How Elsevier can save itself, part 3: Hard

May 2, 2012

These are worrying days for barrier-based publishers.  In the few days since I posted part 2 of this series, we have yet another major development in the Open Access world: UK Science Minister David Willetts’ announcement that “we will make publicly funded research accessible free of charge to readers”.  Exactly what form this will take is not yet clear, but the signs seem to point to an FRPAA-like universal Green-OA mandate for all research funded by the government.

What does this mean for Elsevier and their competitors?  It looks to me like a swift and sudden pulling of the rug from under their feet.  When Green OA becomes ubiqitous enough that researchers start looking at repositories as a first line of attack rather than the if-all-else-fails option, the need for journal subscriptions will fall away precipitously — and with it, publishers’ revenue streams.

In the face of that prospect, we now come to the third and final part of the How Elsevier Can Save Itself series.  (Final, that is, apart form the forthcoming coda on how other publishers should react.)  Previously we talked about easy measures and medium measures.  These ones are hard.  They require vision, courage, and determination.

1. Convert to Gold open access

It sounds radical; it sounds like a Won’t Ever Happen.  But, really, what is the alternative?  Subscription revenue is on the way out.  The signs are everywhere — not just in blogs and on Twitter, but in legislation in the US, in the UK and elsewhere.  Publishers reliant on subscription revenue must find another source of income or they will crash.

This may seem so obvious that it doesn’t need saying.  Unfortunately for Elsevier, a there’s a steady stream of no-we’re-not-sinking denialism issuing from venues such as the Scholarly Kitchen, and because that’s what publishers want to hear, they might fall into the trap of believing it because they want to.  (I have a vision of a world ten years hence when open access is all but universal; somewhere in the mid-west, Kent Anderson and David Crotty have locked themselves into a underground bunker with a supply of tinned food and bottled water, and spend their days writing blog-posts to each other about how awesome the subscription-and-gatekeeper model is, and how there’s no need for change and how naive all these OA zealots are.)

Let’s assume for the moment that someone at Elsevier can see the oncoming revenue evaporation, and is making plans that go beyond “sell all my stock and get a job in another business”.  What revenue streams could be brought online to replace the lost subscriptions?

Well, what are publishers good at?  Managing the editorial process; proof-reading and copy-editing; page layout; consistent formatting across a brand; reliable large-scale web-hosting.  Those remain valuable services which publishers could charge for.

Guess what?  Charging authors for those services is Gold Open Access.  It’s the only business model that might still work when Green is pervasive.  (Only “might”?  Yes; see below.)

2. Support the FRPAA

Wait, what?  Didn’t I just say that Green-OA mandates like the FRPAA are going to Eat Elsevier’s Lunch?  Yes I did; and yes they are.  The thing is, there is nothing Elsevier can do to stop that.  The RWA debacle should have taught them that, if they doubted it before.

So what do you do when an unstoppable enemy is charging at you?  The judo move is to use that momentum to your own advantage.  Or, to switch metaphors, if a train is heading down the track towards you, it’s better to hop on board than to try to stop it.

I can see that this is going to be a hard lesson for a company that’s been used to having its own way since forever.  There’s a good chance that it believes in its own invincibility — its manifest destiny, if you will.  You know, like Blockbuster, Borders and the News of the World.

But if Elsevier has the agility, there’s an opportunity right now to radically reposition itself as the progressive, author-friendly publisher that listens to what academics want.  Given the appalling behaviour that’s got Elsevier into the current situation, it’ll take something dramatic to do that: supporting the FRPAA is the best chance they have, maybe the only chance.

3. Do it now

Here’s why I said that Gold OA is the only business model that might still work when Green is pervasive.  Once Green really takes hold, there’s a danger that scholars will lose interest in journals.  We’ve already seen this start to happen in maths and physics, where pre-prints on arXiv are ubiquitous.  In those fields, it’s still considered valuable to get a paper into a “good journal”; but what counts most is getting your work on the pre-print server where people can see and cite it.

This danger is all the more real because of the rise of Altmetrics.  A few years back when arXiv was establishing itself, journal impact factor was about the only way of getting a quick-and-dirty measurement of how “good” a paper was.  That’s changing; and as it changes, it’s destroying one of the main reasons for the continuing dominance of the journal system as the primary way to share science.  I don’t know how quickly Altmetrics are going to grow in influence, how well they can be designed to avoid gaming, or indeed whether the whole initiative will crash and burn.  But I do know that I’m more likely to tell people that our neck-posture paper has been cited 37 times than that it was in a journal with impact factor 1.949.  Because what a paper actually does is more important than where it hangs out.

