I fully support the Elsevier boycott, and came from mathematics (BS and MS) into my current PhD program in an engineering subdiscipline. I'm finishing up my PhD now and starting a post-doc soon.

I've already refused to review an article a few years ago for an Elsevier journal, and the editor seemed quite angry about it.

Once again I have been asked to review an article for an Elsevier journal, only this time the journal editorial board has a prominent researcher who I have had personal contact with, is a recently retired Emeritus Professor from my department, and if he became angry about my refusal he could potentially harm my career.

Does anyone have any specific examples of, or even better statistical data showing that boycotts of Elsevier journals had negative career impacts on early career/junior scientists?

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    It might be worth noting that, when it comes to contentious issues like these, you run the risk of rankling either way. For every person likely to get "angry" about your refusal, there might be another who would be disappointed if you didn't stand up for your convictions, or supportive if you did.
    – J.R.
    Commented Aug 21, 2015 at 21:44
  • Yes, which is why I asked the question, for instance has anyone ever had trouble with a tenure committee member because they refused to review an article for instance?
    – daaxix
    Commented Aug 21, 2015 at 21:50
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    Typically random members of the editorial board won't see whether you declined a review request, unless they are the editor who sent you the request or maybe as editor in chief.
    – silvado
    Commented Aug 24, 2015 at 14:13
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    This seems a very hard, possibly impossible, question to answer. Unless there is a paper experts would agree is a very amazing result that went unnoticed and unrewarded for a long period of time because it was in a less respected journal, how could you possibly measure the impact of such a decision? If you have no Elsevier publications (after a certain date, at least), how would you know for certain that that's the specific reason a promotion/hiring decision went against you? Or that you even could have gotten to the magical number of Elsevier publications, had you tried? Commented Aug 25, 2015 at 1:18
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    Considering that the interaction between editor and referee is confidential, and you are asking about actual retaliation (which most probably not widely advertised by either party), I do not think this question can be answered. Also, if it is answered, most probably they would be only anecdotal cases. Seriously, statistical data showing career impact..? Statistical data on how angry editors gave not recommendation letter to people or unfairly point down grant applications???
    – Greg
    Commented Aug 25, 2015 at 1:23

3 Answers 3


People decline to serve as editors or reviewers for all sorts of reasons. "Too busy" and "conflict of interest" are two common ones that are easily applicable to your case.

All junior faculty have too much on their plate and no one knows what your chair or mentor has told you that you need to focus on. So "unavailable/too busy to take this on" is an unprovable and thus good excuse. It's also impossible to know who you've had a fling or a spat with and so "conflict of interest" (and you don't have to give the reason for a CoI or for why you're unavailable) is perhaps less apt in this situation but also a valid excuse.

Example: These are the three options I was given when I received my last reviewer assignment email. If I clicked on decline due to COI or unavailable, I'd be taken to a webform that asked me for alternate reviewer names, but that was entirely optional on my part. I would not be asked for a reason or justification for my response.

enter image description here Accept/Decline/Unavailable

As to negative effects, I think it's fine to have principles, but when you're junior faculty, you're also vulnerable. You can choose not to buy products made in China (for example) or to decline to provide free work to Elsevier, but you also don't have to tell any and everyone that you've made that decision for yourself. It's fine to decline with a vague reason if that will protect you from the possibility of retribution.

When you are in a position where you can speak your mind without fear of retribution(which is what tenure is designed to ensure), then do so.

As an aside: Especially in well-established journals, editors and editorial boards tend be composed of people known for their expertise as well as their dedication to the field of study. These people also tend to be very, very busy. Your response to the 'board' will likely be entered by a junior editorial assistant and it's highly unlikely that the editorial board will even get involved -- except perhaps to solicit names of other reviewers. Quite simply, it's too small of an issue and people are far too busy to get worked up over this. While I've heard of editors being angry at junior scholars for not publishing in their venues, I've never heard of anyone being angry because someone didn't serve as an article reviewer. A declination then is risk-free. But going out of your way to declare "I'm not reviewing because of my political position against ____" is making a statement (which is what you want, right?) and thus carries the risk that that statement is offensive to some.

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    So you're implying it is detrimental, and that the best course of action is to keep that opinion to yourself? I think it depends strongly on the field. In maths it seems like you can easily boycott Elsevier since the most prestigious journals are not published by them.
    – Cape Code
    Commented Aug 25, 2015 at 8:08
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    One cannot say for certain if it is detrimental or not, just that the risk/benefit analysis is such that it is often best to keep controversial political opinions to oneself while you are in a state that is vulnerable to retribution. There are of course situations that call for a higher degree of bravery and it's up to you to decide what you view as risk and what you view as benefit.
    – RoboKaren
    Commented Aug 25, 2015 at 15:58
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    @CapeCode If you feel that you risk a lot by being honest, then you can decide to simply keep mum. Is it ethical? Who knows, but: Is it wrong to feel at risk? Of course, one can also decide to refuse to review the paper without giving any reason. A simple: "Dear Editor, I apologize, but I can't do the review" could do.
    – yo'
    Commented Aug 26, 2015 at 13:31
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    +1 for keeping this to yourself. In biology, Elsevier publishes some of the leading journals, such as Cell. Looking at their editorial board (cell.com/cell/editorial-board) which contains many top scientists, you might want to think twice before boycotting this journal - even as senior faculty.
    – Bitwise
    Commented Aug 26, 2015 at 14:14
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    A study of whether there has been retribution against journal reviewers for refusing to review for open access because of their political-economic beliefs? Seriously? I belong to a small-n discipline but even this would be pushing it.
    – RoboKaren
    Commented Aug 26, 2015 at 19:07

well it depends on your situation. Consider the following, suppose journals are categorized into A*, A, B, C. Your prospects for pay and promotion are directly affected by how many papers you publish in A* and to a lesser extent A.

