this.

  23. (Notice that JoA is not going away.)

    Really? I thought it was dead and replaced by "Journal of Discrete Algorithms"...a replacement to the JoA's editorial board is yet to be announced, or did I miss that?

  24. I realize this seems to be an unpopular view here, but I think cheap weapons in Africa do more harm than expensive journals in the developed world. And I think that our responsibilities to the world extend beyond our students and our colleagues. So I think the idea of "drawing a line" between science and non-science is dangerously over-simple.

    The risk of making controversial political points is a breakdown of collegiality, which is why, completely apart from the politics of it, boycotting Israel would be inappropriate. But refusing to referee/submit can pressure Elsevier without any one person being subjected to much hostility.

    On a slightly unrelated note, I think that doing paid work for a journal is less of a big deal, since they benefit from your choice less. Just like selling something to a charity is more morally neutral than donating. This may be why people object in particular to doing unpaid work for an organization they dislike. (Though I shouldn't necessarily speak for others!)

  25. Journal of Algorithms is indeed
    going to vanish. It has not yet died
    because the backlog of papers submitted before the editorial board
    resigned has not uet been totally disposed of. New submissions have
    not been accepted for several years

    David Johnson, former co-editor

  26. I'd like to commend Wim on his stance. If someone thinks that only hotheaded revolutionaries recommend boycotting Elsevier, they might want to read two resolutions passed by the Cornell University Faculty Senate on this matter, dated Dec 17, 2003, and May 11, 2005. This illustrious body did not mince words in its scathing indictment of the commercial science publishing industry and specifically Elsevier, the biggest offender for its sheer size and brazenness. The first resolution uses phrases like "crisis in the cost of journals," "literally unbearable," "threatens to undermine core academic values," "Elsevier's prices are radically out of proportion with the importance of those journals." The last paragraph "encourages the faculty vigorously to explore and support alternatives to commercial venues for scholarly communication."

    The second Cornell Senate resolution, while no longer mentioning Elsevier by name, goes even further and explicitly calls for a boycott: "The Senate urges tenured faculty to cease supporting publishers who engage in exorbitant pricing, by not submitting papers to, or refereeing for the journals sold by those publishers, and by resigning from their editorial boards if more reasonable pricing policies are not forthcoming." ... "The Senate strongly encourages all faculty, especially tenured faculty, to consider publishing in open access, rather than restricted access, journals or in reasonably priced journals that make their contents openly accessible shortly after publication." (I added highlighting.)

    The trouble is the shortage of such journals (I know of none in theoretical computer science that would fit the second description: a for-fee journal that opens up shortly after publication). I wish to thank an anonymous contributor for mentioning Theory of Computing (ToC),, an open access journal with rigorous refereeing. It has been created to fill part of this gap. I encourage those who sympathize with Wim's stand to consider offering some volunteer help to ToC.

    You can find links to the full text of the Cornell resolutions on the ToC page

    Laci Babai laci(ta)cs(tod)uchicago(tod)edu

  27. I stand corrected about JoA. However, my main point still stands: Elsevier has shown little interest in the quality of their journals relative to the quantity of their page counts and the currency that will bring in.

    The best way to deal with this is to make sure that the quality moves elsewhere so that the field can ignore their journals.

    Nobody has taken up my question of why EATCS still sponsors TCS through Elsevier. Are there no Europeans who post to this blog?

    Paul Beame

  28. I just discovered this entry. As editor-in-chief of TCS-B, I would like to reply to the last comment and some of the previous ones. (Sorry for the length but there is a lot of stuff to reply to.)

    Regarding the relationship between EATCS and TCS: EATCS is in the process of changing its statutes to say that it supports the spread of the results of research and exchange of information through scientific publications, without specific mention of TCS or any other journal. This decision has already been made and approved by the membership; the only thing holding up its implementation is the fact that EATCS is legally a Belgian organization so revision of the statutes involve lawyers etc. I think this is an appropriate change (speaking also as a member of the EATCS Council); the previous situation was simply a result of the way that EATCS and TCS grew up together and were set up by the same people, starting at a time when there were very few journals.

    Regarding criticisms of TCS:

    - Copyright: There is a lot of misinformation circulating about this issue. I have even caught one of the main advocates of open access publishing making plainly false statements in a public talk. I suggest that there would be more light and less heat if people would take the trouble to find out what the actual situation is before criticizing.

    I think the main practical issue is ability of authors to publish their work on their own websites. In this respect Elsevier's copyright agreement is not significantly different from the ACM's, or Springer's, unless there has been a recent change to these that I haven't noticed. There is an explanation of this aspect of the Elsevier copyright, by the Elsevier editor in charge of TCS, in the Bulletin of the EATCS number number 75 (Oct 2001). The EPrints organization regards Elsevier as self-archiving-friendly ("green" status) and it reached that status before Springer did.

    - Price: I know that TCS is expensive, probably the largest item in any Computer Science library's journal subscription budget. But it is also very large, with 12000 pages published per year. If you look at the price per page (here are 2004 figures from the AMS for mathematics journals which are by the way substantially different than the price comparison given by Wim van Dam) the cost is $0.42/page which is comparable with other journals. This doesn't take the thousands of pages in ENTCS, which comes free with TCS, into account. The whole issue of journal price is complicated because the primary mode of access these days is electronic, and prices for electronic access are negotiated on a case-by-case basis. If you discuss the issue with Elsevier, the statistic they will give you is that the per-download price of an article in TCS (computed by taking the total cost of subscriptions and dividing by the total number of downloads, I think) is considerably less than $1. According to Elsevier, this is the figure that librarians care about, and the fact that it is a fraction of the cost of interlibrary loan is the key point.

    - Open access: The open access movement advocates journals that are free to readers. In this model, the author is the one who ends up paying; this fact is mentioned much less often and some people who advocate open access don't appear to be aware of it. (I know of one new open-access journal that is free to authors as well because the costs are covered by a university, at least for the moment. The point is that somebody needs to pay; running a journal is not a cost-free spare-time activity. See "Guide to Business Planning for Launching a New Open Access Journal" from the Open Society Institute.) There are major opportunities for unfairness in the editorial process with author-pays but otherwise the only problem I see is that with both models co-existing, few authors with an article that would be accepted by a "normal" journal will be willing to pay for publication in an open access journal. Springer has recently offered authors the choice of paying a fee in order to make a paper open access, or not paying and leaving it as paid access. I hope they publish statistics on how many authors decide to pay!

    - Academic Press versus Elsevier: "Academic Press had its flaws but they were not predatory in their pricing." Well, compare AMS's 2004 figure for Information and Computation ($1.07/page, Elsevier-owned) with its 2001 figure ($1.92/page, Academic Press-owned).

    - Quality of TCS: As editor-in-chief of TCS-B -- which is admittedly probably not the main part of interest to readers of this blog -- I am responsible for its quality. I think the quality is pretty good and improving. Opinions on this may vary of course. At least, it is not the case that the alleged decline in quality is because (as Paul Beame asserts) "TCS went to a highly distributed editorial board". The way that the TCS editorial board works has not changed since it was founded in 1975, as far as I know. I wonder where he gets his information. I am unhappy about the implied suggestion that the TCS editorial board members are not exercising proper editorial judgement.

    Finally: I am not here to make excuses for Elsevier. My interest is TCS (and EATCS) and replying to some points above that are factually incorrect.