So the spectre hanging over Elsevier isn’t just the destruction of their subscription model, but the possibility that by the time they get into gear and switch to Gold OA, it’ll all be over and the world will have lost interest in journals.  Certainly if university libraries start redirecting their saved subscription money towards in-house publishing efforts, the chances of that will increase dramatically.

This might not happen.  Inertia surrounding the journal system, and bean-counters’ ingrained love for impact factors, might be enough to keep journals alive and important, with Green OA and in-house publishing remaining second-tier.  But it might.  If I was Mister Elsevier, I wouldn’t be betting the farm on it.

What won’t help

A quick word on two things Elsevier could do that I have not mentioned in this series — because I don’t think they will make any difference in the long term:

  • Reducing subscription prices.
  • Unbundling subscriptions from their “Big Deals”.

Yes, I know that these moves would address two of the three complaints of the Cost of Knowledge boycott.  But in the end I think they’re red herrings.  All they do is make the current system of barriers marginally less unpalatable.  And that’s like patching holes in the Titanic, because the ship is going down.

The challenge is to re-tool for a world where barriers won’t make money.  Because that is not a strategy that can keep working.  It just isn’t.

Can they do it?

I said at the start that, while the changes outlined in earlier posts are no-brainers, or at least only moderately difficult, these ones will require vision, courage, and determination.  I think Elsevier has people with those qualities.  Unfortunately, it also has a massive amount of institutional inertia.  It’s hard to steer a supertanker.  Even when it’s heading straight for the rocks, there are going to be plenty of people whose attitude is: heck, we’re a supertanker — we don’t need to be worried about a bunch of stinkin’ rocks.

So I’d like to think they can do it.  But my head says probably not.  And as Clay Shirky points out, “You’re gonna miss us when we’re gone!” is not much of a business model.

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38 Responses to “How Elsevier can save itself, part 3: Hard”

  1. Lab Lemming Says:

    You are forgetting the value of the literature that the already own. Even if all of their journals shut, any time you want to look up, say, the original description of a type specimen, you’ll have to access their IP.

  2. Mike Taylor Says:

    It’s true that I’ve not considered the value of the papers that we’ve already given them. (I can hardly bear to say “… that they own”, as though there’s some justification for that.)

    How do you see this factor playing into the analysis? Are you suggesting that there’s a viable business model for Elsevier to stop publishing and just sell access to their archives? I suppose that may be true. What a horrible vision. I can easily imagine pirate networks springing up very quickly in such a world.


  3. Considering the metaphor of a supertanker being too large to turn fast, it does not even have to have any naysayers on board. Everyone, from the captain at the steering wheel, through officers, crew and passengers, may be totally sure the ship needs to be turned, and each individual working hard on turning the ship and yet the ship cannot be turned. Why? Because the ship is designed in such a way that no individual effort has any effect, even if everyone participates. It is designed to neutralize every individual’s intentions and to prevent individuals from working as a unified group. The only way to turn the ship is to redesign how it works, which requires that the ship be dismantled and re-built – something that cannot be done while the ship is out at sea as the water will rush in an sink it even before it reaches the rocks.

    This above is a metaphor, but in reality, a gigantic corporate publisher may not be possible to turn even if every employee is a die-hard OA evangelist because of systemic obstacles inherent in such a large, complex system. I think Michael Nielsen explained it the best here:

    http://michaelnielsen.org/blog/is-scientific-publishing-about-to-be-disrupted/

  4. Mike Taylor Says:

    Well, Bora, I am trying to take the optimistic view here, and doing my best to be helpful. But I fear you’re probably right. I’m a bit disappointed that none of my Elsevierian acquaintances (Liz Smith, Tom Reller, Alicia Wise) have commented on any of these posts — I’d love to know whether they find them helpful. Perhaps not, and they just think it’s kinder to stay silent than to say so.

