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Monday, December 12, 2016

Why I still won’t review for or publish with Elsevier–and think you shouldn’t either



In 2012, I signed the Cost of Knowledge pledge, and stopped reviewing for, and publishing in, all Elsevier journals. In the four years since, I’ve adhered closely to this policy; with a couple of exceptions (see below), I’ve turned down every review request I’ve received from an Elsevier-owned journal, and haven’t sent Elsevier journals any of my own papersfor publication.
Contrary to what a couple of people I talked to at the time intimated might happen, my scientific world didn’t immediately collapse. The only real consequences I’ve experienced as a result of avoiding Elsevier are that (a) on perhaps two or three occasions, I’ve had to think a little bit longer about where to send a particular manuscript, and (b) I’ve had a few dozen conversations (all perfectly civil) about Elsevier and/or academic publishing norms that I otherwise probably wouldn’t have had. Other than that, there’s been essentially no impact on my professional life. I don’t feel that my unwillingness to publish in NeuroImageNeuron, or Journal of Research in Personality has hurt my productivity or reputation in any meaningful way. And I continue to stand by my position that it’s a mistake for scientists to do business with a publishing company that actively lobbies against the scientific community’s best interests.
While I’ve never hidden the fact that I won’t deal with Elsevier, and am perfectly comfortable talking about the subject when it comes up, I also haven’t loudly publicized my views. Aside from a parenthetical mention of the issue in one or two (sometimes satirical) blog posts, and an occasional tweet, I’ve never written anything vocally suggesting that others adopt the same stance. The reason for this is not that I don’t believe it’s an important issue; it’s that I thought Elsevier’s persistently antagonistic behavior towards scientists’ interests was common knowledge, and that most scientists continue to provide their free expert labor to Elsevier because they’ve decided that the benefits outweigh the costs. In other words, I was under the impression that other people share my facts, just not my interpretation of the facts.
I now think I was wrong about this. A series of tweets a few months ago (yes, I know, I’m slow to get blog posts out these days) prompted my reevaluation. It began with this:
how many NeuroImage reviews do I have to decline with “I don’t review for Elsevier” before someone flags me as permanently unavailable?
Which led a couple of people to ask why I don’t review for Elsevier. I replied:
The straw that broke the camel’s back was the Research Works Act, but among Elsevier’s many other offenses are… 1/ https://twitter.com/damadam/status/758367607422615552 
illegally selling access to OA articles they don’t own; price gouging; selling sponsored journals; charging for text-mining… 2/
organizing arms fairs; offering to pay for positive book reviews; harassing authors over archived papers; etc. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elsevier  3/

All of this information is completely public, and much of it features prominently in Elsevier’s rather surreal Wikipedia entry–nearly two thirds of which consists of “Criticism and Controversies” (and no, I haven’t personally contributed anything to that entry). As such, I assumed Elsevier’s track record of bad behavior was public knowledge. But the responses to my tweets suggested otherwise. And in the months since, I’ve had several other twitter or real-life conversations with people where it quickly became clear that the other party was not, in fact, aware of (m)any of the scandals Elsevier has been embroiled in.
In hindsight, this shouldn’t have surprised me. There’s really no good reason why most scientists should be aware of what Elsevier’s been up to all this time. Sure, most scientists cross path with Elsevier at some point; but so what? It’s not as though I thoroughly research every company I have contractual dealings with; I usually just go about my business and assume the best about the people I’m dealing with–or at the very least, I try not to assume the worst.
Unfortunately, sometimes it turns out that that assumption is wrong. And on those occasions, I generally want to know about it. So, in that spirit, I thought I’d expand on my thoughts about Elsevier beyond the 140-character format I’ve adopted in the past, in the hopes that other people might also be swayed to at least think twice about submitting their work to Elsevier journals.

Is Elsevier really so evil?

