Elsevier begins outreach as push-back on publisher threatens to widen

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An online protest, which had more than 2,500  supporters as of Wednesday morning, has pulled the scientific publishing industry, and particularly Dutch publisher Elsevier, into an international conversation about the tug of war between publishers and the published.

Professor Timothy Gower's January 21 post, titled, “Elsevier — my part in its downfall” explains why the Cambridge University mathematics instructor is angry with the publisher, which also one of the biggest publishers of medical books and journals. His main beef is with the costs of its subscriptions.

Gowers writes that Elsevier's subscription system is punitive because it bundles premium titles with lesser-quality ones, with little room for a third-way to choose titles. Gowers says the publisher is guilty of “cutting off access to all their journals” if libraries try to move outside of the packaged subscriptions.

As a result, the Fields Medal winner says he will not publish, provide peer review or perform editorial work for Elsevier. He has been joined by academics in the arts, sciences and mathematics fields who have taken both ala carte and full-ticket approaches to what work they will or will not do for the publisher.

“In brief, if you publish in Elsevier journals you are making it easier for Elsevier to take action that harms academic institutions, so you shouldn't,” he wrote.

With other formerly sacred institutions like academic medical centers feeling push-back due to conflicts of interest among physician researchers who sit on guideline panels, and medical journals themselves taking heat over inappropriate authorship, it seems for-profit publishers were next in line.

But, in response to the growing international imbroglio, Tom Reller, Elsevier's vice president, global corporate relations, told MM&M in an e-mail that Gowers has it wrong, and that the publisher is not the unbending corporation it is painted to be: “We know there are some areas and disciplines where there is concern about access, and we are reaching out to them to make sure we understand their concerns. The facts on which the petition is based however, are not correct.

“The reality," he added, "is that the introduction of optional packages have added enormous access at fractions of the list prices; and resulted in reduced cost per use. Elsevier is in the business of expanding access to content, not restricting it, for example we were the first and largest contributor to the NIH (Pubmed central).”

The Dutch Publisher also said Tuesday that it was making the full text of its SciVerse ScienceDirect Journals available to users of the WorldCat, a member-based library system.

This is not the first time publishers have felt the wrath of the published. In 2003, two University of California San Francisco scientists called for a boycott of Elsevier's Cell Press publication because of high subscription fees. In June 2010, the University of California system threatened a boycott, this time of Nature Publishing Group for trying to raise subscription fees 400%.

However, subscription fees are just part of the anger that's being directed at Elsevier. “It's been 10, 15 years of people feeling they are not getting value from the publishers,” says Brian Cody, co-founder of the journal publishing site, Scholastica.

The sociology student says the majority of the work Elsevier and others publish is done by third parties. He notes that with few exceptions, this work is not done by Elsevier but by the academic institutions which provide the journal content, which Elsevier packages and then sells back to universities.

“The best argument I've seen on behalf of Elsevier is when people say they're plugged into all these libraries and distributing content.” He adds, “It's one of those things we're trying to supercede.”

Cody says Elsevier's publications keep academics aware of what's going on in their fields and aren't duplicating research, but “you don't expect to break the bank to buy that knowledge back.”

Cody says that organizations, like the publisher Public Library of Science, or PLoS, is on the right track, because everything it publishes is free. Unlike PLoS, which charges a publication fee, Scholastica charges researchers to have their work reviewed. It also provides the software that will allow journals to push their content into university systems and will take a percentage of any revenue journals receive from this distribution.

In the face of this backlash, publishers are not without their supporters. The New England Journal of Medicine's editor-in-chief, Jeffrey Drazen, wrote in a January 22 piece in The New York Times that there is “important value added by our staff editors, statisticians and graphic designers, among others.”

The editor-in-chief and the treasurer-publisher of the American Physical Society were also published that same day, and agreed, writing, “The management of the peer review process for our 10 large journals requires 50 full-time professional editors with a PhD in physics, and they must be compensated.”

Cody dismisses these arguments, saying that journals themselves are self-sufficient, with copy-editing and design staff. “Every journal is able to set up the look and feel of the graphics they want and export to a pdf. Thirty years ago that was a serious value-added. That value is rapidly [dwindling] down to zero.”

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