A response to one Elsevier employee, and an open letter to the rest

February 15, 2012

In a comment on the last post, an Elsevier employee wrote:

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.

While we do appreciate that you’re trying to engage us here, you’re going to have to show a little more effort than just parroting the company line. To be frank, this is a load of crap.

First off, if the NIH pays for the research, the NIH should have a say in how the results of that research are disseminated. We don’t have to talk in oblique terms about what “involving publishers” means, because everyone’s motives are perfectly transparent and known to everyone else. The NIH wants the research results available to everyone who wants them with a minimum of hassle and ideally at no cost to the user, which is understandable since the NIH has already paid for it once. The researchers want the research results available to everyone who wants them with a minimum of hassle and ideally at no cost. And the readers want the research results available to everyone who wants them with a minimum of hassle and ideally at no cost. The publishers–and let’s be specific here and note that we’re really talking about corporate for-profit publishers–want to maximize their profits by selling the research community’s results back to them with just enough “added value” to justify their claim of ownership of those results, and to do that by maximizing costs (whether hassle is something they deliberately set about to create or just a stupid side-effect of the roadblocks set up to restrict access is an open question).

So the corporate for-profit publishers’ motives are directly opposed to everyone else’s: those who pay for the research, those who carry it out, and those who consume it.

What’s going on here is that those latter three groups are (very belatedly) realizing that it’s completely bogus to have all of their desires thwarted by the one player in the game who gives the least and charges the most.

Alternatively I could just cite Cameron Neylon’s wonderful observation that, “Publishers never really did have a business model, they had a public subsidy.”

Also: “voluntary partnerships to promote access to research” my ass. How does Elsevier expect to continue making such immense profits if the other “partners” are in the relationship voluntarily? In any case, all this talk about “promoting access to research” is more folderol. If you want people to have access to research, you just give them access (it’s not hard). If your corporation can’t find a way to do that and satisfy shareholders, boo-hoo. To riff on a great phrase by Tom Holtz, “Sorry if that makes some people feel bad, but I’m not in the ‘make the corporate parasites fattening at the public teat feel good’ business; I’m one of the researchers you’ve been screwing.”

I’ll also note that Elsevier and the other corporate for-profit publishers have had a LOT of opportunities to cultivate goodwill among researchers, and not taken them. For starters–and I am not the first or even the thousandth person to mention this–why not charge a reasonable download fee of, say, $1-5 per paper, instead of $30-50? We all know it’s an outrageous ripoff, but no-one is making any moves to change it. Putting together fake journals full of paid ads masquerading as papers doesn’t look so good either. But surely paying off Congresspeople to sponsor a bill that most funding agencies, researchers, and readers–you know, the groups you’re allegedly trying to engage in conversation–view as actively evil has been the biggest misstep.

So, what do I want Elsevier to do? I want it to do what Mike suggested–throw its support behind the FRPAA–and then restructure itself as an open-access publisher. That will probably mean saying goodbye to 30+% annual profit margins, but hey, wake up. If PLoS ONE can offer no length limits, no full color figure limits, and full BOAI-compliant open access for $1350, charging $3000 for an inferior product is the definition of a broken business model.

Such a restructuring is probably impossible for Elsevier, given its corporate mandate to maximize profits for shareholders, and if so, I’ll settle for it just dying. Karma’s a bitch. I signed the declaration of independence, so Elsevier’s already dead to me anyway.

Note that I’m speaking here of the corporation dying, not its constituent humans. Although there must be a few real worms in there to have conceived all of the shenanigans that Elsevier has perpetrated recently, I’m sure that the vast majority of Elsevier employees are honest people of good conscience. If you’re one of them, what I’d like you, personally, to do is either agitate for change from within, if you can pursue that course wholeheartedly, or go work somewhere else. Elsevier isn’t the only publisher in the world. There’s a reason why some people won’t work for the tobacco industry or companies that make land mines: their consciences won’t let them.

If, on the other hand, you choose to not only identify with Elsevier but to try to defend the practices that got it into this mess, don’t be surprised if you don’t get much sympathy from the people your corporation is currently screwing and actively seeking to screw even harder in the future, and don’t complain if we call BS on your arguments and fire back with our own.

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36 Responses to “A response to one Elsevier employee, and an open letter to the rest”

  1. Lab Lemming Says:

    If Elsevier does die, do you think they’ll throw their archives open in a magnanimous gesture, or just sell their IP holdings to one of the other publishing giants?

  2. Mike Taylor Says:

    Lab Lemming, that is an excellent (and depressing) question. I don’t know much about corporate acquisitions, but it’s hard to believe that it will do well. Elsevier’s death is more likely to be slow and protracted than sudden and catastrophic, but whether that is better or worse I couldn’t say. I suppose a dream scenario would be if they tried to stave off bankruptcy by selling their archives to the U.S. Government.

    … but by the way, doesn’t this just show the utter absurdity of a corporation owning research? Again, if it’s publicly funded, it should be in the public domain. Anything else is madness.

  3. Matt Wedel Says:

    If Elsevier does die, do you think they’ll throw their archives open in a magnanimous gesture, or just sell their IP holdings to one of the other publishing giants?

    Oh, definitely the latter. In ten years we could see the big four corporate publishers collapse into one in a series of mergers and acquisitions, with that one controlling a vast swath of scientific literature and charging even more extortionate rates for access.

    Unless we keep pushing, pass FRPAA, and then make its provisions retroactive so that any research that was ever funded by taxpayer money has to be made open access. The corporate publishers will fight that tooth and nail, just as they’ll fight FRPAA. Despite all the sturm and drang here on the net and in newspapers and such, we are not winning. We are gearing up for our first real offensive. So if you care about this stuff, contact your congressperson and tell them to support FRPAA. If it fails to pass this time–and remember that it has been proposed twice before and either killed or allowed to die (same result)–then we’re all just whistling in the wind.

