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Communications of the ACM

Communications of the ACM

To Boycott or Not to Boycott


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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.

Moshe Y. Vardi, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF


©2013 ACM  0001-0782/13/03

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Comments


Anonymous

Boycotting their peers? Not so much. Boycotting their peers would be refusing to cite articles published in Elsevier's journals.. Refusing to a) work for free for Elsevier by refereeing articles you can't later read for free, or b) paying Elsevier to take ownership of the copyright of your work, which again, you can't later read for free is not boycotting peers. Nor is it playing politics with science. Politics would involve the government and regulation, a group of disaffected un-payed employees/overcharged customers (they are the same people for large part) grouping together to their mutual benefit is the antithesis of 'playing politics.'


Anonymous

Wah, wah, looks like the boycott is working! It was unethical of you, by the way, to publish this without disclosing your editorial positions with multiple Elsevier journals.


Anonymous

There are many reasons to single out Elsevier: their (erstwhile) involvement in weapons dealing; their fake journals; their extremely high prices; their support for the RWA.

You believe these aren't valid reasons to boycott Elsevier. Fine, that's your opinion. But it would be nice if you could extend to your readers the courtesy of actually engaging with these issues, if only for a couple of sentences, instead of pretending they don't exist. Reading any of Gowers' advocacy on the subjector simply reading the front page of the boycott site!would have revealed some of these, and a few minutes' research would have revealed the rest. Could we have an _informed_ debate? Please?


Anonymous

Moshe - thanks for your viewpoint. I think I speak for many when saying that I just don't understand why mass resignations of editorial boards, in order to set up a new version of their journal, are not happening. For example, on your editorial board(s) of Elsevier journals, what fraction of your fellow editors would prefer an essentially free journal, or one hosted by a professional society like ACM and much cheaper? Surely it is large - if not, I would like to hear their arguments. Why was Donald Knuth able to succeed so long ago with J. Algorithms? From the perspective of a more junior person unlikely to ever be on these editorial boards, I would really like some information. I don't think it is acceptable to say that a group of highly privileged senior people have agonized and then done nothing. If the main problem is that they are fearful of having to work more, then ask some of us junior people to help on the technical side. If it is that the journal "name" will suffer, I think you should forget it. Journals are less and less important, as papers are typically found by direct search. And in any case a decent advertising campaign in the community will make it clear what the "real" Journal of X is. So what are the main obstructions to what seems like an obvious solution?

Mark C. Wilson, University of Auckland


CACM Administrator

The following letter was published in the Letters to the Editor in the June 2013 CACM (http://cacm.acm.org/magazines/2013/6/164592).
--CACM Administrator

In his editor's letter "To Boycott or Not to Boycott" (Mar. 2013), Moshe Y. Vardi said the traditional author partnership with commercial publishers has turned into an abusive relationship. It is time computer scientists broke off that relationship, though not by boycotting, politicking, moralizing, or shedding tears, but rather by asking a fair price for the work we do as authors and as reviewers. With every niche activity organized as a profit center today, core contributions like authoring and reviewing should no longer be provided for free to for-profit publishers. The fees we ask for our contribution to publishing should increase with the price we pay for the respective journal. Moreover, the fees should go to the authors' institutions' libraries, not to the authors and reviewers directly. We must collectively think in terms of market forces, not giveaways.

Andreas Siebert
Landshut, Germany


CACM Administrator

The following letter was published in the Letters to the Editor in the June 2013 CACM (http://cacm.acm.org/magazines/2013/6/164592).
--CACM Administrator

Moshe Y. Vardi said, "I believe in keeping science separate from politics" (Mar. 2013) but may well have proclaimed, long after Napoleonic infantry tactics became impractical, "I believe we must fire only from the field, in square or in line."

Is not the form of battle determined by the nature of the obstacles, as well as the nature of those who carry it forward and of the opponent's objectives?

That we may pressure them to reform their business practices, Vardi urged us to confront publishers "the old-fashioned way, by out-publishing them." I agree. Out-publish them... with robust vitality.

However, when attacked indirectly, asymmetrically, as when publishers lobby the sources of research funds, CS authors and editors alike must respond in kind. Two elements of such a response are those Vardi found disquieting: a boycott and influencing one's peers. If among their opponents are colluding corporatized research publishers, then authors must expect to have their actions, along with their strength and resolve, tested on many fronts.

Editors of influential publications cannot waiver at first fire. Rather than ask, "Where shall we draw the line?," we should expect thoughtful, effective, farsighted leadership.

If authors wish the battle to be returned (and remain with) content, their response must be quick and unified. However, they might also find publishers are not the sole impediment and so must also weigh their readers and their products.

CS authors' first few steps toward discovery are short, starting with a look in a mirror to give themselves understanding by first donning their institutional regalia.

Nick Ragouzis
San Francisco, CA


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