How Elsevier can save itself, part 1: Easy
April 22, 2012
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).
By coincidence, literally as I was writing that, Elsevier’s Liz Smith tweeted:
I clicked through and looked at the advert:
Can you help us tell our story? We’re looking for someone who is part community manager, part brand manager and part journalist to be in charge of an exciting new website that will help us communicate more effectively and consistently with the research community.
You’ll establish and implement a content strategy for the site, to make sure that we’re talking about the many positive things happening at Elsevier.
This is worth doing — as Richard Poynder pointed out back in January, Elsevier needs to get out more, and hiring someone whose job is just that can’t hurt. But I hope no-one at Elsevier thinks that it will be enough to “make sure that we’re talking about the many positive things happening at Elsevier”.
The problems run much deeper than that.
So I’m going to discuss some of the things that Elsevier needs to actually do. By that I mean, not just talking more effectively about what’s happening already, but changes that need to made.
This post will address the easy ones — things that Elsevier should do right now, without even thinking about it. We’re talking here about things that will have pretty much no cost, and will start to make Elsevier look like people we can do business with.
1. Be explicit about “sponsored article” terms
I’m starting with this one to give Elsevier a head start, since it seems they’ve fixed this now. As of a few weeks ago, the sponsored article page has a link to a Sponsored Articles – User Rights page which spells out important details about what you are and are not allowed to do with a sponsored article.
(For the moment I am not interested in what those terms are — we’ll discuss how they are and are not satisfactory in the next article. I am just interested in whether we can find out what the terms are.)
Why am I mentioning this in How Elsevier Can Save Itself when it’s a problem they’ve already fixed? Two reasons.
Second, the terms are still not completely clear, in that they don’t say who has the copyright in the article. (It’s Elsevier, by the way, not the author, but we’ll talk about that in the next part.)
This is in contrast to, for example, Springer’s “Open Choice” page, which is crystal clear about both copyright ownership and access conditions in just 55 words of a page that fits on a single sheet of A4.
2. Be explicit about non-sponsored article terms
I have little idea at the moment exactly what I’m allowed to do with regular non-sponsored articles. I am affiliated with the University of Bristol and have off-campus access via Shibboleth and an intermittently functional VPN, so I assume I am allowed to download ScienceDirect articles. But I don’t know whether, for example, I’m allowed to email copies to colleagues who should have access but don’t from off-campus; or whether I’m allowed to text-mine the articles that I have access to; or, if so, what I am allowed to do with the results.
To be fair, there is a fairly hefty document on Authors’ Rights & Responsibilities, but that is addressed much more to the authors of articles than to their users.
Immediate Update. It turns out I was looking in the wrong place: the information doesn’t seem to be on elsevier.com, but it is on sciencedirect.com, where it can be reached by a Terms and Conditions link on almost every page. Those terms and conditions are very restrictive, but again we’ll discuss that next time. The important thing is to make sure they are very easy to find.
3. Make it trivially easy to find sponsored articles
When I was first trying to discover the terms of “sponsored articles”, one approach I took was to go to Cretaceous Research, an Elsevier journal, try to find a sample sponsored article, and see what it said about itself.
Well, I couldn’t do it. The Advanced Search page has fields for subject, date-range and more, but no “limit to sponsored articles” or similar checkbox.
There are lots of reasons people might want to find sponsored articles, and I can’t think of any good reasons why Elsevier might not want them to. So this should be made very easy. (Apart from anything else, it’s about the best way to advertise the journal.)
Not providing a searching option makes it look as though Elsevier want to hide sponsored articles — to stop people from getting full value from them. That perception, whether accurate or not, needs to be dealt with.
This page in the Author’s Rights area discusses a question that comes up a lot:
Why does Elsevier request transfer of copyright?
The research community needs certainty with respect to the validity of scientific papers, which is normally obtained through the editing and peer review processes. The scientific record must be clear and unambiguous. Elsevier believes that, by obtaining copyright transfer, it will always be clear to researchers that when they access an Elsevier site to review a paper, they are reading a final version of the paper which has been edited, peer-reviewed and accepted for publication in an appropriate journal. This eliminates any ambiguity or uncertainty about Elsevier’s ability to distribute, sub-license and protect the article from unauthorized copying, unauthorized distribution, and plagiarism.
This is flagrant nonsense. No-one — no-one — evaluates the trustworthiness or validity of a paper on the basis of who owns the copyright. No-one.
So whatever the true reason for copyright transfer, we know it’s not to make it “clear to researchers that when they access an Elsevier site to review a paper, they are reading a final version of the paper.”
When Elsevier tells us things that we know are not true, how can they expect us to believe anything else they say?
5. Root out and destroy and stupid conditions
You sometimes hear stories like this one: an inter-library loan facility where the librarian is sent a PDF, but publisher restrictions do not not allowed it be forwarded to the patron. Instead, the librarian has to print the PDF out, destroy the original, scan the printout and send the scan to the patron.
Are these stories true? I don’t know. If they are, is Elsevier the publisher concerned? I don’t know. But Elsevier needs to make sure of that. At this point, any such stupidities will be discovered, and trumpeted, and ridiculed.
The same goes for any other equally dumb edge-cases. If they exist, someone’s going to find them. Better for Elsevier that it be one of their own people, and that they fix it ASAP.
What do these measures have in common? None of them will cost Elsevier anything. These are things that should be done as soon as humanly possible, by which I mean “within the next week” rather than “we’ll set up a group to look into it, and report back at the next six-monthly management meeting”.
These measures are about transparency and sanity. They are the kinds of changes that will start to put some trust back in place. Being up-front and clear about what the access situation is will start to chip away at the sense that Elsevier has something to hide. Getting rid of palpable lies about copyright transfer will be a start towards enabling us to believe Elsevier when they tell us other things. None of this is enough to make an enemy into a friend; but it will at least help us to feel we’re facing an honourable enemy. (Of course, there is a lot more that researchers need from Elsevier beyond that baseline. We’ll look into that next time.)
Please do shout in the comments if I’ve missed any zero-cost transparency or sanity measures that should have been listed here.