I hate to keep flogging a dead horse, but since this issue won’t go away I guess I can’t, either.

1. Two years ago, I wrote about how you have to pay to download Elsevier’s “open access” articles. I showed how their open-access articles claimed “all rights reserved”, and how when you use the site’s facilities to ask about giving one electronic copy to a student, the price is £10.88. As I summarised at the time: “Free” means “we take the author’s copyright, all rights are reserved, but you can buy downloads at a 45% discount from what they would otherwise cost.” No-one from Elsevier commented.

2. Eight months ago, Peter Murray-Rust explained that Elsevier charges to read #openaccess articles. He showed how all three of the randomly selected open-access articles he looked at had download fees of $31.50. No-one from Elsevier commented (although see below).

3. A couple of days ago, Peter revisited this issue, and found that Elsevier are still charging THOUSANDS of pounds for CC-BY articles. IMMORAL, UNETHICAL , maybe even ILLEGAL.This time he picked another Elsevier OA article at random, and was quoted £8000 for permission to print 100 copies. The one he looked at says “Open Access” in gold at the top and “All rights reserved” at the bottom. Its “Get rights and content” link takes me to RightsLink, where I was quoted £1.66 to supply a single electronic copy to a student on a course at the University of Bristol:

Screenshot from 2014-03-11 09:40:35

(Why was I quoted a wildly different price from Peter? I don’t know. Could be to do with the different university, or because he proposed printing copies instead of using an electronic one.)

On Peter’s last article, an Elsevier representative commented:

Alicia Wise says:
March 10, 2014 at 4:20 pm
Hi Peter,

As noted in the comment thread to your blog back in August we are improving the clarity of our OA license labelling (eg on ScienceDirect) and metadata feeds (eg to Rightslink). This is work in progress and should be completed by summer. I am working with the internal team to get a more clear understanding of the detailed plan and key milestones, and will tweet about these in due course.

With kind wishes,

Alicia

Dr Alicia Wise
Director of Access and Policy
Elsevier
@wisealic

(Oddly, I don’t see the referenced comment in the August blog-entry, but perhaps it was on a different article.)

Now here is my problem with this.

First of all, either this is deliberate fraud on Elsevier’s part — charging for the use of something that is free to use — or it’s a bug. Following Hanlon’s razor, I prefer the latter explanation. But assuming it’s a bug, why has it taken two years to address? And why is it still not fixed?

Elsevier, remember, are a company with an annual revenue exceeding £2bn. That’s £2,000,000,000. (Rather pathetically, their site’s link to the most recent annual report is broken, but that’s a different bug for a different day.) Is it unreasonable to expect that two years should be long enough for them to fix a trivial bug?

All that’s necessary is to change the “All rights reserved” message and the “Get rights and content” link to say “This is an open-access article, and is free to re-use”. We know that the necessary metadata is there because of the “Open Access” caption at the top of the article. So speaking from my perspective as a professional software developer of more than thirty years’ standing, this seems like a ten-line fix that should take maybe a man-hour; at most a man-day. A man-day of programmer time would cost Elsevier maybe £500 — that is, 0.000025% of the revenue they’ve taken since this bug was reported two years ago. Is it really too much to ask?

(One can hardly help comparing this performance with that of PeerJ, who have maybe a ten-thousandth of Elsevier’s income and resources. When I reported three bugs to them in a course of a couple of days, they fixed them all with an average report-to-fix time of less than 21 hours.)

Now here’s where it turns sinister.

The PeerJ bugs I mentioned above cost them — not money, directly, but a certain amount of reputation. By fixing them quickly, they fixed that reputation damage (and indeed gained reputation by responding so quickly). By contrast, the Elsevier bug we’re discussing here doesn’t cost them anything. It makes them money, by misleading people into paying for permissions that they already have. In short, not fixing this bug is making money for Elsevier. It’s hard not to wonder: would it have remained unfixed for two years if it was costing them money?

But instead of a rush to fix the bug, we have this kind of thing:

I find that very hard to accept. However complex your publishing platform is, however many different modules interoperate, however much legacy code there is — it’s not that hard to take the conditional that emits “Open Access” in gold at the top of the article, and make the same test in the other relevant places.

