Don’t Let Science Publisher Elsevier Hold Knowledge for Ransom

It’s Open Access Week and we’re joining SPARC and dozens of other organizations this week to discuss the importance of open access to scientific research publications. 

An academic publisher should widely disseminate the knowledge produced by scholars, not hold it for ransom. But ransoming scientific research back to the academic community is essentially the business model of the world’s largest publisher of scientific journals: Elsevier.

In February of this year, after drawn-out negotiations broke down, the University of California terminated its subscription with Elsevier. A central sticking point in these negotiations was around open access: specifically Elsevier’s refusal to provide universal open access to UC research, a problem exacerbated by skyrocketing subscription fees.

This has been an ongoing fight, not just in California. Many academics (and EFF) believe that scholarly research most effectively advances scientific progress when it is widely available to the public, and not subject to the paywalls erected by publishers. Scientific research is a driving force behind technological innovations, medical breakthroughs, and policy decisions, and the bulk of it in the U.S. is publicly funded. When libraries, universities, individuals, and even researchers themselves have to pay to access academic work, we all suffer.

Elsevier boasts profit margins in excess of 30%, much of it derived from taxpayer dollars. Academics effectively volunteer their time to publishers to write articles, conduct peer review, and sit on editorial boards, and then publishers demand ownership of the copyright and control over dissemination. Universities and other institutions fund these researchers, and a mega-publisher like Elsevier reaps the benefits while trapping all of that work behind a paywall.

In response to this outdated and deleterious system, two UCSF researchers have started a petition to boycott Elsevier, calling on all academics to refuse to publish in Elsevier journals, peer-review their articles, or sit on their editorial boards (as many already have). They’ve also written a piece calling for a wider re-imagining of the academic publishing system, that’s more in line with an open access model. A large and growing number of scholars have signed the petition already.

This is far from the first time someone has called for a boycott of Elsevier. Efforts go back to 2012 with a call to action from mathematician Timothy Gowers which led to the “The Cost of Knowledge” campaign. Since then, boycotts have extended across entire countries, across Asia, Europe, and

Elsevier vice-president aims to fix ‘disjoint’ with academics | Times Higher Education (THE)

“Elsevier needs to do more fix a “disjoint” with academics and to demonstrate its value to universities, according to a vice-president at the publishing giant.

Gemma Hersh, senior vice-president for global research solutions at Elsevier, argued that the company offered value for money to its customers and contributed positively to research, despite the decisions of many German and Swedish universities, as well as the University of California system, not to renew their subscriptions….

Ms Hersh said that much of the criticism of Elsevier was misplaced….

Ms Hersh claimed that some critics had mistaken parent company Relx’s profit margin – 19 per cent – with its operating margin of 37 per cent, referencing the £942 million it made on revenues of about £2.5 billion last year….”

Unusual Business: A University Press Goes Private, And No One is the Wiser — G. Geltner

“On 11 March this year, a brief announcement by the University of Amsterdam (UvA) and Amsterdam University Press (AUP) marked the latter’s transfer into private hands. The upbeat text conjures up a healthy image: a rigorous restructuring had saved an ailing organization. Following a dire diagnosis, AUP achieved a great “track record” and “international visibility” and was “stable and growing.” “A good moment” presented itself to let AUP direct its own destiny, a “long-cherished dream” of its new owner, whose “network in the sector” reassured UvA Ventures Holding B.V., the company through which the UvA formally owned AUP, of the press’s bright future.

Anyone unversed in the corporate idiom of mergers and acquisitions could easily be forgiven for reading the press release as a tale of unmitigated success. The truth is more complex, and shrouded in secrecy since neither the UvA, nor UvA Ventures Holding B.V., nor AUP itself have been forthcoming about the precise circumstances of the press’s privatization. It seems, at any rate, that what led to the UvA’s decision was a desire to cut its losses, rather than faith in the press’s viability….

As a proud former author, advisory board member and a series editor at AUP until recently, I (like other colleagues I’ve polled) was never formally told in real time by the press about this rather dramatic change in its status. But perhaps even more telling is that the UvA never specifically disclosed the reasons why tax-paid scholarship and the labor of numerous staff members turn at the stroke of a pen into someone else’s private property, even if contributors originally signed up to publish, review, edit and indeed solicit scholarly texts on behalf of an ostensibly public press. Some of these “content creators” may not care that they are literally volunteering to produce wealth for a private company that is unaccountable to them, and which may fold or be sold to the highest bidder, with no guarantee that fields it supports today will be continued tomorrow. (On that topic, see, most recently, s.v. Ashgate). Others, like me, very much do care….”

New ALPSP boss: academic publishing ‘could return to non-profit’ | Research Information

“Academic publishing could be about to return to a not-for-profit enterprise.

That is the view of Wayne Sime, new chief executive of the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers (ALPSP), who was interviewed in Research Information this month.

Sime was previously director of library services for the Royal Society of Medicine, and has also worked in the NHS and financial sector. He has been a chartered librarian since 2001 and became a fellow of CILIP (Chartered Institute of Library & Information Professionals) in 2009.

When asked what he believes will change in the industry over the next 10 years, Sime predicted an expectation that all scholarly communications will be freely distributed, and that search engines and social communities will be primary sources of useful information.

He continued: ‘We will need to adjust our practice and business model to reflect this new reality. The best way, I believe, to see the future is to expect a rapid drop in all kinds of government backing from the economy and to figure out a publication system that will adapt. 

