Pay to download Elsevier’s “open access” articles

March 21, 2012

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.]

We are as far as ever from getting a good, clear, explicit statement like the one Springer provide on their “Open Choice” page (“all Open Choice articles are published under the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) license”.  There — that wasn’t so hard, was it?)  But we do have an important new nugget of information, thanks to a pair of tweets from Erin McKiernan (@emckiernan13).

We start at this page, the table of contents for Neuron 73(5).  Neuron is published by Cell Press, which is an imprint of Elsevier.  As you can see, a couple of the articles are marked as “Free Featured Article”:


Clicking through to the full text, we see that the Imaging Calcium in Neurons primer is indeed open to read:


So that’s good.  (I don’t know whether this availability is because the authors paid the $3000 to promote the work to Sponsored Article status, or for some other reason.  All I know for sure is that it’s a “Free Featured Article”.)

“Well”, I think to myself.  “This primer on imaging calcium in neurons will be useful reading for my students.  I’ll email them copies and tell them to read it.”

But wait!  What’s this on the Summary page?


It’s not just the “Copyright © 2012 Elsevier Inc.” at the top — after all, we already knew that was going to be there.  It’s not the passive-aggressive “All rights reserved” boilerplate.  It’s that suspicious-looking “Permissions” link.

Permissions?  But isn’t this open access?  What more permission do I need?

Better click on it and find out.


Eh, what?!  I need copyright clearance to reuse free content?

Just to see what happened, I went through filling in their form.  (It reloads four or five times as you make selections from the dropdowns, so don’t expect a smooth ride.  But that’s not important right now.)  I told them that I want to give one electronic copy — marginal cost $0.001) to a student who I am teaching at the University of Bristol.  I hit the QUICK PRICE button.  Here we go:


And there is the quote, at the bottom.  £10.88.  Which is about $17.25.  To download a single copy of a “free” article.

I am not making this up.

Freedom Is Slavery.

Just for fun, I clicked through one of the non-“free” articles in the same issue, to see how much it would cost to buy access to the PDF.  It’s $31.50.  So the cost of the “free” article is more than half that of the non-“free” one.

So let’s get this straight.  “Free” means “we take the author’s copyright, all rights are reserved, but you can buy downloads at a 45% discount from what they would otherwise cost.”

Well, I am all out of shocked-,-shocked-I-tell-you.  @FakeElsevier could hardly have made up something more far-fetched.

37 Responses to “Pay to download Elsevier’s “open access” articles”

  1. 220mya Says:

    But I can download the PDF for free anyhow; something about closing the barn door comes to mind…

  2. Mike Taylor Says:

    Yes, Randy, but let’s not elide the can/may distinction. You’re able to download a copy of the PDF for your student, but you’re not allowed to.

    In some cases, this is very important. For example, when I buy music from Amazon, I get non-DRM’d MP3s, which is very important to me. (I have never knowingly bought any DRM-encumbered content, and I never intend to.) But if I want to support them in their enlightened approach, then I don’t want to undercut that model by zero-cost re-publishing the albums that I download, even though I can.

    Of course, the moral situations with Amazon and Elsevier may not be identical.

  3. ucfagls Says:

    Aren’t you confusing free (as in beer) with free (as in speech)? Not that I want to come to the defence of Elsevier, but as the copyright holder they can choose to let you access it for free but restrict what you do with the article (like redistribute it). Just because it is a “Free Featured Article” doesn’t not in and of itself mean that the paper is OpenAccess or whatever Elsevier calls its restrictive “open” product these days.

    Looking at that paper on ScienceDirect suggests it is not Open Access or a “Sponsored Article” – outside my university’s IP range that paper is only available with payment.

  4. Mike Taylor Says:

    Ah, so you’re proposing that when Elsevier described Imaging Calcium in Neurons as a “Free Featured Article”, it was never their intention that we we should think that meant we could freely download it?