As John Mark Ockerbloom observes:

Come on, Elsevier. You’re better than this. Step up. Get this done.

Update (21st March 2014)

Ten days layer, Elsevier have finally responded. To give credit where it’s due, it’s actually pretty good: it notes how many customers made payments they needn’t have made (about 50), how much they paid in total (about $4000) and says that they are actively refunding these payments.

It would be have been nice, mind you, had this statement contained an actual apology: the words “sorry”, “regret” and “apologise” are all notably absent.

And I remain baffled that the answer to “So when will this all be reliable?” is “by the summer of 2014″. As noted above, the pages in question already have the information that the articles are open access, as noted in the gold “Open Access” text at top right of the pages. Why it’s going to take several more months to use that information elsewhere in the same pages is a mystery to me.

Update 2 (24th March 2014)

As noted by Alicia in a comment below, Elsevier employee Chris Shillum has posted a long comment on Elsevier’s response, explaining in more detail what the technical issues are. Unfortunately there seems to be no way to link directly to the comment, but it’s the fifth one.

 

From the files of J. K. Rowling.

Publisher #1

Dear Ms. Rowling,

Thank you for submitting your manuscript Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. We will be happy to consider it for publication. However we have some concerns about the excessive length of this manuscript. We usually handle works of 5-20 pages, sometimes as much as 30 pages. Your 1337-page manuscript exceeds these limits, and requires some trimming.

We suggest that this rather wide-ranging work could usefully be split into a number of smaller, more tightly focussed, papers. In particular, we feel that the “magic” theme is not appropriate for our venue, and should be excised from the current submission.

Assuming you are happy to make these changes, we will be pleased to work with you on this project.

Correspondence ends.

Publisher #2

Esteemed Joenne Kay Rowling,

We are delightful to recieve your manuscript Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and we look forword to publish it in our highly prestigious International Journal of Story Peer Reviewed which in 2013 is awarded an impact factor of 0.024.

Before we can progression this mutually benefit work, we require you to send a cheque for $5,000 US Dollars to the above address.

Correspondence ends.

Publisher #3

Dear J.R.R. Rowling,

We are in receipt of your manuscript Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Unfortunately, after a discussion with the editorial board, we concluded that it is insufficiently novel to warrant publication in our journal, which is one of the leading venues in its field. Although your work is well executed, it does not represent a significant advance in scholarship.

That is not to say that minor studies such as yours are of no value, however! Have you considered one of the smaller society journals?

Correspondence ends.

Publisher #4

Dear Dr. Rowling

Your submission Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince has passed initial editorial checks and will now be sent to two peer-reviewers. We will contact you when we have their reports and are able to make a decision.

Dear Dr. Rowling

Re: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

We agree that eighteen months is too long for a manuscript to spend in review. On making inquiries, we find that we are unfortunately no longer able to contact the editor who was handling your submission.

We have appointed a new handling editor, who will send your submission to two new reviewers. We will contact you as soon as the new editor has made a decision.

Dear Dr. Rowling

Re: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

Your complaint is quite justified. We will chase the reviewers.

Dear Dr. Rowling

I am pleased to say that the reviewers have returned their reports on your submission Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and we are able to make an editiorial decision, which is ACCEPT WITH MAJOR REVISION.

Reviewer 1 felt that the core point of your contribution could be made much more succinctly, and recommended that you remove the characters of Ron, Hermione, Draco, Hagrid and Snape. I concur with his assessment that the final version will be tighter and stronger for these cuts, and am confident that you can make them in a way that does not compromise the plot.

Reviewer 2 was positive over all, but did not like being surprised by the ending, and felt that it should have been outlined in the abstract. She also felt that citation of earlier works including Lewis (1950, 1951, 1952, 1953, 1954, 1955, 1956) and Pullman (1995, 1997, 2000) would be appropriate, and noted an over-use of constructions such as “… said Hermione, warningly”.

Dear Dr. Rowling

Thank you for your revised manuscript of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, which it is our pleasure to accept. We now ask you to sign the attached copyright transfer form, so we can proceed with publication.

