How Elsevier can save itself, part 0: Introduction
April 20, 2012
Today has seen the release of a Bernstein Research investment report by Claudio Aspesi, entitled Reed Elsevier: Is Elsevier Heading for a Political Train-Wreck? It contains some stark warnings to potential investors:
Elsevier’s original support for the RWA has triggered a rising level of support for open mandates, in turn escalating an obscure bill into both a public policy debate on dissemination of publicly-funded research as well as an unwelcome scrutiny into the finances of Elsevier.
Another controversy, this time around text mining, is brewing in the background, and could possibly further escalate the issues triggered by the RWA debacle.
And most importantly, this conclusion:
Adding acrimonious relationships with the research community to the difficult ones it already has with academic librarians looks self-defeating. We believe that Elsevier needs to rethink altogether how it thinks of researchers as customers, or it could end up, in a few years, facing the same hostility it encounters with much of the academic librarian community.
I’m not here to gloat. I mention this report only as the timely backdrop to a short series of posts that I’ve been planning to write for a few weeks now.
State of the nation
It should now be clear to everyone who’s been paying attention that Elsevier has got itself into a rotten position. No-one trusts it or likes it. Even people who act as associate editors for its journals are seem to be feeling that’s something to be a bit apologetic about rather than something to declare proudly. The feeling has grown stronger and more widespread — the Cost of Knowledge boycott is now closing in on 10,000 signatories — and all but the most head-in-the-sand types are now being forced to recognise that the distrust, dislike and resolution is real and significant, and that it’s not going away.
Every time I’ve got into conversation with an actual Elsevier employee (Liz Smith, Tom Reller) they’ve been friendly, reasonable and polite — and I should add, rather forbearing, when you think of how much I’ve had to say against their employer. But there’s often an undertone of hurt. I don’t know if I’m over-interpreting, but it seems to me that Elsevier employees feel mystified and a bit put out that all this hostility has arisen suddenly. But of course, it hasn’t really been sudden at all. It’s been building for many years. Elsevier has been shielded from having to take the anger seriously because its power in the marketplace has let them bulldoze right over the dissatisfaction. Now that the dam is finally breaking it’s catastophic.
Matt has explained in detail why no-one trusts Elsevier any more in an outstanding post that I urge all scholarly publisher employees to read if they don’t understand how things have got so bad. To (over-)summarise Matt’s analysis, scientists are trained to see dishonesty as a permanent stain, whereas in business a certain amount of dishonesty is expected. So things like the fake journals are a huge deal to scientists, while the career businessmen at the helm of Elsevier can’t necessarily see what all the fuss is about. Because of half a dozen big things and a thousand small things, Elsevier has lost the trust of both librarians and researchers.
These posts are about how Elsevier can win back the trust it’s lost. I think that’s the only way it can survive in the medium and long term.
Why do I care whether Elsevier survives?
Elsevier as it is today? I don’t. But there has be a core of something worth saving in a company with that much experience, with so many skilled people. It can be done. Same goes for Springer, Wiley, Blackwell and the rest. In the end it’s up to each publisher whether it’s prepared to embrace the necessary changes (both cosmetic and radical), or whether it’ll keep chasing short-term megaprofits at the cost of sliding into irrelevance.
And the world needs a flourishing ecosystem of different publishers. Much as I admire PLoS, a PLoS monoculture in publishing wouldn’t be in anyone’s best interests. We need competition between multiple publishers to drive prices down and services up, to keep everyone on their toes.
So if Elsevier can make themselves a part of that, so much the better for them.
What Elsevier needs to do
I’m planning to post five articles in this series — most of them pretty short.
- This one is the introduction.
- in part 1, I will discuss the easy things that Elsevier can and should do without even thinking about it. Things that they should do now.
- Part 2 will talk about changes that will probably hurt them a little more to make, but which still need to be done as soon as possible.
- In Part 3, I’ll look at the deeper changes that will be necessary in the medium and long term
- Finally, I’ll top off the series with a few words about other barrier-based for-profit publishers [not yet written].
Stay tuned! And, Elsevier folks: please do chip in with comments.