How Elsevier can save itself, part 1: Easy

April 22, 2012

Last time we looked at the state Elsevier has got itself into, and how it needs to make significant changes to regain the trust of researchers (and librarians for that matter).

By coincidence, literally as I was writing that, Elsevier’s Liz Smith tweeted:

Job opportunity: Executive Editor, Social Media Content at Elsevier Ltd - Oxford, United Kingdom #jobs

I clicked through and looked at the advert:

Can you help us tell our story? We’re looking for someone who is part community manager, part brand manager and part journalist to be in charge of an exciting new website that will help us communicate more effectively and consistently with the research community.

You’ll establish and implement a content strategy for the site, to make sure that we’re talking about the many positive things happening at Elsevier.

This is worth doing — as Richard Poynder pointed out back in January, Elsevier needs to get out more, and hiring someone whose job is just that can’t hurt.  But I hope no-one at Elsevier thinks that it will be enough to “make sure that we’re talking about the many positive things happening at Elsevier”.

The problems run much deeper than that.

So I’m going to discuss some of the things that Elsevier needs to actually do.  By that I mean, not just talking more effectively about what’s happening already, but changes that need to made.

This post will address the easy ones — things that Elsevier should do right now, without even thinking about it.  We’re talking here about things that will have pretty much no cost, and will start to make Elsevier look like people we can do business with.

1. Be explicit about “sponsored article” terms

I’m starting with this one to give Elsevier a head start, since it seems they’ve fixed this now.  As of a few weeks ago, the sponsored article page has a link to a Sponsored Articles – User Rights page which spells out important details about what you are and are not allowed to do with a sponsored article.

(For 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 are.)

Why am I mentioning this in How Elsevier Can Save Itself when it’s a problem they’ve already fixed?  Two reasons.

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.

Second, the terms are still not completely clear, in that they don’t say who has the copyright in the article.  (It’s Elsevier, by the way, not the author, but we’ll talk about that in the next part.)

This is in contrast to, for example, Springer’s “Open Choice” page, which is crystal clear about both copyright ownership and access conditions in just 55 words of a page that fits on a single sheet of A4.

2. Be explicit about non-sponsored article terms

I have little idea at the moment exactly what I’m allowed to do with regular non-sponsored articles.  I am affiliated with the University of Bristol and have off-campus access via Shibboleth and an intermittently functional VPN, so I assume I am allowed to download ScienceDirect articles.  But I don’t know whether, for example, I’m allowed to email copies to colleagues who should have access but don’t from off-campus; or whether I’m allowed to text-mine the articles that I have access to; or, if so, what I am allowed to do with the results.

To be fair, there is a fairly hefty document on Authors’ Rights & Responsibilities, but that is addressed much more to the authors of articles than to their users.

Immediate Update.  It turns out I was looking in the wrong place: the information doesn’t seem to be on, but it is on, where it can be reached by a Terms and Conditions link on almost every page.  Those terms and conditions are very restrictive, but again we’ll discuss that next time.  The important thing is to make sure they are very easy to find.

3. Make it trivially easy to find sponsored articles

When I was first trying to discover the terms of “sponsored articles”, one approach I took was to go to Cretaceous Research, an Elsevier journal, try to find a sample sponsored article, and see what it said about itself.

Well, I couldn’t do it.  The Advanced Search page has fields for subject, date-range and more, but no “limit to sponsored articles” or similar checkbox.

There are lots of reasons people might want to find sponsored articles, and I can’t think of any good reasons why Elsevier might not want them to.  So this should be made very easy.  (Apart from anything else, it’s about the best way to advertise the journal.)

Not providing a searching option makes it look as though Elsevier want to hide sponsored articles — to stop people from getting full value from them.  That perception, whether accurate or not, needs to be dealt with.

4. Stop lying about copyright transfer

This page in the Author’s Rights area discusses a question that comes up a lot:

Why does Elsevier request transfer of copyright?

The research community needs certainty with respect to the validity of scientific papers, which is normally obtained through the editing and peer review processes. The scientific record must be clear and unambiguous. Elsevier believes that, by obtaining copyright transfer, it will always be clear to researchers that when they access an Elsevier site to review a paper, they are reading a final version of the paper which has been edited, peer-reviewed and accepted for publication in an appropriate journal. This eliminates any ambiguity or uncertainty about Elsevier’s ability to distribute, sub-license and protect the article from unauthorized copying, unauthorized distribution, and plagiarism.

This is flagrant nonsense.  No-one — no-one — evaluates the trustworthiness or validity of a paper on the basis of who owns the copyright.  No-one.

So whatever the true reason for copyright transfer, we know it’s not to make it “clear to researchers that when they access an Elsevier site to review a paper, they are reading a final version of the paper.”

When Elsevier tells us things that we know are not true, how can they expect us to believe anything else they say?