Dear Dr. Rowling

I am sorry that you are unhappy about this, but transfer of copyright is our standard procedure, and we must insist on it as a prerequisite for publication. None of our other authors have complained.

Dear Dr. Rowling

Thank you for the signed copyright transfer form.

In answer to your query, no, we do not pay royalties.

Dear Dr. Rowling

Sadly, no, we are unable to make an exception in the matter of royalties.

Dear Dr. Rowling

Your book has now been formatted. We attach a proof PDF. Please read this very carefully as this is the last chance to spot errors.

You will readily appreciate that publishing is an expensive business. In order to remain competitive we have had to reduce costs, and as a result we are no longer able to offer proof-reading or copy-editing. Therefore you are responsible for ensuring the copy is clean.

At this stage, changes should be kept as small as possible, otherwise a charge may be incurred for re-typesetting.

Dear Dr. Rowling

Many thanks for returning the corrected proofs of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. We will proceed with publication.

Now that the final length of your contribution is known, we are able to assess page charges. At 607 pages, this work exceeds our standard twenty free pages by 587. At $140 US per page, this comes to $82,180. We would be grateful if you would forward us a cheque for this amount at your convenience.

Dear Dr. Rowling

Thank you for you prompt payment of the page charges. We agree that these are regrettable, but sadly they are part of the reality of the publishing business.

We are delighted to inform you that Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is now published online, and has been assigned the DOI 10.123.45678.

We thank you for working on this fine contribution with us, and hope you will consider us for your future publications.

Dear Dr. Rowling

You are correct, your book is not freely downloadable. As we explained earlier in this correspondence, publishing is an expensive business. We recover our substantial costs by means of subscriptions and paid downloads.

In our experience, those with the most need to read your book will probably have institutional access. As for those who do not: if your readers are as keen as you say, they will no doubt find the customary download fee of $37.95 more than reasonable. Alternatively, readers can rent online access at the convenient price of $9.95 per 24 hours.

Dear Dr. Rowling

I am sorry that you feel the need to take that tone. I must reiterate, as already stated, that the revenues from download charges are not sufficient for us to be able to pay royalties. The $37.95 goes to cover our own costs.

If you wish for your book to be available as “open access”, then you may take advantage of our Freedom Through Slavery option. This will attract a further charge of $3,000, which can be paid by cheque as previously.

Dr. Rowling

Your attitude is really quite difficult to understand. All of this was quite clearly set out on our web-site, and should have been understood by you before you made your submission.

As stated in the copyright transfer form that you signed, you do not retain the right to post freely downloadable copies of your work, since you are no longer the copyright holder.

Dr. Rowling

We must ask you not to contact your handling editor directly. He was quite shaken by your latest outburst. If you feel you must write to us again, we must ask you to moderate your language, which is quite unsuitable for a lady. Meanwhile, we remind you that our publishing agreement follows industry best practice. It’s too late to complain about it now.

Correspondence ends.

IP Lawyer #1

Dear Pyramid Web-Hosting,

Copyright claim

We write on behalf of our client, Ancient Monolith Scholarly Publishing, who we assert are the copyright holders of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. It has come to our attention that a copy of this copyrighted work has been posted on a site hosted by you at the URL below.

This letter is official notification under the provisions of Section 512(c) of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (“DMCA”) to effect removal of the above-reported infringement. We request that you immediately issue a cancellation message as specified in RFC 1036 for the specified posting and prevent the infringer, Ms. J. K. Rowling, from posting the infringing material to your servers in the future. Please be advised that law requires you, as a service provider, to “expeditiously remove or disable access to” the infringing material upon receiving this notice. Noncompliance may result in a loss of immunity for liability under the DMCA.

Please send us at the address above a prompt response indicating the actions you have taken to resolve this matter.

Correspondence ends.

Historical Note

Examination of Ms. Rowling’s personal effects established that she had written most of a seventh book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. However, Rowling never sought to publish this final book in the series.

