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Why Stop with Elsevier?

Goodness, things are really heating up around Elsevier, or at least that’s what some people would like us to think. As reported in numerous sources, including LJ, there’s now a petition being signed by academics to refuse to publish, referee, or do any editorial work for Elsevier journals. 2300 signatures and climbing when I last checked.

That’s all well and good, I suppose. It should make some librarians feel better that a mere 14 years after the foundation of SPARC the people who matter are finally paying attention to the problems in scholarly publishing.

As I argued a few weeks ago, the scientists who publish are the only ones who matter when it comes to dealing with whatever problem there might be with scientific publishing, and it looks like a few hundred to a few thousand of them are taking notice. When librarians complain, publishers say, “shush.” When physicists, biologists, mathematicians, and computer scientists complain, the publishers will at least pretend to listen.

Not that they can change. Maybe the inability to change a model where they get all their content and editorial work for free and then sell it back to universities for a hefty and frequently non-negotiable fee explains the comments by an Elsevier vice-president, quoted in the LJ article:

Access to published content is greater and at its lowest cost per use than ever. This is a direct result of the investments publishers have made to digitize and disseminate content.  The reality is that the introduction of optional packages have added enormous access at fractions of the list prices; and resulted in reduced cost per use.

That’s a notable quote, notable especially for the way it avoids discussing the three main charges the petition levels against Elsevier:

  1. They charge exorbitantly high prices for their journals.
  2. They sell journals in very large “bundles,” so libraries must buy a large set with many unwanted journals, or none at all. Elsevier thus makes huge profits by exploiting their essential titles, at the expense of other journals.
  3. They support measures such as SOPA, PIPA and the Research Works Act, that aim to restrict the free exchange of information.

Neither does the argument of another vice president that Elsevier allows authors to post eprints of their work in arXiv. Elsevier still charges very high prices and makes it almost impossible for libraries to negotiate lower prices by unbundling the journals.

Since the journal pricing mechanism of Elsevier and others makes what airlines charge for flights seem almost reasonable and sane, there’s not a lot libraries can do. Elsevier rigs the game so that whatever you do, you’ll pay about the same cost. This petition now calls them on it.

Another vice president says, “Our business is based on people using the journals that we publish and ensuring access to such titles is absolutely core to what we do,” and mentions their “exchange of data with arXiv” as a supporting example.

But by supporting the Research Works Act, which they don’t mention, they’re trying to restrict access to publicly funded research, period. That’s not trying to “ensure access.” They’re trying to ensure they’re profit. Any idiot can understand why they act this way, but someone in Elsevier must think everyone outside Elsevier is idiot enough to believe access to their articles is their “core” goal.

The question I have is, why Elsevier? After decades building up to this problem among a range of publishers, why did the scientists suddenly wake up and start picking on one corporation? It’s not as if Springer, Sage, and a host of others don’t act in exactly the same way. Is it just because Elsevier is bigger?

Earlier, I commented that Elsevier was just pretending to listen. I say “pretend to listen” because I don’t think Elsevier really can listen. The petition asks Elsevier to “radically change how they operate,” but that’s a little naive. They can’t radically change how they operate.

Or rather, they can radically change if they lose the support of the entire international scientific community, but the change would mean they would go out of business. That’s a pretty radical change, I guess.

Not that it would be a bad thing, necessarily. It would be bad for all the people who work for Elsevier, but there are plenty of other publishers just like Elsevier waiting to take up the slack.

The best case scenario for this petition is to drive Elsevier out of business. I don’t see how they can “radically change,” but that can be the next best case, or vice versa. But if either of those happens, which is highly unlikely, scientists will still be faced with a bunch of other publishers just like Elsevier, their faces stained with blood and pockets filled with money as they feed on Elsevier’s carcass.

This petition needs to change to focus not just on Elsevier, but on the common practices the petition is against. Otherwise, it’s kind of pointless.