  4. Nima Says:

    I suppose we could fight it from the other end as well…. get as many paleontologists (and those in other fields as well) to publish in open-access journals and boycott Elsevier, Wiley, and the like. At the very least, if far fewer dinosaur papers are being published in robber-baron journals, then the field itself will pretty much begin to treat open-access as a RIGHT, not a privilege or a fringe option.

    I’m not in favor of tarring and feathering any researchers, but shouldn’t there be an initiative to at least identify who is actually walking the walk and publishing in open access, and who is just following the herd and giving away their hard work to greedy publishers in “business as usual” fashion? How can anyone expect publishers to get their act together and regulate themselves if the membership of SVP can’t even unite and agree to publish in pro-science, open access journals? I keep seeing new papers by people I’ve met in person at SVP in for-profit journals, even AFTER the whole open-access issue has already been aired for a while now. Either they don’t read SV-POW or just are too used to giving away their copyrights and being abused by the system? I’ve never heard of Elsevier actually funding research, so nobody is under any compulsion to surrender their research to such a gilded cage.

  5. Mike Taylor Says:

    Nima suggests “I suppose we could fight it from the other end as well…. get as many paleontologists (and those in other fields as well) to publish in open-access journals and boycott Elsevier, Wiley, and the like.”

    Absolutely! That is what the Cost Of Knowledge declaration is about: as I’ve written elsewhere, it’s not a petition, it’s a declaration of independence. I signed not in an attempt to coerce Elsevier to change their behaviour, but to register that fact that I am done with them.

    “How can anyone expect publishers to get their act together and regulate themselves if the membership of SVP can’t even unite and agree to publish in pro-science, open access journals?”

    Well, there are issues. As John Hutchinson has rightly pointed out, I am in the enviable position of not needing to worry about the impact of such a boycott on myself; my current/future employment is not at stake; whereas for most other reviewers it is to some (small, perhaps) degree. Not all palaeontologists are in a position where the strength of their feeling about OA is enough to overcome the very real career implications of a blanket ban. But I do hope that, even among those who can’t make an absolute declaration, there is an increasing tendency to favour writing, editing and reviewing for open-access journals.

  6. Jeff Miller Says:

    I simply don’t understand the tone of your responses here and your vitrol against Elsevier. Your tone is sarcastic and you don’t offer any alternatives that could result in a sustainable business model.

    Elsevier, Springer, Informa, Wolters Kluwer, all have the same business models. Why pick on Elsevier?

    It’s easy to be a critic and jump into the fray.

    Here’s a challenge, could you say something positive about Elsevier and other academic publishers?

  7. Liz Smith (@lexemes) Says:

    Jeez, you disappear for one day to do your day job and look what happens.

    Mike, I get that you’re angry. I’m sorry that your angry. I hope your previous openness to me stating Elsevier’s position still stands. I’ve only got an English degree but I’m not stupid: I know my words won’t convert you. I thought it might be helpful for you to hear from a human being about some of the decisions being made by Elsevier.

    We are a company of mainly principled people ( mainly because no company’s perfect) and so of course many of us have been doing a lot of soul searching. Hearing your anger and frustration and indignation helps us face the realities of the way scientific communication has changed and is changing. And we talk about it and think about it and genuinely ask how we can do better. Is that agitating from within?

    I hope you see the change you want. I also hope my company can be part of it.

    What can I say. I may have studied English Lit but I truly want to serve science.

  8. Mike Taylor Says:

    Liz — are you reading Matt’s comments as being mine? (This blog is written by two of us, and an occasional third.)

  9. Mike Taylor Says:

    Jeff Miller writes:

    I simply don’t understand the tone of your responses here and your vitrol against Elsevier. Your tone is sarcastic and you don’t offer any alternatives that could result in a sustainable business model.

    Although this was Matt’s post, I’ll answer for myself. I don’t offer alternative sustainable business models because its not particularly my goal to prop up publishers. If Elsevier can find a sustainable model that keeps them healthy and genuinely serves science, I will be delighted. But in the end, I don’t care about Elsevier per se at all — I only care about how it helps or hinders science, and I don’t feel that I owe it a living. While it hinders (which on balance it does right now) I am against it. When it helps, I will be for it.

    Elsevier, Springer, Informa, Wolters Kluwer, all have the same business models. Why pick on Elsevier?

    We’ve covered that before, and it’s discussed in detail in The Cost Of Knowledge’s Statement of Purpose. In short, the others may not be much better, but Elsevier has drawn the most fire by its vocal and financial support of the RWA, by its shady history of arms-dealing and fake journals, and just by being biggest.

    It’s easy to be a critic and jump into the fray.

    Actually, it’s not. I have invested a lot of time into this over the last couple of months — enough that I’ve sacrificed virtually all the time I would normally put into palaeo, and consequently missed my self-imposed deadline for submitting our neck-anatomy paper. Publicly committing myself to the Elsevier boycott has cut down my options for where to send my work, and rejecting review requests has risked seriously annoying colleagues who I might need to ask favours from. I’ve routinely been getting by on five hours’ sleep so I can dig out the time to write articles both here on this blog and in non-specialist venues, and to build a new (as-yet unlaunched) web-site [Update: Now launched!]. And, oh look, it’s 2am again right now. So, no, its not easy to be a critic and jump into the fray.

    I’ll tell you what’s easy. It’s easy to sit quietly and accept the status quo.

    Here’s a challenge, could you say something positive about Elsevier and other academic publishers?

    As a matter of fact I already have: “… Elsevier have rather a good policy in connection with this fee …”.

    But, really, why should I make any particular effort to say something positive? To appear “balanced”? I’m not too worried about that. When discussing creationism, I don’t feel obliged to appear balanced about that by saying something nice about it. Same with global-warming denialism. Given two contradictory positions, the truth doesn’t always lie in the middle.

