Elsevier’s new “open access” terms: so near, yet so far

November 21, 2012

I hope it’s clear to anyone who’s been reading this blog for a while that I do try to be fair to Elsevier (and indeed to everyone). Although I’ve often had occasion to be critical of them, I’ve also been critical of Palaeontologia Electronica, PLOS and Royal Society publishing, among others; and I have praised Elsevier when they’ve done good things.

Against that backdrop, I hope no-one will feel it’s unreasonable for me to comment on Elsevier’s new “Open Access Articles” page. Let’s quote this (short) page in full, so we’ll still have the current version to hand if it changes tomorrow:

Open Access Articles

Open Access articles have unrestricted access and will remain permanently free for the public to read and download.

When you publish in an Elsevier journal, as an author, you retain the right to use your article for a broad range of purposes, including use by your institute or company, without the need to obtain specific permission from Elsevier. For further details see our posting policy.

What you can do with Open Access articles?

Readers are permitted to read, download, print out, extract, reuse, archive, translate and distribute the article provided the appropriate credit is given to the authors and source of the work. For commercial use or systemic distribution, you must still request permission via our permission system.

Visit our universal access pages for more information on our other public access initiatives and information on our access policies.

[An aside: you will notice that the “public access initiatives” link is broken. It’s not a copying error on my part — that’s how it is on Elsevier’s own site, too. It’s not the first time we’ve seen this kind of carelessness. Does no-one click on these things?]

Anyway. The point is, this falls short of the original meaning of “open access”, and makes Elsevier’s “open access” journals unacceptable venues for work funded by RCUK and other bodies.

The very clear statement “will remain permanently free for the public to read and download” is laudable, but that “unrestricted access” part at the start is quickly undermined when we reach the detail: “For commercial use or systemic distribution, you must still request permission”. This is a non-commercial clause, making Elsevier’s terms roughly congruent with the CC BY-NC licence — whereas RCUK funding requires the less restrictive CC BY, which allows use of articles in commercial contexts.

But in fact it’s worse than CC BY-NC, because of that “systemic distribution” clause. Let’s leave aside the fact that Elsevier don’t seem to know what “systemic” means, and assume that they meant “systematic”. What can they mean by prohibiting systematic distribution? Well, for one thing, it means the “open access” articles can’t be mirrored in another archive. They can’t be conveniently torrented. You may or may not be allowed to distribute them on USB sticks at conferences — who can tell what counts as “systematic”? You may or may not be allowed to make a better search engine for them that what Elsevier provide.

[This clause is inexplicable to me. By making the articles freely available for viewing and download, they are already committed to not charging access fees. So what can they possibly lose by allowing others to mirror them? If anything, it’s to their benefit, saving them bandwidth.]

Anyway …

The reason this is all so frustrating is that it’s so close to being The Right Thing. My sense is that Elsevier really is making an effort to change, and that particular people within Elsevier are pushing for it to be done right. These “open access” terms a are good thing. The very fact that Elsevier is using the term “open access” is an important step forward. But it would have been so easy to go one or two steps further and make them right.

This would be in researchers’ interests, of course; but also in Elsevier’s interests, for two reasons. First, it would make their open-access journals usable by RCUK and other grant recipients. And second — more important in the long term — it would send a signal that Elsevier is embracing open access, rather than grudgingly conceding ground.

Come on, Elsevier — step up to the plate!

10 Responses to “Elsevier’s new “open access” terms: so near, yet so far”

  1. Hi Mike,

    As I indicated on twitter, I fear you may have grasped the wrong end of some sticks here.

    First, the page you have recently discovered is not new – in fact it is a bit out of date. We are a little surprised you found it at all as it isn’t indexed and was created for an app to point to: must be your palaeontological/excavation skills at work. The language is very generic and is only a high-level summary of the minimum that can be done with the open access content we publish: we will add a sentence to clarify this.

    As I have explained before on twitter we are in a test-and-learn phase and are currently using a very wide array of licenses for our OA content. This includes a range of bespoke licenses, and also a range of CC licenses.

    We have OA publishing agreements with a wide array of funding bodies including many parts of RCUK, so you are quite mistaken that RCUK grant recipients can not publish OA with us (see http://www.elsevier.com/about/publishing-guidelines/policies/funding-body-agreements).

