Why Elsevier is completely in the right… and totally wrong

The internet was all aflutter last week because Elsevier has sent thousands of take-down notices to Academia.edu, a social networking site where many researchers post and share their published papers. This marks a significant change of tack for Elsevier. Previously the publisher had only been sending a handful of DMCAs a week to Academia.edu (the notices are named after the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act), but now it appears they have decided to get tough.

There was the predictable outrage at the manoeuvre though, as several commentators acknowledged, Elsevier is acting entirely legally. It is simply enforcing rights that were handed to it — for no compensation — by the authors who have now been affected by the takedown demands.

The company is behaving rationally. Why wouldn’t they take all reasonable steps to protect their business?

The problem, and it is a fundamental one for legacy publishers as a whole, is that what seems reasonable in this market is changing. Elsevier and other companies who cleave to the subscription model of academic publishing are slowly being overwhelmed by the tide of events. They may have won a temporary victory in asserting their rights but the almost wholly negative reaction to the move suggests that they have scored another PR own goal. One of the affected authors, Guy Leonard, has made it clear that he will do what he can to avoid Elsevier in future. And although I actually have some sympathy with many who work for the company because, despite its size, it is struggling to with forces that are even bigger, I too have resolved — perhaps belatedly in some eyes — to sign the Elsevier boycott, putting them on public notice that I will refrain from refereeing and editorial work*.

There is a sense that the company knows the ground is shifting beneath its feet. Its response to the adverse reaction among scholars lacked conviction. Tom Reller, Elsevier’s VP for global corporate relations explained the move in terms of protecting the discoverability of the papers they publish and the credit that should accrue to authors. He told the Chronicle of Higher Education in an email:

“We aim to ensure that the final published version of an article is readily discoverable and citable via the journal itself in order to maximize the usage metrics and credit for our authors, and to protect the quality and integrity of the scientific record. The formal publications on our platforms also give researchers better tools and links, for example to data.”

None of these claims stands much scrutiny. Usage statistics could easily be accumulated for views of a paper on Academia.edu; separate hosting of the paper might even increase visibility and so, eventually, citation credit for authors; there is no threat to the integrity of the scientific record (especially if the final published version is uploaded) and, if authors or publishers are producing papers that don’t contain clear links to the underlying data, then neither is doing their job properly.

At the end of the day, the motive seems to me to be one of profit protection — a completely understandable one for a commercial concern but not one that is in the wider public interest. I know of no hard evidence the sharing of papers on Academia.edu has led to the cancellation of journal subscriptions, though I imagine that is the long term fear of publishers: if repositories get too good, Elsevier and co. will lose income. Hence their ongoing demands for long embargoes for papers uploaded by authors to institutional repositories.

There will in future be good money for those companies that can provide a quality publishing service but the pickings are not likely to be as rich as at present. That may be a disturbing prospect for some publishing companies but it is good news for the largely publicly-funded research sector.

Change is coming. And just how far and wide those changes are likely to be was made clear to me when I attended the Berlin Open Access meeting in late November. I was not able to go to the Satellite conference for early-career researchers the day before the main meeting — the existence of which is testament to the appeal of open access to a whole new generation — but was nonetheless impressed and inspired by the commitment and innovation on show from students, scholars, librarians, publishers and even politicians.

Brandenberg Gate, Berlin

The meeting kicked off with the politicos. David Willetts, the UK minister for universities and science, was delayed (see below for his contribution) but we had presentations from George Schütte, from the German ministry for education and research, and Roger Genet, Director General for Research and Innovation at the French Ministry of Higher Education and Research, who both spoke of the importance of making progress on open access (OA), while acknowledging that there is still some way to travel. Schütte was hopeful that there would be a commitment to further policy developments in OA in the coalition treaty that is presently being hammered out following the elections earlier in the Autumn. One has to be careful about speeches made by politicians — they are often too ready to tell audiences what they want to hear — but it was surely significant that the governments of France, Germany and the UK sent representatives to the meeting.

A broader international perspective was given by Carl-Christian Buhr of the European Commission, relaying the words of Vice-President Nellie Kroes (who was indisposed by a foot injury). He emphasised the inherently open nature of science and the need to do justice for the taxpayer, a sentiment that has also motivated UK policy. Buhr was also at pains to point out the necessary internationalism of open access. He argued that that this makes the project more efficient and drew a useful parallel to the cooperation needed between nations to share the costs of expensive research facilities, such as CERN’s Large Hadron Collider.

