Elsevier’s first concessions to its “enablers”

In October 2001, more than 30,000 scientists signed an open letter in which they pledged to exclusively publish in, review for and serve as editors of journals that placed their contents in the –then newly launched– PubMed Central with no more than a 6 month delay. Publishers did not respond to the call, and the campaign fizzled away as very few followed through on their pledge. Things seem to be different this time around. The Gowers initiated petition to boycott Elsevier has barely reached the 7000 signatures, yet the publisher is multiplying its efforts “to make up” with its constituency.

Is it the new power of social media? Is it because the campaign has made the pages of the NY Times, the Economist, the Guardian and most of mainstream media? Was it the brilliant move to first focus on Elsevier? All this is debatable and will have to wait until the dust settles. For now, it looks like Elsevier is taking the campaign seriously and is trying to wiggle its way out of the public relations nightmare that it is currently living. What are they doing?

First, they are using the right words by claiming that “they are really committed to the broadest possible dissemination of published research.”

Second, they are saying that they were not the only “bad guys”.

“Professor Gowers’ protest is concerned with pricing of journals, the practice of offering journals in bundles and, in particular, Elsevier’s support, along with many publishers, of a set of legislation, including the Research Works Act in the US. We have attracted criticism that seems to be directed at the industry as a whole.”

Then, the usual “But I’m just a soul whose intentions are good. Oh Lord! Please don’t let me be misunderstood …” Actually, what they said is:

“We also see some arguments based on wrong or incomplete information.”

Followed by a mea culpa:

“We at Elsevier have not done a good job of communicating about what we do to meet the needs of the mathematics community and in our efforts to fully explore the possibilities and possible effects of novel publishing initiatives, we have not moved promptly and boldly enough to drive the pace of the revolution that is inevitably coming to the publishing industry.”

What had they done so far?

“On the matter of poor communication for instance, last year we introduced open archives on the Journal of Algebra and rather earlier on the journal Stochastic Processes and their Applications: all articles made freely available 4 years after publication. This is something that few mathematics publishers have been willing to undertake but we saw it as an important way both of expanding access and ensuring the widest possible dissemination of the original mathematics research.”

And according to Elsevier, who shares the blame? Those who cannot buy their bundles!

“Impatience has built up because the greater access many enjoy does not always translate to everyone having the levels of access that we all would want. For example in our discussions of the past weeks we’ve realized that some important mathematics institutes lack the access they need.”

What are their concessions for now? According to an email from Valerie Teng-Broug (Elsevier Publisher for Physics, Mathematics, Computer Science & Astronomy),

“We are therefore, and with immediate effect, expanding our open archives offering, making the archives of the following journals freely available four years after publication:

Advances in Mathematics, Journal of Combinatorial Theory A, Journal of Combinatorial Theory B, Journal of Number Theory, Annals of Pure and Applied Logic, Differential Geometry and its Applications, European Journal of Combinatorics, Finite Fields and their Applications, Journal of Algebra (already in place), Journal of Functional Analysis, Journal of Pure and Applied Algebra, Linear Algebra and its Applications, Topology and its Applications.”

Good start, as she assures us,

“We do not regard this as the end of our discussion with mathematicians but rather the continuation of our efforts to ensure the widest dissemination of the literature. We will next meet with the Editors of our journals, to address some of the issues which have arisen in this very intensive period.”

Hurry up before they all resign.

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6 Responses to Elsevier’s first concessions to its “enablers”

  1. Yemon Choi says:

    On reading this, I rushed to try and acquire a PDF of a paper of Lohoue from 1980 (Advances). However, according to this webpage, the archives only go back to certain dates. Perhaps their justification/excuse is that older volumes of journals such as Advances and JPAA have different copyright agreements, from the days when Academic Press were the publishers?

    Nevertheless: a welcome development, whatever the (ulterior) motives.

