Why I don’t share Elsevier’s vision of the transition to open access

Screenshot: Working towards open access

Last week Elsevier’s VP for Policy and Communications, Gemma Hersh, published a think-piece on the company’s vision of the transition to open access (OA). She makes some valid points but glosses over others that I would like to pick up on. Some of Elsevier’s vision is self-serving, but that should come as no surprise since the company has skin in the game and naturally wants to defend its considerable commercial interests.  And some of it is, frankly, bizarre. You can read the whole article for yourself – it’s not long. I would recommend also having a look at the reaction from the OECD’s Toby Green. Below, I have highlighted and commented  on (in blue) the portions that struck me, and tried to fill in some of the missing pieces of what is a very tricky puzzle.

The article opens constructively:

“Elsevier […] is thinking about how […] alternative access models tailored to geographical needs and expectations can help us further advance open access.”

  • ‘Tailored’ sounds like a euphemism. In part, it reflects consideration of differences in the research intensity of different nations (even in the developed world), which means that there would be winners and losers in a switch to a gold OA model funded by article processing charges (APCs); but there is no recognition of the constraints due to ongoing global inequalities. OA ameliorates that immediately as far as accessing the literature goes, though we need to think hard about how to create OA business models that address the challenges to authors from the global south.

“Elsevier and other STM publishers generally agree with many of the authors’ observations and recommendations, notably that there may be enough money in the system overall to transition globally to gold open access.”

  • How much money is ‘enough’? Readers should be aware that Elsevier has makes adjusted operating profit margins of around 37%. In 2016, according to the latest annual report of the parent company, RELX, this amounted to £800m profit on revenues of £2,320m for their science, technical and medical division. It’s no surprise that the company wants to protect their business. But that motive should be clear to all stakeholders, including academics and the public. Can publicly-funded researchers, who support high-profit publishers such as Elsevier, Wiley and Springer-Nature with their labour as authors, editors and reviewers, look the taxpayer in the eye and them they are delivering value for money?

“…One possible first step for Europe to explore would be to enable European articles to be available gold open access within Europe and green open access outside of Europe.”

  • This simply does not compute. It is a kind of double-speak that seeks to re-define unrestricted access – the original definition of open access – as restricted access, depending on your location. Hersh has defended this notion  as creative “outside of the box” thinking. Maybe so, but it’s also outside my comprehension.

Hersh then moves on to consider mechanisms for flipping subscription journals to OA:

“One successful model is the SCOAP3 program. A particularly powerful aspect of SCOAP3 (even if initially cumbersome to administer) stems from the detailed and systematic planning of the various ways in which money needs to flow through the system for journals to become exclusively gold open access. Money is carefully redirected from library budgets to a central pool administered by CERN, and from there to publishers in the form of APCs. […] Drawing on the principles of this program could help us all with the much broader challenge of transitioning all hybrid journals to become fully gold open access.”

  • The focus here, once again, is on money – and, in my view,  on preserving the status quo. SCOAP3 may well have shown that subscription journals may be flipped to OA but reaching agreement required complex and protracted negotiations and only worked because the deal was confined to a well-defined group of researchers with links to a single, large international facility. We are a long way from seeing how that might work in less focused disciplines. Hybrid OA (publishing OA articles in subscription journals) was originally proposed as a mechanism to fund flipping but it is a pathway that Elsevier seems not to recognise. Against accusations of “double-dipping” – in which hybrid OA journals keep subscription charges up even as the proportion of OA content grows – Elsevier has maintained that it simply doesn’t exist. Have they had a change of heart? 

“We believe that the primary reason to transition to gold open access should not be to save money (it won’t, and there will be winners and losers as costs are redistributed) but that it would be better for research and scholarship…”

  • Well, at least that’s (rightly) stated as a belief – an act of faith. It’s not a belief I share. There are many historical examples of new technology driving down costs and becoming available to the many, not the few: printing, telephony, cars, and digital cameras, for example. Admittedly in each of these cases a functioning market was required which is still lacking in scholarly publishing. The reasons for this are well known  and present a tough nut to crack, but if we are going to talk about money let’s also be up-front about profits and value for money. Stuart Shieber analytical post on the difference in value provided by commercial and non-profit publishers is illuminating on this point. It’s also worth remembering Elsevier’s tenacious defence of the Publisher’s Association decision tree, which to this day presents a incorrect (but revenue-raising) interpretation of the OA policy of Research Councils UK. 

“Advocates for a global transition to gold open access alone should be clear that an entirely gold open access system would cost more in some regions and for some institutions – especially those that are highly research intensive and therefore pay more in a “pay to publish” model – and that they consider this a price worth paying.”

  • To my mind this is an argument for getting governments and inter-governmental bodies to take a keener interest in these affairs – they are the major paymasters, after all.

“Another reason APCs would rise is that the money flowing into the current system from outside the academic research community – i.e., journal subscriptions from industry – is estimated to be about 25 percent of the total. In a “pay-to-publish model,” systemic costs would need to be borne by the academic research community rather than shared with industry.”

  • If about 75% of the total funding for publishing comes from universities & research institutes – public institutions for the most part – then this is yet another reason for governments to take the lead in not letting costs get out of control. There is a public interest at stake here, not least because of the close links between publicly-funded research and national policies on industry and innovation around the world .

The conclusions to piece contains this rhetorical flourish:

“A fully gold open access world inhabited only by predatory publishers who will publish anything as long as they are paid is not a healthy and prosperous world.”