    The new Finch-compliant RCUK policy will go live in April 2013, but not all the details are nailed down just yet. When everything becomes quite clear we will of course refresh our guidance for authors. Elsevier has welcomed the Finch Report and indicated that we look forward to working with all stakeholders to see it successfully implemented (see http://www.elsevier.com/about/open-access/position-statements).

    With kind wishes,

    Director of Universal Access, Elsevier

    P.S. As indicated on twitter, I’m always very happy to answer any questions you may have should you wish to check your understanding of our webpages, policies, etc. :-)

  2. Mike Taylor Says:

    Thanks for this, Alicia. I suppose the moral here is, don’t leave pages lying around on your site that describe a policy different from your own :-)

    Anyway, I hope the core point here is taken: there is an opportunity right now for Elsevier (and other publishers) to demonstrate that the welcome, rather than grudgingly accede to, open access. It would be a shame to see that fumbled. The funding-body-agreements page doesn’t mention RCUK, but I would hate to imagine that come April 2013, you drop the ball by implementing a half-arsed policy such as “work funded by RCUK will be published as CC BY, everything else will be free-to-read but all other rights reserved”.

  3. Ada Emmett Says:

    I’d like to thank Mike Taylor for his original post and the Director of Universal Access at Elsevier for her response.

    The post and responses prompts me to ask the “where’s the beef?” question.

    Elsevier has announced new steps forward toward opening access to its publications, apparently in response to criticism: a boycott by authors/editors/reviewers, and bad press received over the last few years. However, it is not clear to me how much of these new steps are simply marketing efforts (as in emails to their authors and editors) versus how much is genuine and tangible progress towards opening access universally. As a consequence, I pose a series of questions to Elsevier and indeed to the community more broadly.

    From Elsevier’s response it would sound as if its “open access initiatives” might be making significant contributions to public and open dissemination of the scholarship they now own the rights to. Let’s ask them to add a bit of data to make clear the impact that such initiatives have. Assuming that if they are dedicated to such initiatives they are in fact keeping close tabs on the “success” and impact via data. Let’s start with these:

    1. What percentage of the overall total of journal articles published by Elsevier are in “gold” OA journals that Elsevier publishes (there are a few in their 2K list?)? I see on this page,http://www.elsevier.com/about/open-access/open-access-options, that 29 (or so) are listed as open access journals. 29 out of 2400 titles. 1.2% of all titles? Is that correct? And what percentage of the overall number of journal articles published does that represent then?
    2. What percentage of the total articles published by Elsevier per year is a result of authors paying an open access fee (whether the authors’ institution paid the fee or the funder paid the fee or the author dug into her own pocket)? I heard a low percentage awhile back for all hybrid OA publishers but am interested to hear specifically about Elsevier’s hybrid OA articles.
    3. What percentage of journal articles published by all Elsevier journals per year are available (per their confusing publication agreements) open access legally—meaning are *actually* posted legally on an open website, repository, and in compliance with their publication agreements? I hesitate to ask this since I imagine they don’t know and authors aren’t posting their articles anyway because they don’t know they can, or are confused about it.
    4. I see from the same page above (perhaps it is old and out of date?) that over 1500 journals in the Elsevier list provide an OA option to authors able and willing to pay. What is the average article processing charge? Are authors granted waivers who cannot afford the APC?
    5. How many universities and research institutions does Elsevier have private agreements with where the institution pays additional fees to allow their authors’ work to be available open access? And paying those fees in spite of the fact that those same authors are likely at institutions *already* paying Elsevier hundreds of thousands of dollars per year (if not millions).
    6. I see that “74 Elsevier journals offer open archives.” (http://www.elsevier.com/about/open-access/open-access-options) So, after some embargo period ranging between 12-48 months (the average far closer to 48 months—4 years) 74 titles allow public access to the older content. 74 journals out of 2400. Is that correct? About 3% of the Elsevier titles’ archives?
    And regarding this: “Elsevier has established agreements with funding bodies and has developed policies to help our authors comply with funding body archiving policies, including the policies put in place by the National Institutes of Health, The Wellcome Trust and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.” (from, http://www.elsevier.com/about/open-access/access-initiatives)
    • How much money changes hands in these “established agreements”? How much does Elsevier get paid by funding bodies with policies? What about money paid by universities for such “established agreements”? In the interest of transparency of its actual open access successes, and the costs going in and coming out for it, please do share. If no money changes hands then why is an agreement needed at all?
    • What percentage of Elsevier’s overall revenue comes from publicly funded institutions, (whether government or tuition funded), via subscriptions, membership fees, leaving alone the volunteer work done by author/professors? And for-profits?
    • What percentage of their total number of authors in a given year come from the 163 institutions with OA mandates (according to ROARMAP) and/or are funded by the 54 funders (also ROARMAP data) with open access policies? And thereby potentially affected by the still confusing publication agreements and referring documents, and out-of-date websites, etc.?
    How about some other data on how Elsevier actually shares: “We are a founding partner in Research4Life, a public/private partnership providing journal content to researchers in the developing world. More than 2000 Elsevier journals and 6,000 Elsevier e-books are available through Research4Life.”
    1. How many countries are represented in Research4Life?
    2. How many actual institutions in those countries are hooked up to Research4Life?
    3. How many staff/faculty/students thereby have access to the content in Research4Life? And what percentage of the total population of those countries do those staff/faculty/students represent? We know that in many developing nations that the number of universities and the students they serve is far lower than in other nations, per capita.
    4. My point being, how much actual access is being extended? And frankly at no cost to Elsevier since these institutions would likely NEVER be able to afford the subscription costs anyway.
    Lastly, let me be clear. I’m simply asking for reasonable and interesting data to provide a better look at the impact of such initiatives and possible room for improvements. I’m not here to quibble on small points. Elsevier has paid representatives to speak on its behalf and cadres of data people to monitor such efforts. I ask these questions to the corporation.
    And as a side-note: not everyone in the open access world sees the “Finch-compliant RCUK” policy as a step forward to a sustainable economic model for the (global) public to support.
    Ada Emmett