Yeah, kinda. Here’s a list of just some of the shady things Elsevier has been previously caught doing–and none of which, as far as I know, the company contests at this point:
  • They used to organize arms trade fairs, until a bunch of academics complained that a scholarly publisher probably shouldn’t be in the arms trade, at which point they sold that division off;
  • In 2009, they were caught for having created and sold half a dozen entire fake journals to pharmaceutical companies (e.g., Merck), so that those companies could fill the pages of the journals, issue after issue, with reprinted articles that cast a positive light on their drugs;
  • They regularly sell access to articles they don’t own, including articles licensed for non-commercial use–in clear contravention of copyright law, and despite repeated observations by academics that this kind of thing should not be technically difficult to stop if Elsevier actually wanted it to stop;
  • Their pricing model is based around the concept of the “Big Deal”: Elsevier (and, to be fair, most other major publishers) forces universities to pay for huge numbers of their journals at once by pricing individual journals prohibitively, ensuring that institutions can’t order only the journals they think they’ll actually use (this practice is very much like the “bundling” exercised by the cable TV industry); they also bar customers from revealing how much they paid for access, and freedom-of-information requests reveal enormous heterogeneity across universities, often at costs that are prohibitive to libraries;
  • They recently bought the SSRN preprint repository, and after promising to uphold SSRN’s existing operating procedures, almost immediately began to remove articles that were legally deposited on the service, but competed with “official” versions published elsewhere;
  • They have repeatedly spurned requests from the editorial boards of their journals to lower journal pricing, decrease open access fees, or make journals open access; this has resulted in several editorial boards abandoning the Elsevier platform wholesale and moving their operation elsewhere (Lingua being perhaps the best-known example)–often taking large communities with them;
  • Perhaps most importantly (at least in my view), they actively lobbied the US government against open access mandates, making multiple donations to the congressional sponsors of a bill called the Research Works Act that would have resulted in the elimination of the current law mandating deposition of all US government-funded scientific works in public repositories within 12 months after publication.
The pattern in these cases is almost always the same: Elsevier does something that directly works against the scientific community’s best interests (and in some cases, also the law), and then, when it gets caught with its hand in the cookie jar, it apologizes and fixes the problem (well, at least to some degree; they somehow can’t seem to stop selling OA-licensed articles, because it is apparently very difficult for a multibillion dollar company to screen the papers that appear on its websites). A few months later, another scandal comes to light, and then the cycle repeats.
Elsevier is, of course, a large company, and one could reasonably chalk one or two of the above actions down to poor management or bad judgment. But there’s a point at which the belief that this kind of thing is just an unfortunate accident–as opposed to an integral part of the business model–becomes very difficult to sustain. In my case, I was aware of a number of the above practices before I signed The Cost of Knowledge pledge; for me, the straw that broke the camel’s back was Elsevier’s unabashed support of the Research Works Act. While I certainly don’t expect any corporation (for-profit or otherwise) to actively go out and sabotage its own financial interests, most organizations seem to know better than to publicly lobby for laws that would actively and unequivocally hurt the primary constituency they make their money off of. While Elsevier wasn’t alone in its support of the RWA, it’s notable that many for-profit (and most non-profit) publishers explicitly expressed their opposition to the bill (e.g., MIT PressNature Publishing Group, and the AAAS). To my mind, there wasn’t (and isn’t) any reason to support a company that, on top of arms sales, fake journals, and copyright violations, thinks it’s okay to lobby the government to make it harder for taxpayers to access the results of publicly-funded research that’s generated and reviewed at no cost to Elsevier itself. So I didn’t, and still don’t.

Objections (and counter-objections)

In the 4 years since I stopped writing or reviewing for Elsevier, I’ve had many conversations with colleagues about this issue. Since most of my colleagues don’t share my position (though there are a few exceptions), I’ve received a certain amount of pushback. While I’m always happy to engage on the issue, so far, I can’t say that I’ve found any of the arguments I’ve heard sufficiently compelling to cause me to change my position. I’m not sure if my arguments have led anyone else to change their view either, but in the interest of consolidating discussion in one place (if only so that I can point people to it in future, instead of reprising the same arguments over and over again), I thought I’d lay out all of the major objections I’ve heard to date, along with my response(s) to each one. If you have other objections you feel aren’t addressed here, please leave a comment, and I’ll do my best to address them (and perhaps add them to the list).
Without further ado, and in no particular order, here are the pro-Elsevier (or at least, anti-anti-Elsevier) arguments, as I’ve heard and understood them:

“You can’t really blame Elsevier for doing this sort of thing. Corporations exist to make money; they have a fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders to do whatever they legally can to increase revenue and decrease expenses.”