I was astonished yesterday to read Understanding and addressing research misconduct, written by Linda Lavelle, Elsevier’s General Counsel, and apparently a specialist in publication ethics:

While uncredited text constitutes copyright infringement (plagiarism) in most cases, it is not copyright infringement to use the ideas of another. The amount of text that constitutes plagiarism versus ‘fair use’ is also uncertain — under the copyright law, this is a multi-prong test.

So here (right in the first paragraph of Lavelle’s article) we see copyright infringement equated with plagiarism. And then, for good measure, the confusion is hammered home by the depiction of fair use (a defence against accusations of copyright violation) depicted as a defence against accusations of plagiarism.

This is flatly wrong. Plagiarism and copyright violation are not the same thing. Not even close.

First, plagiarism is a violation of academic norms but not illegal; copyright violation is illegal, but in truth pretty ubiquitous in academia. (Where did you get that PDF?)

Second, plagiarism is an offence against the author, while copyright violation is an offence against the copyright holder. In traditional academic publishing, they are usually not the same person, due to the ubiquity of copyright transfer agreements (CTAs).

Third, plagiarism applies when ideas are copied, whereas copyright violation occurs only when a specific fixed expression (e.g. sequence of words) is copied.

Fourth, avoiding plagiarism is about properly apportioning intellectual credit, whereas copyright is about maintaining revenue streams.

Let’s consider four cases (with good outcomes is green and bad ones in red):

  1. I copy big chunks of Jeff Wilson’s (2002) sauropod phylogeny paper (which is copyright the Linnean Society of London) and paste it into my own new paper without attribution. This is both plagiarism against Wilson and copyright violation against the Linnean Society.
  2. I copy big chunks of Wilson’s paper and paste it into mine, attributing it to him. This is not plagiarism, but copyright violation against the Linnean Society.
  3. I copy big chunks of Rigg’s (1904) Brachiosaurus monograph (which is out of copyright and in the public domain) into my own new paper without attribution. This is plagiarism against Riggs, but not copyright violation.
  4. I copy big chunks of Rigg’s paper and paste it into mine with attribution. This is neither plagiarism nor copyright violation.

Plagiarism is about the failure to properly attribute the authorship of copied material (whether copies of ideas or of text or images). Copyright violation is about failure to pay for the use of the material.

Which of the two issues you care more about will depend on whether you’re in a situation where intellectual credit or money is more important — in other words, whether you’re an author or a copyright holder. For this reason, researchers tend to care deeply when someone plagiarises their work but to be perfectly happy for people to violate copyright by distributing copies of their papers. Whereas publishers, who have no authorship contribution to defend, care deeply about copyright violation.

One of the great things about the Creative Commons Attribution Licence (CC By) is that it effectively makes plagiarism illegal. It requires that attribution be maintained as a condition of the licence; so if attribution is absent, the licence does not pertain; which means the plagiariser’s use of the work is not covered by it. And that means it’s copyright violation. It’s a neat bit of legal ju-jitsu.

References

  • Riggs, Elmer S. 1904. Structure and relationships of opisthocoelian dinosaurs. Part II, the Brachiosauridae. Field Columbian Museum, Geological Series 2:229-247, plus plates LXXI-LXXV.
  • Wilson, Jeffrey A. 2002. Sauropod dinosaur phylogeny: critique and cladistic analysis. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 136:217-276.

In the last few weeks, it’s been my pleasure and privilege to give invited talks on open access to both UCL and the University of Ulster. (Both of them went well, thanks for asking.)

Now they come to process expenses, and both universities have asked for scans of my passport. I explained to UCL that I was only expecting expenses, not a fee, and they backed down; but Ulster are very kindly giving me a fee, and contact there insists that “our Finance Office will insist on receiving this [passport scan] before they will process payment”.

That seems bizarre to me.

Has anyone else run into this?

Has anyone else been reluctant to comply? To me it seems like a strange intrusion, and a completely unnecessary violation of privacy. Either they want to pay me or they don’t — either is fine (I didn’t accept the Ulster invitation for the money). But I don’t see what my passport has to do with anything.

Am I being unreasonable? Or are they?

What should I do?

 

It’s well worth reading this story about Thomas Herndon, a graduate student who as part of his training set out to replicate a well-known study in his field.

