Thanks for your invitation to review – but…

What if I told you that there’s an industry that relies on the customer’s free-of-charge labour for the selection of products to be sold, the production itself as well as quality management, and that this industry is even able to sell the ‘products’ produced this way to the same customers for an exorbitant price and earning a huge profit?

You would say that something is wrong.

However, this is exactly what happens in the world of scientific publishing. Using the words of Corey Bradshaw, the whole publishing process is relying on nothing less than ‘slavery’:

‘And ‘slavery’ is definitely the most appropriate term here, for how else would you describe a business where the product is produced by others for free (scientific results), is assessed for quality by others for free (reviewing), is commissioned, overviewed and selected by yet others for free (editing), and then sold back to the very same scientists and the rest of the world’s consumers at exorbitant prices.’ (Source – ‘Conservation Bytes’ blog)

There has been a lot of ado around the issue, especially after the mathematician Timothy Gowers called in 2012 for a boycott of Elsevier with a post on his personal blog. This led to the the ‘Cost of Knowledge‘ initiative that highlighted the incredibly high profit that Elsevier, the biggest among scientific publishers, has being reporting in the last decade. In the spotlight of the campaign were Elsevier’s business practices, the consequences for the academic sector in terms of unsustainably high subscription costs as well as the right of authors to achieve easily-accessible distribution of their work. Since then, has the campaign somewhat lost momentum, but the discontent towards the whole scientific publishing system has continued bubbling beneath the surface.

Now it has erupted again.

There’s a lot of stir among German (and not only) universities, when it comes to the astronomically high subscription prices of scientific journals. Trying to negotiate fair prices, the four biggest universities of Berlin (Freie Universität Berlin, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Technische Universität Berlin, and Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin) are canceling their contract with the international publisher Elsevier. Other German universities are joining the front (e.g. Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg) and something similar is happening in Finland.

One of the main critical points raised during the negotiation is about the ‘Bundle subscription’, that for many university libraries is the only realistic option in order to access the journal collection of the biggest scientific publishers. Basically, some publishers charge exorbitantly high prices for subscriptions to individual journals, and in light of these prices, universities are ‘forced’ to buy very large ‘bundles’ of journals, including some they do not actually want. ‘Elsevier thus makes huge profits by exploiting the fact that some of their journals are essential’ (Source: The way Elsevier and other major publishers managed to develop their business model, and the way the whole academic worlds slowly transitioned within its orbit is beautifully explained in a recent article by The Guardian – Is the staggeringly profitable business of scientific publishing bad for science? – which I warmly recommend.


This is the context where the Finnish initiative #NoDealNoReview should be framed. Basically, the initiative is calling for fair pricing for academic journal subscriptions and increased open access in the ongoing negotiation with international publishers. As a leverage, the promoters are asking the scientific community to voluntarily abstain from editorial and reviewer duties in journals whose publishers are unwilling to meet the demands of the negotiators.

‘It’s time to stand by that commitment: no deal, no editing and reviews’, they say.

I did my share. I received a request to review a manuscript from one of Elsevier’s journal. I decided not to commit this time, and not providing my ‘free’ labour to the publisher. To be sincere, this would not be free labour, as I’m being paid by taxpayers for my academic position. And as such, it is even more immoral to voluntarily handle my time (=your money) to a private company making profits out of scientific knowledge. The issue whether peer review should be monetary rewarded by publishers, and to whom this money should go (the researcher? the institution?) is an old one, and I do not want to discuss it here. However, it is a fact that some publishers have recently been established that openly embrace the view that the work of academics during the editing process of scientific publication should receive a fair compensation. Even more interestingly, the scientific community itself is proposing new ways of handling the whole editorial process or scientific publishing, calling for the direct engagement of researchers, as in the Peerage of Science initiative.


Here’s the letter explaining my motivation for refusing to serve as a peer reviewer this time. #NoDealNoReview.


Berlin 18/07/2017

Thank you for your invitation to review the manuscript for Forest Ecology and Management. Although I’m a strong supporter of the journal’s mission, having already served as a reviewer, and having chosen the journal in the past for publishing research myself, I decided to decline the invitation to review in order to support the No deal, no review ( boycott of Elsevier.

During the 2016 and 2017 subscription deal renewal negotiations Elsevier has shown disregard for its most valuable resource, the research community, by refusing to offer sustainable prices and open access for its journals. My Institution (Humboldt-Universitaet zu Berlin) is currently negotiating new conditions with Elsevier, but the publisher has shown little or no openness to listen to my institution’s reasons.

I am worried that we will continue to see unfair deals being offered and negotiations in gridlock, as new renewal talks get underway all over the world.

This needs to stop.

Until a fair deal is reached between Humboldt-Universitaet zu Berlin (but the same applies to other German and European research institutions) and Elsevier, I will decline from all requests by Elsevier journals.

More information:

With kind regards,

Francesco Maria Sabatini