  5. Mike Taylor Says:

    BTW., that Michael Nielsen essay that Bora pointed out is good. Here’s a sample, from the introduction:

    Even smart and good organizations can fail in the face of disruptive change, and there are common underlying structural reasons why that’s the case. That’s a much scarier story. If you think the newspapers and record companies are stupid or malevolent, then you can reassure yourself that provided you’re smart and good, you don’t have anything to worry about. But if disruption can destroy even the smart and the good, then it can destroy anybody.

    That is the brutal truth that even the cleverest and best of Elsevier’s people need to recognise.

  6. David Wojick Says:

    FRPAA is dead in this Congress and will be in the next. OSTP just punted the NSTC OA Task Force, issuing a nonreport, so the Executive has dropped it too. Gold OA is an interesting business model, but that is all. If you think the US Govt is going to forceably restructure the industry you are dreaming. OA has hit the political wall.

  7. Mark Robinson Says:

    Ha-ha, your vision of Kent Anderson and David Crotty in a bunker is highly amusing, or would be if it wasn’t based on the perspectives they have been touting. (They don’t really believe all that they write, do they?)

    It’s bad enough that they try to justify a rapacious and deeply unfair business model, but that they are apparently unaware of, or simply don’t feel particularly threatened by, the rather large cracks that are starting to appear in the foundations of their ivory towers only reinforces the feeling that they are so out of touch with reality. it doesn’t matter whether they think that what they do is a good thing if the people they’re trying to sell it to don’t. The comparison with the likes of Blockbuster is timely and apt.

    I wonder if Liz Smith and co have realised that they were fighting a losing battle on this and other blogs, at least for our hearts and minds, as I suspect that they themselves are still invested in their current business model, and have simply withdrawn to lick their wounds. One hopes that they come to their senses soon enough and get out with some of their self-respect intact before it all comes crashing down around their ears.

  8. Mike Taylor Says:

    David Wojick says that:

    OA has hit the political wall.

    Well, David, you have certainly picked an interesting moment to make that assertion.

  9. David Wojick Says:

    Mike, I am referring to the USA. Thought that was pretty clear. It will be interesting tobsee if the Britsvdoanything.

  10. Jan Velterop Says:

    Why do we even think that Elsevier *wants* to survive? Elsevier Science is but a Division of the much larger Reed-Elsevier. It is a cash-cow, and it is being milked for as long as possible, of course, as it should be. That’s how the system works. Think of your pension – it’s more than likely that their share portfolio includes Reed-Elsevier. And when it’s fully milked, the cash-cow will be left to die. Common business practice.

    So the focus may need to be on making sure the copyright vested in the content Elsevier Science owns is not resulting in a copyright orphanage in the case of a cash-cow demise. But even that has already been anticipated, and as far as I’m aware Elsevier Science, together with other publishers, deposits all its content at the Koninklijke Bibliotheek, the Dutch National Library (and possibly in other archives as well), just in case. From there it can be resuscitated when needed.

  11. Mike Taylor Says:

    Jan, you’re right that we need to be considering now what will happen to all the currently-locked articles if we do find ourselves in a post-Elsevier world. IIRC their stuff is all archived in LOCKSS, so the best case is that it’s all released openly. Worst case would be for the remains of Elsevier to be aquired by IP pirates who don’t even make a pretence of being in partnership with authors, and just do all they can to squeeze out the most possible money in the shortest possible term. I don’t even want to think about how that would end.

  12. Mike Taylor Says:

    BTW., even if Elsevier’s corporate owners are cynical enough not to care about its survival, I’m sure that actual people who make up Elsevier care deeply.

  13. Jan Velterop Says:

    Fully agree with your last comment, Mike. People within Elsevier care deeply. The company as such may not, though. Again, it’s how the syetem works.

  14. David Wojick Says:

    Regarding Anderson and Crotty, personal attacks are a sign of zealotry on your part, which may be correct, but I would hide it. The difference between the two camps seems to be that A and C view OA as a business decision, while you folks see it as a moral issue to be resolved via govt force, hence it is a political issue. The right wing is against you, so the outcome is far from clear. History is not necessarily on your side, but you can enjoy your feeling of moral superiority, while it lasts.

  15. Mike Taylor Says:

    Personal attacks are more a sign of my frustration with the head-in-the-sand fingers-in-the-ears la-la-la-can’t-hear-you attitude that makes the Scholarly Kitchen so insular and unbalanced. But I’m perfectly happy to confess to being a zealot.

    A better criticism of that passage would have been that personal attacks are childish. Which is also true.