The work he chose, Growth in a Time of Debt by Reinhart and Rogoff, claims to show that “median growth rates for countries with public debt over roughly 90 percent of GDP are about one percent lower than otherwise; average (mean) growth rates are several percent lower.” It has been influential in guiding the economic policy of several countries, reaffirming an austerity-based approach.

So here is Lesson zero, for policy makers: correllation is not causation.

To skip ahead to the punchline, it turned out that Reinhart and Rogoff made a trivial but important mechanical mistake in their working: they meant to average values from 19 rows of their spreadsheet, but got the formula wrong and missed out the last five. Those five included three countries which had experienced high growth while deep in debt, and which if included would have undermined the conclusions.

Therefore, Lesson one, for researchers: check your calculations. (Note to myself and Matt: when we revise the recently submitted Taylor and Wedel paper, we should be careful to check the SUM() and AVG() ranges in our own spreadsheet!)

Herndon was able to discover this mistake only because he repeatedly hassled the authors of the original study for the underlying data. He was ignored several times, but eventually one of the authors did send the spreadsheet. Which is just as well. But of course he should never have had to go chasing the authors for the spreadsheet because it should have been published alongside the paper.

Lesson two, for researchers: submit your data alongside the paper that uses it. (Note to myself and Matt: when we submit the revisions of that paper, submit the spreadsheets as supplementary files.)

Meanwhile, governments around the world were allowing policy to be influenced by the original paper without checking it — policies that affect the disposition of billions of pounds. Yet the paper only got its post-publication review because of an post-grad student’s exercise. That’s insane. It should be standard practice to have someone spend a day or two analysing a paper in detail before letting it have such a profound effect.

And so Lesson three, for policy makers: replicate studies before trusting them.

Ironically, this may be a case where the peer-review system inadvertently did actual harm. It seems that policy makers may have shared the widespread superstition that peer-reviewed publications are “authoritative”, or “quality stamped”, or “trustworthy”. That would certainly explain their allowing it to affect multi-billion-pound policies without further validation. [UPDATE: the paper wasn't peer-reviewed after all! See the comment below.]

Of course, anyone who’s actually been through peer-review a few times knows how hit-and-miss the process is. Only someone who’s never experienced it directly could retain blind faith in it. (In this respect, it’s a lot like cladistics.)

If a paper has successfully made it through peer-review, we should afford it a bit more respect than one that hasn’t. But that should never translate to blind trust.

In fact, let’s promote that to Lesson four: don’t blindly trust studies just because they’re peer-reviewed.

More of my thoughts on the Finch Report; you may wish to read part 1 first. As before I will be quoting from the executive summary (11 pages) rather than the full report (140 pages).

Changing culture

Section 4 (What needs to be done, on page 7) begins as follows:

Implementing our recommendations will require changes in policy and practice by all stakeholders. More broadly, what we propose implies cultural change: a fundamental shift in how research is published and disseminated.

This is a crucial point. Cultural change is exactly what’s needed — not just in how research is published, as noted in the report, but even more importantly in how it’s evaluated. In particular, we’re going to have to stop assessing research by what journal it’s published in, and start looking at the value of the actual research.

This is already important — it always has been, because the use of journal reputation as a proxy for research quality has always been appallingly error-prone and misleading. But it’s going to become more and more important as open access grows more prevalent and a greater proportion of research moves into OA megajournals such as PLoS ONE, Sage Open and NPG’s Scientific Reports. These things are just too darned big to have a meaningful reputation. If you try to judge a PLoS ONE paper on the basis of the journal’s impact factor (4.411), you’ll quickly run aground: that’s a weak IF for a medic, but very strong for a palaeontologist. PLoS ONE is increasingly one of the journals of choice for palaeo papers, but it’s looked down on in astronomy. A question like “what’s the quality of PLoS ONE papers” is as about as meaningful as “what’s the price of property in London?” It depends on whether you’re talking about Knightsbridge or Peckham.

This is one of the fringe benefits of the shift towards megajournals: it’s going to make everyone see just how fatuous judgement by impact factor is. We’re going to see the end of comments on Guardian articles that say “my department actively discourages us from publishing in journals with IF less then 6.0″.

