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    • CommentRowNumber1.
    • CommentAuthorFC
    • CommentTimeMar 7th 2012
    Dear All,
    I am an editor of the Journal of Number Theory (an Elsevier journal). I will have the opportunity to attend an Elsevier meeting which has been arranged
    (in part) to address issues related to the boycott. The agenda of the meeting is as follows:

    - How to make the journal more accessible
    o Steps taken by Elsevier
    o What else is needed to take away concerns around accessibility of the journal
    - JNT subscription prices
    o Steps taken by Elsevier
    - What is the overall impact of decreased list prices
    o what else is needed to take away concerns around pricing
    - "bundling"
    o Explanation by Laura/David what this actually means for customers
    o What else is needed to take away concerns around pricing
    - Elsevier's image in the maths community
    o how can we improve
    - RWA
    - Ethics
    o Explanation by Laura/David of lessons learned from the past and
    o actions taken
    - What else is needed to provide full transparency
    - How can we work in tandem with the maths community

    I would like to go to this meeting "better informed" about some specific details.

    For example, do all/most/many libraries purchase Elsevier journals through bundling?
    Is there accurate price information about the cost of particular Elsevier math journals (if they
    are bundled, the numbers available may essentially be phony)?

    Any suggestions for questions I should consider asking are welcome.

    ps. My personal position is that, unless something significant changes, continuing as an editor of an Elsevier journal is untenable.
    However, I would prefer responses to this question concentrate on "what questions would you ask Elsevier if you had the chance"
    • CommentRowNumber2.
    • CommentAuthorHenry Cohn
    • CommentTimeMar 7th 2012
    Ack, this is a big question. I'd recommend pushing hard with Elsevier, since you'll never be in a better negotiating position with them than you're in now, and any concessions they are willing to make with JNT would be valuable (even if they turn out not to be enough to keep you on the editorial board). I'd be happy to say more, but preferably by e-mail since discussing this aspect of things in a public forum would be unwise.

    I've seen a figure that only 10% of Elsevier's journal income comes from subscriptions to individual journals (i.e., not bundles), but it was not well-sourced and I don't know how reliable it is. Unfortunately, there is little price information available for bundles, because Elsevier tries hard to release this information at most selectively. For example, they sued Washington State University to try to keep them from releasing pricing information, but Elsevier lost thanks to Washington's open records act. Much of what we know comes from these laws in several states.

    The way bundling works is basically as follows. Elsevier and the university negotiate a total price for all the journals the university subscribes to, typically based on what the university was previously paying (possibly with a discount, but not substantial). The university commits to subscribing to all of them for three to five years, with at most a very limited ability to cancel subscriptions, and Elsevier commits to the pricing for that period. This is usually a 5% increase per year, which is well above inflation, but the list prices can increase even faster. The net effect is that increasingly large portions of library budgets are locked into Elsevier contracts.

    There's an additional option in which the university can purchase access to all the journals it didn't subscribe to before. This access has some limitations (for example, it lasts only as long as the bundle is renewed, while the regular subscriptions have perpetual access to the volumes that have been paid for), but it is incredibly cheap (for example, discounts of 95% or more). Of course, you're only getting the journals you didn't think were worth paying for before. Elsevier often advertises these huge discounts, while downplaying the contracts that are destroying libraries.
    • CommentRowNumber3.
    • CommentAuthorMark C. Wilson
    • CommentTimeMar 7th 2012
    I share your belief that there is no way forward because Elsevier's shareholder will revolt if the company does the right thing. But some obvious answers are as follows (this is not facetious - it will be good for them to hear that many people are not looking for a small public relations based reform, but a long overdue and massive change).

    o What else is needed to take away concerns around accessibility of the journal

    Make all articles free to read, or at least reduce price by a factor of 10.

    o What else is needed to take away concerns around pricing

    Actually reduce prices.

    - What else is needed to provide full transparency

    Become a non-profit organization with publicly viewable accounts.

    They should also free up their journal archives - not necessarily donate them but expect a fairly low price for them, and try to unload them to AMS or a broader group.
    • CommentRowNumber4.
    • CommentAuthorcarolh1
    • CommentTimeMar 7th 2012

    What does that mean, “unload them to AMS or a broader group?” If the concern has to do with permanency that’s one thing. Their reply in that respect would likely be “oh, we have an agreement with the Koniglike Bib Nederlands to save the stuff.” I think insisting that they deposit JNT backfile in some prospective generally available global math digital library could be a way of saving face.