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Comments

  1. Until those scholars decide on their own to change the hazing system they have in place for themselves in terms of publishing for tenure in those fancy pants journals, it is pointless overall the petition they have now. Sure, it sounds nice. It makes some people feel good they are doing something, but you you point out AL, there are Springers and Sages, so on waiting to feast on the carcass of Elsevier were it to go out of business (a big “if”). Until the day those scholars (and I would hope with the help of all those librarians who work on digital repositories, so on) decide to go open access and stop worrying over their prestige in publishing but really commit to access to information, this is just another gesture. And I just do not see a massive desire for faculties to suddenly say, “you know what? Maybe forcing ourselves to publish for Elsevier and their ilk for the sake of tenure is not such a hot idea.” I would bet most of the ones making the petition are tenured already. They can afford to boycott Elsevier. But if you are a newly minted professor seeking tenure, and you get accepted by an Elsevier journal, can you really afford to go all high principle and tell them no? I don’t think so.

    • Perceptive points, DwB! In a terrific article from early 2010, publishing veteran Michael Clark asked Why Hasn’t Scientific Publishing Been Disrupted Already? His conclusion – because one of their key functions, designation, has no replacement:

      The last function served by scientific journals, and perhaps the hardest to replicate through other means, is that of designation. By this I mean that many academic institutions (and other research organizations) rely, to a not insignificant degree, on a scientists’ publication record in career advancement decisions. Moreover, a scientists’ publication record factors into award decisions by research funding organizations. Career advancement and funding prospects are directly related to the prestige of the journals in which a scientist publishes. As such a large portion of the edifice of scientific advancement is built upon publication records, an alternative would need to be developed and firmly installed before dismantling the current structure. At this point, there are no viable alternatives—or even credible experiments—in development.

      Just like the library ecosystem, the publishing ecosystem supports many species and many needs. It generally takes more than a single, narrow event to effect change.

    • Oops – affect change, for those of us for whom these things matter :)

  2. Your Friendly Neighborhood Librarian says:

    The academics need to ‘radically change’ the culture that is centered around the requirements of publishing in Elsevier owned journals. A fine example of how it takes two to tango…

  3. Clair says:

    Elsevier CAN radically change their bundling model, and stop taking such disproportionate financial gains. I believe this may be partly what the scientists are getting at.

  4. I agree Clair – Elsevier can do it as easily as libraries can change their culture, business models, management and compensation structure.

  5. Stephanie says:

    Actually, the “pick one” strategy is quite common in IP wars: you go after one exemplary, and the others see what might happen to them. It makes them think twice when they see e.g. Elsevier crying for mommy.

    Elsevier is by far the scummiest, as well as the most prestigious, so they are the best choice to start with. They depend on the authors, so if the boycott catches on, it will hurt big time.

  6. Daniel Moskovich says:

    One reason that the boycott is only against Elsevier is that the boycott was started by mathematicians for mathematicians (although it has since spread out), and inside mathematics at least (I cannot speak for other sciences), Elsevier are by far the worst abusers. Springer seem to genuinely care about publishing good math content, but Elsevier do not. So when I publish in a Springer journal, I feel that my work is copy-edited and that value is being added (even though one can argue that they charge far too much), whereas with Elsevier I just feel that I’m being exploited.

    Sure, other academic publishers also do things which they should not be doing… but an Elsevier boycott is more focussed, for urgent, and therefore has a better chance of making a practical positive difference in our profession.

  7. Tom says:

    Jean Costello:

    You were right the first time. It IS “effect change,” not “affect change.”

  8. Anon says:
  9. POGO: WHY ARE RESEARCHERS YET AGAIN BOYCOTTING INSTEAD OF KEYSTROKING?

    http://openaccess.eprints.org/index.php?/archives/869-.html

    While the worldwide researcher community is again busy working itself up into an indignant lather with yet another publisher boycott threat, I am still haunted by a “keystroke koan”:

    “Why did 34,000 researchers sign a threat in 2000 to boycott their journals unless those journals agreed to provide open access to their articles – when the researchers themselves could provide open access (OA) to their own articles by self-archiving them on their own institutional websites?”
    Not only has 100% OA been reachable through author self-archiving as of at least 1994, but over 90% of all refereed journals (published by 65% of all refereed journal publishers) have already given their explicit green light to some form of author self-archiving — with over 60% of all journals, including Elsevier’s — giving their authors the green light to self-archive their refereed final drafts (“postprint”) immediately upon acceptance for publication…

    So why are researchers yet again boycotting instead of keystroking, with yet another dozen years of needlessly lost research access and impact already behind us?

