The Elsevier Boycott and its relationship to WUSM

On January 21, 2012 Timothy Gowers, a mathematician at Cambridge University, pronounced in his blog that he would no longer act as an editor, reviewer, or author for Elsevier published journals and urged others to follow his lead.  His actions were in response to Elsevier’s business practices – particularly their high journal prices, aggressive bundling and negotiating tactics, and support of the Research Works Act (On Monday February 27, Elsevier formally announced that they have withdrawn their support of the RWA).  His blog post inspired a grass roots boycott movement against Elsevier (see New York Times article and boycott site) that has, as of February 23, been joined by 7113 researchers worldwide – 10 from Washington University of which 2 are faculty members from the School of Medicine.

As a library we are caught in the crossfire of this ideologically charged boycott debate.  While we agree with many of the arguments against Elsevier’s business practices, we also rely upon and, in fact, promote many of their products such as SciVerse Scopus, Clinical Pharmacology, and MD Consult.  Elsevier’s business practices influence many of our collection and operational decisions, leading to a relationship that is sometimes complicated.  It is in this light that we have decided to present some facts about our Elsevier subscriptions to add local context to a topic that has evolved into an international publishing controversy.

Facts and Figures about Elsevier’s Impact at Becker Library

  1. 20 of Becker Library’s top 100 most used electronic journals are published by Elsevier.  They are (ranked from highest use): Cell; Neuron; Lancet; Immunity; NeuroImage; International Journal of Radiation Oncology, Biology, Physics; Biochimica et Biophysica Acta; Molecular Cell; Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications; Journal of the American College of Cardiology; Brain Research; Current Biology; Developmental Biology; Gastroenterology; Journal of Urology; Cancer Cell; Journal of Molecular Biology; FEBS Letters; Developmental Cell; and Cell Metabolism.
  2. The average subscription cost of the Elsevier titles in the top 100 is $5,967.  The average cost of non-Elsevier titles in the top 100 is $2,780[1].
  3. The range of subscription costs of the Elsevier titles in the top 100 is $671 to $20,708.  The range of costs of the non-Elsevier titles in the top 100 is $138 to $15,930[2].
  4. Elsevier published journals account for 837 of the library’s 5,634 electronic journals – approximately 15% of the e-journal collection.
  5. $1,006,788 (29%) of the library’s $3,499,350 collection budget is spent on Elsevier electronic resources, including SciVerse Scopus, MD Consult, ScienceDirect journals, etc.
  6. 68 (8%) Elsevier titles account for 50% of all uses of Elsevier titles. 226 (27%) Elsevier titles account for 80% of all uses of Elsevier titles.
  7. Becker Library has a 3-year “big deal” bundled subscription agreement with Elsevier.  We also have bundled subscription agreements with Wiley-Blackwell and Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins.  Elsevier does not permit us to share the details of the agreement.
  8. The Elsevier agreement establishes an inflationary price cap on yearly increases well below historical industry average inflationary increases.  Our Wiley-Blackwell agreement also has a favorable inflationary price cap.
  9. Our subscription agreement with Elsevier does not allow us to reduce our spending commitment on Elsevier titles over the agreement’s term.  Therefore, in the event of an unexpected budget shortfall, the library generally cannot cancel titles from Elsevier.  The only way to reduce our spending on journals is by eliminating titles to which we individually subscribe regardless of their usage or importance when compared to bundled titles.
  10. An analysis done prior to signing our previous subscription agreement with Elsevier showed that breaking our bundle agreement would leave the library paying the same amount to Elsevier for half the number of titles it could subscribe to under the bundled agreement.
  11. Bundled subscriptions like our Elsevier agreement offer medical school faculty members the convenience of quickly retrieving articles of potential interest without making requests through interlibrary loan.

While the library does not advocate a particular position on the Elsevier boycott, we hope this will be useful information as individual faculty and researchers consider their own potential response. Please contact our director Paul Schoening ( if you would like to share your thoughts on this continuing controversy.

We encourage your feedback.

Anchor[1] The average cost of non-Elsevier titles was determined from available price lists.  Eleven (11) journals are not priced individually, but come as part of packages of titles bought together.

Anchor[2] The range of costs for non-Elsevier titles was also determined from available price lists.  See previous footnote.