By now most of you have probably heard the news that several years ago Elsevier published a fake academic journal – the Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine – that was basically a marketing ploy financed by Merck. So what looked like a peer-reviewed scholarly journal was in fact a collection of articles showing how great Merck is. Now it’s come out that there were five more titles in the "Australasian Fake Journals" series published around the same time. Elsevier won’t say who "sponsored" those, but since it has to be an entity with lots of money and no scruples that has something to do with healthcare, it’s probably a pharmaceutical company.
Some librarians are outraged or annoyed by this, and not just the usual gang of library idiots (though there are plenty of those), but at least one response from a librarian whose writings and opinion I respect. The problem with the outraged response is that it’s based on faulty assumptions. People seem to think Elsevier is a company dedicated to promulgating scientific truth or something. But Elsevier is a business, and their goal is to MAKE MONEY. It turns out they’re pretty good at it, too. They get governments and universities to fund scientific research, get the researchers to give them free content, review and edit that content for free, and then sell the content back to the universities. The point here should be clear. The folks at Elsevier are clever; librarians and researchers and suckers.
Elsevier is a business run by clever people trying to make money. Libraries are run by less clever people, and I have no idea what the goal is, but it’s not to make money. Some librarians seem to think the goal of libraries is to provide access to YouTube, at least judging by the things they get outraged about. If librarians knew anything about making money, they wouldn’t be librarians.
The outrage is equally ridiculous because it’s set off by something so relatively minor. I wonder if most of the librarians who are so outraged know anything at all about Elsevier, or if they’ve just heard about this fake journal thing and think to themselves, "oh my, how could they do that?" Elsevier and a handful of other publishers have had libraries by the naughty bits for years, and if you haven’t been outraged for years, then your outrage now just makes you look silly.
The way I understand it, Elsevier has a monopoly on a large number of important scientific journals, and also a bunch of crappy ones. They like to sell them all to you in a big package for a big price. If you only want the important journals, because no one will ever read the crappy ones, they’ll be happy to sell you just the good ones, for the same big price. Like Chippendale dancers, they’ll jiggle their package any way you like, as long as you pay the price. And what have libraries done? They just keep on paying. The point? Elsevier is a business run by clever people making a lot of money; librarians and researchers are suckers.
Librarians have been pounding Elsevier for years. Elsevier is "evil," etc. I’m not jumping on that bandwagon, either. Elsevier isn’t evil. Elsevier is clever. Librarians are just resentful because they aren’t as clever as Elsevier, but librarians have never been particularly clever. Clever librarians would have been doing all along what a lot of these companies are doing. Librarians could have been indexing and publishing journals and creating content instead of just classifying it. Academic libraries especially would have been natural homes for a lot of scholarly indexing and publishing. But that would have required cleverness and gumption, in addition to having libraries that consisted of more than a male figurehead at the top (the "librarian") and a bunch of poorly paid and poorly educated women doing all the work.
Thanks to the cleverness of Elsevier and others, libraries don’t even have much content left to classify. These companies that rent us access to journals are brilliant. It used to be the case that libraries would at least be able to keep the journals they bought, but now we pay and pay and get to keep…nothing. Stop the subscription and you don’t have the journal. No access, no preservation. (When we all go to ebooks it will be the same thing. Yay!!) Elsevier is right up there at the forefront of this movement. The point? Elsevier is clever; librarians and researchers are suckers.
From Elsevier’s point of view, the biggest reason not to do something like this isn’t because it’s unethical or deceives people. The big reason not to do it is because it’s stupid from a long term business perspective, which is probably why the journals in question were published only in Australia and only for a brief period. I interpret this to mean that an Australian subset of the company got ambitious to make even more money, but eventually stopped. Were they found out by Elsevier headquarters? I can just imagine someone in charge at Elsevier upbraiding the Aussies. "G’day, idiots! One reason we make money in the long run is that we monopolize a lot of important and respected peer-reviewed journals. Mess with that reputation and you mess with our revenue, and if you do it again we’ll shove the barbie so far up your backside that you won’t be able to put any shrimp on it at all."
So I say especially to all those librarians who are just now climbing onto your anti-Elsevier high horse, please climb off it now, because you just look silly. Elsevier is in business to make money, and they’re very good at it. If they make that money by providing high quality scientific articles, they will. If they make money providing promotional materials for Merck, obviously some people at Elsevier will do that, too. The second revenue stream only works because of the success of the first one, though, so they won’t do it long or often.