Taxpayers were also mentioned by Heather Joseph of SPARC who presented a useful review of policy developments in the US, from the rapid mutation of an initially voluntary OA policy at the National Institutes of Health to a mandatory one, which has greatly improved compliance. She was gratified by the language used by John Holdren, President Obama’s senior scientific adviser at the time of the announcement of the White House directive to extend the NIH policy to other federal research agencies: “citizens deserve easy access to the results of research their tax dollars have paid for.” The battle in the US is by no means over; embargos are still in place and the directive leaves room for some agencies to argue the case for delays to open access publication that are even longer than the 12 months permitted by the NIH. The 12-month period was seen initially as a temporary compromise needed to get the policy in place but moves to shorten it have yet to bear any significant fruit.

Technology writer Glyn Moody then took the stage to give a rousing and informative presentation titled “Half a Revolution”. He has summarised it himself (and uploaded his slides) and I urge you to take a look. Glyn presented  a pithy overview of various strands of the open source and open access movements but made telling points about the worldwide success of linux — an operating system that was developed for free and now runs most of the world’s supercomputers and mobile phones, and has led to the creation of numerous profitable companies. A particularly insightful example for any publisher wishing to take note was his mention of Red Hat, a billion-dollar company that packages and sells software that is available on the internet for free. That’s not the only thing that Red Hat does, of course — it’s a bit more complicated that that, to quote Ben Goldacre — but it is clearly possible to do good business selling stuff that is free; the trick is to think through the service offering.

The next speaker, Ulrich Pöschl, a chemist at the Max Planck Institute, had clearly thought about the service offering when setting up a new open access journal, Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics (ACP). Dismissing the noise generated by Bohannon’s investigation into peer review at predatory open access journals as ‘a side issue’, Pöschl outlined how his journal has established a reputation for rigour by pioneering model of multi-stage open peer review that just works. You can read the details for yourself in his recent review article in Frontiers but the key is that the openness and integrity of the process has created a virtuous circle that has enhanced the quality of the submitted manuscripts and the reviews. ACP is an open access journal with rejection rates of only 15% but is one of the top-ranked journals in its field. Its article processing charges (APCs) are reasonably competitive at around 1000 Euro but the journal still makes a surplus healthy enough to allow it to offer waivers to authors without funding for OA publication. The real value in this innovation is that it demonstrates how open access can be made to work; in particular, it lights a way that learned societies might want to seriously consider.

Innovation of another sort from the university sector was in evidence in the talk from Bernard Rentier, rector of the University of Liège. On assuming the role he was surprised to find that the university had no way of recording its outputs. He was also determined to increase the visibility and use made of the research done in Liège.

So he set about creating a repository in which all staff — with no exceptions — must deposit their published works. He got around the problem of weasel words from publishers such as Elsevier, who permit authors to freely upload to repositories as long as they are not mandated to do so (!) (a provision that his legal team tells him has no basis in law), by not having a mandate. Instead, staff have been told that only publications in the repository will be considered when they apply for promotion. The success of this approach has been remarkable, at least on the local level. Rentier has won over his staff, not just with the stick of a threat to promotion opportunities, but also by making sure the repository provided plenty of technical support for staff and by assiduous communication with them about the benefits of the policy. His staff can see that for themselves now, and are often pleasantly surprised to discover to just how many times their work is being accessed from the Liège repository (where, naturally, you can also access Rentier’s presentation).


Curiously, Rentier presented data to show that deposited work that was subject to an embargo was accessed far less often — about 20 to 30 times less often — after the embargo had been lifted when compared to papers subject to no delay in access. This was a striking demonstration of the harmful effects of embargos and will no doubt be weighing on the minds of researchers at Liège. Disappointingly and somewhat bafflingly, Rentier’s bold vision has yet to take hold at other Belgian universities, which have implemented watered-down versions of his scheme.

To round off the first day, Mike Taylor took the stage to deliver an ideological cri de coeur for open access. I’ll leave it to Mike to give you the details but the take home message is that open access is not just about the money, though one shouldn’t forget about the opportunity costs of toll access. Most memorably for me, he quoted Cameron Neylon’s key insight that “the internet doesn’t just change how well we can do things, it qualitatively changes what we can do.”