    • CommentRowNumber5.
    • CommentAuthorHenry Cohn
    • CommentTimeMar 7th 2012
    I'm not worried about Elsevier's shareholders causing problems: if the community won't tolerate outrageous prices, then the shareholders will take whatever they can get. The only reason to worry about a shareholder revolt would be if Elsevier's executives seem to be giving up profit they could easily obtain, and that's not going to happen.

    I agree that we need to demand huge changes, but for example price reductions by a factor of ten or becoming a non-profit organization are not realistic. And we shouldn't even care whether they are a non-profit with publicly viewable accounts. If they provide good value for the price we are paying, then I don't care how much profit they make (maybe they could be incredibly efficient if they tried); if they don't provide good value for the price, then we have a problem. We can judge this without knowing about their internal operations, but we do need transparency of prices.

    As for journal archives, I do think it is realistic to ask them to make the back issues open access. The AMS already does this without hurting subscription rates, and Elsevier is making steps in this direction (by making 14 journals open access from 1995 until four years ago). On this issue, they just need to go further.
    • CommentRowNumber6.
    • CommentAuthordarij grinberg
    • CommentTimeMar 7th 2012

    It wouldn’t hurt to stress that opening the archives to the public would help the impact factor of the journals: The easier a paper is to find and read, the more people will cite it. The amount of free online literature is already high enough that most people can very well do research without access to paywalled archives, and results of such research tend to cite less paywalled articles. This effect may not be that much significant for high-tier journals, but I am sure the Elsevier shareholders know very well that Elsevier’s portfolio does not consist entirely of that kind…

    • CommentRowNumber7.
    • CommentAuthorDavidRoberts
    • CommentTimeMar 8th 2012
    • (edited Mar 8th 2012)

    Only opening 14 journals up back to 1995 is nice, but mathematics has a long memory. What I would like to know is the total cost of digitising the back-catalogue (i.e. pre 1995) in mathematics, and in total. I read somewhere they spent on the order of $150million to do this. This is certainly more money than a university or a society could cough up, but this is eclipsed every quarter by Elseviers profit. They would garner a lot of favour with the community if they did what darij said. Universities will still subscribe, because people need current journals (well, for now).

    My question to Elsevier: what was the cost of scanning the back-issues, and what is your income in charging access to said back issues, over and above what people are paying for in their subscriptions? Would you consider making all mathematics journals open access after a moving wall? And, would this be reflected in copyright transfer agreements? If articles are made available after a certain time period (48 months), then please consider enshrining that in copyright agreements, in that rights return to the author after this time period (so essentially the author gives Elsevier an exclusive license for that time period, rather than signing over all copyright)

    • CommentRowNumber8.
    • CommentAuthorDavidRoberts
    • CommentTimeMar 8th 2012

    Also, will you follow Springer and put sponsored articles under a CC-BY license, rather than taking all copyright (as far as I have found out in my inquiries) and letting people look at it for free?

    • CommentRowNumber9.
    • CommentAuthorScott Morrison
    • CommentTimeMar 8th 2012

    Dear Frank,

    I see you say “that unless something significant changes, continuing as an editor of an Elsevier journal is untenable”. I noticed John Baez regretting resigning from the editorial board of Advances a while back, because he now realizes that staying on he would have been much better positioned to demand substantial changes now, when the whole community is looking for them.

    If you don’t think you’re getting a satisfactory response in regards JNT, could I suggest that you consider staying on the editorial board, until such time as you can convince the entire editorial board that change is necessary?

    Of course, this is a lot of work; and worse it might be annoying to the other editors to have you on board, but wanting to leave. But in the long run you might achieve much more this way!

    best regards, Scott Morrison

    • CommentRowNumber10.
    • CommentAuthorMark C. Wilson
    • CommentTimeMar 11th 2012

    Dear FC: I would appreciate it if you can report on the results of the meeting. It wasn’t clear from your post when this meeting will be held, so I am not sure how long we will have to wait.

    • CommentRowNumber11.
    • CommentAuthorHenry Cohn
    • CommentTimeMar 11th 2012
    The meeting is apparently scheduled for March 24, from 11am to 3pm (in Chicago). Perhaps some of what's discussed will be sensitive or confidential, but I agree with Mark that many people will be interested in hearing anything that can be reported.
    • CommentRowNumber12.
    • CommentAuthorMark C. Wilson
    • CommentTimeMar 12th 2012

    This comment by Urs Hartl is highly relevant - I only just found it although clearly some people here have seen it. It may be useful for those who haven’t.

