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:
- They charge exorbitantly high prices for their journals.
- 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.
- 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.