For what it’s worth, I think the “fiduciary responsibility” argument–which seemingly gets trotted out almost any time anyone calls out a publicly traded corporation for acting badly–is utterly laughable. As far as I can tell, the claim it relies on is both unverifiable and unenforceable. In practice, there is rarely any way for anyone to tell whether a particular policy will hurt or help a company’s bottom line, and virtually any action one takes can be justified post-hoc by saying that it was the decision-makers’ informed judgment that it was in the company’s best interest. Presumably part of the reason publishing groups like NPG or MIT Press don’t get caught pulling this kind of shit nearly as often as Elsevier is that part of their executives’ decision-making process includes thoughts like gee, it would be really bad for our bottom line if scientists caught wind of what we’re doing here and stopped giving us all this free labor. You can tell a story defending pretty much any policy, or its polar opposite, on grounds of fiduciary responsibility, but I think it’s very unlikely that anyone is ever going to knock on an Elsevier executive’s door threatening to call in the lawyers because Elsevier just hasn’t been working hard enough lately to sell fake journals.
That said, even if you were to disagree with my assessment, and decided to take the fiduciary responsibility argument at face value, it would still be completely and utterly irrelevant to my personal decision not to work for Elsevier any more. The fact that Elsevier is doing what it’s (allegedly) legally obligated to do doesn’t mean that I have to passively go along with it. Elsevier may be legally allowed or even obligated to try to take advantage of my labor, but I’m just as free to follow my own moral compass and refuse. I can’t imagine how my individual decision to engage in moral purchasing could possibly be more objectionable to anyone than a giant corporation’s “we’ll do anything legal to make money” policy.

“It doesn’t seem fair to single out Elsevier when all of the other for-profit publishers are just as bad.”

I have two responses to this. First, I think the record pretty clearly suggests that Elsevier does in fact behave more poorly than the vast majority of other major academic publishers (there are arguably a number of tiny predatory publishers that are worse–but of course, I don’t think anyone should review for or publish with them either!). It’s not that publishers like Springer or Wiley are without fault; but they at least don’t seem to get caught working against the scientific community’s interests nearly as often. So I think Elsevier’s particularly bad track record makes it perfectly reasonable to focus attention on Elsevier in particular.
Second, I don’t think it would, or should, make any difference to the analysis even if it turned out that Springer or Wiley were just as bad. The reason I refuse to publish with Elsevier is not that they’re the only bad apples, but that I know that they’re bad apples. The fact that there might be other bad actors we don’t know about doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take actions against the bad actors we do know about. In fact, it wouldn’t mean that even if we did know of other equally bad actors. Most people presumably think there are many charities worth giving money to, but when we learn that someone donated money to a breast cancer charity, we don’t get all indignant and say, oh sure, you give money to cancer, but you don’t think heart disease is a serious enough problem to deserve your support? Instead, we say, it’s great that you’re doing what you can–we know you don’t have unlimited resources.
Moreover, from a collective action standpoint, there’s a good deal to be said for making an example out of a single bad actor rather than trying to distribute effort across a large number of targets. The reality is that very few academics perceive themselves to be in a position to walk away from all academic publishers known to engage in questionable practices. Collective action provides a means for researchers to exercise positive force on the publishing ecosystem in a way that cannot be achieved by each individual researcher making haphazard decisions about where to send their papers. So I would argue that as long as researchers agree that (a) Elsevier’s policies hurt scientists and taxpayers, and (b) Elsevier is at the very least one of the worst actors, it makes a good deal of sense to focus our collective energy on Elsevier. I would hazard a guess that if a concerted action on the part of scientists had a significant impact on Elsevier’s bottom line, other publishers would sit up and take notice rather quickly.

“You can choose to submit your own articles wherever you like; that’s totally up to you. But when you refuse to review for all Elsevier journals, you do a disservice to your colleagues, who count on you to use your expertise to evaluate other people’s manuscripts and thereby help maintain the quality of the literature as a whole.”