5. Root out and destroy and stupid conditions

You sometimes hear stories like this one: an inter-library loan facility where the librarian is sent a PDF, but publisher restrictions do not not allowed it be forwarded to the patron.  Instead, the librarian has to print the PDF out, destroy the original, scan the printout and send the scan to the patron.

Are these stories true?  I don’t know.  If they are, is Elsevier the publisher concerned?  I don’t know.  But Elsevier needs to make sure of that.  At this point, any such stupidities will be discovered, and trumpeted, and ridiculed.

The same goes for any other equally dumb edge-cases.  If they exist, someone’s going to find them.  Better for Elsevier that it be one of their own people, and that they fix it ASAP.

What do these measures have in common?  None of them will cost Elsevier anything.  These are things that should be done as soon as humanly possible, by which I mean “within the next week” rather than “we’ll set up a group to look into it, and report back at the next six-monthly management meeting”.

These measures are about transparency and sanity.  They are the kinds of changes that will start to put some trust back in place.  Being up-front and clear about what the access situation is will start to chip away at the sense that Elsevier has something to hide.  Getting rid of palpable lies about copyright transfer will be a start towards enabling us to believe Elsevier when they tell us other things.  None of this is enough to make an enemy into a friend; but it will at least help us to feel we’re facing an honourable enemy.  (Of course, there is a lot more that researchers need from Elsevier beyond that baseline.  We’ll look into that next time.)

Please do shout in the comments if I’ve missed any zero-cost transparency or sanity measures that should have been listed here.

13 Responses to “How Elsevier can save itself, part 1: Easy”

  1. Perhaps point out that Springer, for one, make the terms of their OA option crystal clear (and it is actually open access) – CC-BY, straight up, no questions asked. How hard would that be to implement? If Elsevier really mean that they don’t double charge for Sponsored Articles, then they are not going to lose anything over adopting a creative commons license.

    As Elsevier’s nearest competitor in size/coverage/financial status, it’s not like Springer are some sort of shonky, OA, author-pays venue like PLoS :-)

  2. Mark Robinson Says:

    Not directly related to this particular post, but the Guardian has another article up on Academic Publishing –

    I find it amusing (but am not surprised) that Elsevier’s first recourse when confronted with an issue is to hire a spin-doctor rather than address the problem itself. This will amount to nothing more than wallpapering over the ever-increasing cracks in their out-dated and crumbling business model.

  3. ncmncm Says:

    It seems to me the quick way to force their hand is to make it a condition of research grants that the journals where resulting papers appear only gets non-exclusive permission to publish, not ownership of copyright. Elsevier would have to buckle, or bow out of publishing government(s)-funded research.

  4. Mike Taylor Says:

    Thanks, David. I don’t want to go into what the terms are in this article — that’s for next time — but you’re right that I should use the counter-example of Springer merely for its straightforwardness.

    [Update: I have now tweaked the article accordingly]

  5. Mike Taylor Says:

    ncmncm, I would be in favour of funding mandates that do what you suggest. Indeed, I suggested something similar in my RCUK submission:

    I question whether any embargo period at all is acceptable for research funded by the public. I understand that the six-month period is a compromise in hope of appeasing publishers, but the core point here is that the Research Councils are not beholden to publishers but to the British public. Their goal is to obtain the best value in return for taxpayer investment in research, not to perpetuate the business model of old-school publishers.

    I would therefore support a no-embargo rule, whereby final manuscripts could be posted to repositories as soon as they are accepted (i.e. even before publication). Publishers that are unhappy with this arrangement would be free not to accept manuscripts submitted under these terms, and to seek submissions from elsewhere.

    Still, right now I am thinking about what Elsevier can and should do to save itself, rather than what conditions should be imposed on it and other publishers.

  6. […] investment report Is Elsevier Heading for a Political Train-Wreck? came out; just before part 1, Elsevier decided that the solution to their problems was to hire a PR guy; and now, as I prepare […]

  7. […] apart form the forthcoming coda on how other publishers should react.)  Previously we talked about easy measures and medium measures.  These ones are hard.  They require vision, courage, and […]

  8. […] I’ve argued this before, but if Elsevier are going to survive, they’ll need to be much clearer in the their communications, eliminate practices that alienate authors, and ultimately change their business model […]

  9. […] that’s all to the good — as I argued in the How Elsevier Can Save Itself posts [part 0, part 1, part 2, part 3]. They should not be criticised for […]

  10. […] part 1, I will discuss the easy things that Elsevier can and should do without even thinking about it.  Things that they should do […]

  11. […] your manuscript is accepted by a journal for publication, many publishers will ask you to transfer copyright to them, often insisting that it is an absolute requirement for publication. They have a form for […]

  12. […] of authors have rightly railed against this land-grab, which publishers have been quite unable to justify. On occasion we’ve found ways to avoid the transfer, including the excellent structured […]

  13. […] wrote a four-part series on how they can regain the trust of researchers and librarians (part 0, part 1, part 2, part 3), under the evidently mistaken impression that that was what they […]

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