    We have met the enemy, Pogo, and it’s not Elsevier.

    (And this is why keystroke mandates are necessary; just keying out boycott threats to publishers is not enough.)

  10. Colin Broughton says:

    Anything that harms free flow of information and openness is harmful to science. I believe the business models of traditional publishers are past their due date: their services are no longer required in the internet age. PLoS is a superior model for the future of academic/scientific publishing.

    Needless to say, traditional publishers are doing everything in their power to forestall their own demise, especially lobbying for legislation that entrenches very questionable business practices. The principle of public good is entirely lost in the lobbying process.

    Excellent explanation regarding “why Elsevier?”:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2012/jan/16/academic-publishers-enemies-science

  11. Having authors post works to their institutional websites would “put content out there” – though without a lot of the value provided by current systems.

    1) If a refereed draft includes the author’s submission only, things like illustration, tables, rubricks, etc added by publishers would not be present. These are significant value-adds in scientific/technical/medical literature.
    2) Seems there would be little or no value-add around discoverability (metadata, interfaces that automatically serve related content or most-cited, etc).
    3) It would also limit re-use (collections by topic, year-end compilations, etc) that are valuable discovery mechanisms.
    4) The institutional sites likely wouldn’t support user generated content, which can be a rich source of content/context on leading publisher sites where serious people weigh in.
    5) Most institutional websites I’ve seen are pretty lousy, so I’d be concerned about broken download links – moved pages without redirects, etc.

    Stevan, can you provide authoritative references that clearly spell out the terms by which authors can self-archive? It will be interesting to know what, when and where authors can deposit to understand the value of self-archiving. Thanks.

  12. ON ADDING VALUES (Reply to Jean Costello)

    0) Depositing refereed articles in the author’s institutional repository to make them free for all online provides “value” for all those would-be users webwide who otherwise cannot afford to subscription access to that content.

    1) A refereed, accepted final draft includes all illustrations, tables, etc.

    2) Discoverability (interfaces that automatically serve related content or most-cited, etc) is provided by the growing number of harvesters of free web content (including Google Scholar, Scirus, Scopus, Citeseerx, BASE, etc.).
    
3) The real limit on re-use (and use) is failure to deposit! Along with free online access, the following also automatically comes with the territory: (1) clicking, (2) on-screen access, (3) linking, including (4) OA URLs in course-packs,(5) downloading, (6) local storage, (7) local print-off of hard copy, (8) local data-mining by the user, and (9) global harvesting and search by engines like google. (That includes “collections by topic, year-end compilations, etc.”)
    
4) The institutional repositories can easily support user generated content if desired. (What they need first is the content!)
    
5) Most institutional websites are indeed pretty lousy, but for one main reason: They are mostly empty! The exceptions are the ones where deposit is mandated. See ROARMAP: http://roarmap.eprints.org/

    6) All authors can deposit their own refereed drafts in their institutional repositories. No permission whatsoever is needed from anyone for depositing. For authoritative references that clearly spell out publishers’ policies for making access to those deposits *open access* (rather than closed access), see:

    http://www.sherpa.ac.uk/romeo/

    and

    Sale, A., Couture, M., Rodrigues, E., Carr, L. and Harnad, S. (2012) Open Access Mandates and the “Fair Dealing” Button. In: Dynamic Fair Dealing: Creating Canadian Culture Online (Rosemary J. Coombe & Darren Wershler, Eds.) http://eprints.ecs.soton.ac.uk/18511/

    • Thanks Stevan – I’ll check out the info. Author deposits may actually fit nicely into some proposals I’m working on for how libraries can add value in the digital realm.