    (Note that I have said plenty that’s positive about particular individuals who work for the barrier-based publishers. That’s not same thing. They are good people, but they are cogs in a bad machine.)

  10. Jeff Miller Says:

    Mike, it’s good to see that you’re taking the time to respond to all messages even to those who don’t necessarily agree with you.

    I believe that it is the critics’ responsibility to step-up and offer alternatives.

    You say: “I don’t offer alternative sustainable business models because it’s not particularly my goal to prop up publishers:….. and “But in the end, I don’t care about Elsevier per se at all — I only care about how it helps or hinders science, and I don’t feel that I owe it a living.”

    We agree here, you don’t owe Elsevier a living, but you and your fellow critics should look at this as an opportunity to “help science”. One way to do this is to try and engage in a constructive dialogue with Elsevier and other publishers.

    My guess is that if the “boycott” leaders would get organized and present a cogent set of wishes/demands to Elsevier and the other publishers you could have meaningful change.

    Why not meet in person or on a conference call rather than blogging about how evil Elsevier is and has been in the past?

    Have any of those in the blogsphere and those leading the Cost of Knowledge requested a meeting with Elsevier or other publishers?

    I would appreciate hearing your though

  11. Matt Wedel Says:

    My guess is that if the “boycott” leaders would get organized and present a cogent set of wishes/demands to Elsevier and the other publishers you could have meaningful change.

    But we aren’t trying to get Elsevier to change! If they change, great, but none of us will be waiting with ‘bated breath for it to happen. We’re moving on. That’s what the boycott is about.

    We don’t need to offer Elsevier an alternative business model. One already exists, and it’s called PLoS. The problem is that PLoS is never going to deliver the 30-40% profits that the corporate publishers’ shareholders have gotten used to. And rather than adapt to the new information ecosystem, they are taking the RIAA path of going down fighting, kicking, screaming, and suing. It’s not a question of whether Elsevier can stay the course for another decade, but whether the change will be gradual or sudden and adaptive or catastrophic, and how much damage they might do on the way down.

    So if a demonstrably evil corporation wants to commit suicide by sticking to a doomed business model, why should we stop them? If they haven’t gotten the memo by now, it’s doubtful they ever will.

    Why not meet in person or on a conference call rather than blogging about how evil Elsevier is and has been in the past?

    Yeah, sure, pal, a company with 2 billion in revenue is going to agree to a conference call with some pissed-off bloggers. And you want us to make constructive suggestions?

    More to the point, we’re blogging about this, and trumpeting the news in every other venue we can, because a lot of people just don’t know how badly the corporate publishers have been screwing everyone. And this works to the corporate publishers’ advantage, because it means no one stands up to fight them when they try to buy Congress and kill open access.

    This is not a gentlemens’ disagreement over some minor point of protocol. This is war. Elsevier et al. made it a war when they started funding legislators to kill OA for everyone else.

    Have any of those in the blogsphere and those leading the Cost of Knowledge requested a meeting with Elsevier or other publishers?

    All right, last time. Get this through your head: we’re not trying to change Elsevier. We’re trying to make scientists and the general public aware of how comprehensively Elsevier and the other for-profit commercial publishers have been screwing them. We’re not even addressing the publishers, we’re talking to and with all the other parties–the funding agencies, researchers, and readers. All we really want from Elsevier at this point is for them to stop buying legislation that would kill open access. If they could stop screwing the rest of us, that would be nice, but that will take care of itself in time; either they will migrate to a less evil, less profitable business model or they will die. I’m cool either way.

  12. Liz Smith (@lexemes) Says:

    Yes, I did mistake Matt for Mike. I actually posted a comment to that effect but it doesn’t seem to have registered.

    Anyway, apologies for that. I would still have said the same thing, though.

  13. Liz Smith (@lexemes) Says:

    Matt, the legislation wouldn’t kill Open Access. That’s simply not true! It’s a question of whether the government should be allowed to tell a business what to do with the product it has invested in. No one forces authors to publish in a commercial publisher’s journal. The NIH has paid for the research, NOT the process of registration, certification, dissemination–i.e. the things publishers pay for.

    Publishers are launching OA journals and ARE trying to change. So maybe actually sitting down to talk to us instead of pouring scorn all over your blog is a good way to go. It seems reasonable to me anyway.

    I want to be part of the change. I’m wagering that many in my company would agree.

  14. Matt Wedel Says:

    Hi Liz,

    Thanks for sticking with us. It can’t be easy going.

    We are a company of mainly principled people….

    I believe that, and said as much in the post.

    …and so of course many of us have been doing a lot of soul searching.

    I’m glad you said this; it’s the first time I’ve heard any Elsevier employee or representative in any forum admit that any of this is having any effect whatsoever.

    Hearing your anger and frustration and indignation helps us face the realities of the way scientific communication has changed and is changing. And we talk about it and think about it and genuinely ask how we can do better. Is that agitating from within?

    Well, someone is going to have to tell the upper management of the corporation that selling fake journals full of ads, messing around with international arms deals, and paying off legislators to try to kill open access are all unacceptable behavior. Especially for a corporation that claims to have the interests of scientists at heart.

    Bottom line is, people should be ashamed to work for Elsevier right now. It should be hard for Elsevier to keep good employees because good employees should either insist on better corporate policies or go work elsewhere.

    I hope you see the change you want.

    The change I want is for the massive transfer of money from funding agencies to corporate stockholders’ pocketbooks–at the cost of researchers, physicians, engineers, small business owners, patient advocacy groups, non-profits, and students not being able to access the information they need–to stop. I have no doubt that that change in coming; as I said above, the questions are how soon, how fast, and whether the corporate publishers will decide to change or die.

    I also hope my company can be part of it.

    That would be great. Honestly. But it is going to require some actual change and that change will be painful. Blithely repeating the party line that Elsevier is a good company on the side of scientists isn’t going to cut it, not when the words and actions are so diametrically opposed.

