A Couple of Points about the Elsevier Response

Elsevier has briefly responded to the steadily growing petition by researchers to refuse to publish, referee, or do editorial work for Elsevier journals until they change how they operate. Last summer I speculated that a faculty boycott would be a necessary step towards more open access. That was in response to the OUP, CUP, and Sage suing Georgia State University. We might finally get to see what, if anything, will happen. 3500 or so researchers have signed the petition so far (about 40 just while I was writing this post), but it’s hard to know how many of those are actively involved in work for Elsevier journals. If the bulk of the people actually providing the research and the free labor quit doing it, what actions can Elsevier take? If they start paying for the articles and editorial work, there goes their profit.

The response so far is that business as usual is the best thing for everyone. At least that’s how I understand their response. To be fair, it’s a clever response, and you can tell that Elsevier has the money to hire intelligent and articulate people to do their marketing. I don’t want to address the entire post, but a couple of the points made especially stuck out. Here’s one quote:

Although it’s tempting to boil issues down to catch-phrases like “Publicly funded research should be free to the public,” it is much more difficult to divine the implications of such statements. I was recently told about a dynamic government-funded research center to develop flexible display technology. What portion of that research should be free: the research report to the funding agency; the peer-reviewed published article; or the new flexi-plastic tablet as the result of that publicly-funded research? How did we come to accept that the peer-reviewed article meets that obligation? I think this is an important discussion; one that needs much more thoughtful debate.

The opening rhetorical move accuses the thousands of scientists and librarians who support open access to scholarship of oversimplification. The implication is that anyone who believes that publicly funded research should be open to the public just doesn’t understand all the complexities of the issue, even if they’re the ones funding or performing the research. Instead, the people who really understand the issue are vice presidents of global marketing for large publishers with a serious investment in defending the status quo.

The use of a specific example is a good move. Draw attention away from the general debate and the accusations against Elsevier (which admittedly are very broad) and focus that attention on a specific piece of research. Of all the stuff that goes on in a research project, “how did we come to accept that the peer-reviewed article should be free? It’s a fair question, but not a particularly difficult one to answer. We didn’t “come to accept” that proposition. We began with that proposition. For the past 300 years scientists have been doing research with the goal of publishing and disseminating that research. The article isn’t the research, but merely the report of the results of that research, and scientists have always been interested in having the reports widely available. The petition says it’s about “right of authors to achieve easily-accessible distribution of their work,” and that’s what scientists have wanted since the 17th century. Moreover, scientists expect to have access to all the published results of other scientists, regardless of whether their particular institution can afford the very high prices of most scientific journals, which is why they’ve always shared amongst themselves regardless of copyright.

This isn’t to say that scientists haven’t been implicitly responsible for the inaccessibility of much of those results. Unfortunately, while scientists have been very good at furthering science, they haven’t been so good at creating mechanisms for the wide distribution of the results of their research. The network of noncommercial scholarly journals didn’t keep pace with the output of scientific research, and enterprising publishers with commercial values at odds with scientific values emerged to fill the gap. Scientists were so intent on publishing, they didn’t think about the implications of creating a large commercial network of journals to publish research that was often publicly funded. They also haven’t thought much about the refereeing and editorial work they did for these journals, treating all scholarly journals as equal, regardless of whether they were published by a commercial firm dedicated to profit or by a noncommercial association dedicated to the dissemination of scholarship.

Which brings me to the second quote from the Elsevier response, in which my claim that international science and Elsevier have different values is implicitly challenged.

Elsevier aims to make research more accessible and discoverable while ensuring the integrity of the scientific record. We’ve always supported the principle that the public should have access to publicly funded research. We believe this can best be achieved in an environment without government mandates.

I would be puzzled by how they could support the principle that the public should have access to publicly funded research and then fight to counteract a law that tries to uphold that very principle, except that I doubt even the person who wrote that response believes it. I understand why they want an “environment without government mandates,” because those government mandates could cut into the profit they make by publishing the results of publicly funded research. But if they supported that principle, they wouldn’t have been paying members of Congress to push the Research Works Act, and if they hadn’t been supporting the Research Works Act this petition against them probably wouldn’t have happened. Of the three accusations against Elsevier, only the third–the support of SOPA, PIPA, and the Research Works Act–is even remotely new behavior. It would be ironic indeed if a push by Elsevier to overturn a law supporting a principle they claim to uphold leads to radical change in scholarly publishing.

One thought on “A Couple of Points about the Elsevier Response

  1. So true, and one tragic part of the current state of affairs vis-à-vis scholarly communication, as you said: “Scientists were so intent on publishing, they didn’t think about the implications of creating a large commercial network of journals to publish research that was often publicly funded. They also haven’t thought much about the refereeing and editorial work they did for these journals, treating all scholarly journals as equal, regardless of whether they were published by a commercial firm dedicated to profit or by a noncommercial association dedicated to the dissemination of scholarship.”

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