How Elsevier can save itself, part 0: Introduction

April 20, 2012

Background

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.

And:

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.

Stay tuned!  And, Elsevier folks: please do chip in with comments.

About these ads

19 Responses to “How Elsevier can save itself, part 0: Introduction”


  1. HINARI is only in place until 2016, and Elsevier is their largest supporter. Elsevier is also green OA. I agree we need them to survive, but their earnings per share may not.

  2. bill Says:

    in business a certain amount of dishonesty is expected

    What on Earth are you talking about? I agree with the rest of the post but this does not even remotely resemble my (admittedly very limited — ~3 years) experience of business.

    In anecdata terms, I have met a lot more scientists willing to tolerate dishonesty (Martinson’s “normal misbehaviour”, and more) than business people.

  3. sabre23t Says:

    Matt Wedel wrote earlier http://svpow.com/2012/02/22/scientific-reputations-and-clashing-worldviews/

    Businesses by and large do not work to the same tolerances of honesty. Thanks to marketing, almost every business, certainly every big business, is engaged in “shaping public opinion” about its products (or, if you like, “lying”). Whatever the reality at your business, the general perception is that in the business world a certain amount of bullshitting is acceptable, expected, and maybe even admirable–as long as it doesn’t hurt the bottom line.

    I think I agree with that, Bill.

  4. Matt Wedel Says:

    What on Earth are you talking about? I agree with the rest of the post but this does not even remotely resemble my (admittedly very limited — ~3 years) experience of business.

    Hi Bill, thanks for weighing in. If you have time, please go read the original post and then see if you still disagree. I’m okay with having people disagree with me, but it will be more productive–we might actually learn something from disagreeing–if we can talk about specific points of the original argument, instead of arguing over the simplification presented in this post.

  5. brembs Says:

    “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.”

    This still seems to disclose quite some thinking in terms of yesterday’s technology. Today, we could be able to just publish our work and get on with research instead of foraging for the publisher with ‘higher service’ or ‘lesser price’ in your “flourishing ecosystem” while trying to dodge the already evolving predatory publishers. In fact, we wouldn’t have to worry about services or prices of publishing at all. We might, initially, worry about discovery. However, a large portion of our colleagues we know personally and for the rest – I mean, it isn’t called ‘information technology’ for nothing. Moreover, I already more than just worry about discovery, I’m majorly pissed off about it. In fact, to me, with tenure just a signature (of mine) away, discovery is becoming much more of an issue than publishing. And also there, publishers stand in the way.

    Thus, I reiterate my doubts that “a flourishing ecosystem” of publishers will solve much. It may solve public access at the expense of science, but isn’t that a Pyrrhic victory?

  6. Mike Taylor Says:

    Well, Bjoern, your we-don’t-need-journals-at-all stance is understood. Maybe down the line I will come to agree with you. But even if I agreed now, I’d still see the path from here to there involving a transition in publishers. In the end, whether publication is done via university libraries or independent publishers is going to come down to an outsourcing choice. If publishers can show that they’re able to do a better job at a better choice, then good luck to them! (Also: they will provide a route for authors not affiliated with a university.)


  7. [...] Last time we looked at the state Elsevier has got itself into, and how it needs to make significant changes to regain the trust of researchers (and librarians for that matter). [...]

  8. brembs Says:

    Mike, I don’t have an agenda and if I had one I wouldn’t be dogmatic about it. :-) Moreover, we both know each other’s positions.
    All I’m trying to do is to point out where blanket assertions (e.g., “the world needs a flourishing ecosystem of publishers”) aren’t backed up by either data or solid reasoning. In this case, clearly, there is no such need – only if there is some presupposition that the world needs academic publishers, which I think even you agree, is not the case. Maybe more to the point: your presupposition (publishing = publishers) ) is so common, that you don’t even need to spell it out for your readers. It’s a little bit like car = horse to pull it (or: internal combustion engine). That’s the main thing I’m trying to remind people of. If we all agree that we don’t necessarily need horses any more in all instances, we can find the best solution for the specific problems at hand – and there are still many occasions where horses pull cars/carriages around even today.

  9. Mike Taylor Says:

    “All I’m trying to do is to point out where blanket assertions (e.g., “the world needs a flourishing ecosystem of publishers”) aren’t backed up by either data or solid reasoning.”

    OK, point taken. Here’s my point, stated more precisely: a flourishing ecosystem is much better for the world than a publisher monoculture.

  10. brembs Says:

    No issues with that :-)


  11. As a marketer and former sales rep in the Life Science “industry” (i.e. scientists are my customers), I’d like to share my view on this post, if for nothing else to defend all marketers and hopefully to clarify a bit more what we do and how our world is changing rapidly.