  15. Matt Wedel Says:

    Our comments crossed in the ether, so to continue the conversation:

    Matt, the legislation wouldn’t kill Open Access. That’s simply not true!

    It would undo the NIH Open Access Mandate and prevent any similar initiatives in the future, so yes, it will effectively kill open access for any corporations that are profiting from the status quo and don’t want anyone interfering with their ability to screw us. Which are exactly the ones that we’re fighting. And we all know it, so why pretend otherwise?

    It’s a question of whether the government should be allowed to tell a business what to do with the product it has invested in.

    Invested in!? Seriously? Let’s review: the NIH (or NSF, or other funding body) pays for the work. The researchers do the work, write the papers, review the papers, and often serve as editors. For that last job they might receive a *very* small stipend from the publisher, the rest is pro bono. The publisher formats the paper and puts it online behind a paywall. And those last two steps are enough of an investment for the publisher to claim ownership of the entire work in perpetuity? Pardon me if I call BS.

    No one forces authors to publish in a commercial publisher’s journal.

    Yes, sadly that is true. Which is why we keep making noise about this–we’re trying to stop authors from having their work stolen from them by corporations that add very minimal value and charge insane subscription rates and online access fees.

    The NIH has paid for the research, NOT the process of registration, certification, dissemination–i.e. the things publishers pay for.

    Um, bullcrap. I have no idea what you mean by registration and certification. If you mean that the work has the seal of approval of a commercial publisher, then I have to ask why that is worth $30-50 per article download. And dissemination–please, this is 2012. You put the PDF online and let people download it for free, and it costs you nothing. I admit that printing and shipping dead trees around costs money, but again, it’s not like Elsevier et al. are just barely covering their costs. Please tell me how any of this justifies the 30-40% profits the big corporate publishers rake in every year?

    Publishers are launching OA journals and ARE trying to change.

    Sorry, not good enough. PLoS charges $1350 for unlimited article length and unlimited color figures in Gold OA publications. Elsevier charges $3000 and doesn’t provide either of those benefits for “open access” whose status is in fact doubtful, since the terms of the license are not made clear. How is that a good deal? More importantly for your employer, how is charging more than twice as much for a demonstrably inferior product a sustainable business model? I know I’ve asked this before, and I will continue to ask it until someone attempts an answer.

    So maybe actually sitting down to talk to us instead of pouring scorn all over your blog is a good way to go. It seems reasonable to me anyway.

    1. Sit down and talk with you where? This IS my forum for communicating with people I don’t know. My email address is not hard to find, send me a message if you’d rather talk about this stuff in private.

    2. Sit down and talk to what end? As I said in the post, everyone knows what everyone else wants. Funding agencies, researchers, and consumers want Gold OA and to stop having their money siphoned off into shareholders’ pockets. Elsevier and the other corporate publishers want to keep defrauding everyone else for as long as possible. Until your corporation stops being evil, what’s there to talk about?

    3. As you note, it is my blog. And Elsevier is eminently worthy of my scorn. And there are a lot of people who don’t know that yet, so I’m going to keep repeating it as often and as loudly as necessary. It’s not like I’m blogging just for you.

    We’ve said that we appreciate your participation, and that’s true. It must take tremendous courage to argue that Elsevier isn’t doing anything wrong and that this would all be better if we bloggers would just stop being so mean. But at some point you’re going to have to start responding on the points of our arguments or we’re going to stop taking you seriously. Now, I realize that that might be impossible. I have no idea how you would justify making a 30% profit off of someone else’s work, or why other than sheer greed and user ignorance Elsevier can charge $3000 for OA when PLoS gets by with less than half of that, but please feel free to enlighten us.

  16. Mike Taylor Says:

    Matt has said almost everything I would have said in response to the comments that came in while I was asleep, so for once I get to be brief!

    Jeff Miller wrote:

    I believe that it is the critics’ responsibility to step-up and offer alternatives.

    This is so important that I am going to write a whole separate post about it. [Update: Now done]

    My guess is that if the “boycott” leaders would get organized and present a cogent set of wishes/demands to Elsevier and the other publishers you could have meaningful change.

    Well, I am certainly not one of the leaders! Remember, the people who kicked this off are mostly mathematicians, and several of them hold Fields Medals. They are big hitters; I am an honorary research associate.

    But have you forgotten that I did offer a very clear and specific challenge to Elsevier, only four days ago? If they want to win back the trust and respect of authors, it’s clear what they have to do: repudiate the RWA and throw themselves behind the Federal Research Public Access Act. That would be more than talk. That would be concrete evidence that the people at the highest levels really are listening. That’s my “cogent set of wishes/demands”.

  17. Mike Taylor Says:

    One more quick point to add to what Matt said. Liz wrote:

    The legislation [is] a question of whether the government should be allowed to tell a business what to do with the product it has invested in.

    I hear this line a lot. So just as a thought experiment, let’s assume that this really is the issue for Elsevier: that its support for the RWA isn’t because it wants to hang on to excessive profits taken from the public purse, but because you all genuinely believe there is a moral problem with a government granting body having a say in research outputs that a corporation has touched.

    Then would you be happier if the NIH mandate was replaced by one that said “if we fund your research, you must publish the results in a Gold OA journal”? That would solve your problem, right? Then the government wouldn’t be saying anything at all about “your content”, and you could continue to fill barrier-based journals with work that is not funded by the government.


  18. @Jeff Miller: why should the critics offer alternatives? Let me re-phrase what you said:

    “Critics of tobacco ads that entice kids to smoke should offer alternative ways to entice kids to smoke”

    S’rsly?

    In the end, E. will have to adjust to changing times – if they start adding serious value we all will be happy to pay. Tough for them that 95% of what they could offer is already freely available on the web, or by other companies at reasonable prices.

