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Is Elsevier really for-science? Or just for-profit?


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That’s the question researchers are asking after Elsevier’s latest PR debacle. It’s generally not a good idea to piss off the people who give you their time, effort and intellectual property for free. Especially if your high profit margin relies on this free content and labor.

Last week, giant for-profit scholarly publisher Elsevier issued thousands of takedown notices to researchers who posted copies of their articles (published in Elsevier journals) on the academic social network Academia.edu. While Elsevier was completely within their rights to do so (they own the copyright to those articles, after all), it may not have been the wisest move, and exposes clear philosophical differences between the researchers (who want to advance and share scientific knowledge) and the publisher (who wants to make money)

Researchers who posted copies of their articles to Academia.edu probably didn’t know what rights they signed away when they signed a copyright transfer agreement upon publishing. At my institution, 55% of faculty acknowledged that they didn’t know what rights they still had to their content. While Elsevier may legally own the copyright to the affected articles, this doesn’t seem quite right to most researchers. At a visceral level, they feel that the work is theirs. After all, it was their time, effort, tears and curiosity that made the discoveries in the first place. It makes sense that these researchers want to share their work with others.

But they don’t have the legal right to do so. Elsevier now owns their work.

Elsevier has been pissing off librarians for years, but researchers – the folks who give Elsevier their manuscripts and provide peer review services all for free – have generally been quite happy with Elsevier. They publish high quality content and researchers have been content to turn over the copyright of their work in exchange for the reputation points received for publishing in Elsevier’s journals.

This stellar reputation is quickly changing. Scholars are becoming more aware of the high subscription costs Elsevier charges and the high profit margins it earns on the free content and labor supplied by those researchers. In early 2012, an online petition was started asking researchers to pledge not to write, review or edit for Elsevier journals. It currently has over 14,000 signatories, and the take-down notices have sparked a recent increase in the number of signees.

Around the same time, an investment report (Elsevier is a public, for-profit company, remember), noted the challenges Elsevier was facing with its customers. The report suggested that Elsevier needs to make sure they don’t anger the academic community even more.

If the academic community were to conclude that the commercial terms imposed by Elsevier are also hindering the progress of science or their ability to efficiently perform research, the risk of a further escalation in the acrimony rises substantially.

While Elsevier was completely within its rights to issue the take down notices, the end result is the view that Elsevier is not on the side of science, but merely of profit. There is room in the publishing landscape for non-profit and for-profit publishers, but those pursuing profits need to make sure that the pursuit of profit does not stifle scientific work.  Otherwise those companies may see researchers turning to universities, libraries and non-profit organizations that prioritize the dissemination of scientific information.

Elsevier won’t go bankrupt over this, but the bad press (e.g. “Elsevier Continues Its Efforts To Stifle The Sharing Of Knowledge To Pump Up Its Own Profits“) will cause more and more researchers to pursue open access models or publication in subscription journals with better author rights.

Note: John Dupuis at Confessions of a Science Librarian has an excellent post about the issue and linking to many other pieces on the debacle.

Bonnie Swoger About the Author: Bonnie J. M. Swoger is a Science and Technology Librarian at a small public undergraduate institution in upstate New York, SUNY Geneseo. She teaches students about the science literature, helps faculty and students with library research questions and leads library assessment efforts. She has a BS in Geology from St. Lawrence University, an MS in Geology from Kent State University and an MLS from the University at Buffalo. She would love to have some free time in which to indulge in hobbies. She blogs at the Undergraduate Science Librarian. Follow on Twitter @bonnieswoger.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Uncle.Al 11:00 am 12/12/2013

    Galilei, Galileo. “Discorsi e Dimostrazioni Matematiche Intorno a Due Nuove Scienze” (Appresso gli Elsevirii, Leida: 1638)

    It required big brass clangers to do that. 375 years later, Elsevier is exploiting ruins.

    Link to this
  2. 2. gerbil777 11:31 am 12/12/2013

    How about cleaning up some of this vulgar language? Nobody who writes professionally should be using words like “p*** off”. Try “anger” or “upset” instead.

    Link to this
  3. 3. Chryses 7:34 pm 12/12/2013

    “Elsevier has been pissing off librarians for years …”

    While your perception of Elsevier is shared by my spouse (a medical librarian), your presentation of it is poor.

    Link to this
  4. 4. Velterop 4:37 am 12/15/2013

    Uncle.Al, the Elsevier of today has no historical connection whatsoever to the Elsevier of Gallileo’s time. At the end of the 19th century, a Dutchman called Robbers (btw, the name doesn’t mean the same in Dutch as it does in English, in case you are tempted to think ‘nominative determinism’) took the name Elsevier, complete with the logo, from the by then long defunct (ca 170 years) original Elsevier printer-publisher family firm. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/House_of_Elzevir)

    Link to this
  5. 5. Funklord 7:55 am 12/15/2013

    I won’t argue in Elsevier’s favor, but shouldn’t the same question be asked about Academia.edu and its ilk (ResearchGate)? Aren’t these for-profit companies that are actively trying to trick academics into violating copyright and putting themselves in legal jeopardy, just so they can sell more ad space and collect more information about those academics and sell it to pharma and other companies? There are plenty of ways and plenty of outlets that academics can post and repost their writing that don’t require putting oneself in potential trouble all for the benefit of the venture capitalists that own Academia.edu.

    Link to this
  6. 6. Bonnie Swoger in reply to Bonnie Swoger 9:30 am 12/16/2013

    @Funklord – I think you bring up some important points. Elsevier was legally correct, Academia.edu was encouraging folks to disregard their copyright transfer agreements, and academics did so. But the legal reality doesn’t change the public relations fiasco. Academia.edu was quite savvy about framing this issue as one of academics vs. Elsevier, easily making Elsevier out as the bad guy. They could do this largely because academics have not routinely paid attention to the rights they sign away when the sign copyright transfer agreements. Or if they paid attention, other considerations trumped their concerns. As one of the faculty members at my institution put it, “They are letting me in, why mess with that?”

    And you are definitely correct about the availability of other venues where faculty can post their papers that don’t violate the signed contract. This actually brings up interesting questions about what constitutes a faculty members “own” website. While most faculty have pages at their institutions, they are often difficult to edit and limited in capabilities (i.e. no installing wordpress, etc.). Similarly, not all institutions have an institutional repository (mine doesn’t). As more faculty build profiles in sites like Academia.edu, ResearchGate and Mendeley, I think it raises some interesting issues regarding how academics create their online identities and share the results of their work.

    Link to this

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