    Do I see open access as a moral issue? Yes, partly; but that is very far from the whole story. I have an unfinished draft post for this blog entitled “Four arguments for Open Access”. Those arguments are moral, economic, technical and to do with sanity. So I am a moralist, but I also care about economics, technical factors and sanity. Happily, since all four lines of thought are aligned on this issue, I don’t have to be all conflicted about it.

  16. Joseph Esposito Says:

    My own view is that author-pays open access will prevail, but that it will be coopted by commercial entities.

  17. Rick Anderson Says:

    Regarding the unbundling of journal subscriptions from the Big Deal: you’re right that this would make no difference, but you’re mistaken about the reason. The reason it will make no difference is that it would constitute no change from the status quo. All Elsevier journals are available as individual subscriptions, and always have been.

  18. Jan Velterop Says:

    I agree that it will prevail, but it was invented, or at least pioneered, by a commercial entity: BioMed Central. Co-opted by others, such as PLoS.

  19. Mike Taylor Says:

    Joseph, I agree that commercial companies will offer author-pays publication services, but I wouldn’t call that being co-opted, for three reasons. First, let’s not forget that of the current Big Two OA publishers, the commercial BMC predates the non-profit PLoS, so the commercials were there first. Second, I am not anti-commerce or anti-profit, but anti-monopoly and anti-exploitation — for-profit publishers that offer good value are welcome so far as I’m concerned. And Third, all the author-pays publishers will have to compete on a level field, offering good services at low prices, so that any that try to price-gouge will simply be ignored.

  20. Mike Taylor Says:

    Hi, Rick. It’s nice to see so many Scholarly Kitcheners here this week. Good that you’re here although, or maybe because, I was so rude about Kent and David. Yes, it’s true that Elsevier make all journals available as individual subscriptions already. But we both know that those prices are inflated relative to those of the Big Deal (or, if you prefer, the Big Deal is discounted relative to the individual prices). Which is why some people (not me, particularly) are unhappy about it. As it happens David Gowers just yesterday wrote rather a good piece on why he dislikes Big Deals — worth a read.

  21. Joseph Esposito Says:

    Yes, excellent point. I have cited BMC before. What’s unfortunate about the OA debate is that it often sounds like a moral argument (the comparison to the Arab Spring is embarrassing) rather than a calculated business strategy that takes advantage of the huge amount of research being conducted that greatly exceeds the legacy publication channels.

  22. Rick Anderson Says:

    Actually, Mike, your rudeness toward Kent and David wasn’t so bad — you compared me to a wife-beater in the Guardian a while back, which I think was somewhat worse, particularly from someone inclined to criticize the quality of rhetoric fora like the Scholarly Kitchen.

  23. Mike Taylor Says:

    Joseph writes: “What’s unfortunate about the OA debate is that it often sounds like a moral argument … rather than a calculated business strategy”

    Well, I reject the either-or proposition there. As noted in my reply to David Wojick, I see OA as desirable from moral, economic, technical and sanity-related reasons. I won’t for a moment deny that it’s a moral issue for me, but that doesn’t for a moment mean it’s not also economically sound and good business — as I thought would be apparent from my arguments in this series of posts.

    “(the comparison to the Arab Spring is embarrassing)”. I disagree. As Peter Murray-Rust has argued, closed access costs lives. In the long term (by which I mean 50-100 years) opening up all our research to all the world might be single most important issue we can be dealing with now. So if you object to “Academic Spring” on the basis that there is no evil oppressor on a par with some of the deposed Middle-East leaders, well, I have sympathy with that. But the commonality is that the Academic Spring, like the Arab Spring, is ultimately about freedom and about saving lives.

  24. Jan Velterop Says:

    Joe, as is the case in many walks of life, ethics (morals) and business strategies are not necessarily mutually exclusive. It’s not so much a moral argument anyway, but a judgment of what is best for science, and by extension, for society. The challenge is to find business models that emphasize what’s good and ameliorate what’s not good. As for the Arab Spring comparison, I think the operative word was Spring – new life, new future, new hope.

  25. Mike Taylor Says:

    Rick, you know perfectly well that I did not compare you to a wife-beater. What I wrote in the comment in question was very obviously directed at the current barrier-based academic publishing paradigm in general, and Elsevier in particular.