  19. bacigalupe Says:

    Mike,
    Thanks for taking time to do this. Lot of academics are with you on this one. It is not about the intentions of employees, when someone mentions intentions, I cringe.The world is packed with good intentions. It is simply about fairness.

  20. Liz Smith (@lexemes) Says:

    Matt, you’re really not blogging just for me? :-(

    Sorry, pathetic attempt at humour.

    OK, there’s so much up there and I want to reply to everything but I have a flight to catch and then hopefully a weekend where I can just be ‘Mum’ and ‘Honey’ instead of evil baby-killing corporate stooge. (Strangely pleased at having been named a FakeElsevier minion, though.)

    “The publisher formats the paper and puts it online behind a paywall.” and “…dissemination–please, this is 2012. You put the PDF online and let people download it for free, and it costs you nothing.”

    This is where there seems to be deliberate obtuseness. Sticking a single PDF up online is easy. But there are millions of papers published every year. It takes a hell of a lot of people and resources to make that happen. You can’t just sling it online and hope somebody can find it. The internet doesn’t happen by magic. There are costs involved whether you like it or not. Publishers meet those costs and invest, heavily, in keeping information discoverable and usable. If every academic started the DIY approach, you or your institutions would end up meeting those costs. Never mind the time it would take away from doing the actual science part.

    I personally am very comfortable with Gold OA. Elsevier is getting to grips with it, too (far too slowly by your measure; I get that). If that covers the costs and is a sustainable model, great.

    “Please tell me how any of this justifies the 30-40% profits the big corporate publishers rake in every year?”

    Elsevier doesn’t just do journals. It’s a big company, that publishes books and databases, and provides some very excellent online products, and we do it efficiently and at scale. The profits reflect that. Next you’re going to ask me about the profit that does come form journals and I’m going to tell you I don’t know. Because I don’t. I’m sure you would still find it too high. You seem to object to any profit at all being made. I suspect if we were getting 4% you’d still be unhappy. Is that an unfair assumption? This isn’t an argument, by the way, I’m trying to make sure I’m understanding your position correctly.

    “Sorry not good enough.” and “But we aren’t trying to get Elsevier to change!”

    Ah, so because we’re Elsevier you’ll just dismiss any efforts at all in what you say is the right direction? So then leave us out of it. You say it’s not about Elsevier, and it’s about talking to funders, etc. about establishing a better model for you. So go do it. Stop wasting time complaining about how evil we are.

    Personally, I will try to advocate for change regardless of whether Elsevier is dead to you. I just think it’s a damn shame because you clearly have some things to say that are worth listening to.

    Which reminds me. You’ve managed to have a go at me for not digging out your private email address and talking to you while saying “Yeah, sure, pal, a company with 2 billion in revenue is going to agree to a conference call with some pissed-off bloggers.” I’ll talk to you. Call me. My number is easy to find. I’m based in the Oxford office.

    “It must take tremendous courage to argue that Elsevier isn’t doing anything wrong and that this would all be better if we bloggers would just stop being so mean.”

    I’m perfectly happy for bloggers to be mean (and I’ve seen far nastier than this). I like a conversation that doesn’t resort to hyperbole and name-calling if I can get it (words like defraud and evil, for example) but I’m a big girl and can take the knocks.

    “…what I’d like you, personally, to do is either agitate for change from within, if you can pursue that course wholeheartedly, or go work somewhere else.”

    Sure, I’ll just walk into one of the many jobs available for someone with my specific skill set. Because it’s that easy. Sorry, that was sarcastic (but it felt good). This is genuine: this has been a very positive experience for me. I’ve learned a LOT. And I’ve passed on what I’ve learned. I would rather be at Elsevier and helping move our company forward because I do believe we make a positive difference.

    That is not to say that we haven’t messed up. Double digit price hikes, arms trade (which, incidentally, employees very vocally challenged and this was a large part of the reason Reed Elsevier pulled out of that business), the Australasian ‘journal that wasn’t a journal’ and offering to pay for good reviews (very junior marketing person who I’m sure still cringes when she thinks about it). Things can change. We withdrew from the arms trade. We stopped the double digit price increases. We took action when we realised what had gone on in the Australian office. We took action when we realised what that junior marketing person had done. We have been judged on those errors, and rightly so, but please also acknowledge that we did something about them.

    I am hopeful that my company can regain some of the trust and goodwill we have lost. I would like to be part of that.

    Thanks for listening.

  21. Matt Wedel Says:

    “The publisher formats the paper and puts it online behind a paywall.” and “…dissemination–please, this is 2012. You put the PDF online and let people download it for free, and it costs you nothing.”

    This is where there seems to be deliberate obtuseness. Sticking a single PDF up online is easy. But there are millions of papers published every year. It takes a hell of a lot of people and resources to make that happen. You can’t just sling it online and hope somebody can find it. The internet doesn’t happen by magic. There are costs involved whether you like it or not.

    Oh, I agree. But the amount your corporation charges is vastly out of proportion to those costs. $30-50 per article download. $3000 for “faux-A” publication with limited length and figures. Explain, please.

    (And yes, I’m going to keep referring to Elsevier’s sponsored articles as faux-A until someone explains what the license actually is. Perhaps you could find out and tell us?)

    Publishers meet those costs and invest, heavily, in keeping information discoverable and usable. If every academic started the DIY approach, you or your institutions would end up meeting those costs.

    Yes, exactly! We would end up meeting those costs. Not stiffing the users for outrageous subscription rates and per-article download fees.

    Look, IME the average size of a PDF of a research paper is a few hundred kilobytes–the same size or smaller than the average MP3. Amazon and iTunes make millions of MP3s available for a dollar or two, and somehow manage to not only stay afloat but profit. So why is hosting research articles 15-50 times more expensive?

    Never mind the time it would take away from doing the actual science part.