  5. ucfagls Says:

    No, you are allowed to download it and you do not have to pay for that. They reserve all rights after-all and the permissions box is pretty visible. You can download and use the PDF for personal usage, but anything else requires a fee. Fine – I don’t agree with the way this publishing model works, but Elsevier are the Copyright holder and are entitled to do this with their “product” (we all know they did very little to produce said “product” but that is by the by).

    Think of it another way, Apple lets you download iTunes for zero payment, but that doesn’t give you the right to redistribute iTunes yourself or a right to the source code. You basically get the bytes that are the programme on your PC. Then you have to agree to an End User Agreement which further controls what right you have.

    The paper you mention is *not* open access not “Sponsored Article” so you should not expect to be able to do what you want with it (legally anyway) just because Elsevier didn’t charge you to download the PDF.

  6. SciencePlug Says:

    Thank you for this small investigation in the Elsevier “Evil-Mind”.

    I agree with the comments posted so far, but I think they miss the ultimate message of the article: Elsevier’s intention is to mask the “Free Featured Article” as common commodity, but it’s not.
    Be aware of that.

    Other Gold Open Access journals don’t care about holding the Copyright so tightly (PLoS), therefore when you pay them to get your article #OA, you are not fueling the journal interest, rather the easy accessibility to science (legally).

    In the case of Elsevier, you ARE formally contributing to the interest of the happy Elsevier family. Just be aware of this.

  7. greboun Says:

    This once again shows ways that Elsevier uses the terms free and open access just for marketing. It is a real hasle to go through all these steps just to find out in the end that you are not allowed to do anything else but reading it yourself!
    The only way out is to start an action calling for authors to never sign a CTA anymore. similar to the CostofKnowledge.
    Perhaps we could initiate this with the @ccess group?

  8. telescoper Says:

    Reblogged this on In the Dark and commented:
    Elsevier redefines the meaning of “free”…their open access articles in fact cost over £10 each to download.

  9. Mike Taylor Says:

    greboun suggests: “The only way out is to start an action calling for authors to never sign a CTA anymore. similar to the CostofKnowledge”

    I think that in principle such a declaration is A Good Thing, and if it existed then I would sign it. BUT as a matter of strategy, I think it’s better that it doesn’t exist. At the moment, anyone who wants to publicly register their opposition to the academic status quo knows where they can do it — at — and the simplicity of that situation is an asset. I wouldn’t want to “split the vote” by providing a range of boycotting options.

  10. Oxfaze Says:

    Mike, I think you’ve set up a straw man here: the charge quoted by Rightslink was to reuse the content, not to download it (this is the point made by ucfagls). This was a free article that anyone could access without charge – you or your students. It looks as if Neuron make selected articles free to access for a limited time, probably as a marketing ploy. Nowhere does Neuron claim to be ‘open access’. Incidentally, have you checked whether the University of Bristol subscribes to Neuron on behalf of faculty and students?

  11. Mike Taylor Says:

    Oxfaze, I have to disagree. The article is clearly marked “Free”, and then it turns out that I have to pay £10 to download a copy for my student. There is no possible definition of the word “free” that fits that requirement. Not free-as-in-beer, not free-as-in-speech. If Elsevier had marked the article “discounted”, I would have no quarrel with that. But that’s not what they did.

    As to whether Bristol has access to Neuron — I neither know nor care. I do not want to get into a mindset where the only question I’m asking is whether I, right now at this time and in this place, have the kind of access that I happen to need right now. That is precisely the kind of short-sighted and elitist thinking that got us into this mess.

  12. Oxfaze Says:

    Mike, you DON’T have to pay to download a copy – that’s the point. The payment is for reuse.
    I’m concerned that you don’t care whether or not the University has access to Neuron. Why is it elitist to find out whether or not your institution has invested in a resource that you can benefit from?