  2. Many years ago my wife and I were at a street market in a country where haggling is normal. The vendor sized my wife up (poorly as it turns out; maybe he was looking at me instead of her) and suggested a price for his wares. My wife judged the price to be so far beyond what was reasonable that she chose not to bargain and began to walk away. The vendor called after her, quoting a lower price. When she still didn’t respond, he shouted, “Hey lady! For you — special price!” and dropped the price considerably.

    It’s striking that telecom companies in North America behave just like street vendors in third world countries. When your contract expires and you switch companies, you are lured back with sweetheart deals. Why aren’t you offered such a good deal while you were a customer; were you not a valued customer? I can’t help thinking about the street vendors in such situations. The difference is that the behaviour of street vendors is completely forgivable, because they are desperately poor; the telecom companies are quite the opposite.

    Which brings us to Elsevier and their ilk. They are even worse, because their wares have already been paid for once by we who wish to buy them. “I understand that you and your colleagues have made our wares with your own hard work, given them to us for free (sometimes you have even paid us!), and that citizens have supported your work with their taxes. And I realize that we have been selling your own work back to you at highly inflated prices, which have increased out of all proportion, thanks to our own greed. But, hey lady! How about if we let you have your work back for free after only four years?”

  3. Tom Leinster says:

    Nassif, who was this email from Valerie Teng-Broug sent to? Just you? And where are the earlier passages quoted from? It’s not the page you linked to.

    (I’m also struck by the set of journals mentioned in Teng-Broug’s mail: it has much in common with the set of journals mentioned in recent conversations on Gowers’s blog. But perhaps that’s coincidence rather than cynical manoeuvring.)

  4. Pingback: Margin Notes | Elsevier journal boycott: first skirmish in a longer battle | University Affairs

  5. Jo-Anne says:

    It is really interesting to see Elsevier offer concessions and isn’t it nice that they “will create a scientific council for mathematics, to ensure that we are working in tandem with the mathematics community to address feedback and to give greater control and transparency to the community and we will engage actively with leaders in a number of countries to ensure that our mathematics program is meeting the needs of the community, globally and locally.” But why just mathematics what about life sciences, social sciences, humanities–librarianship? I would refer you to Heather Morrison’s blog entry “Elsevier numbers illustrate – once again – just how much more sense open access makes!” http://poeticeconomics.blogspot.com/2012/02/elsevier-numbers-illustrate-once-again.html where as Heather explains when Elsevier commits to lowering the costs of articles in its mathematics journals to at or below $11 US per article this seems pretty reasonable given that this is just over a quarter of what Elsevier currently charges. However, she states “If every research library in North America were to purchase a copy of an Elsevier article at $11, this would add up to $1,386 – more than it would cost to pay the PLoS ONE article processing fee for full open access to everyone, everywhere.” Hopefully the ardent work of mathematicians will result in pressuring Elsevier and perhaps even dismantling the corporate hold on scholarship and mean that Open Access may become a reality. I take heart in the fact that
    MIT has adopted a Faculty Open Access Policy
    “Policy adopted by unanimous vote of the faculty on 3/18/2009:
    The Faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is committed to disseminating the fruits of its research and scholarship as widely as possible. In keeping with that commitment, the Faculty adopts the following policy: Each Faculty member grants to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology nonexclusive permission to make available his or her scholarly articles and to exercise the copyright in those articles for the purpose of open dissemination. In legal terms, each Faculty member grants to MIT a nonexclusive, irrevocable, paid-up, worldwide license to exercise any and all rights under copyright relating to each of his or her scholarly articles, in any medium, provided that the articles are not sold for a profit, and to authorize others to do the same. The policy will apply to all scholarly articles written while the person is a member of the Faculty except for any articles completed before the adoption of this policy and any articles for which the Faculty member entered into an incompatible licensing or assignment agreement before the adoption of this policy. The Provost or Provost’s designate will waive application of the policy for a particular article upon written notification by the author, who informs MIT of the reason.”

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