  • For one thing, there is no serious prospect of a world “inhabited only by predatory publishers”. Such outfits, which scoop up APCs while providing no meaningful peer review, have gained purchase in some countries but are now feeling the heat of regulation – heat that will only increase as open peer review gains traction. Their negative impact is, in any case, arguable. Hersh also seems to be suggesting that cheaper open access journals are necessarily low-quality, but there are powerful counter-examples, such as PeerJ. (By the way, nothing is likely to me more effective at killing off predatory journals than evaluation systems that judge research papers on their intrinsic merits.)
  • For another, the talk about a “healthy and prosperous world” sounds a distinctly bum note after the earlier proposal to erect a great, golden paywall around Europe. There’s a striking contrast here with the G7 Science Communiqué, which was also published last week. We should of course always be circumspect about the pronouncements of politicians from the global stage but that document did at least articulate a vision to address global challenges and inequalities, and to use open science to bolster the robustness and utility of publicly-funded research.

And finally, we are left with the posturing (the italics are mine):

“The pace of change will ultimately be driven by researchers and the choices they make about how they wish to disseminate their research outputs. We can help them embrace open access by working closely with funders and research institutions to move beyond advocacy to possibility.”

    • Thus writes the commercial publisher advocate. Reader, beware.


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6 Responses to Why I don’t share Elsevier’s vision of the transition to open access

  1. Mike Taylor says:

    Thanks for this careful dissection, Steven.

    To my mind, there are two very fundamental problems with Elsevier’s piece, beyond the ones that you highlighted.

    First, Gemma Hersh either does not know, or does not care, what “Gold” and “Green” open access are. Her piece takes it as a starting point that Gold means immediate and Green means delayed — which is, and I can’t emphasize strongly enough, simply not what those terms mean. They have never, ever meant that.

    As always when Elsevier pull such manoeuvres, part of the difficulty in responding is in making a judgement about whether we’re seeing ignorance or malice. Hanlon’s Razor rightly counsels us to favour the former, more charitable, interpretation. But It’s hard to keep believing that a piece like this, approved as it necessarily was by layers of administrators and perhaps even lawyers, never came under the eyes of anyone who understands the most basic definitions in the world of open access. So must we conclude that this is deliberate? That Elsevier’s latest attempt to derail the inevitable global transition to open access takes the form of trying to confuse the meanings of the terms themselves?

    Secondly, there’s this: “One possible first step for Europe to explore would be to enable European articles to be available [immediately] open access within Europe and [delayed] open access outside of Europe.” You rightly call this out as incomprehensible; but I think it’s important to also point out that it’s immoral. Everyone agrees that one of the big benefits of open access is making research available to the poorest countries in the world. Even Elsevier recognises this, as evidenced by its participation in the HINARI program. Yet here we are, proposing to cut them off from the fruits that we in the rich west will enjoy. That is not just idiotic, it’s abhorrent.

    • William Gunn says:

      Let me be blunt. Elsevier is not talking about cutting off the developing world from European research, nor are they redefining open access.

      To quote Gemma’s original post, “any country that moves to gold open access first would need to pay to broadcast its articles while also continuing to subscribe to the rest of the world’s content”. She clarifies what is meant by broadcast in a comment, “We have always been clear that APCs pay to broadcast research, globally, free of charge to the end user…”

      Please stop spreading this misinterpretation of the article.

      • Stephen says:

        It’s not a mis-interpretation. She writes: “Therefore one possible first step for Europe to explore would be to enable European articles to be available gold open access within Europe and green open access outside of Europe.” I don’t understand how that is gold OA. It is a proposal to restrict the geographical distraction of an OA article that (presumably) an APC has been paid for. Please feel free to offer an explanation.

        • Stephen says:

          Yesterday I had an exchange with Gemma Hersh on twitter that provides some further clarification. To my mind it shows that I have not mis-interpreted her proposal in my piece – there is an implicit acknowledgement that it envisages a two-tier system of access: the gold OA journal article being immediately accessible within Europe and the embargoed/delayed green OA version being available to the rest of the world. It’s not a vision I am comfortable with.

      • Mike Taylor says:

        Let me me blunt, WIlliam. If Gemma does not want to be “misinterpreted” as cutting off the developing world from European research, then she should not write sentences like “One possible first step for Europe to explore would be to enable European articles to be available [immediately] open access within Europe and [delayed] open access outside of Europe.” I would be interested to know what other interpretation there is of this beyond the obvious one.

        And if she doesn’t want to be “misinterpreted” as redefining open access, she should not write sentences like “gold open access offers immediate access to the final published article […] green open access [is] making a version of the subscription article widely available after a time delay or embargo period”. These definitions are “alternative”, in the Kellyanne Conway sense.

        The obvious inaccuracies in this piece are indefensible, and I’m a bit shocked that you would even try to defend them. I will give you this, though: to my original two hypotheses of ignorance and malice, I will add a third possibility: that Hersh is merely a terrible writer who is not capable of saying what she means.

  2. DrugMonkey says:

    I am, as always, bemused by publisher flacks who seem to have the following preamble to every thought on the future of publishing.

    “Given that we continue to make our existing obscene profits…..”

    There is simply no reason for academics to treat these people as legitimate actors who need to be given a place at the table. They are, quite simply, leeches. So academics should decide what is the best path forward for publishing. If there is a continued role for Elsevier, fine. If not, boo-hoo.

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