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Education International

Universities vs. Elsevier

published 21 December 2015 updated 21 December 2015
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The scholarly publishing world is normally a somnolent realm that seldom gets much attention outside of academia. But a very public dust-up between publishing giant Elsevier and Dutch universities has cast a new light onto some dark troubles in the industry.

Dutch universities had been negotiating with Elsevier to require all papers published by their academics to be made open access within the next decade. The idea, according to the State Secretary of Education, is to ensure the knowledge produced by academics and scientists is properly disseminated and shared.

Elsevier has flatly rejected the demands. So, in July of this year, the Association of Universities in the Netherlands tried stepping up the pressure by asking all academics that edit a journal published by Elsevier to resign their post. If this doesn’t get Elsevier to reconsider, universities say the next step would be to ask reviewers to stop working for Elsevier. Following that, a full boycott could ensure with universities calling on academics to stop publishing in Elsevier journals.

It isn’t the first time Elsevier has felt the pent-up wrath of the academic community. In 2012, Cambridge Professor Tim Gowers launched the Cost of Knowledge, a campaign that has collected more than 15,000 signatures of academics who say they will refrain from publishing in, reviewing, or editing Elsevier journals.

Why so much unease with Elsevier? The company is an academic publishing giant that churns out approximately 350,000 articles per in year in roughly 2,000 journals. Based in Amsterdam, Elsevier has operations that span the globe. In 2014, Elsevier reported a profit margin of approximately 37% on revenues of £2.48 billion.

It’s that profit-taking that has raised the ire of many in the academic community. Critics say Elsevier’s exorbitant journal pricing and healthy profit margins come directly out of the pockets of public and non-profit organizations like academic libraries.

One way Elsevier can boost its bottom line is through mandatory “bundling” of journal subscriptions. Libraries, rather than picking and paying for specific journal titles they want, are forced to subscribe to a collection of journals and end up paying for journals they do not want or need. The result has been skyrocketing costs.

And Elsevier, as is the norm in academic publishing, does not pay its authors. The company gets free academic labour, mostly subsidized by the public purse, and then sells the product of that free labour back to universities and colleges for a hefty fee. It’s a pretty sweet deal.

Academic authors also complain about draconian restrictions they face when they publish with one of the company’s journals. In April of this year, Elsevier announced a new article sharing policy for its authors that has provoked further fury. The new policy prevents authors from self-archiving or publicly sharing articles accepted for publication by Elsevier for up to 4 years. In practice, it means a professor cannot broadly share his or her latest manuscript until the embargo period ends. The policy led the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), the Confederation of Open Access Repositories (COAR), and 21 other groups to release a protest letter to Elsevier that states:

"Despite the claim by Elsevier that the policy advances sharing, it actually does the opposite. The policy imposes unacceptably long embargo periods of up to 48 months for some journals. It also requires authors to apply a "non-commercial and no derivative works" license for each article deposited into a repository, greatly inhibiting the re-use value of these articles. Any delay in the open availability of research articles curtails scientific progress and places unnecessary constraints on delivering the benefits of research back to the public."

Will the Dutch boycott set Elsevier straight? Previous boycott attempts have yielded mixed results. Individual academics may pledge to steer clear of Elsevier, but until libraries collectively begin cancelling subscriptions and put a dent in the company’s sales, there’s little motivation for Elsevier to change its ways. That’s what makes the developments in the Netherlands so interesting. It has the potential to turn into the first country-wide boycott of Elsevier.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.