Elsevier has sought to set aside public criticism of its Open Access (OA) and pricing policies and to restate its value for the academy, emphasising how, as a profit-generating company, it has the means to invest in innovation to serve researchers’ fast-changing needs.
The publisher’s record of success is clear: 2015 results from parent company RELX Group show Elsevier with operating profits of £760m on revenue of £2,070m, with underlying revenue growth of 2% and underlying profit up 3%. The prediction for 2016 is of further profit growth. But public perceptions of Elsevier have been dogged by accusations of profiteering through excessive charges and reluctance to make its material available through OA, most notably from the online academic protest group The Cost of Knowledge (www.thecostofknowledge.com) which has racked up 16,000 signatories to its Elsevier boycott over five years.
Other widely aired disputes—a year-long deadlock with Dutch universities over institutional subscriptions; the departure of the entire editorial board of journal Lingua in 2015 in a row over OA—have added fuel to the fire for Elsevier’s critics. But director of access and policy Alicia Wise, vice-president of global corporate relations Tom Reller and policy director Gemma Hersh say criticism from a vocal minority is unrepresentative of the publisher’s regular contact with millions of researchers. The trio say that detractors obscure a key fact: that Elsevier is seeking to negotiate the new landscapes of OA and content-sharing in such a way that its economic sustainability, and therefore ability to maintain quality, is not compromised.
Publishers are “rubbish at communicating their value,” says Hersh (left), then proceeds to attempt to do just that. “We have over one million submissions a year and immediately reject a third of those,“ she says. “The management of that process in itself is an enormous feat. You then have the co-ordination of those manuscripts you have accepted, finding the right people to peer review those, making that as efficient a process as possible. That takes time.
“Once you’ve gone through the peer review process, if you look at the article that is actually published in a journal, it looks radically different [to the one submitted due to] that process of transformation, the copy-editing, the database linking, the data visualisation tools, making sure that the metadata for the article is all right, so when people come to [Elsevier database] ScienceDirect or type a search into Google, they can actually find what they are looking for on their platforms.”
She continues: “The plagiarism detection tools that we invest in to make sure research is reliable and trustworthy; with journals like The Lancet, the statisticians it employs to verify what goes into the article so it is treated as high-quality, cutting-edge research. The marketing of the journal brand—there’s a reason why journals are well known. People want to publish in them because they are known as having high-quality content. We do all that marketing. The investments we make off the back of that, so people know how their articles are being used, how they can identify collaborators to work with after publication and how they can use tools like [Elsevier’s institutional research networking platform] SciVal.”
Reller (right) reiterates the importance of a profit-making enterprise like Elsevier, which is able to invest in new developments, to the academy. “If we hadn’t acquired Mendeley [the reference manager start-up Elsevier bought in 2013, see p06], what would have happened to it?” he asks. “Who in the [academic] ecosystem—government, universities, funders—would have come up with something like a SciVal? Government and funding bodies wouldn’t be that innovative on their own; you need a commercial partner. That’s what academic partners can’t do—only commercial partners have access to capital markets to help fund massive technological investments.”
Elsevier has drawn up facts and figures to combat the criticism of its OA policies. It actively supports Gold and Green Model OA and the publisher says it is working to develop systems and technology to implement OA through its 400-plus fully OA journals and 1,600 hybrid journals (which combine the subscription and OA models).
Its data shows the average Article Processing Charge (APC) for all OA journals published via the Gold Model is £748, with Elsevier’s slightly higher, at an average of £944. (The publisher’s prices actually range from £300 to £3,000). But in hybrid journals, Elsevier is slightly below the £1,602 average, at £1,495. People are “often surprised” by that, says Hersh.
Meanwhile Elsevier refutes the charges of “double dipping”—the phrase used for charging for journal content twice, by both subscription and APCs—that bedevil the hybrid journals arena. Hersh says: “The bulk of criticism comes due to two separate business models working within the same journal. People can’t conceptualise that we divorce the two.” Elsevier says that this year it lowered the subscription prices of 21 journal titles to reflect falls in subscription article volume.
The editors and board of linguistics journal Lingua departed in November over Elsevier’s reluctance to make it OA—its APCs stood at $1,800 (about £1,200)—and the academics have since started up Glossa, an OA journal published by Ubiquity Press, as an alternative. But Elsevier disputes that it is holding back on OA. Reller says the Lingua issue was misreported and that the editors were able to start the new journal on an OA basis purely because of a subsidy grant from the Dutch government. “It was a humanities field, there’s no money in that field [to go OA], but they ended up getting a grant and [that enabled them] to put it on a lower cost platform,” he says. “But those articles are not going to be as enriched, as searchable on that platform [as they were with Elsevier]. They are getting what they pay for.”
He adds: “I can’t tell you how many times an editorial board goes to its publisher and says, ‘OA, let’s do it.’ Then they actually do an economic modelling around whether they would be able to afford it . . . most editorial boards are interested in the success of their own journal, too. It just happens that with Lingua, it was run by an OA advocate and they weren’t interested in the economic success of the journal, they were just interested in making an ideological statement.”
Wise (left) says that Elsevier wishes the departing editors luck. “We were open minded to making Lingua OA, but in a way that was sustainable. We review every single journal every year on a case-by-case basis,” she adds.
In some cases, Elsevier has made the wrong decision and had to change, but not necessarily in the direction one might expect. “We’ve backflipped from fully OA to hybrid this year with The Physics of the Dark Universe,” explains Wise. “There, what we realised is that we hadn’t been asking enough questions. They wanted to go fully OA because they had a lot of OA submissions, but it turns out they waived the publishing charges in 90% of cases. When they stopped waiving, submissions started crashing.”
She adds: “With Gold OA publishing, some advocates want a complete transition to OA and they want the whole system to be delivered at a lower price. In those situations, inevitably, quality will tank. What we are trying to do is facilitate OA while maintaining the standards.”
It is also incorrect for Elsevier to be labelled as against content-sharing, say its spokespeople. The company supports the facility of sharing, although not unreservedly when it involves subscription material. “If you are sharing OA content, cool, it’s been paid-for upfront,” says Wise. “When you are sharing subscription content and we still have to recover our costs, that’s complicated.” And it’s not just the publisher’s commercial interests that are at stake. If articles are freely shared in different versions, it’s hard to keep track of where and how they are read, and for researchers it is difficult to know whether it is the final, accepted article that they are reading, or an earlier draft. “We want to support all of the different ways people share but we want to work through the challenges and get that right,” Hersh says.
Elsevier got some negative feedback in 2013 when it issued takedown notices on articles shared on scholarly collaboration network (SCN) academica.edu. The problem was that it “turned around and pushed the take-down notices to their end users [ie the academics],” says Wise. “We don’t think researchers should be bothered with any of this complexity. We’re confident that publishers and SCNs working together can sort this stuff out and that we can and should work together to sort it out, so that it’s not a hassle for researchers. By deflecting the notices to the researchers, nothing moved forward.”
Hersh points out that Elsevier “refreshed” its policy on sharing last year. “When authors publish with us, they are given a link to tweet and that provides 50 days’ [worth of] free access on Science Direct [Elsevier’s database of scientific research]. So authors have options available to them even with subscription articles. We are thinking all the time about new ways of supporting author sharing in ways that are manageable for the economics of the journal.”