How Elsevier can save itself, part 2: Medium
April 26, 2012
It seems the world is conveniently arranging itself for the benefit of this occasional series. Every time I am about to post an installment, something apposite happens out there. Just as I was preparing part 0, Bernstein Research’s 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 part 2, America’s richest university says publicly that it can’t afford spiralling subscription fees any more.
It’s not my intention to gloat, but the recent cascade of events must surely be giving Elsevier and other big barrier-based publishers pause for thought. A trickle of outrage has swiftly grown into a tide. That may become a tidal wave. Real change is needed to avert disaster.
Last time we looked at things that Elsevier should do right now, at no cost to itself: be explicit about terms of “sponsored articles” and non-sponsored articles; make it trivially easy to find sponsored articles; stop lying about copyright transfer; root out and destroy stupid conditions.
This time, we’ll go on to measures that probably will cost Elsevier something (though most likely not as much as they fear).
1. Change the “sponsored article” licence to CC-BY
Springer’s Open Choice is their equivalent of Elsevier’s “sponsored articles“. Except it’s not, because Springer’s version is true Budapest-compliant open access. Not only that, it’s trivially easy to tell that it’s the case, because the page simply says:
Copyright and Open Access License
If authors choose open access in the Springer Open Choice program, they will not be required to transfer their copyright; the copyright remains with the author.
NEW! Springer now permits commercial use for Open Choice, as all Open Choice articles are published under the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) license from January 16, 2012 onwards.
This is the right way to do it: by using a standard licence instead of writing their own terms, Springer tap into accumulated understanding of what CC BY means. And by using that particular licence, they remove all doubt about what you are and aren’t able to do with such articles. They’re freed to be used in any reasonable way, for the benefit of science.
If someone pays Elsevier $3000 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 by charging for any use of such an article. Worse, this kind of action makes Elsevier look mercenary and works directly against the partnering-with-authors impression that they otherwise try to nurture.
Special bonus: if Elsevier switch to the BOAI-compliant CC BY licence for such articles, they can stop weaseling around calling their scheme “sponsored articles”, and truthfully call the results open access. And right now, Elsevier really, really needs to be able to say that it’s supporting open access.
What does Elsevier stand to lose by doing this? A tiny revenue stream arising from people paying to actually use sponsored articles. Of course I am not privy to Elsevier’s internal accounting, so I don’t know what that amount is, but I would be amazed if it’s more than 0.01% of their revenue and pretty surprised if it was more than 0.001%. Not worth it.
2. Stop being obstructive about text-mining
When you read a published paper — say, because your library has a subscription that allows you to — you process the information that it contains and use that in your own work. Later on, you publish that work, and what you publish has benefitted from the facts that were in the papers you read. This is called research, or sometimes “standing on the shoulders of giants”, and it’s how science is made.
It’s how we’ve been doing science, in fact, since 1665. But now it’s the 21st century and we have millions of papers to read instead of a handful. Happily we have computers to do the reading for us, and in many fields they can extract important information such as use of taxonomic terms or chemical reactions. This is called text-mining. Just like when we read papers ourselves, text-mining extracts facts rather than their particular expression; and facts are not subject to copyright. So it follows that anyone who has access to papers has the right to text-mine them.
Unfortunately, Elsevier (like many other publishers) has a history of being obstructive about mining. Even when they set out to help — and to give credit, they are making an effort — it’s of the form “We are keen to arrange a teleconference with you all to discuss ways to enable text mining for academics at Cambridge University“. Which is a waste of everyone’s time: first, we want to be doing science, not making conference calls; second, it’s dumb to limit this negotiation process to one text-mining project at a time. (Even Elsevier’s own Director of Universal Access, has commented that she worries that “she might be overwhelmed by requests from others who also want text mining access“.
So this is dumb. Since other publishers (with the obvious exceptions) are equally obstructive, Elsevier has an opportunity to lead the way. They should demonstrate their commitment to open science by laying down this simple principle: if it’s been paid for (by subscription or OA), you can let computers as well as people read the information.
Again, what will this cost? Maybe a little: perhaps Elsevier have managed to negotiate contracts with some customers where they pay extra for the privilege of mining, and they’d have to forego that revenue. On the other hand, they’d be able to save a lot of money by not having to hold conference calls that involve six people at a time, including a vice president and three directors. So overall this could even be a net financial win for Elsevier.
