How is it possible that Elsevier are still charging for copies of open-access articles?

March 11, 2014

I hate to keep flogging a dead horse, but since this issue won’t go away I guess I can’t, either.

1. 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 you use the site’s facilities to ask about giving one electronic copy to a student, the price is £10.88. As I summarised at the time: “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.” No-one from Elsevier commented.

2. Eight months ago, Peter Murray-Rust explained that Elsevier charges to read #openaccess articles. He showed how all three of the randomly selected open-access articles he looked at had download fees of $31.50. No-one from Elsevier commented (although see below).

3. A couple of days ago, Peter revisited this issue, and found that Elsevier are still charging THOUSANDS of pounds for CC-BY articles. IMMORAL, UNETHICAL , maybe even ILLEGAL.This time he picked another Elsevier OA article at random, and was quoted £8000 for permission to print 100 copies. The one he looked at says “Open Access” in gold at the top and “All rights reserved” at the bottom. Its “Get rights and content” link takes me to RightsLink, where I was quoted £1.66 to supply a single electronic copy to a student on a course at the University of Bristol:

Screenshot from 2014-03-11 09:40:35

(Why was I quoted a wildly different price from Peter? I don’t know. Could be to do with the different university, or because he proposed printing copies instead of using an electronic one.)

On Peter’s last article, an Elsevier representative commented:

Alicia Wise says:
March 10, 2014 at 4:20 pm
Hi Peter,

As noted in the comment thread to your blog back in August we are improving the clarity of our OA license labelling (eg on ScienceDirect) and metadata feeds (eg to Rightslink). This is work in progress and should be completed by summer. I am working with the internal team to get a more clear understanding of the detailed plan and key milestones, and will tweet about these in due course.

With kind wishes,


Dr Alicia Wise
Director of Access and Policy

(Oddly, I don’t see the referenced comment in the August blog-entry, but perhaps it was on a different article.)

Now here is my problem with this.

First of all, either this is deliberate fraud on Elsevier’s part — charging for the use of something that is free to use — or it’s a bug. Following Hanlon’s razor, I prefer the latter explanation. But assuming it’s a bug, why has it taken two years to address? And why is it still not fixed?

Elsevier, remember, are a company with an annual revenue exceeding £2bn. That’s £2,000,000,000. (Rather pathetically, their site’s link to the most recent annual report is broken, but that’s a different bug for a different day.) Is it unreasonable to expect that two years should be long enough for them to fix a trivial bug?

All that’s necessary is to change the “All rights reserved” message and the “Get rights and content” link to say “This is an open-access article, and is free to re-use”. We know that the necessary metadata is there because of the “Open Access” caption at the top of the article. So speaking from my perspective as a professional software developer of more than thirty years’ standing, this seems like a ten-line fix that should take maybe a man-hour; at most a man-day. A man-day of programmer time would cost Elsevier maybe £500 — that is, 0.000025% of the revenue they’ve taken since this bug was reported two years ago. Is it really too much to ask?

(One can hardly help comparing this performance with that of PeerJ, who have maybe a ten-thousandth of Elsevier’s income and resources. When I reported three bugs to them in a course of a couple of days, they fixed them all with an average report-to-fix time of less than 21 hours.)

Now here’s where it turns sinister.

The PeerJ bugs I mentioned above cost them — not money, directly, but a certain amount of reputation. By fixing them quickly, they fixed that reputation damage (and indeed gained reputation by responding so quickly). By contrast, the Elsevier bug we’re discussing here doesn’t cost them anything. It makes them money, by misleading people into paying for permissions that they already have. In short, not fixing this bug is making money for Elsevier. It’s hard not to wonder: would it have remained unfixed for two years if it was costing them money?

But instead of a rush to fix the bug, we have this kind of thing:

I find that very hard to accept. However complex your publishing platform is, however many different modules interoperate, however much legacy code there is — it’s not that hard to take the conditional that emits “Open Access” in gold at the top of the article, and make the same test in the other relevant places.

As John Mark Ockerbloom observes:

Come on, Elsevier. You’re better than this. Step up. Get this done.

Update (21st March 2014)

Ten days layer, Elsevier have finally responded. To give credit where it’s due, it’s actually pretty good: it notes how many customers made payments they needn’t have made (about 50), how much they paid in total (about $4000) and says that they are actively refunding these payments.

It would be have been nice, mind you, had this statement contained an actual apology: the words “sorry”, “regret” and “apologise” are all notably absent.

And I remain baffled that the answer to “So when will this all be reliable?” is “by the summer of 2014”. As noted above, the pages in question already have the information that the articles are open access, as noted in the gold “Open Access” text at top right of the pages. Why it’s going to take several more months to use that information elsewhere in the same pages is a mystery to me.