I think this is a valid concern in the case of very early-career academics, who very rarely get invited to review papers, and have no good reason to turn such requests down. In such cases, refusing to review because Elsevier would indeed make everyone else’s life a little bit more difficult (even if it also helps a tiny bit to achieve the long-term goal of incentivizing Elsevier to either shape up or disappear). But I don’t think the argument carries much force with most academics, because most of us have already reached the review saturation point of our careers–i.e., the point at which we can’t possibly (or just aren’t willing to) accept all the review assignments we receive. For example, at this point, I average about 3 – 4 article reviews a month, and I typically turn down about twice that many invitations to review. If I accepted any invitations from Elsevier journals, I would simply have to turn down an equal number of invitations from non-Elsevier journals–almost invariably ones with policies that I view as more beneficial to the scientific community. So it’s not true that I’m doing the scientific community a disservice by refusing to review for Elsevier; if anything, I’m doing it a service by preferentially reviewing for journals that I believe are better aligned with the scientific community’s long-term interests.
Now, on fairly rare occasions, I do get asked to review papers focusing on issues that I think I have particularly strong expertise in. And on even rarer occasions, I have reason to think that there are very few if any other people besides me who would be able to write a review that does justice to the paper. In such cases, I willingly make an exception to my general policy. But it doesn’t happen often; in fact, it’s happened exactly twice in the past 4 years. In both cases, the paper in question was built to a very significant extent on work that I had done myself, and it seemed to me quite unlikely that the editor would be able to find another reviewer with the appropriate expertise given the particulars reported in the abstract. So I agreed to review the paper, even for an Elsevier journal, because to not do so would indeed have been a disservice to the authors. I don’t have any regrets about this, and I will do it again in future if the need arises. Exceptions are fine, and we shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. But it simply isn’t true, in my view, that my general refusal to review for Elsevier is ever-so-slightly hurting science. On the contrary, I would argue that it’s actually ever-so-slightly helping it, by using my limited energies to support publishers and journals that work in favor of, rather than against, scientists’ interests.

“If everyone did as you do, Elsevier journals might fall apart, and that would impact many people’s careers. What about all the editors, publishing staff, proof readers, etc., who would all lose at least part of their livelihood?”

This is the universal heartstring-pulling argument, in that it can be applied to virtually any business or organization ever created that employs at least one person. For example, it’s true that if everyone stopped shopping at Wal-Mart, over a million Americans would lose their jobs. But given the externalities that Wal-Mart imposes on the American taxpayer, that hardly seems like a sufficient reason to keep shopping at Wal-Mart (note that I’m not saying you shouldn’t shop at Wal-Mart, just that you’re not under any moral obligation to view yourself as a one-person jobs program). Almost every decision that involves reallocation of finite resources hurts somebody; the salient question is whether, on balance, the benefits to the community as a whole outweigh the costs. In this case, I find it very hard to see how Elsevier’s policies benefit the scientific community as a whole when much cheaper, non-profit alternatives–to say nothing of completely different alternative models of scientific evaluation–are readily available.
It’s also worth remembering that the vast majority of the labor that goes into producing Elsevier’s journals is donated to Elsevier free of charge. Given Elsevier’s enormous profit margin (over 30% in each of the last 4 years), it strains credulity to think that other publishers couldn’t provide essentially the same services while improving the quality of life of the people who provide most of the work. For an example of such a model, take a look at Collabra, where editors receive a budget of $250 per paper (which comes out of the author publication charge) that they can divide up however they like between themselves, the reviewers, and publishing subsidies to future authors who lack funds (full disclosure: I’m an editor at Collabra). So I think an argument based on treating people well clearly weighs against supporting Elsevier, not in favor of it. If nothing else, it should perhaps lead one to question why Elsevier insists it can’t pay the academics who review its articles a nominal fee, given that paying for even a million reviews per year (surely a gross overestimate) at $200 a pop would still only eat up less than 20% of Elsevier’s profit in each of the past few years.

“Whatever you may think of Elsevier’s policies at the corporate level, the editorial boards at the vast majority of Elsevier journals function autonomously, with no top-down direction from the company. Any fall-out from a widespread boycott would hurt all of the excellent editors at Elsevier journals who function with complete independence–and by extension, the field as a whole.”

