Since the beginning of the argument with Elsevier over their support of the Research Works Act (RWA) in the US and the announcement of the boycott of the publisher, I have been keen to stimulate dialogue. Elsevier seems to be interested in the same thing and their response to the research community, hesitant at first, is now being relayed by open letters from the organisation and comments (e.g. here, here and here) from various employees on blogposts and on Twitter.
This is good.
To continue the dialogue I’d like to pick up on a couple of points in the recent open letter from the publisher.
“Being criticized by even one researcher, let alone all the signatories of the petition, is difficult for a company whose reason for being is to serve the research community.”
This rather skips over the fact that Elsevier has a duty to make profits for its shareholders, which is another important reason for its being.
Then there is the question of their service to the research community. The publisher likes to see itself as working ‘for’ the researchers. They go on, in describing their activities:
“It’s work that is both complex and investment-intensive, performed by Elsevier employees working for a vast global community of more than 7,000 journal editors, 70,000 editorial board members, 300,000 reviewers and 600,000 authors. We are proud of the way we have been able to work in partnership with the research community to make real and sustainable contributions to science.”
That’s a touching reference to ‘partnership’ but it is important to be clear about the nature of that relationship. Most successful partnerships are either equal or agreed by mutual consent to be fair. Where does the balance of equality or fairness lie in our partnership with Elsevier?
There seem to be problems — witness the flare-up over the RWA. Even in a response that is supposed to address the concerns of their research partners, Elsevier cannot quite help making a slip of the pen:
“We have invested heavily in making our content more discoverable and more accessible to end-users and to enable the research community to develop innovative research applications.”
“Our content”? There they go again. How easily the publisher seems to forget where that content comes from. On Twitter Elsevier employee Liz Smith explained to me “‘Our’ content means the article we’ve invested in. It’s not our work and we know that.” I’d like to suggest that our partner tries harder to find a form of words that more clearly acknowledges the shared nature of the content. To be fair to them, however, perhaps the publisher is simply relying on the fact that most authors sign over to them the copyright of their journal articles.
The letter ends with an undertaking:
(to redouble) “our substantial efforts to make our contributions to that community better, more transparent, and more valuable to all our partners and friends in the research community.”
Partners and friends? There is truth in that. I am sure that many who work for Elsevier have come from scientific backgrounds (to focus on my own area) and are committed to the industry because they see it as a valuable contribution to the research enterprise. This was expressed to me by Liz Smith on Twitter, “I can honestly say we feel privileged to help get the awesome work scientists do out to as many people as possible.” I believe her.
But this is not the whole story. There seems to be a disconnect between many who work for the publisher and the ultimate aims of the business. The open letter is at least in part a PR exercise and so glosses over some of the more uncomfortable aspects of our friendship with the multi-billion dollar publisher.
Elsevier might like to think of itself as the friend of the research community but it doesn’t always treat it that way, as shown by the recently concluded negotiations on journal subscriptions with JISC Collections, the body that deals with publishers on behalf of UK Higher Education institutions. Having had to swallow above-inflation subscription prices rises for several years (in part driven by the demands of researchers who are largely ignorant of the cost implications), the UK HE sector now spends nearly £200m per year on access to journals and databases. That is about 10% of the QR budget paid to universities by HEFCE.
However, since the credit crunch, shrinking university budgets have obliged Research Libraries UK (RLUK), the organisation that speaks for the major research intensive universities and played a leading part in the negotiations, to take a firmer stand. Indeed they felt compelled late in 2010 to threaten the cancellation of the big deals (bundled subscriptions of numerous titles) with publishers like Elsevier and Wiley-Blackwell as part of their negotiating strategy.
Perhaps such tactics should not seem surprising — they are part of the rough and tumble of commercial deal-making. But it’s not the sort of stance you expect to have to take with partners and friends. Especially when the customer ultimately seeking to negotiate prices is also the author who provides journal content for free, the editorial board member, also working without payment, and the peer-reviewer, again working at no charge to the publisher whose journals, in the case of Elsevier, are the most profitable arm of its business.
Moreover, if Elsevier truly desires to encourage greater transparency with its partners in the academic community, they could start by releasing RLUK from the confidentiality clauses that they imposed on the deal that was reached at the end of last year. Debby Shorley, the head librarian at Imperial College who was active in the negotiation process, cannot tell me how much she pays for Elsevier journals. We therefore cannot have an informed conversation about decisions on journal subscriptions. That’s not helpful.
I’m afraid it is difficult at times to remember that many who work for the publisher are on the side of science.
But let’s continue to talk. Discussion, even if it is argument, is good. It brings things out into the open. Before all this business over the RWA and the Elsevier boycott I had not given sufficient attention to the interplay between the scientist and the publisher. I am now. And I’m not happy with what I see. I want better value for money and more open access.
Elsevier is correct to claim that it offers a range of open access options to authors but I think publishers are increasingly aware that the scientific community wants more. According to a briefing note I obtained from Bernstein Research (2), a publisher’s-only workshop was held in the spring of 2011 to address the questions, “Can we learn not just to live with open access, but to love it as well? Has the time come to turn the threat into an opportunity?”. That’s certainly a telling title and the invitation to that workshop outlined publisher thinking in more detail (with my emphases in bold):
“Open access is here to stay, and has the support of our key partners. Funders see it as the way to maximise access and impact for the research they fund, policy makers are under pressure to make it happen. Publishers know it is much more complicated and threatening to make it work than is apparent to the advocates and the fund holders. But we would benefit from having a compelling, coherent and above all positive story to tell about the role we can play in achieving these objectives“.
I say to my friends in the scientific community, let’s help our friends in the publishing industry to realise that opportunity.
(1) Reed Elsevier: The inevitable crunch point – downgrading to under perform because of growing concerns on Elsevier, Bernstein Research, 10 March 2011
(2) Reed Elsevier, Bringing down the house – Why Elsevier is vulnerable in its upcoming Big Deal negotiations, Bernstein Research, 29 March 2011
My thanks to Claudio Aspesi for making these documents available. A more recent briefing note that analyses the possible impact of the publicity surrounding the boycott is also an interesting read.
Update – 13-02-2012: Thanks to Debby Shorley for correcting me on the roles of the JISC collections and RLUK in dealing with publisher negotiations. Text amended accordingly.