Journal Boycott

The SF Chronicle reports that two UCSF scientists are leading a boycott of six journals published by Cell Press, a division of Reed-Elsevier. The immediate cause of the boycott is that Cell wants the UC system to pay $90,000 for electronic subscriptions to the six journals, and the scientists regard that as exorbitant.

A few things stand out about the boycott.

It is being supported by the university administration. The vice dean of research and the vice chancellor of academic affairs at UCSF are quoted in the article supporting the boycott. This is not just the kind of peasant revolt that I’ve occasionally encouraged.

I don’t know enough about the area to judge whether this is accurate, but one of the journals being targetted, Cell is described in the article as a ‘must-read’ journal. It looks like this is no mere skirmish over third-tier publications. We’ll see how serious the scientists really are when they have to decide whether to boycott the New England Journal of Medicine, or The Lancet if similar disputes arise. But if Cell did publish important work on AIDS in recent years, as the article says, this is already an important dispute.

Finally, this isn’t something that can be solved by going electronic, because the dispute is over the cost of electronic subscriptions. I know UC is a big system, and it’s fair that they should pay more than your average site for a licence, but $90,000 for six journals still seems ridiculous, especially if they are not available unbundled, and really only one of the six is strongly wanted.

Thanks to Kent Bach for passing along this link. I’ve posted the text of the article to the extended entry section.

Bay Area leads revolt against scientific journals
Scientists call for boycott, launch open-access project

More than five centuries after Gutenberg’s printing press revolutionized the transmission of scientific information, the multibillion- dollar scientific publishing industry is quaking to two Bay Area-led revolts.

This month, a nonprofit venture founded by Nobel laureates with the help of a $9 million startup grant launched the first of two new scientific journals that will make all content freely available online. Print versions of the journals will be available for a subscription fee.

The goal of the initiative, called the Public Library of Science, is to force a new standard of “open public access” to scientific research, which, after all, is largely funded by taxpayer dollars. As it is now, scientific journals demand a hefty subscriber fee and limit online access to only those who pay. In another move, two prominent UCSF scientists called last week for a global boycott of six molecular biology journals, accusing the publisher, Reed Elsevier, the Goliath of science publishing, of charging exorbitant new subscription fees for online access.

The boycott, led by Keith Yamamoto, UCSF’s vice dean for research, and Peter Walter, a professor of biophysics and biochemistry, appears to have touched a nerve. It quickly won the support of librarians, scientists and administrators throughout the University of California system.

The high costs of online access are a fundamental threat to scholarship, because they prevent financially strapped scientists from learning what their colleagues are doing, said Daniel Greenstein, head of UC’s California Digital Library. He is representing UC in its contract negotiations with the British- Dutch conglomerate Reed Elsevier.

Greenstein said the state’s budget crisis makes it harder for UC libraries to afford journal access. “Given the California economy is so bad, it really brings (the issue) into stark relief,” he said. Still, subscription rates are soaring so fast that “we begin to realize it’s not just the economy; this would be an impossible (situation) even in good times.”

Access isn’t just a concern for doctors and scientists; it’s a public health issue, as well, said Dr. Dorothy F. Bainton, vice chancellor of academic affairs at UCSF, who supports the boycott.

“Timely access to a broad range of current scientific publications is a necessity … for both our clinicians, so that they may care for patients with the most up-to-date data, as well as our scientists who are making the breakthroughs in such areas as cancer, infectious, cardiovascular and neurological diseases,’‘ Bainton said.

The high cost of journals is a recurring problem. Anyone who browses UC’s libraries can see relics of the impact of California’s last financial bust a decade ago: On bookshelves, the volumes of some distinguished scholarly journals end in the early to mid-1990s.

In some cases, it’s because the journals switched to online publication. Often, though, it’s because librarians decided they simply couldn’t afford any more costly subscriptions to a journal that had few readers, unlike “must- read” magazines such as Nature, Science, Cell, Lancet or the New England Journal of Medicine.

The subscriptions crisis worsened in recent years due to the growing monopolization of the publishing industry. Fewer and fewer firms own more and more print and online magazines. Having devoured much of the competition, some scientific publishers feel free to sharply hike their subscription fees, scientists charge.

The UCSF-led boycott is focusing on six journals published by Cell Press, a subsidiary of Reed Elsevier. The best known is Cell, which acquired celebrity status in the late 20th century because it published groundbreaking research in genetics and AIDS research. The other targeted journals are Molecular Cell, Developmental Cell, Cancer Cell, Immunity and Neuron.

