Publishers invent a whole new form of evil: suing their customers
January 27, 2012
I know that I’ve tended to be very critical of Elsevier on these pages [peer review, economics, PLoS clone, RWA, profits]. I’ve sometimes wondered whether that’s really fair: after all, Elsevier are just one among many exploitative for-profit non-open scholarly publishers, right? Shouldn’t I be equally harsh on Springer, Wiley, Informa and the rest?
I’m not alone in this, of course. For example, Tyler Neylon’s bare-bones site The Cost Of Knowledge — registered only six days ago, according to the whois record — is a call to boycott Elsevier in particular. Researchers are invited to “declare publicly that you will not support any Elsevier journal unless they radically change how they operate”, by signing a declaration to refrain from publishing refereeing, and/or editorial work. Impressively, this has gone from non-existent to 618 signatures in six days; you should consider whether yours should be the 619th.
So why Elsevier? Partly, I think it’s just a convenient shorthand to say “Elsevier” rather than “exploitative for-profit non-open scholarly publishers”. But there are specific reasons why it wasn’t Blackwell, to pick a name at random, that rolled the snake eyes. As well as the restrictive copyrights, predatory pricing and obligatory bundling that are so ubiquitous, Elsevier is also responsible for the six fake journals that misrepresented sponsored content as legitimate research, involvement in the arms trade, repeated obstruction to the re-use of data, making campaign contributions to representatives to propose the Research Works Act and then feeding those representatives the very words they want them to say in support of it.
But a couple of days ago I learned of yet another reason why my attempts to be gentle and kind to Elsevier are doomed. It’s not been widely publicised yet, because the reporting has been in German, but Elsevier are now filing lawsuits against their own customers.
You may find it hard to believe — I certainly did — but here is a report in the well respected German-language Swiss newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung. Google’s automatic translation is pretty good, but David Marjanovic kindly provided this better translation of the key passage:
Almost at the same time, on 19 December 2011, the science publishers Elsevier, Thieme and Springer filed a suit with the Zurich Commercial Court, which is intended to forbid the ETH library to continue its document delivery service in its present form. Through this service clients of the ETH library can request the electronic delivery of articles from scientific journals. The copies may only be used internally and must not be passed on. In addition, the ETH library pays an annual compensation to the copyright-collecting agency Pro Litteris. The publishers that have filed the lawsuit want to prohibit this service on the grounds that they themselves offer these articles online, although usually for about 30 euros per article, a multiple of what access through the ETH library costs.
By their suit, the science publishers want to subvert a provision of Swiss copyright law that explicitly allows the copying of excerpts from periodicals. In comparison e.g. to the situation in Germany, where such copies are forbidden, this provision is an unambiguous advantage for Switzerland as a science site.
I want to add some commentary here, but … What can I add? I am lost for words. How much lower can they go?
(The good news for Elsevier: Springer get to share the blame this time.)