Saturday, February 4, 2012

In Defence of Elsevier

The hot topic at the moment in the scholarly publishing world is the growing movement to boycott Elsevier journals. This is a new angle on the open access debate. Elsevier is the biggest publisher of academic journals with over 2600 titles. Yes Elsevier make a lot of profit (About 1/3 of revenues) and they have engaged in dubious practices involving "fake medical journals" but that is no reason for a general boycott in my opinion. The current movement has been sparked by Elsevier's support for the US "Research Works Act". Whatever you think of that potential legislation, Elsevier are hardly the only supporter of it.

I am an associate editor of Ecological Economics which is published by Elsevier. The International Society for Ecological Economics has outsourced publication of their journal to the company. This certainly made sense in the days before electronic publication. Today, it might make a bit less sense given that it would be easier to replicate many of Elsevier's various functions, but it would still be a lot of extra work for the society. Elsevier make the journal available at a heavily discounted price to members of the society. More generally, Elsevier allow authors in all their journals to archive the final version of the paper (before they format it) on their institutional servers. So Elsevier helps us distribute our work and doesn't prevent free access to the results. Seems like a win-win to me, hardly a reason for a boycott. The Scopus citation database is another great service developed by Elsevier. Of course, they charge institutions huge amounts of money for this, but they also provide access for 30 days free of charge to referees for their journals.

Anyway, the whole argument that paying for subscription journals is paying for science twice (the other time is public funding of research grants and scientists' salaries) doesn't make sense. Elsevier is like Walmart. They distribute the product and this costs money. Walmart also makes a lot of money and has some monopoly power. Of course, there are a lot of people boycotting Walmart too, but something of a minority. I don't see why using public money to pay PLOS to publish a paper is morally better than using it for a university library to subscribe to a journal. One way or another the costs have to paid. Publishing in gold open access will allow greater access but favors more heavily funded authors getting published (PLOS does in fact waive publication fees if you can't pay but other publishers don't).

For the sake of search engines: Defence seems to be the British spelling and defense the American.


  1. Paying PLOS is morally equivalent to paying a university sub. It's just a heck of a lot more economically efficient and transparent to pay PLOS.

    And as far as I am aware Walmart pays its suppliers. Elsevier doesn't.

  2. Are you paid by the Elsevier for your editorial work?

    In view of your second paragraph, why do you guys need the Reed Elsevier at all? Your papers are anyhow online. Google will find any of them faster and better than any internal commecial Elsevier search engine (which are quite useless, they often fail to find even their own books).

    You are wrong on the main count: Elsevier used to distribute its products in the past, but not anymore. Apparently, they started getting out of this business after the merger with Reed (the real company is Reed Elsevier, Elsevier properly is a division of it).

    Finally, what is "Ecological Economics"? Looks like a bogus science, just a tool to milk governments.

  3. Toth - it is possible that it is more economically efficient for the researchers to pay if the subscription fees were really a barrier. They are more of a barrier to accessing archival content than recent content.

    Melancholia - Take "Elsevier" as short-hand for "Reed-Elsevier" - it's meaningless to split them and I don't think the boycotters are distinguishing between them. I do my editorial work in my mind for the society. They do pay a managing editor for the journal. Elsevier produces and distributes our journal for us. Is it different when people work for a journal that doesn't have an associated society? Maybe, but as I'm saying it isn't all so black and white. Ecological economics is simply economics that takes natural science seriously. The focus is on environmental management and resource economics issues. A lot of mainstream environmental economics is not at all scientifically realistic in its treatment of the environment.

  4. PS - just to be clear, it's Elsevier who pay for the managing editor. I don't know if there is any deal with the Editor in Chief. The only compensation anyone else gets is free access to Scopus, but I have access to Scopus anyway.

  5. I would be glad to take "Elsevier" as a short-hand for "Reed-Elsevier", if not Tom Reller, their spokesperson, and other people. He said that some scientists are wrong in associating Elsevier with the arms trade, that it was Reed who took part in t arms trade. In fact, Reed-Elsevier get out of the arms trade only about 3 years ago under the pressure of scientists, and the merger of Reed and Elsevier happened in early 90ies.

    So, I think that it is worthwhile to remind to people and, especially, to Tom Reller (he reads everything) that this is one company.

    What do you mean by producing and distributing? They don't like to deal with paper (but still do sometimes, yes), so this, probably, means only one thing - putting your journal in a protected commercial database. In other words, papers are in the protected part of the web, while they could be in an open database.

    Well, the issue of ecological economics is only tangentially relevant. I got some idea, thanks. I wonder if the Ecological Economic had predicted anything successfully.

  6. Elsevier do print hard copies of the journal for those who want them. If you are a member of the International Society for Ecological Economics you can get the journal in hard copy and electronically for $68 per year (12 issues). $23 for electronic only. Our membership fees are discounted for people on low incomes (honor system). Only $7.50 for people in India earning less than $15k per year for example. Elsevier pay the managing editor who actually runs the journal and provide the various database for managing the journal and hosting the articles etc. And in addition as I said you are allowed to put a copy on the open internet (minus their formatting). The fact is that many authors don't take advantage of that. In economics most papers also already appear in open access working paper series before they appear as journal articles (RePEc and SSRN similar to arXiv).

  7. Well, if you a member of this or that society, if you have job at a sufficiently rich university or at big pharma, or live in India, you will get what you need. But what all this has to do with the open access, which Elsevier claims to be supporting? This is exactly the opposite; this is access for privileged groups, selected by Elsevier to maximize its super-profits.

    Given that the papers without the Elsevier formatting are freely available on the web anyhow, what are you defending? Do you value so much Elsevier formatting? Do you think that it is worth to pay US $31.50 per paper for this formatting (this is per file price for unprivileged)?

    The main point is still not well articulated (but Mike Taylor, who wrote the first article in the "Guardian"), did a lot in many comments. There is a new technology of distributing the information, the interned. It lowered the cost of distribution to approximately zero. In a relatively free economy this would pull down the price. But here we deal with a highly regulated in the interests of Elsevier and likes sector of economics. If not the absurd copyright laws, Elsevier would be gone for good 5 years ago already, or would switch to the arms trade.

    In fact, the whole system of scientific journals is outdated. It was imposed on scientists by the printing press, but it is absurd for online distribution.

    With the current laws, Elsevier is allowed to keep copyright to some texts and not to distribute them at all. This happened with many books by, for example, the Academic Press, bought by Elsevier in early 90ies. These books retain their value: there are sciences where texts age very slowly, despite the progress is very fast.

    Finally, I would like to say that takes too many attempts to get an authorization to comment here. Not sure that I will be able to continue in this way. Good luck.

  8. Anyone can pay us $30-40 per year and get access to the journal. There are no restrictions on joining the society. That's about 250 papers per year or 10 cents per paper. And anyway, they should all be freely available given Elsevier's policy. Elsevier has more power over the older papers.

    It is a pretty crazy system but the scientific community does value the peer review system and the archiving of content etc. And they are prepared to pay PLOS $1350-$3000 for the privilege of publishing or get libraries to pay subscriptions. If we were inventing a new system today we'd be unlikely to come up with this. But I doubt a boycott of Elsevier solves the perceived problems.