Daniel Lemire's blog

, 3 min read

Should you boycott academic publishers?

There is a growing list of famous scientists who have pledged to boycott Elsevier as a publisher. If I were in charge of Elsevier, I would be very nervous: academic publishers need famous authors more than the famous authors need the publishers. After all, famous scientists could simply post their work online, and people would still read it.

Elsevier has committed too many sins to give an exhaustive list: they have created fake academic journals so that pharmaceutical corporations could claim that certain facts appeared in a journal, they have sponsored evil regulations, and they have restrictive views on what constitutes fair use. Unbelievably, they were also involved in arms trade. They probably have the devil on their board of directors.

The boycott is currently lead by a famous mathematician, Timothy Gowers. Gowers accuses Elsevier of charging exorbitant prices for its journals.

Focusing solely on database-related journals, I decided to look at how much journals charge per article.

journal publisher price per article
Distributed and parallel databases Springer 61.50
Information systems journal Wiley 58.16
Information Systems Elsevier 53.44
Knowledge and information systems Springer 25.39
Data & knowledge engineering Elsevier 24.55
VLDB journal Springer 22.19
Information Sciences Elsevier 21.67
IEEE Trans. knowledge & data engineering IEEE 10.80
ACM Trans. on database systems ACM 6.64


  • The price distribution appears almost random. I can see no relation between prestige or paper length and prices.
  • Elsevier is hardly alone at charging high prices for papers. Wiley and Springer are just as expensive. Of course, it is possible that Elsevier ends up charging more through deals and bundling.
  • ACM is very inexpensive on a per-article basis. However, ACM often asks the authors to pay page charges whereas Elsevier rarely does in my experience.
  • Though SIGMOD Record is limited to short contributions, its price is unbeatable. And it has no page charge. Moreover, it is generally a well regarded publication venue among database researchers.

My take: The evidence is strong that high-quality inexpensive journals are possible. Current journals are up to an order of magnitude too expensive. However, Elsevier is selling what we want to buy: prestigious journals that people outside the best schools cannot afford. Just like middle-income Americans get into debt to keep up with the top 1%, colleges increase their library budgets to keep up with Stanford and Harvard.

The solution to overpriced journals is to reduce library purchasing power. Most colleges do not have the infinite budgets Harvard and Stanford have, and they should not act like they do. In fact, if we could reduce the purchasing power of most libraries to zero, then researchers and students would be forced to pay $20 or more per article. You can be quite certain that they would mostly read the cheaper (and more competitive) journals. And Stanford researchers want to be cited by the researchers from the lesser institutions so they would also migrate away from overpriced journals. Reduced budgets would still allow publishers like Elsevier to make generous profits, but they would only profit by offering great services at an affordable price. Disclosure: I am currently reviewing a paper for Pattern Recognition (an Elsevier journal), and I recently published in Discrete Applied Mathematics (another Elsevier journal). Update: Though you can get articles from SIGMOD Record for free if you to the SIGMOD Record home page, ACM sells them through its Digital Library for over $10 a piece.