What exactly is the problem with Elsevier and co?

May 9, 2017

For a long while, there has been a lot of anger among researchers and academic librarians towards the legacy publishers: the big corporations that control access to most of the world’s scholarly output. But what exactly is the problem? Let’s briefly consider several possibilities, and see if we can figure out which ones really matter.

Is it the publishers’ profit margins? As we’ve discussed before, the Big Four publishers all make profits in the region of 35% of revenue, which is more than Google (25%) or Apple (29%) make. Essentially every time you buy something from Elsevier, a third of the money goes straight into shareholders’ pockets.

But as I have previously argued, I don’t think this, in isolation, is a big problem. A company that could make a car for $500, if it sold that car for $1000, would be making a 50% profit: but that wouldn’t matter, because what we actually care about is the price we pay, not whether the price goes on costs or profits.

So is the problem with legacy publishers the sheer cost of their products (whether made up of profit or internal costs)? This is definitely an issue, and has been for a long time: the serials crisis goes back several decades. It certainly seems to be true that publishers are collecting exploitative rent on research outputs that they own, hiking up prices much faster than inflation and using underhand tactics to force renegotiation in their favour. This is underhand and destructive — but not the core of the issue.

Perhaps we get closer to the heart when we consider the provision of free labour by the authors, peer-reviewers and editors who donate their time, effort and professional expertise to enrich the publishers. No-one disputes that publishers add some value to the published work; but clearly 90% of the value is in the author’s submission, and 90% of the remainder in the volunteer-run editorial process. It sticks in the craw that the only people who benefit financially from all this are the ones who contribute least.

All of this so far has been to do with how scholarship is generated and how it then generates revenue. But maybe the real issue is what happens once it’s become a product: almost nobody can actually read the papers. To me, this is a much more fundamental issue. Whatever the academic community spends on subscriptions, the opportunity cost of all the papers we can’t read is far greater — and that is true on an enormously greater scale when we take into account the trifling matter of the world outside academia. (Bonus points: even when you can read the papers you are often limited in what you can do with them due to restrictive licences. Content-mining, data-reuse, lecture preparation, Wikipedia edits and much more are impeded by such limitations.)

But maybe even more fundamental than this is the problem that legacy publishers own and control the scholarly literature. That is the foundational truth that underlies all the other bad things I’ve listed here. They own the copyright because researchers give it to them. And so can we honestly be surprised when corporations, given a resource, then exploit it for financial gain?

The solution in the end is very, very simple: we have to stop giving them our good stuff. Just don’t. Don’t give your work to subscription-based journals. Don’t review for them. And don’t act as an editor for them. Scholarship belongs to the world, not to publishers who do the opposite of publishing. Publish your work where it benefits the world.


9 Responses to “What exactly is the problem with Elsevier and co?”

  1. Hi Mike, I am totally with you that the costs is not main issue. Here is my take on what is the fundamental problem: http://blog.euroscientist.com/open-scientists-in-the-shoes-of-frustrated-academics-part-i-open-minded-scepticism/

  2. Mike Taylor Says:

    I think Pandelis’s article is right on target:

    The issue is not that publishers make ridiculous amounts of money for little or zero added value. It is the fact that the current journal-based system does not reward open-minded scepticism.

    Once more, everything comes back to the problem of how we evaluate researchers and therefore what it takes to advance a research career.

  3. Stuart Taylor Says:

    Mike, I think you are spot on here. As you rightly point out, publishers (who used to be disseminators) are now obstacles to dissemination. We no longer have need to distribute via print (and haven’t for 20 plus years). They used to make their money by doing something academics couldn’t do, but now they make their money by being paid to get out of the way.

  4. Fair Miles Says:

    “The solution in the end is very, very simple: we have to stop giving them our good stuff. Just don’t. Don’t give your work to subscription-based journals.”

    Sadly, most of us can’t if we pretend to be (or remain) within the system.

