Why isn’t anyone publishing open-access articles in Elsevier journals?

February 11, 2012

A couple of days ago, we noted that PLoS ONE publishes more open-access articles in a month than all of Elsevier’s 2637 journals put together publish in a year.  This time I would like to consider why that is.

I am genuinely interested here, and I’d like to hear from people who have considered publishing their own work as open access in an Elsevier journal.  But pending the arrival of information based on experience, I can take four guesses.

First, there is an ideological reason.  Authors who care about open access probably don’t just want their article to be open; they want it to be in an open journal.  That makes sense to me, or at least it resonates with me emotionally.  Although it has important economic implications, open access is at bottom an ethical issue for a lot of people.  If you care about an issue you want to be with other people who Get It in the same way — it’s one reason that groups form and hold conferences.  And if an article is in (say) a PLoS journal, everyone knows it’s open.  There’s no doubt.

Second, there is a legal reason.  Articles published by PLoS are fully open access, using the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC-BY).  This means that data from PLoS articles can be freely mined, interpreted and republished provided only that the author is acknowledged, which means that PLoS article 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.”

By contrast, the “open access” offerings of many publishers do not meet this definition and should not really be described as “open access” at all.  For example, it turns out to be pretty much impossible to discover exactly what the terms of Elsevier’s “open access” option are: it’s 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.  (I discussed this in more detail previously, and still await any useful information.)

Third, there are technological reasons to prefer PLoS.  They impose no limits on manuscript length, figure count, image size, etc.  Their high resolution figures are a pleasure to behold (though to be fair the UI is pretty poor).  Videos and suchlike are just fine.  Articles are made available not only as PDF and HTML, but also as semantically marked-up XML that is very amenable to automatic processing.  Article-level metrics let you see how you’re doing.  Comments on the article let you carry out relevant discussions right where the paper is rather than off on a blog somewhere.  In short, PLoS was designed from the ground up to live in an electronic world rather than being a printed journal transferred onto the net.  There may not be causation, but there certainly seems to be correlation between open-access journals and those which take advantage of the electronic world.

And finally, there is an economic argument, too.  If it costs $3000 to publish as “open access” (whatever that may mean) in an Elsevier journal, you could save more than half that money by going to PLoS ONE instead.  And if you care more about prestige, then PLoS Biology is still a hair cheaper than Elsevier, and its impact factor of 12.916 (for 2009) is better than the great majority of Elsevier’s journals.  So it just feels like a better journal to aim for.

In the end, the moral seems to be that publishers that actively grasp the open access nettle — that welcome it with open arms — are better placed to benefit from the revolution than traditional publishers who are trying to make the transition.

Any other thoughts?

20 Responses to “Why isn’t anyone publishing open-access articles in Elsevier journals?”

  1. There also is something called stubbornness: pissed off by Elsevier’s behaviour of the past, some people may simply go “anywhere else” even if all other factors are equal.

  2. neurobonkers Says:

    I’m currently writing a marathon blog on this exact topic, you can expect it by the end of the week. Suffice to say that Ioannidis ‘s work explains the vast implications of the many points you’ve raised. I can’t recommend his research any more highly. It’s an absolute must-read.


    Young NS, Ioannidis JP, & Al-Ubaydli O (2008). Why current publication practices may distort science. PLoS medicine, 5 (10) PMID: 18844432

  3. Nick Gardner Says:

    Not only economics, but the site interface and user experience for PLoS vastly outstrips Science Direct, even when an article is open access.

  4. Elsevier’s “sponsored articles” options is one of the more ludicrous pseudo-open-access alternatives out there – this is free access, but only at Elsevier’s site, not even green OA to the publishers’ PDF is included.

    I tend to think of this as an attempt by some of the traditional publishers to prove that open access is not attractive to authors by offering unattractive options. The only trouble with this approach even in the short to medium term is it doesn’t at all show that OA is not attractive (just look at the success of PLoS ONE!) – it shows that Elsevier is not attractive, and indeed lately seems to be distinguishing itself among the large commercial publishers by not making so much as a half-hearted attempt to actually compete for open access.

    FYI – I do not agree that CC-BY is the best option for open access. My perspective is that the strongest license for OA is CC-BY-NC-SA, as this ensures OA downstream (noting that the current NC definition is flawed, but optimistic that CC will fix this in version 4). For detailed discussion, see the open access and creative commons section of chapter 4 of my draft dissertation, posted as an open thesis here http://pages.cmns.sfu.ca/heather-morrison/chapter-3-open-access-as-solution-to-the-enclosure-of-knowledge/

  5. Mike Taylor Says:


    We could argue about whether CC-BY as better than CC-BY-SA or vice versa — there are real advantages to both, just as in the world of software there are real advantages to the Revised BSD or GNU GPL licences, and I can easily accept that the latter might be preferable in certain fields, or for certain types of resource. But at this stage, the important point is to note that CC-BY-NC is hugely inferior to both. Hence Springer’s recent switch.

    And I don’t understand why you would prefer CC-BY-NC-SA over CC-BY-SA. What does the NC clause achieve, beyond preventing a host of possible re-uses and making having a chilling effect on many more?

  6. Mike Taylor Says:

    By the way, Heather, welcome to this blog (I think this your first comment?) I’ve often wanted to comment on posts on your blog, but not been able to as you have turned commenting off. Why is that?

