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Boycott Elsevier!

The source of inspiration for Elsevier's logo, updated with a statement to boycott Elsevier. 1

TL;DR (German)

Wenn Du jemals einen wissenschaftlichen Artikel veröffentlichen möchtest: Mach keinerlei Geschäfte mit dem Verlag Elsevier. Der Verlag wird alles dafür tun, dass der Prozess lange dauert, er wird keinerlei Verbesserungen hinzufügen (im Gegenteil!) und verlangt horrende Summen von Bibliotheken dafür, Wissen zu verbreiten. Elsevier interessiert sich überhaupt nicht für die Wissenschaft. Elsevier interessiert es nur, möglichst viel Geld zu verdienen. Boykottiere Elsevier!

Im folgenden beschreibe ich ausführlich meine Erfahrungen mit Elsevier zur Veröffentlichung unseres Zeitschriftenartikels. Da die Wissenschaftswelt, die das Zielpublikum dieses Artikels ist, hauptsächlich auf Englisch kommuniziert, habe ich den Artikel auf Englisch verfasst.

TL;DR

If you want to publish a scientific article, do not do any business whatsoever with the publisher Elsevier! They will do everything to make the publishing process long and tedious, won’t add any value to your work (rather the opposite), and ask libraries to pay a huge amount of money to be able to distribute your research. They don’t care at all for science, their main goal is to make financial profit. Boycott Elsevier!

What follows are my experiences about publishing a journal article in one of Elsevier’s journals. It was absolutely ridiculous.

Writing a Journal Article

Imagine, you work several years on a scientific project. Of course, you want to share your research outcome, so you also want to publish a research article.

As the lead author, you write the first draft. Thereafter, you are responsible for several iterations of collecting and integrating useful and detailed feedback from your co-authors. Writing this research article takes three times longer than you thought. However, your efforts (and the efforts of your co-authors) are worth while: The article is getting better with each iteration. During this time, you and your co-authors are financed by the university. That is, the tax-payer is paying for all the content in this article.

Submitting a Journal Article to an Elsevier Journal: Slow and No Proper Peer Review

After more than a year of refining the text, it’s time for a submission to a scientific journal. Of course, you want to publish in a high-impact journal. As your research is in the field of cognitive science, you decide to aim for one of the highest-impact journals in that field: Cognition, published by the publisher Elsevier. For sure, as this is a proper scientific journal, it offers a peer-review process. That is: One editor will read your paper. If she thinks it might be a good fit for the journal, she will send it for a thorough assessment to at least two (anonymous) peer reviewers.

The reviewers have four weeks to review your article. On top of that, the editor also needs to read the paper and the reviews and she needs to make a decision. So, based on this and the statistics provided by the journal you expect a first decision after two months. It turns out that this is overly optimistic.

After almost 6 months and no response whatsoever from the journal, you decide to inquire the journal about the status of the article. Some weeks after this inquiry you receive a first decision (revise-and-resubmit).2

Alright, the work on the text begins again: improving the article and re-iterating it with your co-authors. After almost 5 months, you re-submit the revised paper. Again, the response of the journal takes a long time. You need to reach out to the editor to kindly ask for a decision. On that same day you receive the decision: Accepted! Hooray!

Oh, only one reviewer left? So what? Your article is finally accepted – who cares about the peer-review process?! But wait, isn’t this a high-impact journal from which you expect that it also upholds a very high standard in the scientific publishing process? Apparently not. Anyway, this comes as no big surprise: The publisher is not paying the reviewers anything. All reviewing work is financed by tax-payer’s money. Remember: writing the article was payed for with public money, too. Up to this point: Two sources of free income for Elsevier while having close to zero money to pay.

Doing the Publisher Work for Elsevier

Now it should be really quick to see the article published, shouldn’t it? After all, you decided to submit to a high-impact journal from a publisher who has more than 130 years3 of experience with publishing. Clearly, Elsevier should be quick to publish an accepted article, especially since it’s already formatted very closely to the required journal layout. Let’s say, a month? Wrong. Totally wrong. Despite its long history, Elsevier seems very new to the process of editing and publishing text documents. At least it feels very much like this.

It only takes a few days (see, they are quick!) and you receive a link to an online-editor for proof-reading your article. It remains an unsolved mystery of Elsevier why you needed to follow the style guide of the journal and submitted a properly formatted LaTeX-document (including source files) – they will destroy many formatting related issues with their online-editor anyway. You find several issues with citations, wrong links to other sections in text, words that are doubled. In short, you need to do a very detailed proof-read. Nothing is guaranteed, Elsevier seems to have fun introducing errors throughout the manuscript. Also, your careful placement of tables and figures is totally messed up.

Another two weeks of tax-payer’s money to fix these issues and to ask Elsevier to just print the already fine manuscript.

You receive a PDF after some days to proof-read again. In less than 24 hours (!), you receive a reminder e-mail to please confirm if everything is fine with the PDF file. Still, there are many errors. This iteration with the trying-to-be-professional-publisher takes another three months of back-and-forth. Most of the errors in the manuscript were newly introduced by the “professional” publisher. By now, you reckon that the type-setters don’t read a single word of the text they are setting. Otherwise, the introduced errors are unexplainable. Going through this process of putting your text in a proper format again (remember: you submitted it in a very good formatting condition!) really does not add any value from the publisher. It’s just more work payed by the tax-payer to fix Elsevier’s errors.