    • CommentRowNumber13.
    • CommentAuthorzskoda
    • CommentTimeMar 13th 2012
    • (edited Mar 13th 2012)

    I would ask why elsevier, as a rule, does not respond to individual emails of concerns of scientists about particualr journal practices. E.g. Chaos solitons and fractals were reported by a group of physicists more than a year before me and nothing happened. I was writing a number of times, never answer. For example, no answer as of today to my two page letter to from Sun, 22 Mar 2009. Even no courtesy short answer! The email address I quote is one of the contact addresses elsevier puts on journals where it bullshits on “dedication to high quality”. What is the dedication if the expert audience, i.e. scientists get trashed with their letters of concern ?? As far as Choassf journal scandal, I should add that after Elsevier knew about the scandal and delayed for a year with the journal they resumed publishing papers which were accepted during the cowboy policy of the previous editorship (900+ backlog of badly accepted papers). How is this possible ? How Elsevier defends knowingly publishing bullshit, even after a year of pause and thinking what to do with the journal ?? This is a slap into any hope for quality and responsibility.

    • CommentRowNumber14.
    • CommentAuthorHenry Cohn
    • CommentTimeMar 13th 2012
    It would be great to have a timeline of who notified Elsevier when, what was said, what their responses were (if any), and when they finally took action. CS&F is a big deal, and it's shocking that they didn't even reply to Zoran's e-mail.
    • CommentRowNumber15.
    • CommentAuthorMark C. Wilson
    • CommentTimeMar 27th 2012

    So, does anyone have any information about this meeting?

    • CommentRowNumber16.
    • CommentAuthorScott Morrison
    • CommentTimeMar 27th 2012

    I don’t know who actually attended. Frank Calegari, who started this thread, wasn’t able to attend. There is a copy of the Elsevier representatives’ slide presentation floating around somewhere, but it’s not for public distribution.

    • CommentRowNumber17.
    • CommentAuthorDavidRoberts
    • CommentTimeMar 28th 2012

    I’ll be interested in seeing it, if someone reading this has a copy. Email is

    • CommentRowNumber18.
    • CommentAuthorScott Morrison
    • CommentTimeMar 30th 2012
    • (edited Mar 30th 2012)

    I think it’s safe to add now, after the Chicago JNT/Elsevier meeting, that Urs’ comment on Gowers’ blog, mentioned above, had been quickly redacted from its original form, presumably in response to criticism from peers.

    He had removed this:

    Actually the editorial board of JNT is discussing this divorce and in a recent vote among the 36 editors - 19 wanted the divorce - 6 didn't - 6 were not ready to commit at this time and abstained - 5 didn't respond.
    • CommentRowNumber19.
    • CommentAuthorzskoda
    • CommentTimeMar 30th 2012
    • (edited Mar 30th 2012)

    I have in my mailbox the email I have sent to Elsevier spokesperson Mr Tabachnikov on Sun, 22 Mar 2009 22:09:07 +0100 where I protested against publishing the bad backlog of Chaos, solitons and fractals, after the bad editorship was admitted by retiring El Naschie. This email (few typoses corrected) received no response ever:

    Sun, 22 Mar 2009 22:09:07 +0100

    Od: Zoran Škoda


    Naslov: chaos solitons and fractals

    Dear Mr Tabachnikoff,

    Elsevier has made the worst possible decision by starting to publishing the backlog of papers which were accepted during the provable badly (or no) peer reviewed age of El Naschie and the rest of complying board of chaos solitons and ractals.

    Before Elsevier could claim, well this is the editor’s resposibility, we BELIEVED that the peer reviewing practicies were maintained at hi level. Now you DO know of the problem, and you issued January 15 issue of chaossf with papers accepted by El Naschie’s board, without reexamining them for quality!

    This is a MANIFEST ACCEPTANCE by Elsevier of LOW QUALITY STANDARDS. You know that the papers were accepted in a process doubted by majority of public scientific community, you are reviewing the future of the process but you are happy with taking over 900 papers from that old pool to print! It is unbelievable a major company, not to say world-class SCIENTIFIC publisher would ever dare to be so irresponsible!

    Moreover, the number of papers accepted by around New Year was about 900, it has grown since by at least around 40 new articles. That means that the old board is still acting and that Elsevier is doing this. Instead Elsevier bans on new submissions what is an unheard practice for a journal in existence!

    One should either cancel the journal or do a Hercules job to make it a quality journal. Though I do not believe the latter would be easy. The rest of the board was complient to bad peer reviewing practices. Some of the members of the board confirmed in letters to me that their names were there without their prior consent. In some cases they asked their names to be removed, in one case it was done last year in one it is still not done.

