Re: Call for Boycott of Cell Press Journals

From: Stevan Harnad <>
Date: Mon, 20 Oct 2003 07:14:41 +0100

The logic and causal-chains involved in the quest for free full-text
access to the peer-reviewed journal literature are alas not always
simple, though I believe that they can be understood, with a little

First, it is important to note that I fully support Peter Walter's
and Keith Yamamoto's call for a boycott of Elsevier's Cell Press
journals because of the high license-toll price demanded and the resulting
access-denial at University of California. I support it (and would sign
the petition threatening boycott, just as I signed the Public Library of
Science's similar open letter, which gathered over 30,000 signatures,
if I were a Cell Press author or user).

But I would also draw one logical point to the attention of UC (and other)
authors, and add one strategic recommendation that I believe would bring
them what they seek with much greater certainty and speed than petitions
and boycott threats or even founding competing journals will.

The logical point: This petition is based in part on the familiar, but
incorrect suggestion that the reason high access-tolls are unjust is
that UC *gives* its research output to these journals for free, and
is then forced to buy it back at a high price. This is not true,
or rather not the point: UC is not buying back its *own* research
output in purchasing access to these journals. It already *has* its
own research output. It is buying *in* the research output of *other*
institutions! (No publisher could or would object to a university setting
up an internal arrangement where it shares its own research output with
its own researchers!) So that cannot be the real problem. The problem
is access to the research output from elsewhere.

And access-denial because of toll-barriers is definitely an extremely
serious problem, responsible for mounting quantities of needlessly lost
daily, weekly, monthly and yearly research impact for the research output
and researchers of all institutions as long as it persists.

But if -- *in addition* to writing petitions and threatening boycotts
-- UC researchers (and all others) would simply self-archive their own
research output, this would make it freely accessible to one another and
to all other researchers too, putting an end at last to its needless
accumulating impact loss. And the solution would scale, for it is
reciprocal: "Self-archive unto others as ye would have them self-archive
unto you." In other words, all researchers would gain free access to
the research output of other institutions because of the Golden Rule.

And the irony is that Elsevier is already a Romeo "blue" (and probably
also "green") publisher! That means that their 1500+ journals are among
the 55% of journals sampled that already support the author self-archiving
of the preprints (and probably also the postprints, if asked) of their
articles. Why it is that the research community continues to prefer
*only* to petition and to found competing journals, instead of *also*
grasping what is already within their reach?

This will be a puzzle that the historians of the optimal and inevitable
outcome of all this -- namely, free, universal, full-text, online access
to all the peer-reviewed research literature, for everyone, forever --
will be the ones to unravel, once we're there. The answer is no doubt
related to the slight complexity of the logic and causality involved,
hence it is just a matter of time before we at last get it!

But that logic is no doubt not lost on publishers! Why take petitions
for free access seriously if the petitioners obviously don't care enough
about free access to make sure their *own* research output is freely
accessible, even when they have the publisher's green (or blue) light!

Please let me repeat in closing that this is *not* a criticism of drafting
and signing petitions or founding competing open-access journals! it is
a criticism of doing *only* that, when another obvious means is at hand
too, and time's a'wasting...

    "Why price boycott is the wrong strategy" (Feb. 2000)

    "Petitions, Boycotts, and Liberating the Refereed Literature Online"
   (Oct 2000)

Stevan Harnad

On Sun, 19 Oct 2003, Peter Suber wrote:

> [Forwarding from Peter Walter and Keith Yamamoto of the University of
> California at San Francisco. --Peter.]
> Dear colleagues and friends,
> We are writing to ask your help with an issue that concerns scientists at
> all University of California campuses. In this century, we all rely on
> electronic access to the literature, not only for speed and convenience,
> but increasingly for supplementary methods and data, videos and the like.
> Moreover, at some sites, such as our new UCSF campus at Mission Bay, we
> rely exclusively on electronic access. UC has successfully negotiated
> contracts for almost every on-line journal. The glaring exceptions are the
> Cell Press titles: Cell, Molecular Cell, Developmental Cell, Cancer Cell,
> Immunity, Neuron.
> Since 1998, UC has tried without success to reach a deal with Cell Press
> for electronic access (1). Cell Press is owned by Elsevier, the largest
> science, technology and medicine journal publisher in the world, reporting
> 34% and 26% profits in 2001 and 2002, respectively, for its science and
> medicine enterprise (2). In 2002, the University of California paid
> Elsevier $8 million for online access to its journals, 50% of the total
> budget for all online journals in the UC libraries. Elsevier now seeks a
> new contract with annual increases several times above the consumer price
> index, plus an additional levy for the Cell Press titles that rapidly
> reaches $90,000 per year, with hefty annual increases thereafter. After
> exhaustive negotiation, the UC libraries, with the recent support of the UC
> Council of Chancellors, has declined to accept these rates.
> By denying institutional electronic access for the last five years, Cell
> Press has enjoyed a bonanza of personal subscriptions. They now cite the
> potential loss of personal subscriptions as the basis for setting a high
> institutional price.
> It is untenable that a publisher would de facto block access of our
> published work even to our immediate colleagues. Cell Press is breaking an
> unwritten contract with the scientific community: being a publisher of our
> research carries the responsibility to make our contributions publicly
> available at reasonable rates. As an academic community, it is time that we
> reassert our values. We can all think of better ways to spend our time than
> providing free services to support a publisher that values profit above its
> academic mission. We urge four unified actions until the University of
> California and other institutions are granted electronic access to Cell
> Press journals:
> i) decline to review manuscripts for Cell Press journals,
> ii) resign from Cell Press editorial boards,
> iii) cease to submit papers to Cell Press journals, and
> iv) talk widely about Elsevier and Cell Press pricing tactics and business
> strategies.
> If you agree, please let Cell Press know why you take these actions. Our
> goal is to effect change, but to be effective we must stand together.
> Peter Walter and Keith Yamamoto
> On behalf of the UCSF Mission Bay Governance Committee, Genentech Hall
> 1.
> <>
> 2.
Received on Mon Oct 20 2003 - 07:14:41 BST

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