A window of opportunity for Elsevier

February 13, 2012

The Elsevier boycott at The Cost Of Knowledge is the most visible sign of the recent uprising against exploitative publishing practices, but it’s far from the only one.  Anyone who’s been keeping an eye on the developing shift in attitudes will hardly have been able to miss:

No-one organised all this.  There is no Open Access Mastermind stroking a long-haired white cat behind the scenes, manipulating his minion into a co-ordinated assault on non-open scientific publishing.  What we’re seeing is a spontaneous response — catalysed by the Research Works Act, yes, but not caused by it.  The roots run much deeper.  The discontent being expressed now is only the first rumblings of a seismic event that’s been building up for a long time.  People who have spend the last decade thinking “this sucks, but what’s the point on complaining?” have started to speak.

And there are encouraging moments when it seems that the publishers are truly starting to Get It.  Elsevier’s most recent formal response to the boycott says:

We pay close attention to the voices of the research community we serve, including those who have responded to an online petition that is putting forward some serious negative judgments about Elsevier. 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.
[...]
The depth of feeling among some in the research community is real and something we take very seriously. We’re listening to all the concerns expressed and redoubling 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.

This is encouraging stuff.  And reading it has made me realise that there is a real window of opportunity here for Elsevier to radically reposition themselves.

Because the problem is that the big chunk in the middle of the statement that I quoted above — the part that I replaced with an ellipsis — is all justification for the current business model and current behaviour.

But Elsevier don’t have to do this.

At a stroke, they can sweep away the researcher hostility that has built up against them over the last month.  They can completely reverse the perception that they are the worst of all the big-money publishers.  How?  It’s simple?

Elsevier should repudiate the RWA and throw themselves behind the Federal Research Public Access Act.

Yes, really.  Why not?  Just imagine the impact of a press release right now:

We pay close attention to the voices of the research community we serve, including those who have responded to an online petition that is putting forward some serious negative judgments about Elsevier.  We realise we have seriously misjudged what authors want and need from us, and that by supporting the Research Works Act we were not acting in accordance with the partnership we so value with authors.  Accordingly, we hereby withdraw our support for the RWA, and instead support the FRPAA.

Wouldn’t that be huge?

Wouldn’t it totally change the game overnight?

I know it’s hard to turn a supertanker on a sixpence, but I suspect it can be done if the will is there.

Can they do it?

Will they?

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30 Responses to “A window of opportunity for Elsevier”


  1. It really wouldn’t change anything in my books…


  2. While possible, I think such a shift in attitude would take years. Despite the rightness of the thing, companies that support same-sex partnerships in the Forbes 500 went from 34 in 2003 to all in 2011, a crawl that for some might be interminable, but in many of these companies minds was inevitable but took years to implement. All of that was essentially “in the shadows,” without hooplah or press releases, and was simply tracked by outside interests. As same-sex partnerships are a big deal for a large number of people, and involves large amounts of benefits savings, potentially as much or more than yearly profits paid to shareholders. It’s also a large social effect with clear political backlash, so it seems an interesting metric.

    Almost certainly, they will never say anything like “we were wrong; you were right” (I know YOU don’t, but it’s implied).

    And yes, fi they did what you request, it would change the game. The biggest domino falling would cause the rest to shift position, I think.


  3. Repudiation of #RWA and declaration of support for FRPAA would definitely reflect a change of heart


  4. Kent Anderson on Scholarly Kitchen is simply something else. “Many editors are well-compensated in their regular jobs and don’t want money from their publishing activities.” Can’t… stop… laughing…

  5. Cress Kearny Says:

    You know, I’ve read nearly every post and tutorial in SVPOW! From its beginning to the present and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the experience. But all this stuff now about open access is of no interest to me at all, and it won’t be long before you train me not to look, yet again, to see if you’ve posted something interesting about paleontology and all those sauropods. Every dog (and blog) has his day, and maybe you’ve got nothing much left to add to the conversation, but I truly hope that’s not the case and that both of you will soon get us back to the fascinating world of great beasts and their improbable anatomies.

  6. Mike Taylor Says:

    Hi, Cress, thanks for your kind words about SV-POW! — at least, about SV-POW! as it was until recently. I appreciate that the current run of articles might not do much for you, and we’d be sad if we lost you because of it. But Matt and I realised long ago that the only way to keep up our enthusiasm for blogging is to write about what we care about at the time. Try to force yourself to write about something else, and blogging becomes a demotivating burden.

