Logo of the campaign

The Cost of Knowledge is a protest by academics against the business practices of academic journal publisher Elsevier. Among the reasons for the protests were a call for lower prices for journals and to promote increased open access to information. The main work of the project was to ask researchers to sign a statement committing not to support Elsevier journals by publishing, performing peer review, or providing editorial services for these journals.


Before the advent of the Internet, it was difficult for scholars to distribute articles giving their research results.[1] Historically, publishers performed services including proofreading, typesetting, copyediting, printing, and worldwide distribution.[1] In modern times, all researchers became expected to give the publishers digital copies of their work which needed no further processing – in other words, the modern academic is expected to do, often for free, duties traditionally assigned to the publisher, and for which, traditionally, the publisher is paid in exchange.[1] For digital distribution, printing is unnecessary, copying is (almost) free, and worldwide distribution happens online instantly.[1] Internet technology, and with it the aforementioned significant decrease in overhead costs, enabled the four major scientific publishers – Elsevier, Springer, Wiley, and Informa – to cut their expenditures such that they could consistently generate gross margins on revenue of over 33%.[1]

Resignations of editorial boards

Main article: Topology (journal) § Pricing dispute

In 2006, the nine editorial board members of Oxford University's Elsevier-published mathematics journal Topology resigned because they agreed among themselves that Elsevier's publishing policies had "a significant and damaging effect on Topology's reputation in the mathematical research community."[2] An Elsevier spokesperson disputed this, saying that "this still constitutes a pretty rare occurrence" and that the journal "is actually available today to more people than ever before".[2] Journalists recognize this event as part of the precedent to The Cost of Knowledge campaign.[3][4] In 2008, the Journal of Topology started independently of Elsevier, and Topology ended publication in 2009.

Similarly, in 2015 the entire editorial board of the Elsevier journal Lingua resigned and founded a new, open access journal called Glossa [1]. Lingua continued to exist[2], albeit with a lower impact and much changed reputation.[citation needed]

Change from status quo

On 21 January 2012, the mathematician Timothy Gowers called for a boycott of Elsevier with a post[5] on his personal blog. This blog post attracted enough attention that other media sources commented on it as being part of the start of a movement.[6] The three reasons he cited for the boycott are high subscription prices for individual journals, bundling subscriptions to journals of different value and importance, and Elsevier's support for SOPA, the PROTECT IP Act, and the Research Works Act.[4][7][8] The "Statement of Purpose" on the Cost of Knowledge website explains that Elsevier was chosen as an initial focus for discontent due to a "widespread feeling among mathematicians that they are the worst offender."[9] The statement further mentions "scandals, lawsuits, lobbying, etc." as reasons for focusing on Elsevier.[9]

Elsevier disputed the claims, arguing that their prices are below the industry average, and stating that bundling is only one of several different options available to buy access to Elsevier journals.[7] The company also claimed that its considerable profit margins are "simply a consequence of the firm's efficient operation".[4] Critics of Elsevier claim that in 2010, 36% of Elsevier's reported revenues of US$3.2 billion was profit.[10] Elsevier claimed to have an operating margin of 25.7% in 2010.[11]

Impact and reception

A 2016 study evaluating the boycott stated that in the past four years 38% of signatories had abandoned their "won't publish in an Elsevier outlet" commitment and that only around 5000 researchers were still clearly boycotting Elsevier by publishing elsewhere. It concludes "Few researchers have signed the petition in recent years, thus giving the impression the boycott has run its course.".[12]

In February 2012, analysts of the Exane Paribas bank reported a financial impact on Elsevier with the company's stock prices falling due to the boycott.[13] Dennis Snower criticised the monopoly of scientific publishers, but said at the same time that he did not support the boycott even though he himself is the editor-in-chief of an open-access journal on economics. He thinks that more competition among the various journals should instead be encouraged.[14] The Senate of the University of Kansas has been reported to consider joining the boycott of Elsevier.[15]

In 2019, the University of California (UC) system announced that it was cancelling its Elsevier subscriptions, citing costs and lack of open access.[16] Similar steps were taken by other universities, including MIT in 2020,[17] SUNY in 2020,[18] Florida State University in 2018,[19] UNC Chapel Hill in 2020,[20] and Louisiana State University in 2019.[21] In 2021, the UC system negotiated a new 4-year "pilot" agreement with Elsevier that permits UC researchers to publish in Elsevier journals on an open-access basis and restores access to Elsevier journals for UC libraries,[22] following similar open-access agreements with Carnegie Mellon University in 2019 (for 4 years)[23] and the Norwegian university system in 2019 (for 2 years).[24]

In allusion to the revolutions of the Arab Spring, the German Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung daily newspaper called the movement the "Academic Spring" (German: Akademischer Frühling).[25] When the British Wellcome Trust made a commitment to open up science, The Guardian similarly called this the "Academic Spring".[26] After the Wellcome Trust announcement, The Cost of Knowledge campaign was recognized by that newspaper as the start of something new.[27]


The commitment which the campaign requests.