I’ve now heard this argument from at least four or five separate editors at Elsevier journals, and I don’t doubt that its premise is completely true. Meaning, I’m confident that the scientific decisions made by editors at Elsevier journals on a day-to-day basis are indeed driven entirely by scientific considerations, and aren’t influenced in any way by publishing executives. That said, I’m completely unmoved by this argument, for two reasons. First, the allocation of resources–including peer reviews, submitted manuscripts, and editorial effort–is, to a first approximation, a zero-sum game. While I’m happy to grant that editorial decisions at Elsevier journals are honest and unbiased, the same is surely true of the journals owned by virtually every other publisher. So refusing to send a paper to NeuroImage doesn’t actually hurt the field as a whole in any way, unless one thinks that there is a principled reason why the editorial process at Cerebral Cortex, Journal of Neuroscience, or Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience should be any worse. Obviously, there can be no such reason. If Elsevier went out of business, many of its current editors would simply move to other journals, where they would no doubt resume making equally independent decisions about the manuscripts they receive. As I noted above, in a number of cases, entire editorial boards at Elsevier journals have successfully moved wholesale to new platforms. So there is clearly no service Elsevier provides that can’t in principle be provided more cheaply by other publishers or plaforms that aren’t saddled with Elsevier’s moral baggage or absurd profit margins.
Second, while I don’t doubt the basic integrity of the many researchers who edit for Elsevier journals, I also don’t think they’re completelydevoid of responsibility for the current state of affairs. When a really shitty company offers you a position of power, it may be true that accepting that position–in spite of the moral failings of your boss’s boss’s boss–may give you the ability to do some real good for the community you care about. But it’s also true that you’re still working for a really shitty company, and that your valiant efforts could at any moment be offset by some underhanded initiative in some other branch of the corporation. Moreover, if you’re really good at your job, your success–whatever its short-term benefits to your community–will generally serve to increase your employer’s shit-creating capacity. So while I don’t think accepting an editorial position at an Elsevier journal makes anyone a bad person (some of my best friends are editors for Elsevier!), I also see no reason for anyone to voluntarily do business with a really shitty company rather than a less shitty one. As far as I can tell, there is no service I care about that NeuroImage offers me but Cerebral Cortex or The Journal of Neuroscience don’t. As a consequence, it seems reasonable for me to submit my papers to journals owned by companies that seem somewhat less intent on screwing me and my institution out of as much money as possible. If that means that some very good editors at NeuroImage ultimately have to move to JNeuro, JCogNeuro, or (dare I say it!) PLOS ONE, I think I’m okay with that.

“It’s fine for you to decide not to deal with Elsevier, but you don’t have a right to make that decision for your colleagues or trainees when they’re co-authors on your papers.”

This is probably the only criticism I hear regularly that I completely agree with. Which is why I’ve always been explicit that I can and will make exceptions when required. Here’s what I said when I originally signed The Cost of Knowledge years ago:
costofknowledge
Basically, my position is that I’ll still submit a manuscript to an Elsevier journal if either (a) I think a trainee’s career would be significantly disadvantaged by not doing so, or (b) I’m not in charge of a project, and have no right to expect to exercise control over where a paper is submitted. The former has thankfully never happened so far (though I’m always careful to make it clear to trainees that if they really believe that it’s important to submit to a particular Elsevier journal, I’m okay with it). As for the latter, in the past 4 years, I’ve been a co-author on two Elsevier papers (12). In both cases, I argued against submitting the paper to those journals, but was ultimately overruled. I don’t have any problem with either of those decisions, and remain on good terms with both lead authors. If I collaborate with you on a project, you can expect to receive an email from me suggesting in fairly strong terms that we should consider submitting to a non-Elsevier-owned journal, but I certainly won’t presume to think that what makes sense to me must also make sense to you.

“Isn’t it a bit silly to think that your one-person boycott of Elsevier is going to have any meaningful impact?”

