Thursday, 7 December 2017

After Elsevier, should we boycott Springer?

While the ongoing “Cost of knowledge” boycott of Elsevier may not be very effective, the likely “no deal” hard exit of Germany from Elsevier subscriptions renews the boycott’s relevance, and maybe its urgency. It is indeed likely that most German universities and research institutions will lose access to Elsevier articles in 2018.

As a researcher, why would I continue publishing in journals that are in principle inaccessible to most of my German colleagues? Universal access to the literature via Sci-Hub is under increasing legal assault and should not be taken for granted. In these circumstances, boycotting Elsevier is no longer only a matter of fighting an obnoxious publisher, but also a basic necessity of ensuring that articles are accessible to their intended audience. (Unless one thinks that the intended audience is not the scientific community, but the paying Elsevier subscribers.)

Now it turns out that if I boycott Elsevier because of Germany, I may have to boycott Springer because of France.
Like many colleagues, I have recently received an email from Alain Schuhl, saying that the negotiations of the French national consortium Couperin with Springer are not going well, and that we should prepare for losing access to Springer journals in 2018.

Given Couperin’s history of acceeding to publishers’ diktats, and the rather late and confidential nature of the email from Alain Schuhl, it seems likely that Couperin will eventually capitulate, possibly after a token fight and a temporary suspension of subscriptions. I have no hint that Couperin has undertaken the kind of preparations for a no deal scenario, that made the German DEAL consortium’s firm negotiating stance possible. Moreover, this being France, there is always the possibility that the relevant ministry takes over the negotiations and imposes an unfavourable deal, as has happened in the past.

Deal or no deal, the case for a Springer boycott is now getting stronger. But can we really afford to boycott both Elsevier and Springer? This probably depends in which field one works. In the case of physics, I have done a partial list of the main journals and journal families, by looking at recent publications from IPhT, using HAL-CEA. (Yes, HAL can sometimes be useful.) And here is the list:
Elsevier: Nuclear Physics, Physics Letters, Physics Reports, Physica
Springer: Journal of High-Energy Physics, Journal of Statistical Physics, European Physical Journal, Communications in Mathematical Physics
World Scientific: International Journal of Modern Physics
Institute of Physics: Journal of Statistical Mechanics, Journal of Physics, Europhysics Letters
American Physical Society: Physical Review
Independent: SciPost Physics
So, in physics, there are probably enough good alternatives to do without both Elsevier and Springer.

Now, I must admit that my argument for boycotts gets weaker when one uses arXiv for communicating with colleagues, and publishes in journals for administrative purposes only. In this case, subscriptions become pointless, a fact that the consortiums that negotiate said subscriptions would do well to take into account.