What actually is Elsevier’s open-access licence?

February 2, 2012

Like many scholarly publishers that work primarily on the subscription model, Elsevier allows authors to opt in to open access by paying a fee, currently $3000.  (While that’s more than twice the $1350 that PLoS ONE charges, it’s comparable to the $2900 that PLoS Biology charges, identical to Springer’s $3000 fee, and slightly less than Taylor & Francis’s “Open Select” fee of $3250.)

(By the way, Elsevier have rather a good policy in connection with this fee: “Authors can only select this option after receiving notification that their article has been accepted for publication. This prevents a potential conflict of interest where a journal would have a financial incentive to accept an article.”)

But what are we actually allowed to do with Elsevier’s open-access articles?  Can we re-use their figures?  Can we extensively quote them?  Can we text-mine them?  Can we mechanically extract taxonomic information and add it to databases?  To answer these important questions, we need to see the specific licence that’s in play.  For example, articles published by PLoS are fully open access, using the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC-BY).  This means that PLoS articles unambiguously meet the original definition of the term “open access” as stated by the Budapest Open Access Initiative:

“By ‘open access’ to this literature, we mean its free availability on the public internet, permitting any users to read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full texts of these articles, crawl them for indexing, pass them as data to software, or use them for any other lawful purpose, without financial, legal, or technical barriers other than those inseparable from gaining access to the internet itself. The only constraint on reproduction and distribution, and the only role for copyright in this domain, should be to give authors control over the integrity of their work and the right to be properly acknowledged and cited.”

Is this true of Elsevier’s open-access articles?

I don’t know.

It’s actually surprisingly tricky to discover exactly what the terms of Elsevier’s open-access option are: they’re not spelled out on their Sponsored Articles page, which talks only about “the option to sponsor non-subscriber access to individual articles”; nor on the article sponsorship form linked from that page which speaks of “making it available to non-subscribers on Elsevier’s electronic publishing platforms”; nor in this other article sponsorship form that I found elsewhere on their site.

(When I looked closely at the Sponsored Articles page and the two versions of the sponsorship form, I realised that none of them actually uses the term “open access”.  That made me wonder for a moment whether I’d been completely misreading Elsevier’s intent here.  But then I found their sponsored article statement, which uses the term seven times on its first page; so it’s apparent that whatever their licence is, Elsevier at least interpret it as “open access”.)

Can anyone help by pointing me to a clear statement on Elsevier’s site of what licence their open-access articles are published under?

Update (12 February 2012)

No-one else seems to know what the licence is, either.

The closest thing I have seen to a response from Elsevier is this comment from Alicia Wise, whose job-title is Director of Universal Access:

Hiya Mike,

If memory serves I tweeted this info to you a few days ago. Elsevier is experimenting with various licenses for our OA content. There are some bespoke licenses which permit non-commercial reuse, and some CC options including BY and NC-ND. This information also appears in different places on different articles/screens. We’re in a test-and-learn phase.

With kind wishes,


(For what it’s worth, I don’t remember such a tweet, and if it existed I’m not able to find any trace of it.  But then Twitter’s search facilities are pretty lame, so maybe it was sent and I somehow forgot.)

My reply to Alicia:

So it varies on a per-article basis? But the fee is the same $3000 irrespective? Are there pages somewhere on the Elsevier site that explain this? It would be very helpful.

Anyone got more detail?  I tweeted Alicia and Tom Reller (Elsevier’s Head of Corporate Relations) asking them to comment:

@wisealic @tomreller Little progress in my quest to discover what #OA licence Elsevier uses for “sponsored articles” https://svpow.wordpress.com/2012/02/02/what-actually-is-elseviers-open-access-licence/#update1

 11:45 PM – 12 Feb 12 via web

but so far without response.

Read on for further exciting installments:

15 Responses to “What actually is Elsevier’s open-access licence?”

  1. SciencePlug Says:

    I think i saw something about the “definition of open access” a bit ago in PlosBiology.

  2. SciencePlug Says:

    Sorry, and there it was stated what is actually OA in many journals but PloS. Somethink like: our OA is the real one, dont get confused by other OA access

  3. […] background-color:#330066; background-repeat : repeat; } svpow.wordpress.com (via @PublicAccessYAY) – Today, 7:43 […]

  4. […] to “sponsor” their articles, so that they are made freely available to readers (though we still don’t know under what specific licence!).  While that fee is more than twice the $1350 that PLoS ONE charges, it’s comparable to the […]

  5. […] non-subscriber access to individual articles”, nor on the article sponsorship form.  (I discussed this in more detail previously, and still await any useful […]

  6. […] great to me.”  Especially as the evidence suggests that Elsevier can’t compete on a level playing-field with the likes of PLoS […]

  7. […] three weeks ago on this blog I asked what I thought was a very simple question: what actually is Elsevier’s open-access licence?  I publicised that article as widely as I could in the hope of bringing in an answer, and […]

  8. […] have discovered a new nugget of information in my ongoing quest (part 1, part 2, part 3) to discover what the licence terms are for author-pays Gold Open Access articles […]

  9. […] — what they term “Sponsored Articles“.  [For anyone who needs to catch up: part 1, part 2, part 3, unofficial part 3-and-a-bit, part […]

  10. […] it took an incredibly long time to get them to make these terms clear: see previous articles one, two, three, three and a half, […]

  11. […] (pun definitely intended). For more discussion of this, see posts by Mike Taylor over at SV-POW! (part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5).  Finally, I have excluded journals from suspected […]

  12. […] access” only in the more limited sense, you may or may not have the right you want. Often you can’t even tell, and the best you can hope for is that you’ll emerge on the other side of long, complex […]

  13. […] One step up from no licence at all is a custom licence, written for a particular journal or publisher. One such is the set of terms used by Elsevier for their “sponsored articles”. (Credit to Elsevier for making these fairly easy to find now — it was not always the case!) […]

  14. […] at SV-POW! has done a great series on Elsevier and its Open Access shenanigans, albeit in 2012 (part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5), and also commented on the unsatisfactory nature of […]

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