    Now of course we do care about sauropods — care deeply — and we most surely will get back to blogging about them sooner rather than later. But for me it’s no exaggeration to say that open access is the single most important issue currently facing science; so while the muse is on me, I am certainly not going to stop writing about it.

  7. Liz Smith (@lexemes) Says:

    Elsevier’s support for the Research Works Act comes down to a question of preferring voluntary partnerships to promote access to research, rather than being subjected to inflexible government mandates like the NIH policy, which seek to dictate how journal articles or accepted manuscripts are disseminated without involving publishers. We aren’t alone in that support, despite some high-profile reversals in the industry.

    We are happy to work with funding bodies, government agencies, etc., to ensure that the public can see the output of taxpayer-funded research. We also encourage researchers to make their datasets and reports and draft manuscripts available.

    Incidentally, federal funding agencies receive full final reports on research results from grantees. These could be made freely available to serve the public good, but for some reason they aren’t.

    (Disclosure: I work for Elsevier in the employee communications function. I am not an official spokesperson for Elsevier, but I am a passionate supporter of what we do.)


  8. I am not an official spokesperson for Elsevier, but I am a passionate supporter of what we do.

    Your copy-n-paste comment is also en excellent example of why we need to get rid of parasites like Elsevier.

  9. Mike Taylor Says:

    Liz Smith says: “Elsevier’s support for the Research Works Act comes down to a question of preferring voluntary partnerships to promote access to research, rather than being subjected to inflexible government mandates.”

    First — again, thank you for engaging. It’s deeply appreciated.

    The Elsevier line about preferring voluntary partnerships over government mandates is a well-worn one: I’ve seen it in many places now, including Tom Reller’s comments on Michael Eisen’s blog, Elsevier’s OSTP submission, Elsevier’s “message to the research community” and Alice Wise’s interview on the Open and Shut blog.

    Let’s not get caught up, for the moment, in the question of whether the Elsevier position (“we want to do it, but we don’t want to be told to do it”) makes much sense. That’s not the issue right now. This issue is that it should now be apparent to everyone at Elsevier that authors hate the position you’ve taken. The Cost Of Knowledge declaration (currently at 5854 signatories and still growing steadily) should be enough alone to convey that, but the general tenor of recent blogs, comments and tweets puts it beyond doubt.

    So the question becomes whether Elsevier is responsive to the needs and desires of the people that it says it’s partnering with. If, with the best intentions, I bought my wife an elaborately decorated vase this Valentine’s Day, but it turned out that she hated it, I wouldn’t be perpetually trying to persuade her that I know best and she should learn to like it. I’d get rid of it. That is part of what being a partnership means.

    Your partners the authors hate the RWA and love the FRPAA, and you know this well. So the question is simply: will you behave like a partner in such situations? Or like an adversary?

    There is a huge opportunity here for Elsevier to win back at a stroke much of the goodwill that they have burned in the last decade.

  10. Liz Smith (@lexemes) Says:

    Mike Taylor says: “The Elsevier line about preferring voluntary partnerships over government mandates is a well-worn one: I’ve seen it in many places now…”

    The statement you’re referring to is a succinct statement of our position. I could reword it, but the meaning would stay the same. (And I also intend to continue to describe myself as not an official spokesperson but a passionate supporter. I could reword that each time but, why?)

    We absolutely are aware of the reaction of many authors to our support for the RWA. That’s exactly why we’re engaging in the conversation (and thanks again for the opportunity to do so on your blog).

  11. Mike Taylor Says:

    “The statement you’re referring to is a succinct statement of our position. I could reword it, but the meaning would stay the same. (And I also intend to continue to describe myself as not an official spokesperson but a passionate supporter. I could reword that each time but, why?)”

    I didn’t mean to imply that you should. I wasn’t criticising Elsevier for having a consistent position, just pointing out that by now we all fully understand what that position is, but no-one (that I know of) has been persuaded by it.

    Which is why, although it’s valuable that you and others are engaging, I’m afraid it’s not going to be anywhere near enough. To win back hearts and minds, and avoid what is otherwise going to be a slow but inevitable slide into ignominy and irrelevance, Elsevier is going to have to do something dramatic and spectacular. And I doubt you’ll have a better opportunity than the FRPAA provides.

  12. Alex Merz Says:

    Kudos to Liz Smith for framing the question in stark and honest terms.