“Since 1998, UC has tried without success to reach a deal with Cell Press for electronic access” to the six journals at an affordable rate, said the letter that Yamamoto and Walter e-mailed to “colleagues and friends.”

“It is untenable that a publisher would de facto block access of our published work even to our immediate colleagues,” the letter states. “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,” adds the letter, which claims that Cell Press “values profit above its academic mission.’‘

The letter urges colleagues to take four actions: decline to review manuscripts for Cell Press journals; resign from Cell Press editorial boards; cease to submit papers to Cell Press journals; and “talk widely about Elsevier and Cell Press pricing tactics and business strategies.’‘

So far, “we’ve gotten tremendous feedback from our colleagues,” Walter said in a phone interview Friday. “We poked into something that resonates with the scientific community.”

On Thursday, Cell Press President and CEO Lynne Herndon issued a statement saying that “we are negotiating with the California Digital Library for access to several Cell Press titles,’‘ and that the “discussions contain several misconceptions and we would like to clarify our position with the larger scientific and academic community.’‘

She said the company is offering the UC system access to the six journals for $90,000 annually. The offer breaks down to roughly $1.50 per journal per year for each active user in the UC system, which she said “is an excellent value.’‘ “W appreciate the current budgetary constraints facing the UC library system, however, in fairness to our current customers we need to maintain our equitable pricing structure as it applies to all institutions,” Herndon added.

Whatever the outcome of the Cell Press boycott, UCSF scientists are likely to be enthusiastic backers of the open-access journal, Public Library of Science, founded in part by their former colleague, Nobel laureate Harold Varmus, who is now president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. The other founders are Patrick Brown of Stanford and Michael Eisen of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Working out of a cozy suite of offices overlooking the water at China Basin, the journal’s science editors seek, vet and edit articles submitted by scientists from around the world. The editors launched PLoS Biology earlier this month and will follow with PLoS Medicine next year. Both can be accessed through their Web site at

The effort has been bankrolled by grants from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Instead of charging for access or subscriptions, PLoS is experimenting with a new business model that requires scientists to pay for publication as a final step in their research funding.

While its research articles are often highly technical, comprehensible mainly to professorsand graduate students, PLoS Biology contains easy-to-read synopses of each article’s main points. Its editors hope to build a broad popular base in the general public and media.

“Our intention is to do something that fundamentally changes the way scientific research is communicated,’‘ said co-founder Brown.

6 Replies to “Journal Boycott”

  1. Cell is actually a top 10 journal (#9), as measured by impact factor ratings, which makes it a very big deal. It’s slightly behind New England Journal of Medicine (#4), Nature (#5) and Science(#6), but well ahead of the lancet (#36), not to mention Physical Review A (#601) or sadly Synthese, which languishes at #4,630. So it is definitely a big deal for the biological scientists that they won’t have access to the Cell family of journals.

  2. They’re only available from Thompson/ICI ‘web of science’—-by subscription only, of course! The rankings not easy to find: it is in the ‘journal citation reports’, and one has to view all journals by impact factor. Maybe there’s a btter way to do it, but I don’t know.
    A link that works for me is:

    Journal citation reports

  3. I figured as much, but thanks for the link.

    Citations are nice, but keep in mind that as far as journals are concerned, being cited is only the third most sincere form of flattery. Being attacked is the second and, of course, being plagiarized is the sincerest form of flattery.

  4. As a student at UC Berkeley, I can say they’re relatively serious about the boycott, although I wish the professors in my cell biology course at UCSF were holding more true to the spirit of the boycott. I’m in the middle of a takehome exam that requires many articles from Cell press journals, which I now can’t access because the library is closed. It would have been nice if they had avoided mentioning articles in Cell, but I suppose that’s a lot to ask. In any case, it may be too late for me, but for the rest of the UC system I hope this dispute is resolved in their favor.
    In Solidarity.
    -Jesse Engelberg


    On November 15, Alexei Koudinov, editor of the open-access journal, Neurobiology of Lipids, wrote an Open Letter on a Call to Boycott Cell Press, expanding the grounds for the boycott from high prices to compromised academic integrity.

    Direct link to the Open letter:

    or: (Printer Friendly version)

    Posted by Peter Suber 8 December 2003 at 8:09 AM at:

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