Elsevier steps up its War On Access

December 17, 2013

I thought Elsevier was already doing all it could to alienate the authors who freely donate their work to shore up the corporation’s obscene profits. The thousands of takedown notices sent to Academia.edu represent at best a grotesque PR mis-step, an idiot manoeuvre that I thought Elsevier would immediately regret and certainly avoid repeating.

Which just goes to show that I dramatically underestimated just how much Elsevier hate it when people read the research they publish, and the lengths they’re prepared to go to when it comes to ensuring the work stays unread.

Now, they’re targeting individual universities.

The University of Calgary has just sent this notice to all staff:

The University of Calgary has been contacted by a company representing the publisher, Elsevier Reed, regarding certain Elsevier journal articles posted on our publicly accessible university web pages. We have been provided with examples of these articles and reviewed the situation. Elsevier has put the University of Calgary on notice that these publicly posted Elsevier journal articles are an infringement of Elsevier Reed’s copyright and must be taken down.

That’s it, folks. Elsevier have taken the gloves off. I’ve tried repeatedly to think the best of them, to interpret their actions in the most charitable light. 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 wanted.

But now it’s apparent that I was far too optimistic. They have no interest in working with authors, universities, businesses or anyone else. They just want to screw every possible cent out of all parties in the short term.

Because this is, obviously, a very short-term move. Whatever feeble facade Elsevier have till now maintained of being partners in the ongoing process of research is gone forever. They’ve just tossed it away, instead desperately trying to cling onto short-term profit. In going after the University of Calgary (and I imagine other universities as well, unless this is a pilot harassment), Elsevier have declared their position as unrepentant enemies of science.

In essence, this move is an admission of defeat. It’s a classic last-throw-of-the-dice manoeuvre. It signals a recognition from Elsevier that they simply aren’t going to be able to compete with actual publishers in the 21st century. They’re burning the house down on their way out. They’re asset-stripping academia.

Elsevier are finished as a credible publisher. I can’t believe any researcher who knows what they’re doing is going to sign away their rights to Elsevier journals after this. I hope to see the editorial boards of Elsevier-encumbered journals breaking away from the dead-weight of the publisher, and finding deals that actually promote the work of those journals rather than actively hindering it.

And a reminder, folks: for those of you who want to publicly declare that you’re done with Elsevier, you can sign the Cost Of Knowledge declaration. That’s often been described as a petition, but it’s not. A petition exists to persuade someone to do something, but we’re not asking Elsevier to change. It’s evidently far, far too late for that. As a publisher, Elsevier is dead. The Cost of Knowledge is just a declaration that we’re walking away from the corpse before the stench becomes unbearable.

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60 Responses to “Elsevier steps up its War On Access”


  1. “I can’t believe any researcher who knows what they’re doing is going to sign away their rights to Elsevier journals after this.”

    That’s just it, Elsevier’s business model is aligned with the fact that a vast majority of researchers either a) don’t mind as they see it as a small cost to advance their careers or b) are ignorant about copyright. This is a pure business move that will probably serve Elsevier’s interests for the next 5-10 years. I’m sure they’ve done the calculations that sending these notices has a marginal negative impact on their credibility in the eyes of mainstream academics. Only when the threshold of value extraction starts to hurt the bottom line will the practice stop.

    One almost has to feel sorry for them. In the pre-Web world the business model worked in a way that was mostly harmonious with the advancement of science. In today’s world of course, only journals with business models (whether for-profit or not) that are aligned with a scalable, share-any-thing Internet, will be seen as advancing science and creating value. The Internet is not going away, and neither is posting of articles. Open Access journals that can reach sustainability will be the ones left standing in 10 years time. There will be just a handful of the Natures, Cells, and Sciences that will be able to survive. Until then, I don’t see Elsevier changing its ways, despite the rhetoric you’ll hear from them in a few hours.