Now suppose the only journal sympathetic to work in your field that is A* is published by Elsevier. If you refuse to have anything to do with the journal you are harming your career prospects.

This situation is real in Australia.

As regards not refereeing a paper, lots of people refuse refereeing requests all the time for all sorts of reasons. You can just say "no" without giving a reason or you say you are overworked at the moment which is almost certainly true given that you are a maths postdoc.

  • I asked for actual examples, do you have any anecdotal evidence of this occurring? Thanks
    – daaxix
    Commented Aug 24, 2015 at 13:35
  • Mark, I agree with you for this specific situation, if there is only one high level journal, and it is an Elsevier journal, then it is likely that refusing to publish may harm a junior scientist’s career. Have you ever heard of any backlash for refusing to review or edit an Elsevier journal? In my prior review refusal, I made it clear why I was refusing to review, and this seemed to make the editor angry (fortunately they really aren't in my field exactly), but for the current review request one of the editors is in my field and is actually at my institution...
    – daaxix
    Commented Aug 24, 2015 at 18:36
  • well I doubt many people actually say they are not doing it because it's Elsevier. They probably just say no quietly. Journals treat their referees better than other authors so there is an indirect benefit to doing it. Offending senior academics certainly does harm your career. Regarding your specific question, no I don't have an example.
    – Mark Joshi
    Commented Aug 24, 2015 at 22:01
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    "This situation is real in Australia" - can you be a little bit more specific? As an Australian student, I'm curious if this is the case in any of the fields my work is related to.
    – DTR
    Commented Aug 25, 2015 at 12:25
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    the last ERA had such a list. The business schools have their own list. This is how academics are handled for pay and promotion. It depends on field whether the Elsevier journals dominate A*. For my work, one of the main A*outlets is an Elsevier journal. You would need to get hold of the list for your field.
    – Mark Joshi
    Commented Aug 25, 2015 at 23:20

There's a song I like from a famous French songwriter called Georges Brassens. The title is (roughly translated): "To die for your ideas". He argues that he's alright with it, as long as it's from a slow death. One of his concerns is that these ideas might become obsolete the day after he'd die.

To your question: if the most prestigious journals in your field are published by Elsevier and, say, you produce work worthy of these journals but yet you choose to publish in less reputable journals for political reasons you're obviously taking the risk to diminish your chances at future employment applications, grant money attribution, etc.

I'll give a practical example: say your field is inner-ear physiology and you refuse to review and publish in Hearing Research, JARO or Nature Medicine, because these are commercial publishers, you will not be part of the community who publishes in the field, your papers will be unnoticed and your chances of getting an academic position will tend towards zero.

Now, if the good journals are not published by that commercial publisher you dislike (which I think is the case in many mathematics fields), then it's pretty much irrelevant. If anything, you're annoying editors who have to find other (maybe less capable) reviewers. In your specific case, it might be perceived negatively by your senior colleague that you let politics go in the way of your "duty" to the scientific community as a reviewer, but I doubt that this would ruin your career by itself.

Publish in the reputable journals that your colleagues respect and read, upload preprints for subscription journals.

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    Additionally, my duty is also to ensure that tax-payer funded research is available to the public, and that tax-payer funded public research isn't making corporations 39% profit margins.
    – daaxix
    Commented Aug 21, 2015 at 16:21
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    @daaxix I'm aware of all the arguments, I had the pleasure to endure vociferous open access advocacy at several points in my academic career. The general public can go to a library. With the open access fashion came the obsolescence of editorial rejection and the number of articles exploded. It's costing taxpayers an arm and a leg to archive for stuff they will never read and is marginally incremental or frankly redundant.
    – Cape Code
    Commented Aug 21, 2015 at 16:42
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    -1: This doesn't seem to answer the question. Moreover, your attempt engage the ethical issues comes off as throwing shade: "[I]t's sad that you let politics go in the way of your "duty" to the scientific community as a reviewer." More balanced version: "It's sad that you're putting a principle that you care about strongly ahead of a principle that I care about strongly. Sad to me, I mean, and probably some others as well." You say a lot of other things that are similarly unbalanced. Commented Aug 21, 2015 at 17:02
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    "The general public can go to a library." I find that to be a very strange statement, but let's test it out. Suppose that I, a private United States citizen living in Athens, GA, would like to read the January 2015 issue of Inventiones Mathematicae. What library can I go to in order to do this? Commented Aug 21, 2015 at 23:40
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    @Cape Code: Okay, you can disagree. The question was: "Does anyone have any specific examples of, or even better statistical data showing that boycotts of Elsevier journals had negative career impacts on early career/junior scientists?" So an answer would require calling attention to at least one actual person or group of people whose career was harmed by acting in this way. I'm sorry if your answer contained this information and I missed it: please feel free to point it out to me. Commented Aug 21, 2015 at 23:43

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