  13. ucfagls Says:

    Mike, sorry but now you are just being disingenuous. You specifically asked to “reuse [the paper] in coursepack/classroom materials”. You are taking “their” product [1] and making a new product given the description of your reuse that you provided the Rightslink website. They are entitled (whatever the merits of this are or are not – please discuss that!) to charge you for making a new product out of their product. The title of this post is incorrect, it’s been pointed out yet you haven’t changed it. You seem to now be twisting the argument to one of all research should be freely available and that is something worth discussing, but not under the false accusation that Elsevier are charging you to download open access papers. They aren’t. Your students could download the paper if you provide them the link. The cost is for reuse only.

    [1] again we can discuss whether what they do to make it their product is sufficient to restrict access

  14. DavCrav Says:

    @Oxfaze, ucfagls

    I think you are both missing the point/paid shills. If there is a charge for re-use then it is not open access *by definition*. The definition of open access (loosely) is that anyone can do anything they want with the material without charge, as long as they cite the sources. If there’s a charge for re-use, it’s not open access, it’s something else. Call it something else.

    It would be like ordering bacon, getting sausage, and the person behind the counter saying “What? It’s meat isn’t it?”

  15. Mike Taylor Says:

    Poor ucfagls, you seem very confused. It must be very complicated. Let’s go through this very slowly.

    1. Web-site says “Free Featured Article”
    2. I look at the article and realise it would be useful for my students.
    3. It becomes apparent that I need to pay £10.88 to give a copy to a student.
    4. So the article is not in fact free.

    Well, what do you know? Turns out it’s not complicated after all!

  16. dobermunk Says:

    So… it’s free to tell your students to go and download a copy themselves. But it costs £10.88 to hand them a copy.

    Maybe we shouldn’t be using the word “free” but “fail”.

  17. ucfagls Says:

    @DavCrav Please don’t call me a shrill – you just need to look at my blog to know I am no fan of Elsevier and have signed the CostOfKnowledge pledge. You are missing the point; the paper was *not* and is *not* open access. You might like to check your facts first before being accusatory. The article in question is being offered at zero cost to download for personal use. In other words ordinarily Elsevier would have charged anyone without subscription to the journal to download for personal use the paper Mike mentioned, They just decided to waive the download fee for that paper.

  18. Oxfaze Says:


    The Neuron article was identified as a ‘free featured article’, not as ‘open access’ – that is an interpretation that you and Mike placed on it.
    The fact remains that there was no charge to read or download a copy of the article while it remained free.

  19. ucfagls Says:

    @Mike I’m sorry but you are the one who is confused here. You are conflating “free” with “open access”. You did *not* ask to give a copy to a student, you asked to reuse it in a coursepack. Under current law, that constitutes a new product and Elsevier can charge you for that. You and Elsevier have a different idea of what “free” means. They mean zero cost for personal use, you attach concepts of “libre” to the word “free”. This confusion comes up all the time in open source software, hence the “free as in beer and as in speech” phrase.

    Whatever the merits (or lack thereof) of the current way publishers take ownership of the copyright of the majority of papers published in their titles, the issue here is that accused Elsevier of charging for an open access paper when the paper in question was nothing of the sort. If you want to quibble about them charging for reuse of something they let you download for free then I probably would not have bothered to comment here at all.

    Mike, you know my thoughts on copyright and academic publishing. I’m on your side. This post doesn’t help the cause though as the charge levelled in the title is incorrect and really you are just quibbling over their definition of “free” and your definition of “free”.

  20. Mike Taylor Says:

    Aaalll right. Let’s just leave it that you think the word “free” encompasses “costs £10.88” and I disagree. It doesn’t look like we’re going to get any further than that.

  21. Nick Says:

    Counterexample: “Buy one get one free”. But wait, you are still paying money! This is despicable behaviour!

    They have obviously used the term “Free” as in “Free to read”, not “Free do do whatever you can imagine with it”. This is not unlike the vast number of examples of, say, commercial software that offers a free version for personal use but require you purchase a license if you are going to use it commercially.