  2. David Gerard Says:

    I’m sure Alicia will be along shortly to explain precisely how this is in the very best interests of researchers and of science itself.

  3. somebodyelse Says:

    This webpage has been reported as containing malware according to Bitdefender. Probably a false positive knowing Bitdefender but just a heads up for the site owner.

  4. Mike Taylor Says:

    Thanks for the tip, somebodyelse. Oddly something like this happened before. Do you know if there’s anything we can do to fix Bitdefender’s misdiagnosis? Is it complaining just about this page, or about the whole site?

    [I guess from Elsevier's perspective, this site does contain malware :-)]

  5. Anna Says:

    Does the letter indicate if the Elsevier content is deposited in their repository or of it is just posted on the website somewhere? I’m no fan of Elsevier, but at least in the US, the latter would be a violation of copyright, which they would be obliged to defend if they wanted to retain it.

  6. Anthony Thompson Says:

    It’s hard to believe that any business which is actively hated by a sizable portion of its customers can continue for very long.

  7. Mike Taylor Says:

    Anna,

    I don’t know any more details than you do: just what’s quoted in the article. But as we noted in the post about Elsevier takedowns, the issue isn’t whether Elsevier has the law on their side — everyone agrees that they have the legal right to do this — but what it tells us about what Elsevier are for. The story they sell is that they’re for science, for progress, for access. Their actions tell a different story. Which means that they are systematically alienating researchers who are for science, progress and access.

    By the way, you don’t have to defend a copyright in order to retain it. You may be thinking about trademark law, where something of that kind does pertain. (This kind of confusion is one reason why I am not at all keen on the term “intellectual property”, which confuses copyrights, patents, trademarks and more. See the epilogue to this post for details.)

  8. jillmwo Says:

    Given that the stated Elsevier policy is that final published versions of articles (that is, the version of record with accompanying supplementary materia) should not be publicly posted, but that other pre-print versions of the content may be, I’m not sure I understand what you feel authors are missing out on. The quality that you say publishers don’t add? If dissemination is the key aspect of open access, then posting pre-print versions should answer that requirement and still protect the digital assets that Elsevier has developed. Authors signed agreements with Elsevier — one assumes, in good faith — and Elsevier has the right to enforce those agreements. Enlighten me (preferably in an unemotional fashion without negative hyberbole) on what additional requirements you as a researcher have.

  9. Phillip Lord Says:

    @anna “which they would be obliged to defend if they wanted to retain it”

    I think you are confusing trade marks and copyright. You don’t lose copyright by not defending it.

  10. Matt K Says:

    Anna,

    Copyright is not like a Trademark; you don’t lose your copyright if you don’t “defend” it.

  11. aliciawise Says:

    Hi Mike,

    As we’ve stated, we do issue takedown notices from time to time when the final version of the published journal articles has been, often inadvertently, posted. Unfortunately, this is a challenge not only on commercial websites but on university websites too which host a high percentage of final published journal articles for subscription articles.

    However, there are many other good options for authors who want to share their article. They can share the final published version of the article with colleagues, use it for internal teaching and training, and at conferences or meetings. Any author who publishes in an Elsevier journal can also post and share other versions of their article, following some simple guidelines that vary by the version of the article to be shared. And of course the final published journal article can be shared whenever an author published open access with us. Our full statement is available here: http://www.elsevier.com/connect/a-comment-on-takedown-notices

    The public availability of final published journal articles is fine for the gold open access articles we publish because their publishing costs are covered through a payment by author or funder. However, it is a problem for subscription articles where the business model is based largely on paid access post-publication, and if freely accessible on a large scale what library will continue to subscribe?