Unilateral action by the UK

Well, I seem to have gone off on a bit of a tangent there. Back to the Finch Report, pages 7 and 8:

Key actions: overall policy and funding arrangements

v. Renew efforts to sustain and enhance the UK’s role in international discussions on measures to accelerate moves towards open access.

This is also important. I like it that the Finch Report seems generally to advocate that we in the UK should lead the way in open access. But it’s also true that if we push on ahead of other countries, implementing mandatory open access unilaterally, we’ll be at a disadvantage compared with other countries: they will get our research for free, but we won’t get theirs till they follow suit.

And I am fine with that. Obviously it can’t continue indefinitely, but if taking a short-term financial hit is what it takes to get the world onside, that’s cool. Doing science costs money. And you haven’t done science till you’ve published your result. And you haven’t really published it until everyone can get it.

Non-commercial use

Now we come to a part of the report that I am really unhappy with. This is from the list in the section Key actions: publication in open access and hybrid journals, on page 8:

x. Extend the range of open access and hybrid journals, with minimal if any restrictions on rights of use and re-use for non-commercial purposes.

There’s that non-commercial clause again. This is worrying. If the Finch Report really is about what’s best for the country and for the world, there is no justification for NC. We want businesses to thrive as well as universities. And there are more businesses in the world than publishers! Cameron Neylon said this best in his Finch Report review, Good steps but missed opportunities:

This fudge risks failing to deliver on the minister’s brief, to support innovation and exploitation of UK research. This whole report is embedded in a government innovation strategy that places publicly funded knowledge creation at the heart of an effort to kick start the UK economy. Non-commercial licences can not deliver on this and we should avoid them at all costs.

That’s exactly right.

I will have more to say on this in a future post.

The role of repositories

There is a section headed Key actions: repositories on page 9. Tellingly, it has only two points, compared with 5, 6 and 5 for the other three key actions sections. Here is the second of those points:

xviii. Consider carefully the balance between the aims of, on the one hand, increasing access, and on the other of avoiding undue risks to the sustainability of subscription-based journals during what is likely to be a lengthy transition to open access. Particular care should be taken about rules relating to embargo periods. Where an appropriate level of dedicated funding is not provided to meet the costs of open access publishing, we believe that it would be unreasonable to require embargo periods of less than twelve months.

Who is the “we” that believes a six-month embargo period would be “unreasonable”?

Obviously not Research Councils UK, who recently stated “Ideally, a paper should become Open Access as soon as it is published. However [...] the Research Councils will accept a delay of up to six months in the case where no ‘Article Processing Charge’ is paid.”

Obviously not the Wellcome Trust, whose policy states that it: “requires electronic copies of any research papers that have been accepted for publication in a peer-reviewed journal, and are supported in whole or in part by Wellcome Trust funding, to be made available through PubMed Central (PMC) and UK PubMed Central (UKPMC) as soon as possible and in any event within six months of the journal publisher’s official date of final publication”.

No. “We” can only mean the publishers’ lobby. They hate repositories, and were somehow allowed to nobble all references to Green OA in the report. Don’t believe me? Search for the word “green” in the executive summary: zero hits in eleven pages. Try it in the main report? Three hits in 140 pages: one on page 16, parenthetical (“… a version of a publication through a repository (often called green open access)”), one on page 120, a repeat (“… a version of a publication via a repository, often after an embargo period. This strand is often called green open access”) and one on page 130 (an unrelated mention of the HM Treasury Green Book).

This is one of the most disturbing aspects of the report, and I can see why Stevan Harnad is irate.

Let us move on to happier matters.

Transparency and competition

From page 10:

One of the advantages of open access publishing is that it brings greater transparency about the costs, and the price, of publication and dissemination. The measures we recommend will bring greater competition on price as well as the status of the journals in which researchers wish to publish. We therefore expect market competition to intensify, and that universities and funders should be able to use their power as purchasers to bear down on the costs to them both of APCs and of subscriptions.

I think this is a very important and much neglected point, and it makes me want to write a blog on why author-pays is inevitably more economical than reader-pays. (Short version: granularity of transactions is smaller, so the market is efficient and real competition comes into play, as we are seeing with the launch of PeerJ.)