Update 2 (24th March 2014)

As noted by Alicia in a comment below, Elsevier employee Chris Shillum has posted a long comment on Elsevier’s response, explaining in more detail what the technical issues are. Unfortunately there seems to be no way to link directly to the comment, but it’s the fifth one.


17 Responses to “How is it possible that Elsevier are still charging for copies of open-access articles?”

  1. Tech isn’t in their ‘DNA.’ That is the future of publishing and they’re losing the plot.

    Of course, that raises the question of what is in their ‘DNA,’ but will leave that to others to answer.

    [Disclosures on Twitter profile]

  2. […] Degruyter’s stable of open journals which now have their own dedicated entry-point at This site at least allows JURN to index the one-per-journal information pages, although it swiftly passes traffic to the main Degruyter site which mixes open and closed content on undifferentiated URLs. So far as I can tell, Degruyter isn’t engaging in Elsevier-style nastiness such as charging for OA articles. […]

  3. In support of the honest incompetence theory, I’m aware of at least one article in a hybrid journal where Elsevier have carefully and efficiently made it open-access without the author ever actually asking/paying for it! Scant consolation for the opposite case, though.

    I had a similar problem to this with some Wiley journals a while ago (displaying an OA “open padlock” and making it free-to-read, but simultaneously claiming all-rights-reserved and happily charging for copies). I don’t think it was quite the two-day PeerJ level of response, but credit where it’s due, they did get it fixed after we flagged it up – the licenses are now reported on the article page and the rightslink page reports in big red letters that it’s free for NC use.

  4. Mike from Ottawa Says:

    “Come on, Elsevier. You’re better than this.” – I think after 2 years, it’s an ineluctable conclusion that, no, Elsevier is not better than that.

  5. Nathan Myers Says:

    “Come on Elsevier. You can afford to be better than this without experiencing even slight discomfort.”

  6. […] one of the leading campaigners for open access, has caught Elsevier at it again. Here’s a good summary of what happened from Mike Taylor, whose post “If Harry Potter Was An Academic Work” appeared on […]

  7. Alicia Wise Says:

    Hi Mike,

    In the ‘Update (21st March 2014)’ section you ask why it will take until the summer of 2014 to use information from the open access articles elsewhere in our systems/pages. Chris Shillum explains this more fully in the 5th comment in the comment thread here:

    With kind wishes,

    Dr Alicia Wise
    Director of Access & Policy

  8. Mike Taylor Says:

    I just posted the following comment on Elsevier’s Open access – the systems journey page. I’m reposting it here in case they moderate it into oblivion.

    All of this makes sense as far as it goes. The question that remains is, how is it possible that the pages in question have the gold “Open Access” label at the top? Whatever metadata is used to generating that can surely also be used to prevent the generation of “All rights reserved” and the other incorrect information. See for example

  9. […] The Wellcome Trust, the UK’s largest provider of non-governmental funding for scientific research, released a dataset on Figshare of the fees paid in the 2012-13 financial year for open access publication (APCs). @ernestopriego posted an initial analysis, @CameronNeylon posted a tidied up version of the dataset and @petermurrayrust and Michelle Brook (@MLBrook) initiated a crowdsourced attempt to check whether all the articles paid for were actually made open access by their publishers. The resulting spreadsheet will continue to be used for checking whether any paid open access papers are being wrongly marked as copyright of the publisher, or being put behind a paywall, or being given a link to payment for a licence to reproduce or reuse (anyone can help with this if they wish). Peter Murray-Rust has identified some examples where these errors have been made, which seem to be mostly from Elsevier, and this prompted Elsevier to post an explanation of why this is taking so long to fix (they were alerted the problem two years ago, as Mike Taylor has explained).  […]

  10. […] Taylor spotted this about two years ago. Elsevier’s response, coordinated by Alicia Wise, was less than swift, not surprisingly given their strong incentive to drag their feet about it. Peter Murray-Rust has […]

  11. […] l’a dénoncé il y a deux ans déjà. La réponse d’Elsevier, signée par Alicia Wise, ne fut pas des plus rapides, ce qui n’est pas étonnant vu leur forte motivation traîner les pieds sur […]

  12. […] Open Access policy, and then updated it in 2014 with an article entitled, appropriately, How is it possible that Elsevier are still charging for copies of open access articles? Peter Murray Rust has shown that Elsevier charges people to read its Open Access articles. It […]

  13. […] that authors/funders have paid-for to make freely available to everyone. Peter Murray-Rust, Mike Taylor and others have written about this […]

  14. […] editor-in-chief, Professor Stephen Leeder, raised concerns about the journal getting involved with one of the most ethically problematic publishing companies in existence. And also about this having been done without […]

  15. […] open access, but still having to pay the subscription for those journals (and certainly last year, open access articles were still being ‘sold’ and marked ‘all rights reserved&#8217…by some […]

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