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Communications of the ACM

Communications of the ACM

To Boycott or Not to Boycott

Communications Editor-in-Chief Moshe Y. Vardi

There has been sound and fury in the Open Access movement over the past year. In December 2011, The Research Works Act (RWA) was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives. The bill contained provisions to prohibit open access mandates for federally funded research, effectively nullifying the U.S. National Institutes of Health's policy that requires taxpayer-funded research to be freely accessible online. Many scholarly publishers, including the Association of American Publishers (AAP), expressed support for the bill. (ACM expressed objections to the bill.)

The reaction to the bill and its support by scholarly publishers has been one of sheer outrage, with headlines such as "Academic Publishers Have Become the Enemies of Science." On January 21, 2012, renowned British mathematician Timothy Gowers declared a boycott on Elsevier, a major scholarly publisher, pledging to refrain from submitting articles to Elsevier journals, as well as from serving as an editor or reviewer. The boycott movement then took off, with over 13,000 scholars having joined so far.

Frankly, I do not understand why Elsevier is practically the sole target of the recent wrath directed at scholarly publishers. Elsevier is no worse than most other for-profit publishers, just bigger, I believe. Why boycott Elsevier and not Springer, for example? The argument made by some that "we must start somewhere" strikes me as plainly unfair and unjust.

Beyond the question of whom to target with a boycott, there is the question of the morality of the boycott. Of course, authors can choose their publication venues. Also, as a scholar, I can choose which publications I am willing to support by becoming an editor, but the boycott petition also asks signatories to refrain from refereeing articles submitting to Elsevier journals. This means that if you sign this petition then, in effect, you are boycotting your colleagues who have disagreed with you and chose to submit their articles to an Elsevier journal.

I believe in keeping science separate from politics. If it is legitimate to boycott publishing politics—the issue of open access is, after all, a political issue—why is it not legitimate to boycott for other political considerations? Is it legitimate to refrain from refereeing articles written by authors from countries with objectionable government behavior? Where do you draw the line to avoid politicizing science?

My perspective is that what really propelled the Open Access movement was the continuing escalation of the price of scholarly publications during the 1990s and 2000s, a period during which technology drove down the cost of scientific publishing. This price escalation has been driven by for-profit publishers. In the distant past, our field had several small- and medium-sized for-profit publishers. There was a sense of informal partnership between the scientific community and these publishers. That was then. Today, there is a small number of large and dominant for-profit publishers in computing research. These publishers are thoroughly corporatized. They are businesses with a clear mission of maximizing the return on investment to their owners and shareholders. At the same time, the scientific community, whose goal is to maximize dissemination, continues to behave as if a partnership exists with for-profit publishers, providing them with content and editorial services essentially gratis. This is a highly anomalous arrangement, in my opinion. Why should for-profit corporations receive products and labor essentially for free?

I believe in keeping science separate from politics.

Beyond the moral issue I raised earlier regarding the boycott, there is a more practical issue. For-profit publishers play a key role in computing-research publishing. As an example, approximately 45,000 journal articles were published in 2011 in computing research. In that same year, ACM published fewer than 1,000 journal articles, and IEEE-Computer Society published fewer than 3,500 articles. There is a small number of other non-profit publishers, but for-profit publishers produce the lion's share of computing-research journal articles. Boycotting all of them is simply not a practical option.

I do not believe, therefore, that boycotting is the right approach to the current scholarly publishing controversies. If we want to drive for-profit publishers out of business, we have to do it the old-fashioned way, by out-publishing them. If professional associations in computing research would expand their publishing activities considerably, they should be able to attract the bulk of computing articles. ACM is only a minor player in journal publishing. Why is ACM publishing fewer than 1,000 journal articles per year rather than, say, 5,000 articles? Even if this will not drive the for-profit publishers out of the computing-research publishing business, the competition would pressure them to reform their business practices, which is, after all, what we should be after.


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Moshe, you may be interested in the extensive discussion of this issue that was conducted at the Scholarly Kitchen blog last year; it was generated by a posting I wrote that raised many of the same issues you discuss above:


Moshe - with the greatest respect, this opinion piece does not exhibit signs of being greatly informed. If it were as simple as pure competition, surely Elsevier et al would have been replaced long ago. A major factor in their persistence is the practice of bundling, which means that libraries can't really save money by cancelling their journals, unless they cancel all of them. In other words, although a globally better solution exists, it may not be reachable by individual local search. In such cases, organization is required. If you want to claim that this is "political", hence ethically suspect, then go ahead. "Boycotting your colleagues" seems an especially inflammatory comment, and it doesn't really make sense to me. Am I boycotting you because I won't agree to you parking in my garage, while I am happy if you park anywhere else?

By the way, ACM is not one of the "good guys", given its very restrictive copyright rules. I would have expected (as a nonmember) that such an organization would be leading the way, with reasonably priced (to authors) open access journals, experiments in new forms of peer review, guidelines for tenure and promotion that include the role of "publons" (small research contributions that are not presently formally peer reviewed), etc. You may be aware of the petition
and Boaz Barak's post:
As long as senior members of the profession delay and resist change, it is harder for more junior ones, who have more stake in the future of the system, to effect any change without getting "political". I urge you to talk to your ACM colleagues and just get something done.


I think my (critical) comment was posted anonymously. In case you want to discuss more, it was from: Mark C. Wilson, University of Auckland (google will find my email).

Fernando Pereira

"the issue of open access is, after all, a political issue" This is a rather expansive sense of "political." Politics is about power, ultimately the power to make people (through force if needed) in a polity to do certain things (like fight wars or pay taxes). The OA movement does not aim to change that kind of power, it aims to change how science is communicated through the voluntary actions of scholars. I do not review for closed-access venues (including ACM's) because I am not willing to give free labor to those who will turn that labor into revenue through publication sales. This is not politics, it is just good management of my limited resources.


It's astonishing how much your opinions have changed since you signed the Budapest Open Access Initiative ( Perhaps you should consider rescinding your endorsement of that document.


Opposition to open access is hardly the only reason to boycott Elsevier. There have been a number of other scandals involving them, such as creating fake medical journals paid for by pharmaceutical companies:


That's great that you believe in keeping the science separate from the politics, but since the publishers are using politics to get what they want, politics and science are already entangled. It's always puzzling to me when somebody argues that a boycott is unethical while political lobbying is perfectly okay. It's a strange double standard that seems to basically say, "You can practice politics and group action only as long as you have money and influence."


Perhaps it would have been appropriate to disclose that the author serves on Elsevier editorial boards.

Moshe Vardi

It is indeed true that I serve on Elsevier's editorial boards. I can tell you that these boards have agonized for this. Resigning from these boards would have been very easy. But these journals serve many authors. It is an ongoing subject of conversations.


Professor Vardi, it seems a conflict of interest to write to discourage people from a boycott while serving on boards which are the subject of that boycott. In the interest of full disclosure, it should be mentioned and it tinges the points you are making significantly.

It would be good to hear more about your decision not to resign from Elsevier editorial boards or the concerns you raise with other editors about problems with the existing journals. Other editorial boards have had some notable successes when resigning wholesale to start new journals (less expensive, open access, and so on.) Although this has not yet become commonplace, this seems like a natural way for senior researchers in various fields to lead change and serve many authors more effectively. There are efforts to make the editorial infrastructure easier for such changes to open-access journals but of course more can be done as most publishing is still done by for-profit entities.

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