    From a post by David Nicholas at the LSE Impact Blog

    “ECRs [Early Career Researchers] are […] focused on publishing in highly ranked, Impact Factor journals. Publishing outlets in a number of countries are very prescribed, with ECRs having to publish in lists of acceptable journals. In most cases it is a proprietary list […]”

    “Independent of discipline or nationality, the results [of our study] show the tensions that occur in a world in transition. In this transition, there are signs that scholarly “things” (practices, behaviours, objectives) are moving in many directions while the formal frame of evaluation and competition is strengthening. ECRs [Early Career Researchers] see the opportunities to change, but do not take them because they do not have the time and space in such an insecure and busy environment. They also have limited opportunity to change as they are shackled to a reputational system that promotes, above all else, publication record and citation scores.”

    Of course you can always take a different path and opt out of these system rules. But then who cares…

  5. In reply to Fair Miles, there is also the option of playing the game, i.e. Publishing in subscription-based, high-impact journals, but also self-archiving. In my opinion, this is a far more significant disruption to the system. Recently, the university of Montreal saved lots of money by cancelling subscriptions to three of the biggest commercial publishers. Their official explanation was that they can access most articles through services like “unpaywall” or even google scholar that also picks up most author-archived versions of articles. If we had massively adopted green open access, the landscape would have been totally different today since we would have offered a strong argument to libraries to negotiate journal prices. Unfortunatelly, publishers managed to push green oa under the carpet and make everyone believe that publishing in oa journals is the only way to achieve oa. This just created another market and did not solve any of the real problems of academia that extend far beyond the problem of accessibility. So, my advice would be different to Mike’s advice: Publish wherever you have to, but make sure to immediately self-archive.

  6. Fair Miles Says:

    Yes, of course. Green OA is also my preferred OA (independently of what any institutional, societal or commercial journal decides to do with its “business model”), so I agree with you in what we must do as researchers on an individual basis. And I do my tiny bit to try to convince others to follow.

    Still, we are pressured (and mostly by ourselves, sadly) to go the Big Co. way to enter, remain or advance our academic careers. This defines where power goes and got us within this vicious circle to begin with. “Playing the game” as individuals is not disruptive because institutions will still be pressured to guarantee access to “mainstream publications providing “impact”. Hurray for Montreal Univ. but it is rather the exception. Big publishers know it since the serials crisis onwards. Most journals by scientific societies, our hope for prestige and impact without necessary profit for external shareholders and concentration of power, have fall after accepting the rules of a game they were hoping to win but condemned to lose (“One Ring to Rule Them All”, have you read TLOTR?). In a more cynical twist, Big Co. have now coopted goldOA following the same scheme of using researchers’ and institutional pressure in an increasingly competitive system (helped by some lobbying, I guess): now you have to pay big money (as individual) to enter and advance. “Readers, I don’t need you no more; enjoy your institutional repositories full of old news” (copyright and embargoes, you know…).

    So I will support both your advices for young researchers, but I can’t help myself seeing them as too naive. Collective action with critical-mass is the only way out, but I don’t see that happening soon. In the meanwhile,
    (1) resist giving for free what shouldn’t be yours in the first place (e.g., public education, public funding), even when your own “employer” pushes you to do it;
    (2) focus on communication for scientific advance and not on the system of rewards and fake prestige that was built around it;
    (3) use your time and your special abilities to support alternatives to the legacy publishers’ path (e.g., non-APC OA journals, pre-print servers, scientific societies, institutional repositories, grayOA and blackOA)
    (4) tell your peers why you behave so odd and try to explain them why they should follow; but
    (5) do not hurt yourself because we need you within the system to be able to change it. And finally,
    (6) when you eventually get to a position where you can change the rules of the system that lead us here, don’t forget to do it.

  7. The idea that ECRs are heavily encouraged (or required) to publish in paywalled, high-impact journals is a CULTURAL problem of academia, and it’s not just limited to paleontology, or even sciences. And it should be easy to change (but probably isn’t).

  8. @fair miles, you wrote: “Collective action with critical-mass is the only way out, but I don’t see that happening soon.”

    There is such a thing going on right now in Germany, where a large part of German science organizations have cancelled their Elsevier subscriptions and negotiate with them about “automatic” gold open access for publicly funded research. But apparently, Elsevier is blocking this at the moment ….
    The idea is to extend this to Springer and other publisher as far as I know. More info (most of this is in German …): https://www.projekt-deal.de/about-deal/

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