On the second day of the meeting the perspectives broadened out to encompass viewpoints from all over the world. We heard from Sely Costa about scholarly publishing in Brazil, which has a much stronger tradition of university-based journals and was the originator of the successful Scientific Electronic Library Online (SciELO); from Martin Dracos at OpenEdition, a publishing innovation that aims to promote open access publishing of books; from Robert Darnton of Harvard, who told us about the Digital Public Library of America which is making the collections stored America’s libraries, archives and museums freely available to the world; from medical student Daniel Mutonga who is taking the open access initiative in Kenya, where lack of access is as much a problem for education as for research; and from Xiaolin Zhang of the Chinese Academy of Sciences who told us that even premier Wen Jibao gets open access, declaring in 2012 that (to paraphrase) publicly-funded science should be openly accessible to the whole of society.

This last presentation was perhaps the most significant, given the rapid growth of Chinese science, and particularly since Zhang went out of his way to emphasise the extent of Chinese engagement in open access, telling us that China aims “to contribute to the open sharing of research results worldwide, not taking a free ride”. Of course, actions speak louder than words but Zhang, who freely acknowledged that there were still some in his government and research community who had to be won over, was impressively candid.


At the end of that morning session David Willetts finally arrived and began by graciously thanking his hosts in their own language. Switching to English he talked up the UK gold-preferring policy and raised not a few eyebrows in the room by recommending the Publishers’ Association Decision Tree as a useful tool for guiding researchers through the complexity of open access publishing choices. However, he did also acknowledge, albeit implicitly rather than explicitly, that the Finch review (Finch II) had conceded the point on green OA being a useful alternative to gold publishing routes. His most interesting comments, as far as I was concerned, related to the role of hybrid OA (payment of APCs to make articles OA in journals that still charge a subscription). Willetts went so far as to say that users could “decline to pay” APCs for hybrid if they felt that double-dipping was occurring. Could it be that he has taken on board some of the criticisms made in the House of Commons select committee report on open access, which echoed the view that hybrid OA is increasingly seen as a failed experiment? If publishers want to convince the community that hybrid works, they really have to show us the benefit — specifically how it might function as a mechanism to fund conversion of journals from the subscription model to being fully OA; so far, they have singularly failed to do so. This is an issue that I think needs to be a focal point if the RCUK policy review in 2014. In any case, I am sure the import of Willets’ words was not lost on librarians in the room.

In questions, WIlletts earned himself further credit with the audience by declaring Bernard Rentier’s innovations at Liège to be “ingenious”.

And there I will have to leave you. I am skipping over the final few presentations I am afraid from the ERC’s Nicholas Canny, Manfred Laubichler, Nick Shockey (and his OA button friends, David Carroll and Joseph McArthur, whom I have written about in the Guardian) and John Willinsky; not to mention the final discussion of all things open between Robert Schlögl, PLOS’s Cameron Neylon and  the Max Planck’s Jürgen Renn. By this stage I was reaching saturation. I shouldn’t complain; it’s just that the fare had been so rich up to that point that I struggled to absorb any more.

It was a exciting meeting, in many ways inspirational. Ideas and ideals coming from all corners of the globe united in the common goal of changing the way we share our research so that all might benefit. It is this changing world that some old school publishers are struggling to adapt to, not realising that take-down notices are turning into relics, like toll-booths left derelict when the new highway came through.

Yes, the meeting might have been something of a gathering of the faithful but if we don’t believe in open access then it will never happen and it was invigorating to hear of so many developments. Of course, the journey is far from over. But if you think that the changes in train for scholarly publishing are too ambitious, or too careless of the practicalities and problems, or that they over-estimate the capacity of humans to cooperate for a good that is beyond their immediate self-interest, then please reflect on this: the evening reception at the end of the first day took place at the Bode Museum in the heart of Berlin and featured an invited lecture by Haim Gertner about Yad Vashem, an Israeli project to digitise and make available the photographs and mementos of all those killed by the Nazis in the Holocaust, to remind us of the horror and to honour their memory by ensuring, as he put it in the title of the talk, that ‘Their Place in History is in the Future’. The things that people can do when they work together are deeply, deeply impressive.


*I cannot commit to refraining from publishing in Elsevier journals since that decision has to be made in consultation with group members and collaborators, though I can always argue the case for alternatives. 


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3 Responses to Why Elsevier is completely in the right… and totally wrong

  1. aeon says:

    Thanks for this piece. I’ll have to digest it piece by piece.

  2. Pingback: Twitter Open Access Report – 10 Dec 2013 | A. Hacker's views…

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