    Well, if all of the articles were freely available to everyone, we’d at least be able to do the actual science part. Also, I’d happily trade all of the time I’ve wasted trying to get access to paywalled articles for the responsibility of keeping my own archive up to date. The latter process, by the way, has taken about 20 minutes of my time and no money at all over the past three years. Admittedly, WordPress is hosting the articles (handling that thorny distribution problem that allegedly costs so much), but somehow they manage to stay afloat without bilking users and readers out of hundreds or thousands of dollars per article.

    I personally am very comfortable with Gold OA.

    Awesome! That’s good to hear.

    “Please tell me how any of this justifies the 30-40% profits the big corporate publishers rake in every year?”

    Elsevier doesn’t just do journals. It’s a big company, that publishes books and databases, and provides some very excellent online products, and we do it efficiently and at scale. The profits reflect that. Next you’re going to ask me about the profit that does come form journals and I’m going to tell you I don’t know.

    Then this defense is a non-starter. It’s possible, for example, that the profits Elsevier makes on journals are even more outrageous than 30-40%, but the corporation’s overall profits are dragged down by the units that only return 10-20% (or whatever).

    If you could please find out what percentage of Elsevier’s revenue comes from scholarly journals, and what the profit margins on the journals are, and report back, we’d be very grateful. I realize the profit stuff might be blocked, but even the first part would be useful. If Elsevier gets a majority or even a large fraction of its revenue from journals, then it is unlikely that it is just breaking even on them and making all the profit elsewhere. We’re suspicious about this because the immense overall profits seem very much in line with the extortionate library subscription rates and per-article download fees. People have been asking these questions on blogs and Twitter for weeks now, so you have a chance to really add useful data to the conversation.

    You seem to object to any profit at all being made. I suspect if we were getting 4% you’d still be unhappy. Is that an unfair assumption?

    Who’s being hyperbolic now? :-) We’ve tried to make it clear in our comments on the obscene profits of commercial scholarly publishers that the part we object to is the obscenity, not the mere existence of profit. In general, we think not-for-profit organizations are probably more closely aligned with funding agencies, researchers, and readers in terms of long-term goals, but if a commercial publisher actually added value on the level they claim to, we wouldn’t object to them making some money for doing so (some money, not ridiculous money).

    “Sorry not good enough.” and “But we aren’t trying to get Elsevier to change!”

    Ah, so because we’re Elsevier you’ll just dismiss any efforts at all in what you say is the right direction? So then leave us out of it.

    Okay, first of all, this may be your first long conversation in a comment thread, but there are multiple conversations going on here and not all of the comments are directed at you.

    Second, it’s unclear here whether you’re speaking for yourself or for Elsevier. I’ve made it very clear that I’m happy to engage with individual Elsevier employees and I would be happy to see Elsevier change, but that, having signed the boycott, I’m not trying to change Elsevier.

    You say it’s not about Elsevier, and it’s about talking to funders, etc. about establishing a better model for you. So go do it. Stop wasting time complaining about how evil we are.

    I’ve said this at least twice already, but apparently I need to say it again. We keep talking about how evil Elsevier is because the vast majority of our readers are not Elsevier employees, they’re people who are doing research or trying to get hold of research articles and they need to know how bad the problem is.

    Personally, I will try to advocate for change regardless of whether Elsevier is dead to you.

    Excellent! That’s exactly what I want you, as an individual, to do. You have your sphere–agitating for change from within the corporation–and I have mine–agitating for change in the research community and the general public, using this blog. If my blogging–and Mike’s, since he’s done the lion’s share–help produce change within Elsevier, we’d be pleased, but it would be a spin-off benefit, and not something we’re deliberately aiming for.

    Which reminds me. You’ve managed to have a go at me for not digging out your private email address and talking to you while saying “Yeah, sure, pal, a company with 2 billion in revenue is going to agree to a conference call with some pissed-off bloggers.” I’ll talk to you. Call me. My number is easy to find. I’m based in the Oxford office.

    Cool! Again, if we talk, will you be speaking only for yourself or as a representative of Elsevier? I’m not trying to be snotty, I really want to know, because obviously it will have a big effect on how I’d go into the conversation, and what I’d hope to learn from it.

    Also, on a purely practical note, you came to my blog and suggested an offline conversation, so there’s no way I’m paying the international long distance fee when my suggested mode of communication–email–is free (I’m in California). If you email me (mathew.wedel@gmail.com) I’ll be happy to give you my cell phone number and we can find a mutually convenient time for you to call. Alternatively you might want to get in touch with Mike, who is also in England and might be easier to coordinate with.

    “It must take tremendous courage to argue that Elsevier isn’t doing anything wrong and that this would all be better if we bloggers would just stop being so mean.”

    I’m perfectly happy for bloggers to be mean (and I’ve seen far nastier than this). I like a conversation that doesn’t resort to hyperbole and name-calling if I can get it (words like defraud and evil, for example) but I’m a big girl and can take the knocks.

    Well, this is kind of the crux of the thing, isn’t it? To me Elsevier IS evil precisely BECAUSE it defrauds taxpayers by taking away access to the research that they’ve paid for–or, if you’ll indulge me in a metaphor, this is the bass line of evil from which arms deals, fake journals, and so on are extended guitar solos. The fact that getting rich by blocking access to publicly-funded research results is legal (for now) doesn’t stop it from being immoral. So when I say ‘defraud’ and ‘evil’ I’m not being hyperbolic or calling names, I’m stating the facts of the case as clearly and honestly as I can.

    Also, I’m a little freaked out that you feel that you have to take those knocks personally. Surely it’s clear that I’m talking about the corporation and it’s policies, and not all of the individual employees . . . unless you’re here as an employee and feel the need to take all the criticism on yourself.

    “…what I’d like you, personally, to do is either agitate for change from within, if you can pursue that course wholeheartedly, or go work somewhere else.”

    Sure, I’ll just walk into one of the many jobs available for someone with my specific skill set. Because it’s that easy. Sorry, that was sarcastic (but it felt good).