    “Elsevier’s support for the Research Works Act comes down to a question of preferring voluntary partnerships to promote access to research…”

    Of course. So long as these “partnerships” are voluntary, Elsevier can — and legally, must — honor its obligations to Elsevier shareholders before honoring its obligations to the “partners” who generate Elsevier’s most valuable content, the funding entities that underwrite production of that content, and the public, who generously support the funding entities.

    When there is a conflict between these constituencies, it can be “voluntarily” resolved in a manner that favors Elsevier’s shareholders.

    So far, so good. Smith is clear about her position. But then, she is less accurate:

    “Incidentally, federal funding agencies receive full final reports on research results from grantees. These could be made freely available to serve the public good, but for some reason they aren’t.”

    Anyone who has written or read such reports understands that they are typically brief summaries of work done and publications awarded, not comprehensive descriptions of data, methodology, or interpretation. To call these progress and completion reports “full” is in most cases laughable. The real work product of most government-funded research is peer-reviewed publications in scientific journals. I know this, my colleagues know this, my program officers at funding agencies know this, and — given her position within Elsevier — Liz Smith must know this.

    It is apparent Elsevier and at least some of its key employees care more about market leverage than about credibility. The Editors of The Lancet — an Elsevier journal — are unsparing in their assessment:

    “Science is a public enterprise. A scientific publisher’s primary responsibility is to serve the research community. Their own interests—financial and reputational—depend upon the trust the public has in science. Obstructing the dissemination of publicly funded science will damage, not enhance, that trust. The RWA brings publishers and publishing into disrepute.”

    http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(12)60125-1/fulltext?rss=yes

  13. Matt Wedel Says:

    You know, I’ve read nearly every post and tutorial in SVPOW! From its beginning to the present and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the experience. But all this stuff now about open access is of no interest to me at all, and it won’t be long before you train me not to look, yet again, to see if you’ve posted something interesting about paleontology and all those sauropods.

    It’s called RSS. If the title of the piece doesn’t appeal to you, don’t click the link.

    Every dog (and blog) has his day, and maybe you’ve got nothing much left to add to the conversation,

    Oh, very passive-aggressive. I assume you saw the immense run of posts on the life appearance of sauropods last quarter, which followed piles of dissection posts and tutorials in September and October.

    but I truly hope that’s not the case and that both of you will soon get us back to the fascinating world of great beasts and their improbable anatomies.

    Well, as Mike said, we blog about what we care about, and we don’t intend to modify that policy, ever. And while we really like our readers and enjoy engaging with them, we don’t really give a crap about our readership, that is, the sheer numbers we get. If the current run of OA-related posts really drives you away, that’s a shame, but if someone told me I could shift public opinion about access to research by 1% at the cost of losing ALL of our readers, I’d do it in a heartbeat. This stuff is important, and it has a huge impact on the research that we do and the literature that we publish and consume–all of which is the raw material for our sauropod-related blogging. So please pardon us if we take some time to try to unclog those pipes.

    And, hey, if we win, you can get your sauropod fix from the published papers themselves (in addition to SV-POW!; we’ll be blogging about sauropods–at least intermittently–until they pry the keyboards from our cold, dead hands). So if you wanted to be charitable you could think of our participation in the OA Wars as a down-payment on future deliveries of sauropod-related awesomeness.

  14. Liz Smith (@lexemes) Says:

    Alex Mertz says: “Anyone who has written or read such reports understands that they are typically brief summaries of work done and publications awarded, not comprehensive descriptions of data, methodology, or interpretation. To call these progress and completion reports “full” is in most cases laughable. The real work product of most government-funded research is peer-reviewed publications in scientific journals. I know this, my colleagues know this, my program officers at funding agencies know this, and — given her position within Elsevier — Liz Smith must know this.”

    Absolutely I know it! And that fact is exactly why Elsevier objects to government mandated dissemination. The “peer-reviewed publication in scientific journals” has been invested in by the publisher.

    My comment about the reports was offhand and as such was a sloppy argument, so I’ll do it better (I hope) here. The inherent point is twofold: (1) if we’re talking about public access, a brief summary may actually be preferable. Does the average citizen want or need to have the full paper? Perhaps sometimes, but probably not often. (2) The fact remains that the reports exist and aren’t, to my knowledge, shared freely. There’s a disconnect there that just shows that there’s still discussion to be had on how we satisfy everyone’s concerns.

    It bears repeating that Elsevier encourages authors to post their submitted manuscript on their websites or institutional repositories, and we deposit articles into PubMed when required on behalf of the author. We’re totally willing to work with funding bodies to keep that happening. We just don’t think it needs a mandate or that a mandate is helpful.