    - Alicia

    Dr Alicia Wise
    Director of Access and Policy
    Elsevier
    @wisealic

  12. Paul R Pival Says:

    The letter sent to all Academic Staff from the Provost’s Office was pretty vague but also non-threatening. The first paragraph is in the post above, the rest is as follows (with a couple of email addresses removed):

    Elsevier Reed, publisher of over 2000 journals, does not permit the posting of published journal articles on the Internet, unless the open access option has been purchased. Author agreements detail what rights authors retain over material published by Elsevier and outline which versions can be made available on institutional web pages. Elsevier typically allows author preprints or accepted manuscripts to be publicly posted as opposed to the final published journal article.

    Elsevier acknowledges that these articles may have been inadvertently posted; however, we are required to remove them unless the authors have expressly retained the rights to post the actual published Elsevier version. Please review all of the publicly accessible University of Calgary web pages you are affiliated with and ensure that you have not made any published Elsevier PDFs available. If you require additional details regarding the rights you have retained for these articles, please review your author contract or Elsevier’s Article Posting Policy. (http://www.elsevier.com/about/open-access/open-access-policies/article-posting-policy#published-journal-article)

    Please note that this issue is not isolated to Elsevier publisher policies. Please ensure that other materials you have made available on publicly accessible university web pages are compliant with your other author contracts and publisher policies.

    If you have any questions or would like to discuss this further please contact the Copyright Office.

    If you would like information on open access publishing options or strategies on how to retain your copyright please contact Libraries and Cultural Resources, Centre for Scholarly Communication,

    On behalf of the Copyright Committee, thank you for your timely attention to this request.

  13. Mike Taylor Says:

    Yes, the university’s letter to its staff it not at all threatening.

    It would be much more interesting to see the one that Elsevier sent to the university.


  14. It is clear Elsevier is trying to make money. Instead of blaming them we academics should ensure our work is freely accessible to the public by self-archiving to disciplinary and institutional repositories. Self-archiving not only solves the accessibility problem, but in the long run it will also put Elsevier out of business because as Alicia clearly states: “if [articles are] freely accessible on a large scale what library will continue to subscribe?”


  15. “If articles are freely accessible on a large scale what library will continue to subscribe?” Really? Well, here’s a list of the SCOAP3 partner libraries that are continuing to pay publishers, although not necessarily via subscription, depending how you want to define that. Seems like a pretty big snafu to state that libraries are unwilling to pay when Elsevier is concurrently accepting our money and working with us to build a new “subscription/access” model in SCOAP3. And we have the data from Physics broadly that shows that even over 20+ years, with near 100% self-archiving, there had been no push to cancel subscriptions by libraries. http://www.lyrasis.org/scoap3usa

  16. steelgraham Says:

    Really ??? “Elsevier is working in partnership to test and learn more about how best to support sustainable green open access”. http://www.elsevier.com/about/open-access/green-open-access

  17. jrochkind Says:

    Can you provide links for more information on academia.edu letters and the calgary letter? Where did you find out about both these things? Where can I go to verify either of these things and get the full text of the letters etc? Not suggesting your report is not accurate, but I would like to follow up and get more information and verify the quote.


  18. […] Elsevier Contacts U. of Calgary, Authors Being Asked to Take Down Materials (via SV-POW) […]


  19. […] lit up this morning with news that the University of Calgary had sent faculty a blanket memo asking them (politely and without fearmongering) to take down any publisher PDFs on […]

  20. steelgraham Says:

    Hhmm “We routinely analyze and modify our policies to ensure we are responding to authors’ needs and concerns, and the concerns in general of the research and scholarly communities”. http://www.elsevier.com/about/open-access/open-access-policies/article-posting-policy#accepted-author-manuscript

  21. Mike Taylor Says:

    jrochkind asks: “Can you provide links for more information on academia.edu letters and the calgary letter?”

    The Academia.edu takedowns are a matter of public record. See the screengrab and transcription of Academia.edu’s own notification to its users in the earlier post. It would be nice to see the letter from Elsevier to Academia.edu that caused this, but unless either Elsevier or Academia.edu sees fit to release it, we’re stymied. In any case, no-one disputes the facts of the matter.

