Elsevier’s new “open access” terms: so near, yet so far
November 21, 2012
I hope it’s clear to anyone who’s been reading this blog for a while that I do try to be fair to Elsevier (and indeed to everyone). Although I’ve often had occasion to be critical of them, I’ve also been critical of Palaeontologia Electronica, PLOS and Royal Society publishing, among others; and I have praised Elsevier when they’ve done good things.
Against that backdrop, I hope no-one will feel it’s unreasonable for me to comment on Elsevier’s new “Open Access Articles” page. Let’s quote this (short) page in full, so we’ll still have the current version to hand if it changes tomorrow:
Open Access Articles
When you publish in an Elsevier journal, as an author, you retain the right to use your article for a broad range of purposes, including use by your institute or company, without the need to obtain specific permission from Elsevier. For further details see our posting policy.
What you can do with Open Access articles?
Readers are permitted to read, download, print out, extract, reuse, archive, translate and distribute the article provided the appropriate credit is given to the authors and source of the work. For commercial use or systemic distribution, you must still request permission via our permission system.
[An aside: you will notice that the "public access initiatives" link is broken. It's not a copying error on my part -- that's how it is on Elsevier's own site, too. It's not the first time we've seen this kind of carelessness. Does no-one click on these things?]
The very clear statement “will remain permanently free for the public to read and download” is laudable, but that “unrestricted access” part at the start is quickly undermined when we reach the detail: “For commercial use or systemic distribution, you must still request permission”. This is a non-commercial clause, making Elsevier’s terms roughly congruent with the CC BY-NC licence — whereas RCUK funding requires the less restrictive CC BY, which allows use of articles in commercial contexts.
But in fact it’s worse than CC BY-NC, because of that “systemic distribution” clause. Let’s leave aside the fact that Elsevier don’t seem to know what “systemic” means, and assume that they meant “systematic”. What can they mean by prohibiting systematic distribution? Well, for one thing, it means the “open access” articles can’t be mirrored in another archive. They can’t be conveniently torrented. You may or may not be allowed to distribute them on USB sticks at conferences — who can tell what counts as “systematic”? You may or may not be allowed to make a better search engine for them that what Elsevier provide.
[This clause is inexplicable to me. By making the articles freely available for viewing and download, they are already committed to not charging access fees. So what can they possibly lose by allowing others to mirror them? If anything, it's to their benefit, saving them bandwidth.]
The reason 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 access” terms a are good thing. The very fact that Elsevier is using the term “open access” is an important step forward. But it would have been so easy to go one or two steps further and make them right.
This would be in researchers’ interests, of course; but also in Elsevier’s interests, for two reasons. First, it would make their open-access journals usable by RCUK and other grant recipients. And second — more important in the long term — it would send a signal that Elsevier is embracing open access, rather than grudgingly conceding ground.
Come on, Elsevier — step up to the plate!