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.

So it was with something of a facepalm that, five minutes later, I saw Elsevier listed as one of the signatories on the Association of American Publishers’ letter campaigning against the FRPAA.

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.

12 Responses to “How Elsevier can save itself, part 2: Medium”

  1. Nick Barnes Says:

    You have “support” where you mean “oppose” (regarding the FRPAA).
    By the way, WordPress logins are totally broken on this blog at the moment. Using Facebook. I assert without proof that I am the Nick Barnes of the Climate Code Foundation / Science Code Manifesto.

  2. Mike Taylor Says:

    Thanks for spotting the mistake, Nick — now fixed.

    Strange about the logins. All I can tell you is that they’re working for me. Is anyone else having problems?

  3. Andrew Rander Says:

    Researchers might support FRPAA but a LOT of scholarly/society publishers have come out against it. Not just commecial publishers. The american math society being one example. Its easy to demonize Elsevier on this issue but the issue isnt black and white. And no I dont work for Elsevier, I work for a smaller publisher thats not under threat from the boycott but would be in danger if FRPAA went into effect.

  4. Mike Taylor Says:

    Your point is well taken, Andrew. Some non-profit publishers, like the for-profits, also dislike the FRPAA.

    On your second point: I hope it’s clear in this series of posts that I am not trying to demonise Elsevier, but to help them. I’ve also mentioned a couple of times along the way that Elsevier are by no means the only Bad Guys in the current scene, and that they’re the ones getting the flak at this point only because their heads are the furthest above the parapet — so they’re the ones most in need of a big, public, visible change of direction. As I said back in Part 0, I plan to finish this series with a post about how other barrier-based for-profit publishers need to respond to the current situation.

  5. […] are worrying days for barrier-based publishers.  In the few days since I posted part 2 of this series, we have yet another major development in the Open Access world: UK Science Minister David […]

  6. David Prosser Says:


    I’ve very much enjoyed this series and agree with what you’ve said. My only comment on part 2 is that I think that for any large publisher a couple of the changes you have flagged as ‘medium’ are actually ‘hard’. These are ‘Stop being obstructive about text-mining’ and ‘Dump the “you can self-archive unless mandated to” rule’. Let me explain.

    You are right that making these changes now would not cost Elsevier (or any large publisher) much and would give them kudos. What I don’t think you have factored in is the future effect and both of these have perceived massive future effects – one an opportunity, one a threat.

    I think that a number of big publishers see text and data mining services as potential revenue streams in the future. If you have a large corpus of material, hold the exclusive rights to mine that material, and develop text and data mining tools then you potentially have a powerful offering to make to anybody wanting to mine. Imagine if the only way you could mine Elsevier’s corpus was to use Elsevier’s tools, say. (And I’m using ‘Elsevier’ as a proxy for any large publisher.) You would have no choice. Or perhaps the only choice you had was to pay a significant premium to have the text in the right format. The publishers’ worry is that by being less ‘obstructive’ they are potentially losing out on future revenue potential. (We can see this in the way that publishers are ferociously pushing back against the idea in the Hargreaves review that there should be a copyright exception that allows text and data mining to material which the user has legal access to.)

    On the self-archiving rule, we have to go back to publishers’ original analysis of green OA. In the early days, publishers saw two types of self-archiving. In a small number of disciplines and sub-disciplines (high energy physics, parts of economics, computer sciences) self-archiving was well established and there was nothing the publishers could reasonably do to stop it. In all other fields it was a minority activity, 10 or 15% of authors wanted to do it and so it was an easy PR win for the publishers – ‘look, we allow green OA, but nobody is really interested’. Then the mandates started to come, and the publishers got worried. They were concerned (still are) that what was a minority interest would become mainstream and so undermine their business. (Whether they are correct in their assumption is another issue.) So, as long as archiving isn’t mandated and remains of little interest it’s fine. As soon as it is mandated it is seen as a threat. That, I think, is the logic behind the Elsevier position and as long as that fear of future damage to their business remains the removal of their obstruction will remain (as will their opposition to FRPAA).

    Sorry, that got a bit long, but I hope makes sense. (Of course, just because I’m trying to understand their behaviour doesn’t mean I in any way condone it!)

  7. Mike Taylor Says:

    Please, David, never apologise for the length of a substantial, informative comment on this blog! I really appreciate your perspective on these issues. (I’m also encouraged to hear that you’ve enjoyed this series, which otherwise seems to have been received with an outcry of apathy.)

    I’m sure you’re right that my classification of measures into easy, medium and hard is wrong — and probably not only on the two specific ones you mentioned here. On the other hand, if you think these ones are hard, wait till you see what’s in part 3 :-)

    On text-mining: as the genuinely free corpus of material available from true-OA publishers like PLoS and BMC grows, we are going to get more and more into a situation where miners will use only that information, and will regretfully shrug and ignore works that are not made available, or that require time-consuming negotiations. Publishers have got very used to having monopoly leverage: if I want to read Naish et al. (2004) on a giant brachiosaurid cervical vertebra, I have to get it from Elsevier’s Cretaceous Research, there is no other journal by another publisher that carries it. It seems to be taking them a while to realise that they don’t have that leverage when it comes to mining: one corpus of 10,000 papers is much like another. So I think the idea that there’s a substantial revenue stream to be had there is deluded. In the end, text mining interprets paywalled data as irrelevant, and routes around it.

    What you say about self-archiving certainly makes sense as a historic explanation for how we reached the current situation. What Elsevier may not yet understand is just how (A) hostile and (B) stupid it makes them look. For decades they have been in a position of such power that they’ve not had to care about how people see them. They surely see now that that’s changing. By painting themselves as hostile fools, they are doing permanent damage. Either they’re oblivious to that (which seems most likely to me) or they know exactly how they look, and they don’t care: they’re prepared to spend the rest of their existence being loathed and derided, so long as they can maintain enough power that they can be a tyrant rather than having to compete with publishers that people like and respect. To me, that would be a pyrrhic victory even if they can achieve it; but they almost certainly can’t, now that governments have the bit between their teeth. In the end, their only real defence against Green OA mandates is “but we want to keep being given monopoly control of government-funded research!”, and that is not a compelling argument.

    Anyway, I hope you’ll have similarly interesting thoughts on part 3!

  8. […] 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. […] to unfold within academia and among policymakers.  Mike Taylor provides possible directions for Elsevier to save face, but only time will tell if this publisher will be able to recover a favorable reputation in the […]

  10. […] 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 […]

  11. […] 2 will talk about changes that will probably hurt them a little more to make, but which still need to be done as soon as […]

  12. […] 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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