Costs

From page 10:

Our best estimate is that achieving a significant and sustainable increase in access, making best use of all three mechanisms, would require an additional £50-60m a year in expenditure from the HE sector: £38m on publishing in open access journals, £10m on extensions to licences for the HE and health sectors and £3-5m on repositories.

*Cough* *splutter* Hey, what now?

So let’s get this straight. Transitioning from subscription to open access is going to cost us £10M more on licences than we’re already paying? Rather than, say, £10M less, as we start cancelling subscriptions we don’t need?

This seems to be pure fantasy on the part of the publishers.

Not only that, the £38M is based on an “average APC” of … get ready … £1,500. (This is not stated in the executive summary, but it’s on page 61 of the full report.) That number is a frankly ludicrous over-estimate, being nearly double the $1350 =~ £870 charged by PLoS ONE, and nearly three times as much as the $906 =~ £585 found as the average of 100,697 articles in 1,370 journals by Solomon and Björk (2012).

So based on this a more realistic APC, the £38M comes down to £14.8M. Throw out the absurd extra £10M that publishers want for extra subscription licences, and the total cost comes from from “£50-60M per year” to about £19M. Still not chicken-feed, but a lot less painful, even in the short term.

And finally …

The report finishes on an upbeat note (page 10) and so do we:

We believe that the investments necessary to improve the current research communications system will yield significant returns in improving the efficiency of research, and in enhancing its impact for the benefit of everyone in the UK.

Yes. Absolutely right. Even if we only thought about academia, the financial case for open access would be unanswerable. But there is more to the world than academia, and the real benefits will be seen elsewhere.

Epilogue

Anyone who is not yet heartily sick of the Finch Report can read lots more analysis in the articles linked from Bjorn Brembs’s article The Finch Report illustrates the new strategy wars of open access at the LSE’s Impact blog.

What does it cost to publish a paper  in a non-open access Elsevier journal? The immediate cost to the author is often zero (though page charges, and fees for colour illustrations mean this is not always true). But readers have to pay to see the paper, either directly in the case of private individuals or through library budgets in the case of university staff and students. What is the total cost to the world?

Previous attempts

It’s a calculation that I’ve taken a couple of stabs at in public forums, but in both cases space restraints meant that I couldn’t lay out the reasoning in the detail I’d like — and as a result I couldn’t get the kind of detailed feedback that would allow me to refine the numbers. So I am trying again here.

The first version of the calculation was in my article Open, moral and pragmatic at Times Higher Education:

According to Elsevier’s annual report for 2010, it publishes about “200,000 new science & technology research articles each year”. The same report reveals revenues for 2010 of £2.026 billion. This works out as £10,130 per article, each made available only to the tiny proportion of the world’s population that has access to a subscribing library.

As Kent Anderson pointed out in an otherwise misleading comment, that calculation was flawed in that I was using the total of Elsevier revenue rather than just the portion that comes from journal subscriptions. Trying to fix this, and using more up-to-date figures, I provided a better estimate in Academic Publishing Is Broken at The Scientist:

To publish in an Elsevier journal … appears to cost some $10,500. In 2011, 78 percent of Elsevier’s total revenue, or £1,605 million, was contributed by journal subscriptions. In the same year, Elsevier published 240,000 articles, making the average cost per article some £6,689, or about $10,500 US.

But this, it turns out, is also an over-estimate, because it’s 78% of Elsevier’s Scientific, Technical and Medical revenue that comes from journal subscriptions; the other half of Elsevier, their Health Sciences division, has its own revenues.

The data we have to work with

Here’s what I have right now — using data from 2010, the last complete year for which numbers are available.