    For anyone who missed it, here it is:

    I notice that this article describes that declaration several times as a “petition”. That’s not really right. That word is used nowhere on the Cost Of Knowledge site itself, nor in Timothy Gowers’s blog. Gowers describes it simply as “a website where one can declare one’s unwillingness to work for Elsevier journals”. What is the distinction? A petition is something that you sign to try to persuade someone to change their mind about something. But this is more like a declaration of independence. Obviously I can’t speak for all signatories, but my sense in signing it, and I think that of most others, was not “please change your ways, Elsevier”, but “All right, I’m done with you.”

    So over on Scholarly Kitchen (a blog run by and for commercial scholarly publishers) we read plaintive questions like this: “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?”

    No. It’s not any of those things. Comments like this one, however well intended, read to me like the words of an abusive husband — “Come on, honey, you know it don’t mean nothin’ when I beat you up. What will it take for you to come home? How would I manage without you? I promise it’ll be different this time.” But that’s not the agenda. We’re not trying to make you stop drinking, gambling or womanising. We just want to be gone, far away from you.

    So the Elsevier Boycott is not a plea for change. It’s a Dear John letter.

    (And Wiley and Blackwell and the others shouldn’t feel too smug. Elsevier are the worst of the bunch, but in the end they are all in the same racket.)

  26. Rick Anderson Says:

    Mike, anyone who reads the above will clearly see that your “abusive husband” comment did not refer to “the current barrier-based academic publishing paradigm.” Referring clearly and specifically to something I had written, you said “comments like this one… read to me like the words of an abusive husband.”

  27. Mike Taylor Says:

    I assure you the comment was not directed at you, but at Elsevier and their kin.

  28. Rick Anderson Says:

    Since, grammatically speaking, the comment undeniably did refer to me, I’ll take that as an apology. Thank you.

  29. Mike Taylor Says:

    Well. Let me at least apologise for not having written that comment more clearly.

    (Needless to say, I stand behind the substance of it, as it applies to Elsevier and other barrier-based publishers.)

  30. Andy Farke Says:

    At risk of getting into a major digression, the “abusive husband” analogy is one that should be immediately discarded and never used again. Those who know me know that I’m pro-OA and not always terribly PC, but an analogy to domestic violence is not anywhere near acceptable (even when using it in a negative sense). Domestic violence is a horrible thing. Analogizing it with academic publishing is offensive and just provides ammunition for those who would use the words to distract from the genuine issues.


  31. [...] This isn’t the kind of problem that can be fixed by hiring a PR person.  I’ve argued this before, but if Elsevier are going to survive, they’ll need to be much clearer in the their communications, eliminate practices that alienate authors, and ultimately change their business model entirely. [...]

  32. heteromeles Says:

    Um, actually, there is one point to bring up.

    The “author pays” model has a name and a very long history: it’s called vanity publishing. I’ve got a shelf full of “vanity” science books already: field guides to local flora, published by the authors in conjunction with various commercial presses, and all quite well done. This has been the default model for specialist science publications for at least a century, and I see no sign of it changing.

    Not so very long ago, many scientific publications came out this way. Many herbaria, for example, published papers from their scientists, and that is where many type specimens were published, along with many seminal papers. As far as I know, the commercialization of science publication practiced by Elsevier et al. is a relatively new phenomenon, and I suspect it’s going to be fairly short-lived, even to the relatively young history of publishing.

    So, all I can say is: welcome to the future, same as it ever was. The only thing that’s changed is you can print on demand, if you don’t want that pdf.


  33. [...] 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 [...]


  34. [...] Part 3, I’ll look at the deeper changes that will be necessary in the medium and long [...]


  35. [...] can’t. They’ve ossified into 1990s companies running on 1990s software. It’s hard to steer a ship with a $2bn turnover, and impossible to replace the engines while still [...]


  36. [...] person I’ve had dealings with has been pleasant, sane and helpful; often funny, too. But a lot of good, smart people smashed together can and do make a big, dumb, evil company. So Elsevier continually does things that (I suspect) none of the individuals I know there would [...]


  37. [...] First, we each had four minutes or so to make an opening statement. It was my privilege to go first, and I used essentially the essay from the last post — though in an effort to avoid bloke-reading-from-a-sheet-of-paper syndrome I allowed myself to drift a bit — not really to good effect. One addition was a mention of the steering-a-supertanker analogy. [...]


  38. […] 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 […]


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