A response to one Elsevier employee, and an open letter to the rest
February 15, 2012
Elsevier’s support for the Research Works Act comes down to a question of preferring voluntary partnerships to promote access to research, rather than being subjected to inflexible government mandates like the NIH policy, which seek to dictate how journal articles or accepted manuscripts are disseminated without involving publishers.
While we do appreciate that you’re trying to engage us here, you’re going to have to show a little more effort than just parroting the company line. To be frank, this is a load of crap.
First off, if the NIH pays for the research, the NIH should have a say in how the results of that research are disseminated. We don’t have to talk in oblique terms about what “involving publishers” means, because everyone’s motives are perfectly transparent and known to everyone else. The NIH wants the research results available to everyone who wants them with a minimum of hassle and ideally at no cost to the user, which is understandable since the NIH has already paid for it once. The researchers want the research results available to everyone who wants them with a minimum of hassle and ideally at no cost. And the readers want the research results available to everyone who wants them with a minimum of hassle and ideally at no cost. The publishers–and let’s be specific here and note that we’re really talking about corporate for-profit publishers–want to maximize their profits by selling the research community’s results back to them with just enough “added value” to justify their claim of ownership of those results, and to do that by maximizing costs (whether hassle is something they deliberately set about to create or just a stupid side-effect of the roadblocks set up to restrict access is an open question).
So the corporate for-profit publishers’ motives are directly opposed to everyone else’s: those who pay for the research, those who carry it out, and those who consume it.
What’s going on here is that those latter three groups are (very belatedly) realizing that it’s completely bogus to have all of their desires thwarted by the one player in the game who gives the least and charges the most.
Alternatively I could just cite Cameron Neylon’s wonderful observation that, “Publishers never really did have a business model, they had a public subsidy.”
Also: “voluntary partnerships to promote access to research” my ass. How does Elsevier expect to continue making such immense profits if the other “partners” are in the relationship voluntarily? In any case, all this talk about “promoting access to research” is more folderol. If you want people to have access to research, you just give them access (it’s not hard). If your corporation can’t find a way to do that and satisfy shareholders, boo-hoo. To riff on a great phrase by Tom Holtz, “Sorry if that makes some people feel bad, but I’m not in the ‘make the corporate parasites fattening at the public teat feel good’ business; I’m one of the researchers you’ve been screwing.”
I’ll also note that Elsevier and the other corporate for-profit publishers have had a LOT of opportunities to cultivate goodwill among researchers, and not taken them. For starters–and I am not the first or even the thousandth person to mention this–why not charge a reasonable download fee of, say, $1-5 per paper, instead of $30-50? We all know it’s an outrageous ripoff, but no-one is making any moves to change it. Putting together fake journals full of paid ads masquerading as papers doesn’t look so good either. But surely paying off Congresspeople to sponsor a bill that most funding agencies, researchers, and readers–you know, the groups you’re allegedly trying to engage in conversation–view as actively evil has been the biggest misstep.
So, what do I want Elsevier to do? I want it to do what Mike suggested–throw its support behind the FRPAA–and then restructure itself as an open-access publisher. That will probably mean saying goodbye to 30+% annual profit margins, but hey, wake up. If PLoS ONE can offer no length limits, no full color figure limits, and full BOAI-compliant open access for $1350, charging $3000 for an inferior product is the definition of a broken business model.
Such a restructuring is probably impossible for Elsevier, given its corporate mandate to maximize profits for shareholders, and if so, I’ll settle for it just dying. Karma’s a bitch. I signed the declaration of independence, so Elsevier’s already dead to me anyway.
Note that I’m speaking here of the corporation dying, not its constituent humans. Although there must be a few real worms in there to have conceived all of the shenanigans that Elsevier has perpetrated recently, I’m sure that the vast majority of Elsevier employees are honest people of good conscience. If you’re one of them, what I’d like you, personally, to do is either agitate for change from within, if you can pursue that course wholeheartedly, or go work somewhere else. Elsevier isn’t the only publisher in the world. There’s a reason why some people won’t work for the tobacco industry or companies that make land mines: their consciences won’t let them.
If, on the other hand, you choose to not only identify with Elsevier but to try to defend the practices that got it into this mess, don’t be surprised if you don’t get much sympathy from the people your corporation is currently screwing and actively seeking to screw even harder in the future, and don’t complain if we call BS on your arguments and fire back with our own.