    Your argument that they were doing a bad thing might have a little weight if you could have confirmed that the paper in question was indeed open access – and it seems not, given that this article doesn’t appear to be free any more.

    Incidentally, answering “No” to a question that is “Yes” i.e. “Are you an institution with a full text subscription and the target audience is a student” tends to make a big difference – it actually reduces the cost to nothing.

  22. Mike Taylor Says:

    Consider a supermarket that hangs a big “free beer” sign over its beer. I pick up a beer and take it to the counter, but there I am told “Ah, no, it’s a Buy One Get One Free promotion. You can just walk off with that beer, you have to buy some”.

    There is a reason why supermarkets in this situation instead hang a “Buy One Get One Free” banner. In fact there are several reasons. One is basic honesty. Another is Misleading Advertisement laws. A third is that they know they would be slated if they tried it — customers wouldn’t stand for it.

    Happily for academic publishers, none of this applies to them. Years of abuse have habituated many academics to accept whatever publishers do, in a sort of Academic Stockholm Syndrome.

  23. ucfagls Says:

    @Nick “reduces the cost to nothing” – Oh! If only that were true! The institution I work for (UCL) paid £1 million+ (latest figures (blog post) uncovered (video) to Elsevier for access to its “bundle”, including Neuron. Whilst the instantaneous cost to the student or Mike may then be zero[1] there is a cost to the institution (not £10.88 but it is still there). Library budgets are being squeezed in the UK following the change of government and the reductions in teaching grants made to universities. Provide free-at-use access to Elsevier’s journals may well have happened at the expense of text books, working and computing space in libraries, a freeze on replacement of library staff.

    [1] For personal/research use, we’d probably still need to pay a copyright fee to reuse the paper in a coursepack or similar “product” – yeah, you don’t buy “open” access to the bundle’s titles)

  24. […] work), but more issues come up step by step. How much is an open access article? $0? Nope. Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week found out it’s 10.88 GBP (~13 €). […]

  25. David Marjanović Says:

    So… it’s free to tell your students to go and download a copy themselves. But it costs £10.88 to hand them a copy.

    Maybe we shouldn’t be using the word “free” but “fail”.


  26. greboun Says:

    Point taken, And I agree, but I still think that a way to really act could consist of scholars/scientists refusing to sign a CTA. The EU is even calling to do so in OpenAire. We could do it from @ccess. No list. CostofKnowledge could call on those who signed their list to act in this way.

  27. […] Pay to Download Elsevier’s “open-access” articles – finally, some (rather depressing but not surprising) insight into Elsevier’s “open access” license.  […]

  28. […] the moment I am not interested in what those terms are — we’ll discuss how they are and are not satisfactory in the next article.  I am just interested in whether we can find out what the terms […]

  29. […] such circumstances, and no reasonable expectation that they should be able to make more money by charging for any use of such an article.  Worse, this kind of action makes Elsevier look mercenary and works directly […]

  30. […] 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. You can […]

  31. […] at SV-POW!, we are an equal-opportunity criticiser of publishers: Springer, PLOS, Elsevier, the Royal Society, Nature, we don’t care. We call problems as we see them, where we see […]

  32. […] Two years ago, I wrote about how you have to pay to download Elsevier’s “open access” articles. I showed how their open-access articles claimed “all rights reserved”, and how when […]

  33. […] possibly illegal actions from the publisher Elsevier. Two years ago Dr. Mike Taylor blogged about Elsevier charging to download open access articles and last August Dr. Peter Murray-Rust called attention to Elsevier charging to read open access […]

  34. […] way possible: charging people to download articles for which APCs have been paid. Mike Taylor spotted this about two years ago. Elsevier’s response, coordinated by Alicia Wise, was less than swift, not surprisingly given […]

  35. […] téléchargement d’articles pour lesquels les frais de publications avaient été payés ! Mike Taylor l’a dénoncé il y a deux ans déjà. La réponse d’Elsevier, signée par Alicia Wise, ne fut pas des plus […]

  36. […] 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, and then […]

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