A website called "The Cost of Knowledge" appeared, inviting researchers and scholars to declare their commitment to not submit papers to Elsevier journals, not referee articles for Elsevier's journals, and not participate in the editorial boards.


On 8 February 2012, 34 prominent mathematicians who had signed The Cost of Knowledge released a joint statement of purpose explaining their reasons for supporting the protest.[28][29] In addition to Timothy Gowers, Ingrid Daubechies,[30] Juan J. Manfredi,[31] Terence Tao,[28] Wendelin Werner,[28] Scott Aaronson, László Lovász, and John Baez are among the signatories. Many signatories are researchers in the fields of mathematics, computer science, and biology.[32] On 1 February 2012, the declaration had a thousand signatories.[33] By November 2018, over 17000 researchers had signed the petition.[34] The success of the petition has been debated.[35]

Reaction from Elsevier

On 27 February 2012, Elsevier issued a statement on its website that declared that it has withdrawn support from the Research Works Act.[36] Although the Cost of Knowledge movement was not mentioned, the statement indicated the hope that the move would "help create a less heated and more productive climate" for ongoing discussions with research funders. Hours after Elsevier's statement, Representatives Darrell Issa and Carolyn Maloney, who were sponsors of the bill, issued a joint statement saying that they would not push the bill in Congress.[37][38] Earlier, Mike Taylor of the University of Bristol accused Issa and Maloney of being motivated by large donations that they received from Elsevier in 2011.[39]

While participants in the boycott celebrated the dropping of support for the Research Works Act, Elsevier denied that their action was a result of the boycott and stated that they took this action at the request of those researchers who did not participate in the boycott.[40]

