Can Elsevier save itself?
February 28, 2012
Well, I’ve had most of the day now to digest the news that Elsevier have withdrawn their support of the Research Works Act; and a few hours to get used to the idea that the Act itself is now dead. I’ve had some time to think about what it all means.
My first reaction was to be really 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 reconciliation with all the authors, editors and reviewers that they’d alienated.
Unfortunately, a close reading of Elsevier’s statement [cached copy] doesn’t support that interpretation. It’s apparent that this is a strategic manoeuvre rather than a a fundamental shift. That’s clear from language like the following:
While we continue to oppose government mandates in this area, Elsevier is withdrawing support for the Research Work Act itself [...] While withdrawing support for the Research Works Act, we will continue to join with those many other nonprofit and commercial publishers and scholarly societies that oppose repeated efforts to extend mandates through legislation.
The second half of this is particularly disappointing because it is basically a manifesto for fighting against the Federal Research Public Access Act — the very thing that a publisher who is truly on the side of science would not do. In fact, reading this language, it’s hard to dispute Benoit Bruneau’s cynical summary:
Or indeed Alex Holcombe’s harsh reading:
I predicted they would drop the law, but didn’t expect them to admit its a completely cynical act- that they still actually believe in the law, but are simply trying to placate the misguided concerns of some researchers.
As if the wording of the statement itself were not tone-deaf enough, the problem was exacerbated by this statement, from the Chronicle of Higher Education:
Alicia Wise, Elsevier’s director of universal access, played down the boycott’s effect. “It’s something that we’re clearly aware of,” she said. But she emphasized that Elsevier had been sounding out the authors, editors, and reviewers who continue to work with it. “Those are the voices we have been listening to,” she said.
It’s hard to understand quite what Elsevier were hoping to achieve with this charmless passive-aggressive move, but it certainly wasn’t conciliation. The message can hardly be read as anything but a “screw you” to everyone who’s signed the Cost of Knowledge boycott. “We didn’t listen to you, we listened to the people who like us”. In other words, we listened only to the people who are already on our side. Far from being an attempt to win back former authors, editors and reviewers who had abandoned Elsevier, Wise’s statement brilliantly contrives to frame the RWA capitulation as both a bit of mutual backscratching and insult to the boycotters.
Well. How else to read that but as “We don’t want you back”?
And so we return to Rick Anderson’s plaintive question on the Scholarly Echo Chamber back at the beginning of the month, when The Cost of Knowledge was new and small:
It’s not at all clear what Elsevier must do to get out from under the boycott. Lower its prices? (If so, by how much?) Publicly state its opposition to SOPA and PIPA and RWA? Affirm the availability of individual subscriptions to its journals? If it does these things, will the boycott be called off?
If public opposition to the RWA might conceivably have achieved the rapprochement that Anderson wants, then the way it’s been done certainly won’t — indeed, in all the reactions I’ve read to the RWA announcement (see the link-farm that I’m compiling), I’ve not seen a single one that’s suggested that calling off the boycott would be a reasonable response. And several that have emphatically reaffirmed it.
Because after all, Elsevier’s public statements amount to “we have ignored the boycott, and listened to our friends, and as a result we are going to stop supporting this legislation but we’ll support the next identical one that comes along, and oppose the FRPAA”.
And you know what?
That tells me that Elsevier are in serious, serious trouble.
Because they just don’t get it.
In the context of a welcome concession of a very nasty piece of legislation, they’ve managed to botch the announcement and surrounding discussion in a way that betrays their core misunderstanding. They still think they own us. They have been careful to stop using the phrase “our content” in public since they saw how it upsets people, but at bottom they still think that the world of publications is all about the process of publishing rather than about what is published. And it just isn’t.
Not to get too Marxian, but since we now all have word processors and Internet connections, workers control the means of production.
If Elsevier want to survive, they will have to take a deep breath, give up the comforting illusion that we are still their bitches, and figure out how they can provide some actual value to scientists who increasingly have other options. I’ve mentioned before that even for people who have to care about impact factor, the highest ranked biology journal in the last JCR was the fully open-access PLoS Biology. Meanwhile in palaeontology, the open-access Acta Palaeontologia Polonica is as well regarded as any other specialist journal. Admittedly I sometimes hear people say “I need to aim for Science/Nature for the sake of my job application/promotion/tenure/grant application”. But I never hear people say they need to aim for Cretaceous Research for that reason.
It’s all changing. The reasons to publish as open access are growing rapidly more compelling — we’re headed towards a world where non-open research is going to be crippled in the competition for relevance — and the reasons not to pick an open-access venue are getting weaker. Elite journals like Cell will doubtless survive; how many more of Elsevier’s stable of 2656 will manage to creep into the next decade if they keep their doors closed?
So unless something else shifts very suddenly, I fear that Elsevier has slammed shut their window of opportunity. They get half marks for the first question on the examination (repudiate the RWA) and so far a big fat zero on the more important second question (support the FRPAA).
So here is my honest, helpful-as-I-can-be advice to Elsevier: make a fundamental change, embrace the new world that’s already coming, and signal that change by big, visible support for the FRPAA.
Miss that opportunity, and you’ll be a footnote in ten years’ time.