After three months of fixing their errors (including finding DOIs – Elsevier does not know how to find a DOI for a reference!), you suddenly receive an e-mail that your article is published online – without your final consent! It seems, Elsevier got impatient and wanted to just get rid of this annoying PhD student who wants to have a proper article. Time to stop doing all the other work you do, time to do a final proof-read of the article that was published without your consent. The last corrections (luckily now only minor issues) require to change the already online accessible article. If you think that the reader has to be informed of this process, you are wrong. Without any notice, the online article was changed. Is that good style of a scientific publisher?4

Paying to Keep Your Copyright

Let’s summarise: The work in the article was funded by the tax-payers. The reviewers were funded by the tax-payers. The formatting of the article was payed by the tax-payer (although Elsevier pretends to “add value” they only introduced errors – you even had to recreate the list of references for them!). And now the tax-payer (in the form of a public library) needs to buy the knowledge (produced and distilled with the help of public money) back from Elsevier?

That is clearly not how money should flow in the digital era. Knowledge can be distributed better. Being aware of all this, you see that Cognition has an open-access option. You (or the institution you work for) only pays a one-time fee that covers the production of the article but then the copyright remains with the authors of the article. And it’s freely accessible to everyone. This is how knowledge should be distributed in the 21st century.

But wait, the one-time fee to not give away your work as a gift for Elsevier’s profit, i.e., to choose the open-access option is:

2,032.56 € (excl. tax)

That’s a lot of money (and very likely more than twice the amount needed to cover the actual expenses). And since Elsevier does not lower the subscription fee for libraries according to the number of open-access articles that are contained in the journal (even if the whole journal consists of open-access articles!), this money would be another gift of tax-payer money for this pretending-to-be-publisher. This is also why research institutions or libraries typically don’t pay these fees (for these so-called hybrid journals) – and one of the main points in the negotiations between Elsevier and German scientific institutions (project DEAL; main outcome right now: Elsevier does not want to cooperate at all with the German scientific community).

However, since a whole journal (what was Lingua and is now Glossa) left Elsevier due to their criminal practices, a similar movement also wanted to establish better open-access options for Cognition. Well, this didn’t really work out. In an editorial (ironically not accessible for the public; happy to share a copy, just contact me!), Elsevier and the editorial board announced a fund to lower the article processing charges for open-access articles.

Maybe this fund significantly lowers the fee and you will be able to retain your copyright and on top of that have a better distribution of your research outcomes? You don’t know, since the fund is maximal intransparent: No-one knows how much money is in it, who decides about applications, how large the reduction is, etc. Anyway, let’s give it a try. You apply for the fund. And indeed, you are accepted and get a reduced fee – after waiting another month (the application had to be there within 7 days after acceptance …). But this reduced fee is not shown in the online system in which you can either choose the open-access option or the give-away-your-copyright-for-free option. A technical problem, that should be easy to fix, no? You write an e-mail to ask for a solution.

Guess what happens? You will receive an e-mail every second day or so, that the pretending-to-be-professional-publisher is “still looking into this matter”:

Screenshot of many e-mails from Elsevier

And then, finally, three months (!) after the acceptance of your article, you see the reduced fee. Instead of

2,032.56 € (excl. tax)

it’s now

1,980.00 € (excl. tax)

That’s right. The discount that took so long and that is worth to have two news entries at the journal homepage is 52,56 € (excl. tax). That’s less than 3% and just ridiculous. I’m curious if actually any article was published under an open-access license with the “help” of this fund.

Summary: Boycott Elsevier! Outlook: Go Open-Access!

Let’s summarize my experience with Elsevier:

  • The tax-payer pays for the research.
  • The tax-payer pays for the writing of the manuscript.
  • Elsevier takes very long for accepting the article with only one peer reviewer left in the end.
  • Elsevier messes up formatting.
  • The tax-payer pays for article formatting.
  • Elsevier introduces random errors.
  • The tax-payer pays for proof-reading.
  • Elsevier promises to reduce the open-access fee.
  • Elsevier severely delays the process.
  • Elsevier grants a reduction of less than 3% of the open-access fee.
  • Elsevier takes the copyright for free.
  • Elsevier pays for the journal infrastructure (e.g., hosting the article) and prints some analog journal issues.
  • The author pays almost 30 € for a physical copy of the journal issue that includes his own article.

The conclusion is easy: Do not do any business whatsoever with Elsevier! They don’t care at all for science, they just care for their financial profit. On top of that, they really suck on their main job: publishing. If you want to publish articles, go for a true open-access publisher. (Also, release your source code and in general, practice open science!)

P.S.: This is the article I was writing about in this blogpost. I’m happy to share the publisher’s version, if you send me an e-mail (you know, I gave away my copyright for free, so I can share the article only via private communication …)

P.P.S.: I’m happy to not be in the publish-or-perish business of science any longer, so it’s easy for me to boycott Elsevier. I acknowledge that it’s harder for scientists working in academia.


  1. Image source: modified from work in the public domain. [return]
  2. The main reason for the late answer: One of the reviewer was late. [return]
  3. Interestingly, the history of Elsevier starts with what now would be a copyright infringement: The name and logo was “inspired” by the Elzevier Family that published academic literature in the 17th and 18th centuries. Although the logo “Non Solus” (see image at the beginning of this blogpost) is a nice inspiration, meaning that “[p]ublishers and scholars cannot do it alone”, it clearly does not reflect current practices of the modern Elsevier. [return]
  4. To be honest, I asked for this, because I didn’t want to have a correction article. [return]

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