    On the more recent U. Calgary takedowns, I’m not going to reveal my original source because I wouldn’t want there to be any repercussions to him or her. But see the comment from Paul R Pival above giving the full text of the university’s message to its staff. The link on his name is to his Google+ page, which shows that he is himself employed at U. Calgary, so I think you can take his word for it even if you doubt mine.

  22. David Marjanović Says:

    Accepted manuscripts are frequently not identical to the published version in content because of corrections to the proofs. This holds especially for underfunded journals that take a long time between acceptance and publication.

    Furthermore, if you need to quote a source, you need the page number, and only the published version has the page numbers. (OK, the proofs do sometimes, but not always.)

    However, there are many other good options for authors who want to share their article. They can share the final published version of the article with colleagues, use it for internal teaching and training, and at conferences or meetings.

    You know, this is like how the Catholic Church allows the temperature method for contraception but not any others: it is the one that can’t be controlled. You can’t control what scientists send to their list of 50 e-mail addresses, give to their students or pass out at conferences, but you can control what they upload on their websites, even though the outcome of both is the same.

    This comes across as deeply silly. If your deliverers think you’re deeply silly, I think you have a problem!

    It is topped only by those benighted publishers who want to limit the number of times an author can send the pdf by e-mail! :-D

    It’s hard to believe that any business which is actively hated by a sizable portion of its customers can continue for very long.

    Easy: Elsevier, Springer, Wiley and Informa (including Taylor & Francis) have an oligopoly on the impact factor. In many countries, the quality of a scientist is measured by their impact factor. Some even want you to mention the impact factors of the journals you’ve published in in your CV!

  23. Karen Shashok Says:

    “Authors signed agreements with Elsevier — one assumes, in good faith —”

    Having worked for about 30 years as a translator and authors’ editor for researchers whose first language is not English, I can say that many of them do not read closely or fully understand all the paperwork journals and publishers require them to sign (e.g. authorship and originality forms, copyright transfer or licensing forms, conflict of interest forms, info about article processing charges and types of access), just as they often do not read closely or understand the increasingly lengthy, detailed and technically-worded Instructions to Authors provided by journals and publishers.

    Often, authors complete the forms more with a view to expediting acceptance and publication (pressure to publish!) rather than to understand what they are committing to. Yes, it’s their responsibility to read everything before they sign it, but that often doesn’t happen in real life. (Hands up everyone who always reads airlines’ terms and conditions before ticking the box to indicate that you actually have read and understood all that stuff.)

    Publishers’ policies on types of access and the costs to authors, and on making preprints available on repositories, personal or institutional websites are fine as far as they go but can be confusing to researchers who are not experts in access, licensing and copyright (most researchers?), especially if English is not their first language (most currently active researchers in the world). Information that is long and hard to understand tends to get ingored.

    If publishers aim to “ensure the widest possible dissemination” of research articles, why are they are so keen on preventing access from anywhere except their own paywalled sites? Lots of us cannot afford to pay for articles we’d like to read. About half of the reprint requests I email to authors go unanswered, even after one or two reminders.

    A few years ago I just stopped worrying about missing possibly important articles and decided hey, it’s the publisher’s loss (because I can’t pay) and ultimately the researchers’ loss (because I can’t use their findings, and so their work has less of an influence than it might have had). To me it looks like a pretty badly broken system.

  24. Mike Taylor Says:

    David points out: “Furthermore, if you need to quote a source, you need the page number, and only the published version has the page numbers.”

    This is true in palaeo. In other fields that have made more of a leap into the 21st century, such as maths, it’s conventional to use numbered sections, and to cite by section number instead of page number — e.g. Halibutwrangler et al. (2013: section 3.2.4).

    I think this is a much better approach — because it indexes by semantic rather than physical units, because it’s constant across the manuscript-to-PDF transition, and because it offers finer granularity. I wish we used it in palaeo.