On the same day, Elsevier released an open letter to the mathematics community, stating that its target is to reduce its prices to $11/article or less.[38] Elsevier also opened the archives of 14 mathematics journals back to 1995 with a four-year moving wall.[38] In late 2012, Elsevier made all of its "primary mathematics" journals open access up to 2008.[41] The boycott remains in effect.[citation needed]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e Taylor, Mike (21 February 2012). "It's Not Academic: How Publishers Are Squelching Science Communication". Discover. Archived from the original on 12 November 2019. Retrieved 22 February 2012.
  2. ^ a b Shapiro, Gary (26 October 2006). "A Rebellion Erupts Over Journals of Academia". The New York Sun. Archived from the original on 12 April 2021. Retrieved 25 February 2012.
  3. ^ Whitfield, John (9 February 2012). "Elsevier boycott gathers pace". Nature. doi:10.1038/nature.2012.10010. S2CID 153496298.
  4. ^ a b c "Scientific publishing: The price of information". The Economist. 4 February 2012. Archived from the original on 17 February 2012.
  5. ^ See Sir William Timothy Gowers (21 January 2012). "Gowers's Weblog / Mathematics related discussions / Elsevier – my part in its downfall /". Archived from the original on 8 September 2015. Retrieved 6 October 2015.
  6. ^ Grant, Bob (7 February 2012). "Occupy Elsevier?". The Scientist. Retrieved 12 February 2012.
  7. ^ a b Flood, Alison (2 February 2012). "Scientists sign petition to boycott academic publisher Elsevier". The Guardian. London: GMG. ISSN 0261-3077. OCLC 60623878. Archived from the original on 5 February 2012.
  8. ^ Fischman, Josh (30 January 2012). "Elsevier Publishing Boycott Gathers Steam Among Academics". The Chronicle of Higher Education. Archived from the original on 10 February 2012.
  9. ^ a b "The Cost of Knowledge" (PDF). Retrieved 7 November 2017.
  10. ^ Cook, Garret (12 February 2012). "Why scientists are boycotting a publisher – Opinion – The Boston Globe". bostonglobe.com. Archived from the original on 2 November 2012. Retrieved 12 February 2012.
  11. ^ "2010 highlights". reports.reedelsevier.com. 2012. Retrieved 17 February 2012. operating margin
  12. ^ Heyman, Tom; Moors, Pieter; Storms, Gert (2016). "On the Cost of Knowledge: Evaluating the Boycott against Elsevier". Frontiers in Research Metrics and Analytics. 1. doi:10.3389/frma.2016.00007.
  13. ^ Storbeck, Olaf (14 February 2012). "Teure Wissenschaft: Forscher boykottieren Fachverlag". Handelsblatt (in German). Archived from the original on 14 April 2012. Retrieved 16 February 2012.
  14. ^ Storbeck, Olaf (13 February 2012). "Dennis Snower: 'Herausgeber können Gott spielen'". Handelsblatt (in German). Archived from the original on 22 August 2016. Retrieved 16 February 2012.
  15. ^ Hyland, Andy (7 February 2012). "Heard on the Hill: University Senate considering boycotting publisher Elsevier..." Lawrence Journal-World. Retrieved 16 February 2012.
  16. ^ Fox, Alex (28 February 2019). "University of California boycotts publishing giant Elsevier over journal costs and open access". ScienceInsider. Retrieved 20 September 2021.
  17. ^ "MIT, guided by open access principles, ends Elsevier negotiations" (Press release). MIT News. 11 June 2020. Retrieved 20 September 2021.
  18. ^ McKenzie, Lindsay (13 April 2020). "SUNY Cancels Big Deal With Elsevier". Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved 20 September 2021.
  19. ^ McKenzie, Lindsay (26 April 2018). "Florida State Cancels Bundled Journal Deal With Elsevier". Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved 20 September 2021.
  20. ^ McKenzie, Lindsay (10 April 2019). "UNC Chapel Hill Cancels Big Deal With Elsevier". Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved 20 September 2021.
  21. ^ McKenzie, Lindsay (24 May 2019). "Another 'Big Deal' Bites the Dust". Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved 20 September 2021.
  22. ^ McKenzie, Lindsay (17 May 2021). "Big Deal for Open Access". Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved 20 September 2021.
  23. ^ McKenzie, Lindsay (22 November 2019). "A New Kind of 'Big Deal' for Elsevier". Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved 20 September 2021.
  24. ^ McKenzie, Lindsay (24 April 2019). "An Elsevier Pivot to Open Access". Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved 20 September 2021.
  25. ^ Plickert, Philip; Brainard, Jeffrey (14 February 2012). "Debatte um Wissenschaftsverlag: Akademischer Frühling". Faz.net (in German). Retrieved 16 February 2012.
  26. ^ Jha, Alok (9 April 2012). "Wellcome Trust joins 'academic spring' to open up science". The Guardian. London. ISSN 0261-3077. OCLC 60623878.
  27. ^ Naughton, John (21 April 2012). "Academic publishing doesn't add up". The Guardian. London: GMG. ISSN 0261-3077. OCLC 60623878. Retrieved 22 April 2012. academic sp
  28. ^ a b c Lin, Thomas (13 February 2012). "Researchers Boycott Elsevier Journal Publisher". The New York Times. New York. ISSN 0362-4331.
  29. ^ Tao, Terence (8 February 2012). "A statement on the cost of knowledge declaration « What's new". terrytao.wordpress.com. Retrieved 15 February 2012.
  30. ^ Yeager, Ashley (14 February 2012). "Duke Scholars Join Boycott Against Elsevier". today.duke.edu. Retrieved 15 February 2012.
  31. ^ Webteam, University of Pittsburgh University Marketing Communications. "University Times » Protest launched against journal publisher". Retrieved 7 September 2020.
  32. ^ Peek, Robin (13 February 2012). "The Cost of Knowledge Versus Elsevier: 5,600 Signatures and Growing". Information Today, Inc. Retrieved 13 February 2012.
  33. ^ Slind-Flor, Victoria (28 September 2012). "Bard, Motorola, Medicaid, Bullfrog: Intellectual Property". bloomberg.com. Retrieved 13 February 2012.
  34. ^ "The Cost of Knowledge". Retrieved 25 November 2016.
  35. ^ "Elsevier leads the business the internet could not kill". Financial Times. 15 November 2015. Retrieved 25 November 2015.
  36. ^ "Elsevier Backs Down as Boycott Grows". 27 February 2012. Retrieved 29 February 2012.
  37. ^ "Sponsors and Supporters Back Away from Research Works Act". Archived from the original on 2 July 2012. Retrieved 29 February 2012.
  38. ^ a b c Aron, Jacob. "Elsevier vows to keep price of mathematics journals low". New Scientist.
  39. ^ Taylor, Mike (16 January 2012). "Academic publishers have become the enemies of science". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 29 February 2012.
  40. ^ Howard, Jennifer (27 February 2012). "Legislation to Bar Public-Access Requirement on Federal Research Is Dead". The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved 28 February 2012.
  41. ^ "Free access to archived articles of primary mathematics journals". Retrieved 23 February 2015.