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:
- the increasingly voluminous coverage of these issues in the general press,
- the avalanche of blog posts,
- the way publisher-friendly blogs like The Scholarly Kitchen are being flooded with comments from outraged researchers, or
- the emergence of satirical accounts like @FakeElsevier and @FakePLoS on Twitter.
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?