Escaping Elsevier

At the end of 1999, the then editor-in-chief of Elsevier’s Journal of Logic Programming Maurice Bruynooghe resigned from his position after several years of being unable to convince Elsevier to improve the journal’s pricing strategy. The 50 members of the editorial board followed his lead, and then founded the alternative journal Theory and Practice of Logic Programming that went on to replace Elsevier’s journal as the official journal of the Association of Logic Programming.

In October 2003, one of the original creators of Elsevier’s Journal of Algorithms — Donald Knuth — sent a long letter to its editorial board lamenting over its risen costs and Elsevier’s unwillingness to discuss them. The next January, the editorial board resigned and went on to found ACM Transactions on Algorithms. In 2010, Elsevier discontinued the original Journal of Algorithms.

In October 2015, the editorial board of Elsevier’s Lingua resigned after being unable to come to an agreement with Elsevier about fair Open Access, and went on to start Glossa. Glossa is now the leading journal of general linguistics, whereas Lingua lingers on as a zombie journal.

(More examples can be found in Peter Suber’s list.)

These journals have managed to successfully break free from Elsevier’s shackles. What‘s the secret to their success? How did they manage to transfer their author and reader base to the new journals?

The key factor, in my view, is that these were bottom-up initiatives by academics themselves. All these transitions were led by academics who were influential in their respective communities. This meant that they were able to effectively spread the word of the new journals to the relevant researchers. And more importantly: it meant that they were able to break an important link in the vicious cycle of scholarly publishing: the stranglehold of the Impact Factor.

They showed that, although the Impact Factor is often used as a proxy for the quality of a journal, its the people running it that actually determine the journal’s quality. Thus, when researchers in a field are aware that those people are focusing their efforts on a new journal, the Impact Factor of the old one becomes meaningless. And that, in turn, means that it can no longer hold researchers hostage: they can submit their manuscripts to the new journal and, if accepted, still get the recognition and career benefits of having published in a top-tier journal.

This is the main lesson for advocates of a future not held back by the traditional academic publishers: for alternatives to be successful, they need to be spearheaded by members of the academic community. Luckily, these academics themselves also stand to gain by that: being a driving force behind successful new alternatives can be a boon to your academic reputation and, hence, career prospects.

These insights have largely shaped my current thoughts on how best to open up access to academic articles. If bottom-up initiatives are easier to launch, enough viable alternatives to the traditional publishers might finally arise, and libraries might be able to actually start cancelling their subscriptions. And I’m almost ready to unveil a project to achieve just that. If you’re excited about challenging the positions of the dominant academic publishers, please follow along: subscribe to the newsletter or follow @Flockademic on Twitter.


I’ve launched Flockademic! Read all about it, give it a try, and let me know what you think!