Can Elsevier save itself?

February 28, 2012

Well, I’ve had most of the day now to digest the news that Elsevier have withdrawn their support of the Research Works Act; and a few hours to get used to the idea that the Act itself is now dead.  I’ve had some time to think about what it all means.

My first reaction was to be really delighted: the banner headline suggested a genuine change of direction from Elsevier, such as I had challenged them about a few weeks ago.  I hoped that this was the first step on a path towards real change, leading to reconciliation with all the authors, editors and reviewers that they’d alienated.

Unfortunately, a close reading of Elsevier’s statement [cached copy] doesn’t support that interpretation.  It’s apparent that this is a strategic manoeuvre rather than a a fundamental shift.  That’s clear from language like the following:

While we continue to oppose government mandates in this area, Elsevier is withdrawing support for the Research Work Act itself […]  While withdrawing support for the Research Works Act, we will continue to join with those many other nonprofit and commercial publishers and scholarly societies that oppose repeated efforts to extend mandates through legislation.

The second half of this is particularly disappointing because it is basically a manifesto for fighting against the Federal Research Public Access Act — the very thing that a publisher who is truly on the side of science would not do.  In fact, reading this language, it’s hard to dispute Benoit Bruneau’s cynical summary:

Or indeed Alex Holcombe’s harsh reading:

I predicted they would drop the law, but didn’t expect them to admit its a completely cynical act- that they still actually believe in the law, but are simply trying to placate the misguided concerns of some researchers.

As if the wording of the statement itself were not tone-deaf enough, the problem was exacerbated by this statement, from the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Alicia Wise, Elsevier’s director of universal access, played down the boycott’s effect. “It’s something that we’re clearly aware of,” she said. But she emphasized that Elsevier had been sounding out the authors, editors, and reviewers who continue to work with it. “Those are the voices we have been listening to,” she said.

It’s hard to understand quite what Elsevier were hoping to achieve with this charmless passive-aggressive move, but it certainly wasn’t conciliation.  The message can hardly be read as anything but a “screw you” to everyone who’s signed the Cost of Knowledge boycott.  “We didn’t listen to you, we listened to the people who like us”.  In other words, we listened only to the people who are already on our side.  Far from being an attempt to win back former authors, editors and reviewers who had abandoned Elsevier, Wise’s statement brilliantly contrives to frame the RWA capitulation as both a bit of mutual backscratching and insult to the boycotters.

Well.  How else to read that but as “We don’t want you back”?

And so we return to Rick Anderson’s plaintive question on the Scholarly Echo Chamber back at the beginning of the month, when The Cost of Knowledge was new and small:

It’s not at all clear what Elsevier must do to get out from under the boycott. Lower its prices? (If so, by how much?) Publicly state its opposition to SOPA and PIPA and RWA? Affirm the availability of individual subscriptions to its journals? If it does these things, will the boycott be called off?

If public opposition to the RWA might conceivably have achieved the rapprochement that Anderson wants, then the way it’s been done certainly won’t — indeed, in all the reactions I’ve read to the RWA announcement (see the link-farm that I’m compiling), I’ve not seen a single one that’s suggested that calling off the boycott would be a reasonable response.  And several that have emphatically reaffirmed it.

Because after all, Elsevier’s public statements amount to “we have ignored the boycott, and listened to our friends, and as a result we are going to stop supporting this legislation but we’ll support the next identical one that comes along, and oppose the FRPAA”.

And you know what?

That tells me that Elsevier are in serious, serious trouble.

Because they just don’t get it.

In the context of a welcome concession of a very nasty piece of legislation, they’ve managed to botch the announcement and surrounding discussion in a way that betrays their core misunderstanding.  They still think they own us.  They have been careful to stop using the phrase “our content” in public since they saw how it upsets people, but at bottom they still think that the world of publications is all about the process of publishing rather than about what is published.  And it just isn’t.

Not to get too Marxian, but since we now all have word processors and Internet connections, workers control the means of production.

If Elsevier want to survive, they will have to take a deep breath, give up the comforting illusion that we are still their bitches, and figure out how they can provide some actual value to scientists who increasingly have other options.  I’ve mentioned before that even for people who have to care about impact factor, the highest ranked biology journal in the last JCR was the fully open-access PLoS Biology.  Meanwhile in palaeontology, the open-access Acta Palaeontologia Polonica is as well regarded as any other specialist journal.  Admittedly I sometimes hear people say “I need to aim for Science/Nature for the sake of my job application/promotion/tenure/grant application”.  But I never hear people say they need to aim for Cretaceous Research for that reason.

It’s all changing.  The reasons to publish as open access are growing rapidly more compelling — we’re headed towards a world where non-open research is going to be crippled in the competition for relevance — and the reasons not to pick an open-access venue are getting weaker.  Elite journals like Cell will doubtless survive; how many more of Elsevier’s stable of 2656 will manage to creep into the next decade if they keep their doors closed?

So unless something else shifts very suddenly, I fear that Elsevier has slammed shut their window of opportunity.  They get half marks for the first question on the examination (repudiate the RWA) and so far a big fat zero on the more important second question (support the FRPAA).

So here is my honest, helpful-as-I-can-be advice to Elsevier: make a fundamental change, embrace the new world that’s already coming, and signal that change by big, visible support for the FRPAA.

Miss that opportunity, and you’ll be a footnote in ten years’ time.

23 Responses to “Can Elsevier save itself?”

  1. Nima Says:

    Even if they’re a footnote in one year’s time, it’s still too long to wait. Elsevier AKA El Serpiente needs to be brought down even if RWA is dead. They’re sure to come up with another even worse bill to replace it.

    I advocate keeping up the campaign to fight their monopolistic greed no matter how many apologies they make. Every “concession” they are pretending to make is a bald-faced deception. I’m not worried about Elsevier saving itself – rather we need to kill the serpent as quickly as possible, or it will raise its ugly head over and over again and deceive more professionals into complacency toward “plunder as usual”.

    Elsevier doesn’t deserve any truces or second chances here:

    I still see new dinosaur description papers being published in Elsevier journals, and I’m sure many of the people I met at SVP are still “their bitches”. In my view the best way to bring down this evil cartel is to strike at the weakest point – the scientists who still are selling their souls to it. While I don’t like blacklists, they may be very useful if the lobbying route fails (and Elsevier can easily outspend and out-lobby any of us, so there should be a backup plan). SVP’s leadership is also not blameless, it looks like they have sold JVP or at least part of it to Taylor and Francis.

    Correct me if I’m being naive, Mike, but I seriously don’t understand why people are still publishing in corporate journals despite so much time having passed in which people have known about the Shiny New Digital Future, everyone should have made the switch to PLoS and APP.

  2. It’s not entirely true that Elsevier ignore those who are disaffected. After I resigned from the editorial board of Neuropsychologia, pointing them to my blogpost on this topic (7 Jan), i was contacted by Toby Charkin, Executive Publisher of Cognitive and Neuroscience journals at Elsevier, who was keen to discuss my concerns. He argued that Elsevier had been misrepresented on the blogosphere and was not against Open Access, but when I raised concerns about pricing, he just reponded that:
    ” average subscription price increase for our journal collection has remained within the lowest quartile of average price increases across all STM publishers ”
    Note the argument here is about increases, not absolute prices.
    I sent an email on 22nd Feb as follows:
    “As you are concerned about accuracy of information on the web, could you please confirm whether or not these figures are correct?
    I haven’t had a reply as yet.

  3. Anonymous Says:

    “But she emphasized that Elsevier had been sounding out the authors, editors, and reviewers who continue to work with it. “Those are the voices we have been listening to,” she said.”

    I think what this really means is that they’re worried about the editors of their journals resigning a la Topology. This hasn’t happened yet, but you can be sure that the boards are discussing it. I know of one journal that is currently voting on the issue (since this is not public yet, I don’t want to identify myself or the journal concerned). So this statement can be seen as an attempt by Elsevier to claim that they currently enjoy the support of their editors, so that any editor reading this will think that they’re alone in their desire to quit.

    As soon as the first editorial board resigns – and I hope “my” journal will be the first – a whole new chapter will begin. It may well start a chain reaction which will see Elsevier lose most of its reputable maths journals.

  4. Mike Taylor Says:

    Thanks for comments.

    Nima, yes, you are being naive; but that doesn’t mean you’re wrong. I know quite a few palaeontologists who I am sure will not commit to an Elsevier boycott, let alone publicly sign up to it, for career reasons that do make sense. But I am pretty sure that the great majority of them will nevertheless be much less likely to submit their work to Elsevier than they would have been a couple of months ago. My sense is that the 7500 people who have signed the boycott are only the tip of the iceberg.

    Dorothy, I’ll be interested to know if/when you hear back on the accuracy of the figures in my post on Elsevier financials. I don’t honestly see how they can not be accurate, given that they are taken directly from Elsevier’s own financial reports.

    Anonymous, I agree that when editorial boards start extracting their journals from Elsevier that will be an important new chapter, and it’s easy to imagine that there might be a domino effect. What’s going to be important is that ex-Elsevier journals don’t just jump into the arms of another similarly profiteering publisher (remember after all that Elsevier’s 2010 profits were not even the highest among the Big Four. Editorial boards need to find ways to make sure that they actually set their journals free. (I don’t doubt that they know this, and that thinking through how to do it is it’s taking some time for this process to get started.)

  5. Nima Says:

    Career reasons… well that does explain some things. Perhaps they are already too involved with commitments to Elsevier to get out without cutting off important academic partnerships or private sources of funding. But it’s good to know the vast majority are disillusioned with the whole thing.

    One thought keeps coming back to me – if we were to start an open-access journal as an alternative to the profiteering publishers, how would it be different than PLoS, APP, Palaeo-Electronica and the other open-access journals that already exist? What improvements could be made over what they have to offer?

  6. Nima, any one journal has one board of editors at one time, so a new journal would offer more diversity. Also, journals tend to develop niches over time – again, diversity…..
    Also, the journals you listed differ massively among themselves, there is ample room for new ones.

  7. Matt Wedel Says:

    For a detailed look at how one editor took his journal away from a predatory commercial publisher, please see Michael Rosenzweig’s essay about the founding of Evolutionary Ecology Research here. Money quote (literally):

    Much later I discovered that ITC kept most of that money for themselves. For example, in 1998, our journal had some 400 subscribers worldwide. All costs of producing and distributing the journal amounted to less than $80,000. But subscription revenues were somewhere between $250,000 and $300,000.

    That’s why, for all the talk about ‘value added’ and misdirection about other revenue streams, we strongly suspect that Elsevier and the other commercial scholarly publishers are laughing all the way to the bank. Why hide where the money goes unless they have something to hide?

    That Rosenzweig essay is just one of several on the EER Citizen Page that anyone concerned about the OA wars should read. Another quote from the same essay:

    And the publishers say they add value! Horse-droppings. We add the value, you and I do. We add it as taxpayers. We add it with our hard scholarly labor and our dearly won library budgets that add the final element to value — access. We add the value. We supply the raw material. We pay the copy-editors, the typesetters, the printer and the mailer. They merely handle the money. And they have been taking much more than a fair share.

    He wrote that in 1999, by the way. The current revolution–if it proves to be a genuine revolution as I hope, and not just a temporary flare-up that Elsevier et al. can wait out, as one would a cold–is long overdue.

  8. cc Says:

    I thought it was interesting to see the scientific community isn’t the only community having these kinds of debates:

  9. Mike Taylor Says:

    It is interesting that fiction authors are having some of the same discussions as academic authors. But as you can tell from the very different tones of the discussions, the author-publisher relationship is dramatically different in these two arenas.

    Most crucially, fiction publishers pay their authors. So there is a bargain between the two parties — each receives something from the other and both benefit from the relationship. That relationship is undergoing adjustment now because the cost of some of what fiction publishers bring has fallen catastrophically in the Internet era, and authors understandably want to share some of those cost savings with the publishers.

    But in academic publishing, we not only write the articles, we give them to the publisher, or even pay for the privilege; and we provide the editorial and review services that Horowitz rightly prizes. As publishing costs are driven down by the Internet, and publishing revenues continue to climb, our part of the bargain remains precisely the same: the author receives at best a 0% royalty, and the editor and review receive salaries of $0.

    The contrast between academic and fiction publishing is so stark that I have a post in the works on that very subject. Not sure when it will be out, as other events keeps lunging in and pre-empting it, but stay tuned.

  10. telescoper Says:

    Reblogged this on In the Dark and commented:
    Just a quick post to update an old post by passing on the news that racketeering publishing giant Elsevier have withdrawn their support for the Research Works Act

  11. Ian Corfe Says:

    Out of interest – what Elsevier journals are there that are Palaeo or Palaeo related? Cretaceous Research keeps cropping up in the discussions, are there others? I know the discussion shouldn’t be this narrow minded, but I suspect in the broad spectrum of “Totally open to a Shiny Digital Future – Totally happy with the Current Way of Doing Things” this might be of interest to some folks…

  12. Except for Cretaceous Research, there are other palaeo-related journals published by Elsevier:

    1. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology
    2. Comptes Rendus Palevol
    3. Annales de Paläontologie
    4. Geobios
    5. Palaeoworld
    6. Quaternary International
    7. Gondwana Research
    8. Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association
    9. Journal of South American Earth Sciences
    10. Precambrian Research
    11. Earth-Science Reviews
    12. Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology

    Quite a lot (and probably there are others). Sometimes articles regarding palaeontology are published in more general journals, like Trends in Ecology and Evolution. And there are also strictly geological journals that are of interest to palaeontologists.

  13. Mike Taylor Says:

    Thanks, Tomasz, that’s a useful list. I look the liberty of reformatting it for clarity.

  14. Nima Says:

    Wow that’s a lot of journals I’ve never heard of. Don’t know of any paper published in them. If these had been open-access journals people would be posting links to them all over the blogophere, as well as on my blog and DA profile.

    Not that that’s saying a whole lot, but I get the impression that none of these Elsevier paleo-journals have a very wide circulation, certainly nothing that comes close to the readership of PLoS One paleo papers. Yet another way in which 30+% margin paywalls suppress the spread of knowledge….

  15. Mike Taylor Says:

    Nima, here are a few papers that have been published in those journals:

    Michael D. D’Emic, Jeffrey A. Wilson and Richard Thompson. 2010. The end of the sauropod dinosaur hiatus in North America. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 297:486-490. doi:10.1016/j.palaeo.2010.08.032

    Carballido, José Luis, and Diego Pol. 2010. The dentition of Amygdalodon patagonicus (Dinosauria: Sauropoda) and the dental evolution in basal sauropods. Comptes Rendus Palevol 9:83-93.

    Knoll, Fabien, and Daniela Schwarz-Wings. 2009. Palaeoneuroanatomy of Brachiosaurus. Annales de Paléontologie. doi:10.1016/j.annpal.2009.06.001.

    Knoll, Fabien, Peter M. Galton and Raquel López-Antoñanzas. 2006. Paleoneurological evidence against a proboscis in the sauropod dinosaur Diplodocus. Geobios 39: 215-221. doi:10.1016/j.geobios.2004.11.005

    González Riga, Bernardo J., Jorge Orlando Calvo and Juan Porfiri. 2008. An articulated titanosaur from Patagonia (Argentina): New evidence of neosauropod pedal evolution. Palaeoworld 17(1): 33-40. doi:10.1016/j.palwor.2007.08.003

    Apesteguía, Sebastián. 2007. The sauropod diversity of the La Amarga Formation (Barremian), Neuquén (Argentina). Gondwana Research 12(4): 533-546. doi:10.1016/

    Naish, Darren. 2003. A definitive allosauroid (Dinosauria; Theropoda) from the Lower Cretaceous of East Sussex. Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association, 144: 319-326.

    González Riga, Bernardo J. and Ricardo A. Astini. 2007. Preservation of large titanosaur sauropods in overbank fluvial facies: A case study in the Cretaceous of Argentina. Journal of South American Earth Sciences 23 (4): 290-303. doi:10.1016/j.jsames.2007.02.005

    Brusatte, Stephen L., Sterling J. Nesbitt, Randall B. Irmis, Richard J. Butler, Michael J. Benton and Mark A. Norell. 2010. The origin and early radiation of dinosaurs. Earth-Science Reviews 101:68-100.

    (Unsurprisingly, I don’t have anything from Quaternary International, Precambrian Research or Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology.)

    So, yes, these are real and significant journals, and reputable scientists are donating their papers to them. Want to read any of them? Haha, you can’t! But don’t worry — you’re not missing out because the public won’t fully understand science if they have access to it and will get misled by reading it. So, really, Elsevier’s paywall is for your benefit.

  16. Ian Corfe Says:

    Echo Mike’s thanks Tomasz, very useful. I’ve heard of and have papers from most of them, as does Mike by the looks of things. In fact only Precambrian research is missing from my PDF collection. P3 is a cool little journal, the rest I suspect most non-French/South African vert palaeo folk would be less worried about unless they’ve worked hard to help review/edit.

    Once aspect in open access I’m interested in Mike is what happens to a societies profits generated through publishing if they go fully OA. At the moment, if the publishing is dealt with through a commercial publisher (presumably to reduce the effort on the societies part), I assume the profits are somehow split between the society and the publisher. It would be good to get some figures from some of the palaeo societies that do this to see a) how much they’re ‘losing’ by sharing that profit, and b) if there is a viable alternative model.

    I wonder if any of the OA establishments help societies with publishing, and if so is it possible for the society to continue to profit from this? There seems nothing fundamentally wrong with a society gaining from it’s activities as the vast majority of that money is presumably used for the scientific benefit of its members (conferences, reduced memberships etc) and some usually used for outreach too. Could a PLoS One – PLoS everything else model be tweaked to allow societies to benefit from OA publications?

  17. Hi Ian,

    glad to see you care about this too :)

    BMC is an example of an excellent Open Access publisher that is ready and willing to accept society journals (and it has some already). It even has a webpage devoted just to this kind of ‘starter pack’ information for societies:

    what societies were you thinking of? SVP, PalAss?

  18. Mike Taylor Says:

    Sometimes I loathe WordPress. I’d written 90% of a looong comment in response to Ian, scazon and Ross, hit the wrong key, and *bam, it was gone. Can’t face doing it again.

  19. […] Taylor at Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week, or SV-POW!, fully decodes Elsevier’s announcement and this article from the New York Times does a good job of presenting both sides of the debate and […]

  20. David Marjanović Says:

    Nima, you need to watch this.

    Comptes Rendus Palevol

    Annales de Pal[é]ontologie



    My next paper is coming out in Geodiversitas, which is a journal of the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle in Paris, like the above. I didn’t even think that museum journals can belong to a big publisher.

    Of course they can… Fossil Record, a journal of right here (the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin), belongs to Wiley.

    Similarly, I’m on the editorial board for Comptes Rendus Palevol. I haven’t been sent any manuscript to review yet… but…

  21. […] among all the open-access discussion and ostrich-herding, we at SV-POW! Towers do still try to get some actual science done.  As we all […]

  22. […] YOU COMPLETELY OUT OF YOUR MINDS? Have you not been watching what’s happened to Elsevier? You have screwed up royally on Springer Images. And your response is to blame Peter Murray-Rust […]

  23. […] a while that I do try to be fair to Elsevier (and indeed to everyone). Although I’ve often had occasion to be critical of them, I’ve also been critical of Palaeontologia Electronica, PLOS and Royal Society […]

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