  25. Mike Taylor Says:

    jillmwo asserts: “Authors signed agreements with Elsevier — one assumes, in good faith”

    This is rather like saying “iTunes users clicked the ‘I Agree’ button on the Terms of Service — one assumes, in good faith”.

  26. Nick Says:

    “If articles are freely accessible on a large scale what library will continue to subscribe?”

    Maybe you shouldn’t have built a business model that relies on exploitation. :-)


  27. […] posted on January 4, 2012 by Graham Steel This re-post is namely prompted by this post Elsevier steps up its War On Access by Mike Taylor. Not all of the url’s work since the original host no longer exists. […]

  28. steelgraham Says:

    “Sorry, we will only allow you to email the PDF to one researcher”….

    http://steelgraham.wordpress.com/2013/12/17/sorry-we-will-only-allow-you-to-email-the-pdf-to-one-researcher/

    Nothing to do with Evilsier, but….

  29. davidgerard Says:

    Frankly, at that point it’s spit on your hands, hoist the Jolly Roger and go to /r/scholar.

  30. Postdoc Says:

    Alicia – you say that academics sharing their papers online ultimately threatens the subscription model of academic publishing. You have articulated what the academic community wants: to hasten the shift away from the subscription model of journal publishing, and to move the academic community towards a model that’s consistent with open access.

    From the academic’s perspective, the movement away from paywall-based journal publishing can’t come too soon.

  31. Mike Taylor Says:

    Postdoc has articulated an important disconnect. Here’s how it works. The academic community does X. Elsevier responds “You mustn’t do X, otherwise Y will happen!”. But we want Y to happen. The bottom line is that we want Y and they want NOT Y. There is no outcome that will make us both happy.


  32. More Elsevier FUD and Bluff

    Everybody calm down…

    If Elsevier sends a take-down notice to a university, you have two simple options:

    (1) Leave it up, and send the notice back to Elsevier with a copy of Elsevier’s policy on self-archiving.
    http://www.elsevier.com/journal-authors/open-access/open-access-policies/article-posting-policy#accepted-author-manuscript

    OR

    (2) Re-set access as Closed Access and rely on the repository’s copy-request Button.

    (If the take-down notice was because you deposited the publisher’s PDF, make the publisher’s PDF Closed Access and deposit the author’s final draft instead, and make that OA.)

    And fix your mandate to make sure it specifies that the author’s final draft should be deposited immediately upon acceptance for publication, not the publisher’s PDF.

    I’m braced for the cacophony of uninformed, self-important nonsense that will now be confidently catapulted back and forth across the airwaves over this simple matter for the next few weeks…

    (Calgary could have saved us all a lot of time and energy if it had responded pragmatically to this latest round of Elsevier FUD and bluff — but, after all, this is exactly what FUD’s for, isn’t it?)

  33. Mike Taylor Says:

    Oh, Stevan. You really can’t just helpfully advise people without throwing in some abuse, can you? I wonder how many times more effective your last twenty years of archivangelism would have been without all the snide asides?


  34. […] notices to Academia.edu. Yesterday, it got even more intense when it became public that the University of Calgary is also confronted with takedown notices from Elsevier. Elsevier responded to the critiques, but it is unlikely that this will take the heat out of the […]

  35. Carl Says:

    Elsevier has always allowed authors to publish a pre-print version of their article on pre-print servers and on the author’s personal website. They also have a longstanding policy of contacting authors who post the final PDF prepared by Elsevier, to ask them to take it down. I remember learning this in graduate school a decade ago. So what is the new here?

  36. davidgerard Says:

    Carl – that they’ve been sending takedown notices for preprint versions, and determining that the author putting it on their university site or academia.edu doesn’t count. But of course, you know that, having read this and the previous article.