    I’ll bet! Anyway, I never said it would be easy. It wasn’t easy for highly trained, highly paid people to walk away from the tobacco industry, either. But many did.

    This is genuine: this has been a very positive experience for me. I’ve learned a LOT. And I’ve passed on what I’ve learned. I would rather be at Elsevier and helping move our company forward because I do believe we make a positive difference.

    That’s fine. You already said above that you would continue to agitate for change, and that’s all I asked for, so I’m happy (with you, not with Elsevier).

    That is not to say that we haven’t messed up. Double digit price hikes, arms trade (which, incidentally, employees very vocally challenged and this was a large part of the reason Reed Elsevier pulled out of that business), the Australasian ‘journal that wasn’t a journal’ and offering to pay for good reviews (very junior marketing person who I’m sure still cringes when she thinks about it). Things can change. We withdrew from the arms trade. We stopped the double digit price increases. We took action when we realised what had gone on in the Australian office. We took action when we realised what that junior marketing person had done. We have been judged on those errors, and rightly so, but please also acknowledge that we did something about them.

    I can do that. But please also realize that (1) we’re not talking about ancient history, these things all happened within the past few years and constitute part of the pattern of behavior that people are judging Elsevier for now, (2) these aren’t minor screw-ups, they’re HUGE offenses and scientists’ (and librarians’, and doctors’, etc.) outrage is proportional to that, and (3) most importantly, when an individual or corporation screws up and then fixes that screw-up, that’s not positive change, that’s just undoing the wrong and getting back to square one. In other words, Elsevier doesn’t get any goodwill from us because it stopped double-digit price hikes, arms deals, fake journals, and reviews–those things never should have happened in the first place. And in fact Elsevier isn’t even really back to square one, because all of these offenses were so recent and all of us who followed them remember them clearly. “Reformed criminal” does not carry the same meaning as “good citizen”.

    Which is why it would be such a huge PR thing for Elsevier to get behind the FRPAA: it would show that the corporation really is listening, really cares about what its customers want, and really is committed to genuine change.


  22. […] ways in which current academic publishing practices are exploitative, we are sometimes told, as in Jeff Miller’s comment: “I believe that it is the critics’ responsibility to step-up and offer […]

  23. Liz Smith (@lexemes) Says:

    Email’s cool, too, Matt. I was just responding to your statement that we wouldn’t take your call. I’ll email you Tuesday (not going to have much of a chance on Monday and I’m looking forward to a weekend of normality!)

    Incidentally, I will try to come back to you on your questions. I haven’t had the chance to get the info as I’ve been giving training for 2 days.

    BTW Can’t I be here as an individual and an employee? I am perfectly able to articulate elsevier’s position while still being able to entertain other possibilities. I don’t take the knocks as in taking it personally, but rather take it as a representative of Elsevier. Still, that doesn’t preclude considering and thinking about other ideas.

    It’s been real. I’ll be in touch.

  24. Matt Wedel Says:

    Hi Liz, that all sounds great. I understand that getting answers to some of these questions will probably take some time. It’s wonderful that you’re offering to get those answers. I also appreciate that you’ve kept things constructive throughout all this; I will aspire to do as well.

    I also understand that you can represent both yourself and Elsevier. From what I’ve seen, this comment thread is the longest, most civil, and most productive conversation between an Elsevier employee and members of the research community anywhere since the current blow-up started. We appreciate it, sincerely, and we hope that it leads to more conversations like this, in more places, involving more people.

  25. Mike Taylor Says:

    BTW Can’t I be here as an individual and an employee?

    Absolutely yes! You’re welcome in either capacity or both. It’s just that it’s helpful for us when are clear on when you are functioning as each.

  26. Mike Taylor Says:

    Liz Smith writes:

    Sticking a single PDF up online is easy. But there are millions of papers published every year. It takes a hell of a lot of people and resources to make that happen. You can’t just sling it online and hope somebody can find it. The internet doesn’t happen by magic.

    Actually, you can and I do. That is exactly how the Internet works. I don’t have to do anything special to make sure my papers are found — Google and other search engines pick them up, just like they do everything. So to pick an example at random, if you search for brachiosaurus re-evaluation, the very first hit will be my self-hosted PDF of my 2009 JVP paper on that subject. Similarly, search for xenoposeidon pdf and the top hit is — get ready for a shock! — my self-hosted PDF of my 2007 Palaeontology paper on that subject.

    So in fact, this is a fine demonstration of just how obsolete much of the work that publishers do has now become — all that indexing, abstracting and aggregation, work that used to be very important, but which is now done much faster, much better, for free, by computers and networks.

    Really: what advantages accrue to me in having my Xenoposeidon paper available on Wiley’s site as well as mine? [It’s paywalled on their site, so useless to 99% of potential visitors, but ignore that for now. Let’s pretend it’s freely available.] What else does that get me that Google’s indexing of my self-hosted PDF doesn’t?

  27. Andy Farke Says:

    To address your final statement, I see three main advantages to having a PDF on a publisher’s site, rather than just a personal web page (this follows some of our Twitter discussion the other day, but I post it here just to have it in an alternative forum):

    1) Greater permanence. Personal web pages (even with the best of intentions) have a history of non-permanence; there is no guarantee your site will be around 40 or 50 years from now. Just ask my Geocities page from 1998. Of course, there also is no guarantee that Wiley’s website will be around in 2073 either, but I think it’s safe to say there’s a greater likelihood that it will be around in some incarnation than a personal website.

    2) Document security. By putting archiving in the hands of the authors, there is little to prevent them from editing out embarrassing details, or adding in stuff they wanted published but the reviewers told them to take out, or whatever. I’m not saying this is something that most people would do, but it is a risk of _not_ having an “official” copy somewhere.

    3) Combating author laziness. You have an excellent track record of making your work available, but most other authors do not, for various reasons.