    Most of other members of the board did not respond to my emails if they agreed or not with the current editorial practices as of June 2008. Now who would like to take a role of an editor in the board with such a history. The whole board needs to be replaced at minimum. But I think the chances to regain the value after being so reluctant and defending the undefendable, and prolonging the agony by publishing the badly reviewing papers, is close to zero. I received letters from many members of scientific community and the opinion in general is that chaossf has practically no chance to survive, all the damage the bad past and current practices of the board and your current corporate reluctance to act appropriately have done.

    It is also symptomatic that you did not contact me or other researchers of the bad publishing practices of chaossf. If Elsevier really wanted to put chaossf on the right track, then they would be happy to contact the critics of the previous state and ask them for opinion and for data which we collected. I have lots of data on the issue which I never realized, I thought the hints are enough for a major publisher to act and to dismiss the bad journal or at least its board and past decisions which are not yet reinforced. However, Elsevier is not doing this, that means I will have to release more data. The standard of peer review is the standard made by scientific community. We are not paid for it, hence we consider that standard our responsibility and pride. Elsevier can not simply deny it by publishing the 900 papers accepted by El Naschie after knowing the problem. If they do not act, we, true scientists have no choice but to act again with more detail, more public voice, more networking and more determination to get bad science out of the way, and leave only the good peer reviewed science with respect and interest.

    I hear you were in contact with my fellow journalists, but journalists are not to solve bad peer review problem. peer review is an expertise of scientists, not journalists.

    I can not believe in the level of nonprofessionalism Elsevier is handling the issue, and I feel that I made mistake by releasing just a small portion of the data last May and June, while I had to be more detailed and more public about the issue. Will Elsevier soon change the practice or should we ask for help professional societies, European and American Physical and Mathematical societies ?

    Thank you for your prompt answer,

    Zoran Skoda

    I have listed my former affiliation below that, which I omit from this copy.

    • CommentRowNumber20.
    • CommentAuthorDavidRoberts
    • CommentTimeOct 5th 2012

    Given that six months have gone by, a period I understand the JNT board was giving Elsevier to show some improvement, have there been any further developments?

    • CommentRowNumber21.
    • CommentAuthorJohn Baez
    • CommentTimeOct 17th 2012
    • (edited Oct 17th 2012)

    Here’s a further development I read about in my email. I’ll paraphrase:

    I wanted to inform you that the University of X is negotiating our new contract with Elsevier for 2013 - 2015, and what effect Elsevier’s proclaimed changes have.

    First of all, the university library has a 42% smaller budget in 2013 than in 2010 for books, journals, etc. So they are negotiating with many publishers, to be able to cancel more subscriptions than allowed in the existing contracts.

    The Elsevier contracts for journal subscriptions ends in 2012, and for the “Freedom Collection” - a bundle providing access to all non-subscribed journals - it ends in 2013. I asked the librarian whether there was a price reduction for the new contracts. He reported:

    At the beginning of the negotiations he told the Elsevier sales representative, Mister Q, that the University of X has its back to the wall due to the 42% budget cut. Q offered the new contract with moderate price increase of around 5%. A price decrease was out of the question.

    Our librarian asked whether he could cancel various subscriptions, many more than allowed in the expiring contract. Q agreed in principle - as long as the total price does not decrease. He was quite cooperative, and essentially offered various different knives to be stabbed with, such as:

    • a price increase for the Freedom Collection


    • an increase of the content fee: the fee charged in addition to the subscription if one wants electronic access could go up to 25%. This fee is charged even if one wants only the electronic access and no printed volumes.

    Then our librarian asked Q what he should reply to my question about price decreases. Q sent a long reply including that:

    • our national science foundation bought the Elsevier archive already some years ago. Therefore we would not benefit from the fact that the archives are now partly free.

    • our university cancelled all its math subscriptions already in 2007. Therefore we do not benefit from the price decrease of math journals.

    Then he explained at length that we would benefit from what they were doing “as part of our ongoing project to address the needs of the mathematics community”: “holding down 2013 prices, launching a Core Mathematics subject collection, convening an advisory Scientific Council for Mathematics – designed to meet the specific needs of the mathematics community, members of which were critical of Elsevier in the wake of the Cost of Knowledge petition.”

    • CommentRowNumber22.
    • CommentAuthorDavidRoberts
    • CommentTimeMay 28th 2013
    • CommentRowNumber23.
    • CommentAuthorScott Morrison
    • CommentTimeMay 29th 2013
    • (edited May 29th 2013)

    Here are the minutes from the JNT editorial board meeting with Elsevier from last year, and here are the slides from Elsevier’s presentation at that meeting.