‘We must remember that when we look back at the history of publishing, it has only been a recent development (mid-20th century onwards) that academic publishing become a profit-making enterprise. History may be about to repeat itself!’ …”

What Will the Future of Scientific Publishing Look Like? | The Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

“Recently though, there have been more and more attempts to change that system and find a new way of measuring scholarly achievements other than via the impact factor. But to change the status quo, what exactly needs to change and how can this be achieved? These are just three of the many issues that were discussed during a Panel Discussion on Wednesday afternoon of the 68thLindau Nobel Laureate Meeting….”


Increasing open access publications serves publishers’ commercial interests

Publishing for free is great, but when journals start charging researchers fees, they don’t lose business. A new journal might introduce a fee after a free introductory period. For example, when eLife introduced a US$2,500 publication fee in 2017, it still published more articles in 2017 and 2018 than it had in 2016. Similarly, Royal Society Open Scienceintroduced a US$1,260 fee in 2018 and continued to grow….

I then looked at the four biggest commercial open-access publishers that relied on publication fees: BMC, Frontiers, MDPI and Hindawi. I tracked 319 of their journals, their listed prices and the number of research articles they published between 2012 and 2018. I fed this data into a statistical model and it showed academics preferred to publish in more expensive journals.

The two publishers who raised their prices the most, Frontiers and MDPI, also saw the most growth in the average number of articles in each journal….”

The death of the learned societies? – ScienceGuide

Also the statement that potential profits are used to benefit science seems legitimate, but what exactly do we really know about the business model of learned societies and their journals? To answer these and other questions ScienceGuide spoke with editors and publishers deeply involved with the business of learned societies, and asked them about the value of learned society journals, and what they know about the underlying business model….

Van Ommen starts out to say that he is totally on board with open access, “but Plan S is reckless and ill-conceived.” ….

A similar line of reasoning moved the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) to seek out the commercial publisher Elsevier as their partner for a newly launched journal. Former president of the Royal Academy and current president of the (ISSCR) Hans Clevers was involved in the negotiations with the publisher on launching the open access journal Stem Cell Reports….

All of this provided a perfect opportunity for commercial publishers to either co-opt or completely take over these society journals. In 2004 a survey by the Association Learned & Professional Society Publishers found an estimated half of the learned society journals, especially the smaller ones, were run by third party commercial publishers. A 2013 also found that most of the learned societies have little information about how their income is derived….

Fletcher is somewhat baffled by the fact that learned societies don’t know about the full picture behind the business model of co-publishing. …

Although the level of detail in the annual reports of learned societies is too low to get a good estimate on costs and benefit, Kramer is positively surprised by the level of transparency. “If you’d want to have an overview like this for most commercial publishers you’d have a very hard time.” She points out that under Plan S journals are urged to be even more transparent on the way in which costs are derived. “Hopefully we’ll get an even better insight into the cost model of publishers.”


In the revised implementation of Plan S transparency is still a key conditional for compliance. In a previous interview with ScienceGuide president of the Dutch research funder NWO Stan Gielen indicated that in order to comply with the Plan S requirements journals would have to be upfront on how their APC is compiled. “We’re not going to require full transparency from every journal, but if an APC is ludicrously high, we’ll definitely ask questions about their business model.” …”


The gold rush: Why open access will boost publisher profits | Impact of Social Sciences

“An important justification for transitioning from a subscription based journal publishing system to an open access journal publishing system, has been that whereas printing and distributing physical copies of journals is an expensive process, the cost of digital publication and dissemination are marginal. In this post Shaun Khoo argues that whilst a shift to gold (pay to publish) open access would deliver wider access to research, the lack of price sensitivity amongst academics presents a risk that they will be locked into a new escalating  pay to publish system that could potentially be more costly to researchers than the previous subscription model….”

Paywalls block scientific progress. Research should be open to everyone | Jason Schmitt | Education | The Guardian

“Academic and scientific research needs to be accessible to all. The world’s most pressing problems like clean water or food security deserve to have as many people as possible solving their complexities. Yet our current academic research system has no interest in harnessing our collective intelligence. Scientific progress is currently thwarted by one thing: paywalls.

Paywalls, which restrict access to content without a paid subscription, represent a common practice used by academic publishers to block access to scientific research for those who have not paid. This keeps £19.6bn flowing from higher education and science into for-profit publisher bank accounts. My recent documentary, Paywall: The Business of Scholarship, uncovered that the largest academic publisher, Elsevier, regularly has a profit margin between 35-40%, which is greater than Google’s. With financial capacity comes power, lobbyists, and the ability to manipulate markets for strategic advantages – things that underfunded universities and libraries in poorer countries do not have….”

Gilead profits from Tuvada HIV treatment funded by taxpayers and patented by the U.S. government – The Washington Post

“Thomas Folks spent years in his U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lab developing a treatment to block deadly HIV in monkeys. Then San Francisco AIDS researcher Robert Grant, using $50 million in federal grants, proved the treatment worked in people who engaged in risky sex.

Their work — almost fully funded by U.S. taxpayers — created a new use for an older prescription drug called Truvada: preventing HIV infection. But the U.S. government, which patented the treatment in 2015, is not receiving a penny for that use of the drug from Gilead Sciences, ­Truvada’s maker, which earned $3 billion in Truvada sales last year….

Gilead argues that the government’s patents for Truvada for PrEP, as the prevention treatment is called, are invalid. And the government has failed to reach a deal for royalties or other concessions from the company — benefits that could be used to distribute the drug more widely….”