MIT Mathematicians Push Back Against Elsevier’s Practices — And Get Results

The Elsevier boycott started by mathematician Timothy Gowers has grown to over 8,900 names, with 81 signatories from MIT, 12 of whom list affiliations with the MIT Mathematics department. Adjunct MIT Professor of Mathematics Henry Cohn, one of the boycott signatories, is co-author of a new article “Mathematicians Take A Stand” that explains the reasoning behind the boycott.

The article, which has been accepted for publication in the Notices of the American Mathematical Society, argues that Elsevier “has aggressively pushed bundling arrangements that result in libraries paying for journals they do not want and that obscure actual costs,” has “fought transparency of pricing,” and has “imposed restrictions on dissemination by authors.” For example, Cohn and co-author Douglas Arnold of University of Minnesota point out that “if your institution mandates posting the accepted author manuscript in its repository, then Elsevier stipulates that you may not–although they permit such posting when there is no mandate!”

The authors report that push-back on Elsevier’s practices has had a real impact. Following the boycott, Elsevier publicly withdrew its support for the Research Works Act (RWA), which would have prohibited the government from establishing open access mandates for research it funds. Elsevier’s withdrawal of support came just hours before its sponsors declared the bill dead. “This victory,” Arnold and Cohn note, “confirmed the boycott’s success in delivering a message where we were never able to get through before.”

In addition to reversing position on the Research Works Act, Elsevier issued a “Letter to the Mathematics Community,” announcing a “target price” for core mathematics titles, and promising to address concerns about “large discounted agreements,” as well as opening access to the archives of 14 core mathematics journals from 1995 up to four years prior to the present day. Arnold and Cohn call for “expansion to the full set of mathematical journals and the period before 1995,” as well as a “binding commitment” to the changes Elsevier has made. They also want Elsevier to “allow authors to post accepted manuscripts to any [noncommercial subject] repository, as well as to university repositories, regardless of whether there is a posting mandate,” and to include this in their publishing agreement with authors.

More broadly, the authors reflect that “it is too early to predict” what mix of publishing models will “emerge as the most successful” but that “any publisher that wants to be part of this mix must convince the community that they oversee peer review with integrity, that they aid dissemination rather than hinder it, and that they work to make high-quality mathematical literature widely available at a reasonable price.”

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