  7. Andy Farke Says:

    For most scientists who publish articles in Elsevier journals but don’t pay the open access fees, I would guess that economic reasons trump all others. The article is already published – why pay more to make it more published? Couple this with scientists who don’t really care whether their work is OA or not, and you have a situation where nobody uses Elsevier’s “OA” options.

    So in other words, the people who care about OA don’t use Elsevier’s “OA” for the reasons you mention, and people who don’t care about OA don’t use it for the reasons I mentioned.

  8. Mike Taylor Says:

    I guess you’re right, Andy. To publish under Elsevier’s “open access” option, you would need to care both about (A) being in an Elsevier journal and (B) open access. There are plenty of people in both sets, but the intersection is probably pretty small.

  9. hi Mike,

    Let’s agree to disagree on what the best CC license is for OA. I do like to remind people that there is no consensus on this point. I don’t look to for-profit companies to shape my thinking.

    In response to your other comment on not allowing comments on my blog, I participate in many discussion venues, and started my blog as a place where my writing stands on its own. When others have comments turned on, I assume that the purpose of the blog is to stimulate discussion. Same software, used by different people for different purposes.

  10. Jeff Miller Says:

    I am just wondering how much does PLoS ONE’s Impact factor of 4.41 factor into a submission decision?

  11. Mike Taylor Says:

    Jeff, I am sure the importance of Impact Factor is very different in different people’s minds. For me, I am glad that PLoS ONE has this healthy IF — better than, say, the respected palaeo society journals, The Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology (2.241), Palaeontology (1.867), The Journal of Paleontology (0.450) — just because it removes a barrier that some people perceive in sending their work there.

  12. […] leitor (dois comentários para ser completo: a Elsevier também tem esse tipo de publicação, mas com pormenores, e esse tipo de revista também existe em física, por exemplo, o PRX). Além disso, há uma lei […]

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

  14. […] you publish a Sponsored Article with Elsevier, you give them $3000 and the copyright.  No wonder no-one is choosing this option. Share this:FacebookRedditTwitterLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. Posted by Mike […]

  15. […] fee) doesn’t really work. Certainly Elsevier have had astonishingly low uptake, and there are good reasons for this. I’ve heard that JVP‘s optional-OA uptake has been disappointing, too — probably […]

  16. […] C’est la question que s’est posée Mike Taylor sur le blog Sauropod vertebra picture of the week, en constatant que la revue PloS One publiait en un mois plus d’articles en OA qu’Elsevier dans ses 1500 revues hybrides en un an (959 articles OA en 2011, PLoS One tourne à environ 1300 articles mensuels en moyenne sur la même période). Voici les raisons qu’il envisage pour expliquer l’attitude des chercheurs : – une position idéologique : les chercheurs qui s’intéressent à l’open access sont déjà convaincus, ils préfèrent publier dans des revues en open access, clairement identifiées comme telles et vraiment accessibles à tous. [J'ajouterai qu'à mon avis, ils préfèrent voir le modèle OA s'étendre au niveau des revues, plutôt que contribuer au modèle "hybride"] – un intérêt juridique : chez PLoS, les articles sont publiés sous licence CC-BY : on peut, du moment que la paternité des auteurs est correctement attribuée, récupérer les contenus et les réutiliser de multiples façons, y compris la fouille de texte. Ce n’est pas le cas de l’open access proposé par la plupart des éditeurs commerciaux : impossible d’obtenir une définition précise des usages autorisés pour les articles en open access sur le site d’Elsevier, notamment. [Je confirme que l'information est difficile à trouver, pas cohérente ni très claire sur Science Direct en tout cas] – un bénéfice technique : la grande qualité des prestations fournies par PLoS (images en haute définition, compléments vidéos, formats de sortie compatibles avec une réutilisation informatisée, statistiques au niveau de l’article, commentaires) ne se retrouve pas chez les éditeurs qui se contentent de transférer sur internet le circuit en usage pour les revues imprimées. [Je ne suis pas entièrement d'accord avec ça, je trouve que la plateforme Science Direct est loin d'être la pire en terme de fonctionnalités ; il y a eu un travail de développement d'applications que je n'ai pas vu ailleurs. Mais c'est vrai que chez les éditeurs "pure players" de l'électronique , on trouvera plus facilement en standard des fonctionnalités nativement numériques] – un argument économique : les frais de publication chez PLoS sont moitié moins chers que ceux des revues d’Elsevier. C’est en train d’évoluer (pas mal de progrès sur les pages consacrées à l’open acess sur le site corporate de la firme), mais jusqu’à présent il était assez difficile d’obtenir des informations claires et fiables sur les options OA proposées par Elsevier ; il sera très intéressant d’observer les effets des politiques publiques en faveur de l’open access sur les articles publiées dans les revues hybrides (chez Elsevier comme ailleurs). Source : Why isn’t anyone publishing open-access articles in Elsevier journals? […]

  17. […] open-access fee) doesn’t really work. Certainly Elsevier have had astonishingly low uptake, and there are good reasons for this. […] I think that hybrid is really a bit of a fig-leaf that’s used by publishers and journals […]

  18. Mike Taylor Says:

    This looks potentially interesting and relevant, but I can’t make much sense of a 36-page legal document in Spanish. Can you please give is the gist of it in English?

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