3. Dump the “you can self-archive unless mandated to” rule
Elsevier’s Article Posting Policies state:
Elsevier believes that individual authors should be able to distribute their AAMs for their personal voluntary needs and interests, e.g. posting to their websites or their institution’s repository, e-mailing to colleagues.
(AAMs are “accepted author manuscripts”, defined as “the author’s version of the manuscript of an article that has been accepted for publication and which may include any author-incorporated changes suggested through the processes of submission processing, peer review, and editor-author communications”.)
So far, so good: Elsevier supports self-archiving. But it goes on:
Deposit in, or posting to, subject-oriented or centralized repositories (such as PubMed Central), or institutional repositories with systematic posting mandates is permitted only under specific agreements between Elsevier and the repository, agency or institution, and only consistent with the publisher’s policies concerning such repositories.
The page then clarifies that you’re not allowed to self-archive in response to:
Institutional, funding body or government manuscript posting policies or mandates that aim to aggregate and openly distribute the work by its researchers or funded researchers.
In other words, you’re allowed to self-archive so long as you’re not under a mandate to do so. If you’re mandated to self-archive then you’re not allowed to.
This is not just obstructive, but absurd. I’m not sure whether it’s more Kafka or Borges, but either way it makes Elsevier look dumb. The analogy that springs to mind is a stroppy toddler who likes going to the playground, but arbitrarily refuses when a parent suggests it.
It’s been pointed out many times that there is no evidence that self-archiving (“Green open access”) harms publishers in any way. Elsevier’s current policy is baseless, and makes them look both obstructive and absurd. They should fix it.
One more quote from the policy page:
We routinely analyse and modify our policies to ensure we are responding to authors’ needs and concerns, and the concerns in general of the research and scholarly communities.
That is encouraging. Let’s hope it’s true.
Probable cost to Elsevier if they fix this? Hard to evaluate, but at the moment the sum of all available evidence (i.e. none whatsoever) doesn’t give any reason to think there will be a cost at all.
4. Withdraw opposition to the FRPAA
This one is surely a no-brainer. Elsevier’s support for the RWA, both financial and rhetorical, catalysed a level of fury among researchers that’s like nothing they’ve seen before. The Cost of Knowledge boycott, which has now surpassed ten thousand signatories and is going strong, is only the tip of the iceberg. Elsevier recognised that supporting the RWA was an appalling tactical misstep, and publicly withdrew their support, resulting shortly thereafter in the RWA’s unlamented death.
Seriously, Elsevier. Don’t you get it? All the researchers who hated the RWA also love the FRPAA. By publicly opposing it, you instantly undid the good that your RWA withdrawal did. Straight away, you cast yourself again as researchers’ enemy rather than partner.
Just stop it.
Cost to Elsevier: hard to calculate but probably close to zero. Cost to Elsevier of continuing to oppose the FRPAA: totally wasting the salaries of whatever PR people they hire. Because while you directly oppose what we want, no amount of PR will persuade us that you’re on our side.
5. Be open about subscription prices
No-one knows what Elsevier charge for journal subscriptions.
Even people within a university often don’t know what their own library is paying, because the librarians are forbidden to tell them.
It’s hardly surprising that this breeds an atmosphere of secrecy and distrust.
Is that what you want, Elsevier? Huh? Huh?
Again we come back to the central issue, which is trust. Elsevier is a science publisher, which means that most of its customers are scientists. Science has always been done in the open — it’s the nature of what science is. And this is becoming more and more important with the rise of open-notebook science, and of services like FigShare, DigiMorph and GenBank. That’s the atmosphere that science is happening in.
If Elsevier wants to be taken seriously by scientists, it needs to be similarly open. After all, when you keep secrets, people always assume the worst.
What do these measures have in common? None of them will cost Elsevier much — maybe even save them some money. These are things that should be done as a priority, as in within a month or so. They’re not hard, they just need the will to make them happen. If Elsevier don’t move quickly on these things, the door will slam shut and leave them outside.
If they do move quickly, then they’ll have made real steps towards re-casting themelves as a friend of science, and of scientists.