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 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 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.