No, because it isn’t a one-person boycott. So far, over 16,000 researchers have signed The Cost of Knowledge pledge. And there are very good reasons to think that the 16,000-strong (and growing!) boycott has already had important impacts. For one thing, Elsevier withdrew its support of the RWA in 2012 shortly after The Cost of Knowledge was announced (and several thousand researchers quickly signed on). The bill itself was withdrawn shortly after that. That seems like a pretty big deal to me, and frankly I find it hard to imagine that Elsevier would have voluntarily stopped lobbying Congress this way if not for thousands of researchers putting their money where their mouth is.
Beyond that clear example, it’s hard to imagine that 16,000 researchers walking away from a single publisher wouldn’t have a significant impact on the publishing landscape. Of course, there’s no clear way to measure that impact. But consider just a few points that seem difficult to argue against:
  • All of the articles that would have been submitted to Elsevier journals presumably ended up in other publishers’ journals (many undoubtedly run by OA publishers). There has been continual growth in the number of publishers and journals; some proportion of that seems almost guaranteed to reflect the diversion of papers away from Elsevier.
  • Similarly, all of the extra time spent reviewing non-Elsevier articles instead of Elsevier articles presumably meant that other journals received better scrutiny and faster turnaround times than they would have otherwise.
  • A number of high-profile initiatives–for example, the journal Glossa–arose directly out of researchers’ refusal to keep working with Elsevier (and many others are likely to have arisen indirectly, in part). These are not insignificant. Aside from their immediate impact on the journal landscape, the involvement of leading figures like Timothy Gowers in the movement to develop better publishing and evaluation options is likely to have a beneficial long-term impact.
All told, it seems to me that, far from being ineffectual, the Elsevier boycott–consisting of nothing more than individual researchers cutting ties with the publisher–has actually achieved a considerable amount in the past 4 years. Of course, Elsevier continues to bring in huge profits, so it’s not like it’s in any danger of imminent collapse (nor should that be anyone’s goal). But I think it’s clear that, on balance, the scientific publishing ecosystem is healthier for having the boycott in place, and I see much more reason to push for even greater adoption of the policy than to reconsider it.
More importantly, I think the criticism that individual action has limited efficacy overlooks what is probably the single biggest advantage the boycott has in this case: it costs a researcher essentially nothing. If I were to boycott, say, Trader Joe’s, on the grounds that it mistreats its employees (for the record, I don’t think it does), my quality of life would go down measurably, as I would have to (a) pay more for my groceries, and (b) travel longer distances to get them (there’s a store just down the street from my apartment, so I shop there a lot). By contrast, cutting ties with Elsevier has cost me virtually nothing so far. So even if the marginal benefit to the scientific community of each additional individual boycotting Elsevier is very low, the cost to that individual will typically be still much lower. Which, in principle, makes it very easy to organize and maintain a collective action of this sort on a very large scale (and is probably a lot of what explains why over 16,000 researchers have already signed on).