Bear in mind that Elsevier is a publisher, and Reed Elsevier is a larger company that owns Elsevier and a bunch of other businesses such as Lexis Nexus. According to the notes from a Reed Elsevier investment seminar that took place on December 6, 2011 in London:

  • Page 2: 34% of Reed Elsevier’s total 2010 revenue of £6,055M (i.e. £2058.7M) was from “Science and Medical”, which I take to mean Elsevier. This is in keeping with the total revenue number from Elsevier’s annual report.
  • Page 8: Elsevier’s revenues are split 50-50 between the Scientific & Technical division and the Health Sciences division. 39% of total Elsevier revenue (i.e. £803M) is from research journals in the S&T sector. No percentage is given for research journal revenue in Health Sciences.
  • Page 18: confirmation that 78% of Scientific & Technical revenue (i.e. 39% of total Elsevier revenue) is from research journals.
  • Page 21: total number of articles published in 2010 seems to be about 258,000 (read off from the graph).
  • Page 22 confirms “>230,000 articles per year”.
  • Page 23, top half, says “>80% of revenue derived from subscriptions, strongly recurring revenues”. Bottom half confirms earlier revenue of 78% for research journals. I suppose that the “subscriptions” amounting to >80% must include database subscriptions.

The other important figure is the proportion of Elsevier journal revenue that comes from Gold OA fees rather than subscriptions. The answer is, almost none. Figures for 2010 are no longer on Elsevier’s Sponsored Articles page, but happily we quoted it in an older SV-POW! post:

691 Elsevier articles across some six hundred journals were sponsored in 2010. Sponsorship revenues from these articles amounted to less than 0.1% of Elsevier’s total revenues.

So for the purposes of these rough-and-ready calculations, we can ignore Elsevier’s Gold-OA revenue completely and assume that all research-journal revenue is from subscriptions.

The data we don’t have

The crucial piece of information we don’t have is this: how much of Elsevier Health Sciences revenue is from journal subscriptions? This information is not included in the investor report, and my attempts to determine it have so far been wholly unsuccessful. Back in March, I contacted Liz Smith (VP/Director of Global Internal Communications), Alicia Wise (Director of Universal Access), Tom Reller (VP of Global Corporate Relations), Ron Mobed (CEO of Scientific & Technical) and Michael Hansen (CEO of Health Sciences). Of these, only Tom Reller got back to me — he was helpful, and pointed me to the investor report that I cite heavily above — but wasn’t able to give me a figure.

If anyone knows the true percentage — or can even narrow the range a bit — I would love to know about it. Please leave a comment.

In the mean time, I will proceed with calculations on two different bases:

  1. That Health Sciences revenue is proportioned the same as Scientific & Technical, i.e. 78% comes from journal subscriptions;
  2. That Health Sciences has no revenue from journal subscriptions. This seems very unrealistic to me, but will at least give us a hard lower bound.

Calculation

It’s pretty simple.

If HS journal-subscription revenue is zero, then Elsevier’s total from journal subscriptions in 2010 was £803M. On the other hand, if HS revenue proportions are about the same as in S&T, then total journal-subscription revenue was twice this, £1606M.

Across the 258,000 or so articles published in 2010, that yields either £803M / 258,000 = £3112 per article, or £1606M / 258,000 = £6224 per article. At current exchange rates, that’s $4816 or $9632. My guess is that the true figure is somewhere between these extremes. If I had to give a single figure, I guess I’d split the difference and go with £4668, which is about $7224.

Remember: this is what it costs the academic world to get access to your article when you give it to an Elsevier journal. Those parts of the academic world that have access, that is — don’t forget that many universities and almost everyone outside a university won’t be able to access it at all.

This is less than my previous estimates. It’s still an awful lot.

Why this matters

Over on Tim Gowers’ blog, he’s recently announced the launch of a new open-access maths journal, Forum of Mathematics, to be published by Cambridge University Press. The new journal will have an article processing fee of £500 after the first three years, during which all fees will be waived. I’ve been shocked at the vehemence with which a lot of commenters have objected to the ideas of any article processing fee.

Here’s the thing. For each maths article that’s sent to an Elsevier journal, costing the worldwide maths community between £3112 and £6224, that same worldwide maths community could instead pay for six to twelve open-access articles in the new journal. And those articles would then be available to anyone who wanted them, not only people affiliated with subscribing institutions.

To me, the purely economic argument for open access is unanswerable. Even if you leave aside the moral argument, the text-mining argument, and so on, you’re left with a very stark financial equation. It’s madness to give research to subscription publishers.

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