    Especially this paragraph has got me a bit worked up:

    Businesses by and large do not work to the same tolerances of honesty. Thanks to marketing, almost every business, certainly every big business, is engaged in “shaping public opinion” about its products (or, if you like, “lying”). Whatever the reality at your business, the general perception is that in the business world a certain amount of bullshitting is acceptable, expected, and maybe even admirable–as long as it doesn’t hurt the bottom line.

    Look, I’m not naive and I do realize there are a lot of dishonest business people out there who are in it for the money. Just like there are dishonest scientists out there, who “shape the public opinion” by manipulating results and papers. And I agree that your examples used in the original post are great examples of this dishonesty. But give me 30 minutes and I can come up with an equal amount of scientists who falsified results “to shape public opinion”.

    However my first point I like to make is that a lot of us (us as “business people” for lack of a better term) are not like that at all. Personally I know a lot of business people AND marketers who have the success of their customers as their main goal. Let’s keep in mind that all of us work in a limited reality and often don’t get exposed to the bribes/deals that go on behind the scenes.

    Secondly, I’d like to highlight that with new media or social media, the truth is harder then ever to cover up. And this is where scientists have a huge advantage over others, especially corporate businesses. You are used to peer review bringing out the truth. And proof for that is that every example of a crooky scientist I can come up, has been exposed already by all of you as a community.

    And that reality is slowly entering the corporate world, so my advice to all of you is, keep doing what you’re doing. Tell us how openness and peer reviewed working is done. Because I personally believe it’s the only way for corporations and businesses to survive and I for one am truly enjoying this openness.

  12. Mike Taylor Says:

    Thanks for chipping in, Kurt. Yes, of course there are plenty of businesses that treat truth as a priority, and plenty of individuals who do even within the businesses that don’t. But I think Matt makes a persuasive case that the general level of expectation in business is lower than in science. A lot lower. I read a business justifying the cost of a skin-cream that costs £656 for 50 ml on the basis that “Because of the magnetic charge each particle contains, it’s symmetrical within the product and the way those tiny particles – they’re submicrons, so they’re really, really tiny – that’s how it spreads evenly on the skin, and that’s why it is able to shift water molecules and change the electrical balance”, and I conclude that that business does not put a high premium on truth. You can do that in business and do very well on it. You can’t in science.

    But your point — “Personally I know a lot of business people AND marketers who have the success of their customers as their main goal” — is well taken.

  13. bill Says:

    My bad for not reading the linked post, which I have now done. The argument for the inherent dishonesty of business culture seems to rest on a data-free assertion about a general perception; I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree.

    (While I actually agree that “the general perception”, particularly in the Ivory Tower, is that business is irredeemably tainted and impure, I think that fearless gaze might more profitably be turned inwards.)

    I’ve put Hull’s book on my wishlist, and look forward to evidence that scientific reputation has the power to end dishonest careers; I’ve seen little of it to date. The “unforgivable sin” seems to be forgiven quite readily to me but I am working again from personal anecdote, and will only be pleased if systematic evidence shows me wrong.


  14. [...] I am about to post an installment, something apposite happens out there.  Just as I was preparing part 0, Bernstein Research’s investment report Is Elsevier Heading for a Political Train-Wreck? came [...]


  15. [...] http://svpow.com/2012/04/20/how-elsevier-can-save-itself-part-0-introduction/ – Series of blogs by Mike Taylor Share this:PrintEmailShare on TumblrDiggLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. This entry was posted in Ranting and tagged Academic Spring, Information, Intelligence Corps, Knowledge, Open Access, Publishers, The Army by protohedgehog. Bookmark the permalink. [...]


  16. [...] then that’s all to the good — as I argued in the How Elsevier Can Save Itself posts [part 0, part 1, part 2, part 3]. They should not be criticised for [...]


  17. [...] this is all so frustrating is that it’s so close to being The Right Thing. My sense is that Elsevier really is making an effort to change, and that particular people within Elsevier are pushing for it to be done right. These “open [...]


  18. […] I detrattori del PfP sottolineano come il sistema faccia pagare al cittadino le scoperte scientifiche due volte: una volta per farle, una seconda per poterle leggere. Qualche anno fa, “il caso Elsevier” ha dato fuoco alle polveri, con migliaia di ricercatori che hanno boicottato il publisher scolastico più grande al mondo che cercava di bloccare una proposta di legge presentata alle Camere Americane contro il PfP. [Per un approfondimento sulla storia, consiglio il blog SV-POW] […]


  19. […] I even wrote a four-part series on how they can regain the trust of researchers and librarians (part 0, part 1, part 2, part 3), under the evidently mistaken impression that that was what they […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 397 other followers

%d bloggers like this: