Understanding Elsevier’s open-access licence, part 4: who owns copyright?

March 19, 2012

I 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 in Elsevier journals.

You will recall from way back in part 1 that Elsevier’s own “Sponsored Articles” page doesn’t include that information. A while after I posted that, they added a link to this page.  It was initially broken, then briefly mended, and now seems to have been completely removed again — hardly a sequence of actions that conveys a powerful desire for transparency.

However — and thanks to Alf for pointing this out in a comment — Elsevier also at some point after my initial article added a link in the middle of the text of the Sponsored Articles page:

Sponsored Articles have a specific set of user rights – for more information, please External link  follow this link.

I clicked that link, only to find — you couldn’t make this up — that this link is now also broken:

We can only hope it’ll be back soon.

Anyway — since finding out what the terms are from the web-site is such a dead loss, there is another approach to take, and that is talk to an author who has published, or is considering publishing, a Sponsored Article.  I found such an author in David Roberts, and this was his experience:

I emailed Elsevier to ask them what sort of copyright transfer one has to sign when choosing their gold open access option.


Dear sir/madam,

If I pay for my article to be sponsored so that it is ‘available to non-subscribers’ on Elsevier’s ‘electronic platform’, what copyright notice do I sign? Elsevier is giving the article away – that is to say I have paid for the costs associated with the article – does Elsevier still own the copyright, and, more importantly, is the file allowed to be hosted anywhere else? Or, to put it another way, what is the legal status of the published article, and what future-proofing is there to maintain that free access in perpetuity?

David quotes Elsevier’s reply (with permission):

I can advise you to sign your copyright form as normal. Please choose the option that most applies to you.

If you choose to pay for open access, your paper will be freely available to all on Science Direct only for all time.

David quite reasonably comments:

So even if one is paying for the article to be open access, Elsevier still own the copyright to the article. I find this somewhat outrageous.

And finally notes:

In parallel with the above email, I emailed Alicia Wise, Elsevier’s Director of universal access. I received a reply, but I’m still waiting to hear from her if I can make that one public.


So the upshot is that when you publish a Sponsored Article with Elsevier, you give them $3000 and the copyright.  No wonder no-one is choosing this option.

18 Responses to “Understanding Elsevier’s open-access licence, part 4: who owns copyright?”

  1. what do you expect? If they can trick people into signing themselves into slavery, they will do it! Which is why a free market economy is such a bad idea.

  2. David Roberts Says:

    I’ve heard back, and yes Alicia Wise has confirmed this, but they are working on it as we speak. With the sorts of attention this issue is getting, I hope that the license situation will change for the better

  3. Mike Taylor Says:

    Got to disagree with Heinrich here: the problem is not the free market. The problem is that we don’t have a free market. Publishers do not compete with each other on a level playing field, attracting authors’ contributions on the basis of how much they charge and how good a service they provide. Instead, each journal is its own little monopoly, and scientists who work on (say) cell biology simply have no realistic option but to subscribe to Cell (or to have their libraries do so). No wonder the corporation that owns it is running out of control.

    Break the monopolies, establish a truly free market, and watch the prices fall precipitously.

  4. Mike, that’s BS! In a free market, if you got money you can do what you want. That always leads to advantages for those with money: they can lobby and steal all they want.

    A moderately controlled market forces controls onto industries – if it weren’t for that you’d not even KNOW that certain firms make outrageous profits.

    What would OA publishing be like in a totally free market – ever tried to imagine that? Do you really believe the industries would not try to and succeed in killing any open access publisher ASAP?

  5. dobermunk Says:

    Mike says: “Break the monopolies, establish a truly free market.”
    Heinrich says: “A moderately controlled market forces controls onto industries.”

    I say tomato, you say tomato.
    Regulated competition.

  6. Mike Taylor Says:

    Sure. I am not enough of an economist to argue how much regulation is the right amount. My point is a much more basic one: what we have right now in academic publishing is nothing remotely like a free market, regulated or not.

  7. David Roberts Says:

    To clarify, I’ve had a bit of back and forth with Alicia Wise since the mail Mike quoted, which was over two weeks ago. She has certainly not been unresponsive to my questions and comments, which one might infer from the post.

  8. Mike Taylor Says:

    Thanks, David. Excellent that Alicia has taken up a conversation with you. Also very good that Liz Smith got into a long conversation with Matt a couple of weeks ago; and I’m pleased to say that I’ve had a very constructive conversation with Tom Reller recently. It’s a very good thing that these three (seemingly alone among Elsevier representatives) are engaging with the concerns of the broader community, and it certainly helps to counter the perception of a faceless, impervious corporation.

    But there is one very disappointing aspect to all three of these conversations, which is that they are all private. I don’t know in detail what Liz said to Matt, because she asked him not to pass it on. Tom said the same to me, and it seem from your Google+ post that Alicia has said the same to you (“I emailed Alicia Wise, Elsevier’s Director of universal access. I received a reply, but I’m still waiting to hear from her if I can make that one public”).

    What this means is that you, Matt and I are in a privileged position of knowing a little more about Elsevier’s licences and policies than the average person. Which is nice for us, and interesting, but not actually useful. What we need is to get this information out in the open: that’s the only way to actually advance the discussion. Basic questions like: what is Elsevier’s open-access licence? What proportion of their revenue is from journal subscriptions? I can’t think of any legitimate reason why such matters should be secret. And the air of secrecy that surrounds them only lends a more sinister atmosphere to Elsevier’s operations.

    Come on, Elsevier. Just tell us. All of us, in public.

  9. David Roberts Says:

    ” Alicia has said the same to you”

    She didn’t, but was cautious about me telling everyone about a soon-to-change policy. I think I did anyway. The only reason I was “waiting” was that my email probably didn’t rank as high as all the frantic internal ones about the ongoing developments. Also, I thought it a courtesy to ask before posting her emails to me for the world to read.

  10. Matt Wedel Says:

    None of which contradicts Mike’s point, that Elsevier as an entity has not chosen to make any of this information freely available, when you’d think that would be the most PR-savvy strategy. And in this case “has not chosen to” is effectively the same as “has chosen not to”. It’s great that we’ve had these productive conversations with individuals within Elsevier. It sucks that almost nothing that has been learned–on either side–can be shared. And it’s profoundly disappointing that the corporation has been so unresponsive. We’ve been asking these questions as publicly as possible for weeks.

  11. […] Well, I’ve spent a lot of time on this blog trying to determine what the terms are for Elsevier’s elective open-access articles — 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 4.] […]

  12. […] to the user and use a clear, well-recognised licence like CC-BY. The one publisher I know that obfuscates user rights for “open access” articles, one that spreads confusion not reduces it, is […]

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

  14. […] to sponsor an article, it’s been paid for.  There is no legitimate reason for Elsevier to take the copyright under such circumstances, and no reasonable expectation that they should be able to make more money […]

  15. […] highly-ranked journal, is it worth the fee? Maybe not – Elsevier and similar publishers may still retain the copyright to authors’ works. This isn’t exactly OA Gold in a practical sense (if the publisher owns the […]

  16. […] 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 ‘predatory’ publishers. […]

  17. […] Understanding Elsevier’s open-access licence, part 4: who owns copyright? […]

  18. […] 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 Elsevier’s Open Access policy, […]

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