Elsevier Blinks Under Pressure from Mathematicians

By Lucy E. Saxon

Mathematician Timothy Gowers is the hero of the hour as Elsevier has officially dropped its support for Research Works Act (RWA), which was promptly declared dead by its congressional sponsors.  The RWA sought to end mandated public access to publicly funded research in the United States.  Who is Elsevier, and why should you care?  Read on.

Academics publish in journals for a variety reasons: to promote knowledge, to engage with colleagues, or perhaps for prestige and promotion. However, there is one motive for which academics do not publish papers: profit.  Researchers are not paid for the scholarly content that they surrender (typically copyright and all) to for-profit academic publishers like Elsevier, Wiley, Springer, etc.  Nor are academics typically paid for peer review, and often not for editing.  Publishers then sell scholarly content back to universities (through their libraries) for very high prices.

It would be correct to surmise that this tidy business model results in very tidy profits.  Elsevier has been embarrassed recently for turning a 36% annual profit, which in the world of business is considered rather exorbitant.  A DeutscheBank analyst cited by McGuigan & Russell had the following thoughts:

In justifying the margins earned, the publishers, REL [stock market abbreviation for Reed Elsevier] included, point to the highly skilled nature of the staff they employ (to pre-vet submitted papers prior to the peer review process), the support they provide to the peer review panels, including modest stipends, the complex typesetting, printing and distribution activities, including Web publishing and hosting.  REL employs around 7,000 people in its Science business as a whole.  REL also argues that the high margins reflect economies of scale and the very high levels of efficiency with which they operate.
We believe the publisher adds relatively little value to the publishing process.  We are not attempting to dismiss what 7,000 people at REL do for a living.  We are simply observing that if the process really were as complex, costly and value-added as the publishers protest that it is, 40% margins wouldn’t be available.  (McGuigan & Russell, 2008)

The analyst notes that if Elsevier were adding significant value to the product, it would essentially be impossible to make a profit on that scale.

Where is the harm in profit?  Unfortunately for academic libraries, the cost of academic subscriptions has significantly outstripped inflation while library budgets have often lagged behind inflation.  McGuigan and Russell write, “To illustrate the severity of the problem, using data from a prominent Big Ten university, if the average changes in library budgets were compared to the average increase in serial costs from the years 2001-2005, the entire library budget would be consumed by journal costs by the year 2014.” (2008)  Clearly, this subscription model is unsustainable for libraries and the institutions they serve.  Moreover, the advent of electronic publication has opened the door to major changes to the accepted publication process.

Changes such as Open Access publication could make access to scholarly information more affordable.  There are a few Open Access publication paradigms currently in use. (Crawford, Sep)  In “green” Open Access authors place their peer reviewed publications in institutional or subject area online repositories.  In “gold” OA authors pay an “OA” publisher, such as Public Library of Science, for peer review and publication of their work, and the publisher undertakes to make it freely available to everyone indefinitely.  In practice, these author fees can often be defrayed by the authors research grants or other institutional funds.  In this way, many universities are moving to defray the publication costs for researchers who choose to publish via OA platforms.  Open Access has the potential to reshape the publishing infrastructure in ways that could save money for institutions of higher education.

Mandated Public Access to some government-funded research has proved an important boon to the Open Access movement.  One of the largest “green” OA repositories in the world is PubMed Central, which was created by a Public Access mandate of the National Institutes of Health.  Access to medical research has been greatly expanded via the Open Access Database Pubmed Central.  Pubmed Central is free to everyone, and researchers who receive funding from the National Institutes of Health are obligated to post resulting publications in Pubmed Central within one year of their publication.  Pubmed Central has brought a massive amount of medical literature to the fingertips of citizens who pay for it.  The National Institutes of Health describe the benefits of their mandate program:

“Clinicians, patients, educators, and students can better reap the benefits of papers arising from NIH funding by accessing them on PubMed Central at no charge. Finally, the Policy allows NIH to monitor, mine, and develop its portfolio of taxpayer funded research more effectively, and archive its results in perpetuity.” (National Institutes of Health, 2009)

Doctors, dentists, psychologists, and others who may not be affiliated with a large research library now have access to recent medical literature.  These are the significant benefits of public access mandates to the public, but they present a challenge to the for-profit publishing model wherein the fruits of public research are restricted by private, for-profit companies.

Elsevier and the Association of American Publishers had adopted a piece of legislation called the “Research Works Act” (currently “dead”) in the United States House of Representatives. The Research Works Act sought to make government mandated public access to taxpayer funded research illegal.  It would have been the end of contributions to Databases like Pubmed Central, and no new mandates for public access could be established.  This is clearly contrary to the interests of taxpayers.  It is in the financial interest of Elsevier however, which contributed thousands of dollars to the re-election campaigns of key Representatives in the House.

Why was the bi-partisan RWA extinguished by its own sponsors?  Timothy Gowers, a brilliant and well-known British mathematician was displeased with Elsevier due to their high prices, bundling sales model, and their support for SOPA, PIPA, and the RWA.  He grew tired of simply avoiding them personally.  On January 22, he decided to avoid them publicly, and to encourage other mathematicians and academics to do the same. Silicon Valley mathematician Tyler Neylon built a boycott site, and 8592 researchers have publicly pledged not to publish, edit, or referee for Elsevier to date.  On February 27, Elsevier recanted on the RWA, sort of.  They still support the principle of banning public research mandates.  The boycott continues.

 

 

Bibliography

Crawford, W. (Sep). Open Access: What You Need to Know Now. Online, 35(5), 58.

McGuigan, G. S., & Russell, R. D. (2008). The Business of Academic Publishing: a strategic analysis of the academic journal publishing industry and its impact on the future of scholarly publishing. Electronic Journal of Academic and Special Librarianship, 9(3). Retrieved from http://southernlibrarianship.icaap.org/content/v09n03/mcguigan_g01.html

National Institutes of Health. (2009, December 28). Frequently Asked Questions – Public Access. Retrieved March 7, 2012, from http://publicaccess.nih.gov/FAQ.htm#755

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