  15. Mike Taylor Says:

    It bears repeating that Elsevier encourages authors to post their submitted manuscript on their websites or institutional repositories, and we deposit articles into PubMed when required on behalf of the author. Weâre totally willing to work with funding bodies to keep that happening. We just donât think it needs a mandate or that a mandate is helpful.

    Liz, here is what I don’t understand. This is the same line that has been brought to the table by Elsevier from the start of the RWA discussions, and it must be apparent to you all now that it’s not working. It isn’t persuading anyone. No-one is saying “At first I was opposed to the RWA, but now that I realise it doesn’t prohibit voluntary deposition I’m cool with it”. (If anyone was saying that, you would be pointing us to the blog-posts, the comments and the the tweets where it was being said.)

    What you’re seeing instead is increased hostility. This should tell you that your tactic of telling author why they’re wrong isn’t working. So why are you persisting with it? You are backing a change that everyone hates, and your attempts to push back are not having the desired effect.

    So here’s the thing. Let’s suppose for the moment that Elsevier is right about all this — that the RWA really isn’t harmful, that all the objections are wrongheaded, that we’re all steamed about nothing, that the 6000 signatories on the Cost Of Knowledge declaration are all mistaken. Even if this were the case, it would still be Elsevier’s best move to stop antagonising the people your business depends on and prove that you really are listening.

    Rightly or wrongly, it’s now very apparent that everyone but publishers hates the RWA. Rightly or wrongly, it’s now very apparent that everyone but publishers loves the FRPAA. So you have a stark choice to make. Either you align yourselves with the people you claim to be in partnership with, and switch sides on the RWA/FRPAA issue; or you continue to antagonise those partners for the sake of holding on to a piece of legislation that you say won’t make any difference anyway. In that light, it seems to me little short of insane to stay on your current course — headed towards the rocks, full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes. Intentionally or not, the message Elsevier is sending right now is “we’ll show those whiny bitches who is boss”. And that is not a message any partner likes to hear.


  16. It’s probably also worth pointing out that Elsevier have recently changed the wording of author agreements to specifically reduce the freedom to post papers to an institutional repository in those cases where there is an institutional mandate. Elsevier are happy to encourage deposition just as long as no-one else does.

    http://www.elsevier.com/wps/find/authorsview.authors/postingpolicy


  17. [...] A window of opportunity for Elsevier (svpow.wordpress.com) [...]

  18. Liz Smith (@lexemes) Says:

    Yes, we’re seeing hostility in some quarters, but not all. And, ok, this is semantics but we’re not pushing back to prove anyone wrong but simply to try to better explain our stance. I don’t expect every researcher to understand every nuance of publishing so we’re trying to be open. And we’ve not been brilliant at explaining how we add value, so we’re trying to do that. Admittedly we’re slightly late to the party.

    But we’re also talking to keep the conversation going. I know our leaders are taking all of this in, and they need to keep hearing the kind of reasoned, helpful debate like the one we’ve been engaged in. (As opposed to some that resort to name calling, referring to Elsevier employees as douchebags, parasites and asshats. The people involved might think it, but does it really help advance the argument?) So, thank you again for being so open with me and inviting me to be open, too.

  19. Matt Wedel Says:

    The inherent point is twofold: (1) if we’re talking about public access, a brief summary may actually be preferable. Does the average citizen want or need to have the full paper? Perhaps sometimes, but probably not often.

    What about the doctors, dentists, engineers, and so on, who really do need the whole paper to, you know, save peoples’ lives? If I have a choice between being able to see a ‘brief summary’ for myself, and my surgeon being able to see the full paper, I know which one I’d pick.

    (2) The fact remains that the reports exist and aren’t, to my knowledge, shared freely. There’s a disconnect there that just shows that there’s still discussion to be had on how we satisfy everyone’s concerns.

    Sorry, this is a pathetic attempt at misdirection. NIH may not care about making those reports freely available because, first, they are just short notes on how the researchers spent the money, and second and way more importantly, the NIH open access mandate guarantees that the actual publications will be open access within a year. If the publications are already open access, or will be shortly, who gives a crap about the reports to the funding agency? Only Elsevier employees trying to shift some blame on the NIH, as far as I can tell.