  4. Ada Emmett wrote in part, referring to Elsevier’s open archives:

    ” So, after some embargo period ranging between 12-48 months (the average far closer to 48 months—4 years)”

    the fours years is because a large number of these journals are mathematics journals, and mathematicians actively use articles from all over the 20th C. I myself have often needed articles for current research (not just lit. review!) from the 50s and 60s. Unlike fields like biosciences, and the sort that get into Science/Nature/Cell etc, papers from 2-3 years ago are practically brand new. Thus Elsevier set a four-year moving wall for the mathematics journals because it’s presumably the longest they could get away with/it minimised revenue loss against the perceived good will they hope to gain.

    All the medical/biosciences journals in the open archives are available after 12 months, because by that time they are old news…

  5. Hi Ada,

    That’s a lot of (good!) questions. I’ve found your email address and will contact you offline. Very happy to talk!


    Dr Alicia Wise
    Director of Universal Access

  6. Mike Taylor Says:

    Hi, Alicia.

    As always, thanks for engaging.

    Ada’s questions were asked in public, and we would all benefit from the answers being given in public, too. Otherwise, how can we do otherwise than assume that you have something to hide?

  7. Ada Emmett Says:

    Yes, thanks Alicia. And as Mike also says, my point in a public posting was actually to have the answers to the questions shared publicly. I’m happy to talk “off-line” but the data/information I requested was for public sharing.

    I’m quite sure that I am not the only one interested to know the depth and breadth of the impact of Elsevier’s OA initiatives.

    Many thanks.

    Ada Emmett
    Visiting Associate Professor of Library and Information Sciences and Special Assistant to the Dean for Scholarly Communications
    Purdue University (2012-2013)
    Scholarly Communications Program Head, University of Kansas, tenured library faculty, (2002-present)

  8. gemstest Says:

    I’d support a public discussion of these matters

  9. Ada Emmett Says:

    I’ve asked that Ms. Wise first publicly answer the questions posed here and then later we can have an “on the record” conversation if it is warranted. These are a matter of interest to many.

  10. […] the purchase of Mendeley, will be used to try to clean the company’s image. Their efforts for open science have been cosmetic. The question remains, what will happen when they change the current model of Mendeley service to […]

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