What you can do

Let’s say you’ve read this far and find yourself thinking, okay, that all kind of makes sense. Maybe you agree with me that Elsevier is an amazingly shitty company whose business practices actively bite the hand that feeds it. But maybe you’re also thinking, well, the thing is, I almost exclusively publish primary articles in the field of neuroimaging [or insert your favorite Elsevier-dominated discipline here], and there’s just no way I can survive without publishing in Elsevier journals. So what can I do?
The first thing to point out is that there’s a good chance your fears are at least somewhat (and possibly greatly) exaggerated. As I noted at the outset of this post, I was initially a bit apprehensive about the impact that taking a principled stand would have on my own career, but I can’t say that I perceive any real cost to my decision, nearly five years on. One way you can easily see this is to observe that most people are surprised when I first tell them I haven’t published in Elsevier journals in five years. It’s not like the absence would ever jump out at anyone who looked at my publication list, so it’s unclear how it could hurt me. Now, I’m not saying that everyone is in a position to sign on to a complete boycott without experiencing some bumps in the road. But I do think many more people could do so than might be willing to admit it at first. There are very few fields that are completely dominated by Elsevier journals. Neuroimaging is probably one of the fields where Elsevier’s grip is strongest, but I publish several neuroimaging-focused papers a year, and have never had to work very hard to decide where to submit my papers next.
That said, the good news is that you can still do a lot to actively work towards an Elsevier-free world even if you’re unable or unwilling to completely part ways with the publisher. Here are a number of things you can do that take virtually no work, are very unlikely to harm your career in any meaningful way, and are likely to have nearly the same collective benefit as a total boycott:
  • Reduce or completely eliminate your Elsevier reviewing and/or editorial load. Even if you still plan to submit your papers to Elsevier journals, nothing compels you to review or edit for them. You should, of course, consider the pros and cons of turning down any review request; and, as I noted above, it’s fine to make occasional exceptions in cases where you think declining to review a particular paper would be a significant disservice to your peers. But such occasions are–at least in my own experience–quite rare. As I noted above, one of the reasons I’ve had no real compunction about rejecting Elsevier review requests is that I already receive many more requests than I can handle, so declining Elsevier reviews just means I review more for other (better) publishers. If you’re at an early stage of your career, and don’t get asked to review very often, the considerations may be different–though of course, you could still consider turning down the review and doing something nice for the scientific community with the time you’ve saved (e.g., reviewing openly on site like PubPeer or PubMed Commons, or spend some time making all the data, code, and materials from your previous work openly available).
  • Make your acceptance of a review assignment conditional on some other prosocial perk. As a twist on simply refusing Elsevier review invitations, you can always ask the publisher for some reciprocal favor. You could try asking for monetary compensation, of course–and in the extremely unlikely event that Elsevier obliges, you could (if needed) soothe your guilty conscience by donating your earnings to a charity of your choice. Alternatively, you could try to extract some concession from the journal that would help counteract your general aversion to reviewing for Elsevier. Chris Gorgolewski provided one example in this tweet:
how many NeuroImage reviews do I have to decline with “I don’t review for Elsevier” before someone flags me as permanently unavailable?
@talyarkoni I tried to follow PRO https://opennessinitiative.org  a couple of times as a reviewer and they stopped sending me papers :)
Mandating open science practices (e.g., public deposition of data and code) as a requirement for review is something that many people strongly favor completely independently of commercial publishers’ shenanigans (see my own take here). Making one’s review conditional on an Elsevier journal following best practices is a perfectly fair and even-handed approach, since there are other journals that either already mandate such standards (e.g., PLOS ONE), or are likely to be able to oblige you. So if you get an affirmative response from an Elsevier journal, then great–it’s still Elsevier, but at least you’ve done something useful to improve their practices. If you get a negative review, well, again, you can simply reallocate your energy somewhere else.
  • Submit fewer papers to Elsevier journals. If you publish, say, 5 – 10 fMRI articles a year, it’s completely understandable if you might not feel quite ready to completely give up on NeuroImage and the other three million neuroimaging journals in Elsevier’s stable. Fortunately, you don’t have to. This is a nice example of the Pareto principle in action: 20% of the effort goes maybe 80% of the way in this case. All you have to do to exert almost exactly the same impact as a total boycott of Elsevier is drop NeuroImage (or whatever other journal you routinely submit to) to the bottom of the queue of whatever journals you perceive as being in the same class. So, for example, instead of reflexively thinking, “oh, I should send this to NeuroImage–it’s not good enough for Nature Neuroscience, but I don’t want to send it to just any dump journal”, you can decide to submit it to Cerebral Cortex or The Journal of Neuroscience first, and only go to NeuroImage if the first two journals reject it. Given that most Elsevier journals have a fairly large equivalence class of non-Elsevier journals, a policy like this one would almost certainly cut submissions to Elsevier journals significantly if widely implemented by authors–which would presumably reduce the perceived prestige of those journals still further, potentially precipitating a death spiral.
  • Go cold turkey. Lastly, you could always just bite the bullet and cut all ties with Elsevier. Honestly, it really isn’t that bad. As I’ve already said, the fall-out in my case has been considerably smaller than I thought it would be when I signed The Cost of Knowledge pledge as a post-doc (i.e., I expected it to have some noticeable impact, but in hindsight I think it’s had essentially none). Again, I recognize that not everyone is in a position to do this. But I do think that the reflexive “that’s a crazy thing to do” reaction that some people seem to have when The Cost of Knowledge boycott is brought up isn’t really grounded in a careful consideration of the actual risks to one’s career. I don’t know how many of the 16,000 signatories to the boycott have had to drop out of science as a direct result of their decision to walk away from Elsevier, but I’ve never heard anyone suggest this happened to them, and I suspect the number is very, very small.

The best thing about all of the above action items–with the possible exception of the last–is that they require virtually no effort, and incur virtually no risk. In fact, you don’t even have to tell anyone you’re doing any of them. Let’s say you’re a graduate student, and your advisor asks you where you want to submit your next fMRI paper. You don’t have to say “well, on principle, anywhere but an Elsevier journal” and risk getting into a long argument about the issue; you can just say “I think I’d like to try Cerebral Cortex.” Nobody has to know that you’re engaging in moral purchasing, and your actions are still almost exactly as effective. You don’t have to march down the street holding signs and chanting loudly; you don’t have to show up in front of anyone’s office to picket. You can do your part to improve the scientific publishing ecosystem just by making a few tiny decisions here and there–and if enough other people do the same thing, Elsevier and its peers will eventually be left with a stark choice: shape up, or crumble.

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