    Really, what’s the play here? If the argument is, “The NIH isn’t perfect either, so you shouldn’t be so hard on Elsevier,” then good luck with that. The NIH gives researchers money and then ensures that the results of that research–the actual useful citeable I-could-use-this-to-improve-my-practice scientific results, not the here’s-how-we-spent-the-money reports–are available to the research community and to the general public for free. That doesn’t mean that even more openness from the NIH would necessarily be a bad thing, or that the funding reports shouldn’t be available to everyone (I have no strong feelings on this, but recognize that others might). What it means is that when it comes to money and openness the NIH is on our side–about as far on our side as it is possible to be. And Elsevier isn’t. And slinging a few pathetic flecks of not-very-sticky mud at the NIH isn’t making us like Elsevier and the other for-profit corporate publishers any better. Crap like that only cements our opinion of Elsevier as a duplicitous hell-hole of stockholder frottage at the expense of funding agencies, researchers, and taxpayers.

    So. Instead of (A) blithely repeating a company line that is demonstrably nonsensical and that no-one is accepting anyway, or
    (B) trying to distract us from the immense beam in Elsevier’s eye by pointing out the tiny mote in the NIH’s eye, why don’t you (C) try to come up with some responses that engage the issue at hand and give us a reason–any reason whatsoever–to stop viewing Elsevier as an enemy of science?

  20. Matt Wedel Says:

    And we’ve not been brilliant at explaining how we add value, so we’re trying to do that.

    Our comments passed in the ether, so: yes, please. Please tell us why coordinating peer review that is carried out by researchers who are not paid for their services, formatting the papers so they look pretty, printing and shipping dead trees around the world, and setting up roadblocks to keep the people who need the research results from having access to them, entitles Elsevier to hold the work–paid for, carried out, written up, and reviewed by others–as corporate property in perpetuity and earn 35% annual profits by charging people to look at it. I really, really want to know how the value added corresponds to the claim of ownership, the ruinous subscription and access fees, and the massive transfer of money from the public and private funding agencies to Elsevier shareholders.

    We’re all ears!


  21. Other people have also wondered what it is that justifies corporate publishers’ existence and have come up empty:
    https://plus.google.com/u/0/100647702320088380533/posts/JNzycHwy3kh
    http://openpaleo.blogspot.com/2012/02/how-big-commercial-publishers-can-help.html
    http://bjoern.brembs.net/comment-n829.html

    Given that Elsevier is taking weeks to come up with a reasonable justification for their own existence makes it appear as if they’re themselves are having trouble finding one?

  22. Liz Smith (@lexemes) Says:

    I’m not trying to sling mud at the NIH, Matt. I don’t think mud slinging helps.


  23. [...] couple of people have complained that we’re writing too much about Open Access recently and not enough about [...]

  24. hypnotosov Says:

    “The inherent point is twofold: (1) if we’re talking about public access, a brief summary may actually be preferable. Does the average citizen want or need to have the full paper? Perhaps sometimes, but probably not often.”

    As part of the general public I must say that I find this claim rather presumptive. That part of the “`general public” includes of professionals not affiliated with large institutions has already been mentioned. But the rest of general public also includes interested amateurs, science bloggers and most science journalists.
    This statement implies that this public would be best served by a press release, rather than access to actual information. But these people are a major part of the science community, and the presumption that Elsevier is in a position to decide what amount of science they need is simply arrogant.

  25. Mike Taylor Says:

    As part of the general public I must say that I find this claim rather presumptive.

    Thanks for making this point, hypnotodov. I think it’s crucial. The whole notion that there is a special priesthood that need access to research and an unwashed mass that wouldn’t be able to understand it even if they had access is profoundly insulting — especially to someone like myself who was an unwashed mass not so long ago. I certainly couldn’t have got into my present position without access to the literature; it’s just a tragedy that that access had to be by photocopying and was only possible because I happened to luck into a good friend.


  26. [...] flurry of activity on Mike Taylor’s blog, which is normally devoted to sauropods, drew a complaint from a regular reader about the deviation of the subject matter from their regular fare: stories [...]


  27. [...] us that you’re actually working in our best interests instead of those of your shareholders. Supporting FRPAA is not only your best bet, it might be the only game in town. Share this:FacebookRedditTwitterLike [...]


  28. [...] this be evidence that they really are listening?  Two weeks ago I publicly challenged Elsevier to do just this, as a first step towards winning back the support of authors, editors and reviewers [...]


  29. [...] delighted: the banner headline suggested a genuine change of direction from Elsevier, such as I had challenged them about a few weeks ago.  I hoped that this was the first step on a path towards real change, leading to [...]


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