    It is also important to note that none of the above requirements needs a commercial publisher – in fact, they would arguably be better served by taking them out of the commercial sector. My main point is that self-hosting, although a short-term solution for distribution and archival, is not a long-term one.

    Finally, just as a minor pedantic note, search results depend greatly on the search engine used. Baidu – probably the most popular search engine in China – doesn’t give your self-hosted PDF anywhere in its three pages of search results (neither does it give Wiley’s version, though).

  28. Mike Taylor Says:

    Thanks, Andy, some interesting stuff there.

    On permanence, there are a few things to say. One is that with the rate of mergers, web-site “upgrades” and suchlike I am actually far from confident that (say) the Wiley URL for my Xenoposeidon paper will last longer than my own. In fact, let’s make it a challenge! :-) If theirs goes away, you buy me a beer; if mine does, I buy you one! But I admit that, as an IT professional who’s been running a personal website since the 1990s — no Geocities for me! — I am not a typical case.

    But the more important point is that it doesn’t matter. The Web doesn’t actually run on permanent addresses, it runs on what gets indexed. If I deleted my Xenoposeidon PDF today and put it up somewhere else — say, directly on SV-POW! — within a few days it would be indexed again, and coming out at or near the top of search-engine results. Librarians and publishers used to have a very important curation role — abstracting and indexing and all that — but the main reason they keep doing these things now is habit.

    And that’s because of the wonderful loosely coupled nature of the Internet. Back when people first started posting research papers on the web, there were no search engines — CERN, famously, maintained a list of all the world’s web-sites. Search engines and crawlers as we know them today were never part of the original vision of the web: they were invented and put together from spare parts. And that is the glory of the open web. The people at Yahoo and AltaVista and Google didn’t need anyone’s permission to start crawling and indexing — they didn’t need to sign up to someone’s Developer Partnership Program and sign a non-disclosure form before they were allowed to see the API documentation, and then apply for an API Key that is good for up to 100 accesses per day. All these encumberances apply when you try to access data in publishers’ silos (trust me: my day-job employers have just spent literally months trying to suck the information out of Elsevier that is necessary to use their crappy 2001-era SOAP-based web services to search metadata. Not even content.) And this is why I can’t get remotely excited about things like ScienceDirect and Scopus. Walled gardens can give us some specific functionality, sure, but they will always be limited by what the vendor thinks of, and what the vendor can turn a profit on. Whereas if you just shove things up on the open web, anyone can do anything with them.

    With that said, your point about document security is well made — we do need some system for preventing people from tampering with versions of record. Perhaps something along the lines of the DOI register maintaining an MD5 checksum of the VOR PDF?

    You are also right that not all authors will bother to post their PDFs — though frankly, heaven alone knows why not, when it takes five minutes to do something that will triple the accessibility of work you’ve spent a year on. This seems like an argument for repositories (whether institutional or subject-based) and mandatory deposition — e.g. as a condition of a grant.

    Is that the same as the Green OA route? No, I want to see version-of-record PDFs reposited, not accepted manuscripts — for precisely the anti-tampering reason you mention above, among other reasons. Green OA is much, much better than nothing. But it’s not the real thing.

    Finally: if Baidu lists neither my self-hosted Xenoposeidon PDF or Wiley’s version anywhere in its first three pages of search results, then it is Just Plain Broken. I can’t worry about the existence of broken tools. Someone will make a better one and knock it off its perch, just like Google did to AltaVista.


  29. […] Updating the age of first NIH R01 award trends: Flatlining Highest Rates Ever Recorded of Multi-Drug-Resistant TB Leak Offers Glimpse of Campaign Against Climate Science Exploring the Sourdoughome A response to one Elsevier employee, and an open letter to the rest […]


  30. […] interesting conversation arose in the comments to Matt’s last post — interesting to me, at least, but then since I wrote much of it, I am biased.  I think it […]

  31. Nick Gardner Says:

    Why can’t we just post to arXiv.org?

  32. Mike Taylor Says:

    Oh, and Nick Gardner asks: “Why can’t we just post to arXiv.org?”

    The immediate answer is that arXiv doesn’t accept palaeontology papers — the closest it comes is “computational biology”. But more broadly, what about preprint servers? The obvious candidate in our field is probably Nature Precedings, and I am interested in exploring this. In fact, I have made a deposit in NP already: a version of an SV-POW! blog entry in fact: http://precedings.nature.com/documents/6878/version/1 (because this blog entry was cited in our Journal of Zoology, and I found myself half wishing we’d put it somewhere more reputable than SV-POW!.

  33. Nick Gardner Says:

    Has anyone tried petitioning arXiv to open up its biology section to fields outside of computational biology?

    I also meant to post my first comment on the latest post… lol.

  34. Mike Taylor Says:

    No, I’ve not been in touch with the arXiv people at all. Maybe I should try. But I am not optimistic because IIRC they get funding from physics and/or maths bodies.

  35. Mike Taylor Says:

    I just sent this email to the arXiv administrators at www-admin@arxiv.org:

    Dear arXiv,

    First: arXiv is awesome! Many thanks for creating and maintaining it.

    I am a palaeobiologist and open-access activist. I, along with several of my colleagues, would very much like to use arXiv to deposit preprints of our journal papers, but can’t do so as it’s limited as to subject. I wonder why that is, and whether there are plans to expand? (I did read the FAQs, but didn’t see an answer there.)

    My guess was that it is probably because the organisations providing funding are mostly maths/physics-oriented, but when I checked the list for 2011 it seemed that most funding organsations are discipline-neutral. So is there another reason besides history?

    Many thanks,
    [name, address, affiliation, etc.]

    I will report back when I hear from them.


  36. […] Back in February last year, in a comment section, we got to discussing arXiv, the free-to-use open-access preprint repository that pretty much every physicist, mathematician and astonomer deposits their papers in. At the time, I wrote: […]


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