  37. Carl Says:

    Actually, this blog post (like the others I have read) is somewhat lacking in details about exactly which versions of which papers received takedown notices. Perhaps that is unavoidable. But, moving past that red herring to focus on more productive solutions, this entire situation shows the benefit of uploading each version of a paper to the arXiv or another public preprint server *before* sending it to the journal (to ensure that the uploaded version has not been accepted for publication). Disciplines that do not have a preprint system parallel to the arXiv would be wise to develop one. Some disciplines seem to work against themselves by preventing authors from distributing preprints before the paper is accepted, even though pre-acceptance is the time when the author has the most control over the copyright of the paper.


  38. […] j’espère qu’on parlera ici de la documentation électronique et de la situation hallucinante à laquelle nous sommes confrontés. En ce moment, les comptes de Noël sont particulièrement […]


  39. […] of Calgary, Elsevier have declared their position as unrepentant enemies of science,” said an outraged palaeontologist Mike Taylor, from Bristol University on his […]


  40. […] Elsevier steps up its War On Access SVPOW 17/12/2013 […]


  41. […] Elsevier continues to battle against the circulation of knowledge.  […]

  42. Joseph Esposito Says:

    I won’t be engaging in an ongoing argument about this, and I want to emphasize that in no way am I n apologist for Elsevier or anyone else, but there is a metric people should pay attention to, and that is the number of submission to Elsevier’s many journals. Until that number stops growing, Elsevier can shrug off all the attacks.

  43. Mike Taylor Says:

    That’s true as far as it goes. But I’d expect a well-run company to be thinking two or three moves ahead. Submissions are up this year, yes; if I were running Elsevier, I’d be wanting a strategy that meant they’d be up again next year and year after. Which is why I wouldn’t be setting out to hunt down old-school researchers and convert them into OA advocates.


  44. […] steps up its War On Access” http://svpow.com/2013/12/17/elsevier … via @RemiMathis and […]


  45. […] publisher Elsevier has issued a number take-down notices of work on academia.edu.  See the Washington Post‘s take and a librarian’s […]


  46. […] web sites. This provoked affected outrage among certain open access (OA) advocates: Mike Taylor proclaimed that Elsevier was stepping up its “War on Access”. Andrea Peterson, blogging for the […]


  47. Is OA such a threat to Elsevier in the long run? and does Elsevier really need to be popular among scientists? We should try to understand Elsevier’s strategy, not assuming it is an irrational drive for short-term profit. My attempt to do this can be found here:
    http://researchpracticesandtools.blogspot.fr/2013/12/the-world-according-to-elsevier.html


  48. […] le di todos los derechos los está ejerciendo! Prepárense para la segunda ronda: Elsevier irá después contra las universidades, diciéndole a los administradores que los artículos publicados en su dominio son tan ilegales […]


  49. […] Elsevier contacted universities—read the story on U Calgary in Canada at http://svpow.com/2013/12/17/elsevier-steps-up-its-war-on-access/—–to take down papers from their websites.  This expression of mental poverty can only […]


  50. […] about cultivating the ill-will of the people they allegedly serve (most recently with this and this). Sometimes I wonder if the other barrier-based publishers are getting too much of a free pass […]


  51. […] involved with OA publishing even as the company continues to lobby hard for its own interests and issues takedown notices to authors who have posted copies of their articles on the Web without Elsev…  What is going on […]


  52. […] Elsevier starts targeting universities #oa -Rx […]


  53. […] vs. WissenschaftlerInnen geht in die nächste Runde: Nach Abmahnungen an verschiedene Universitäten patroulliert Elsevier jetzt auch soziale Netzwerke wie academia.edu um Urheberrechtsverletzungen zu […]


  54. […] Version of their works on these websites. Understandably this caused a great deal of discussion. Click here to see an example […]


  55. […] War On Access was stepped up last year when they started contacting individual universities to prevent them from letting the world read their research. Today I got this message from a […]


  56. […] web sites. This provoked affected outrage among certain open access (OA) advocates: Mike Taylor proclaimed that Elsevier was stepping up its “War on Access”. Andrea Peterson, blogging for the […]


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