Disruptive forces in the “staggeringly profitable” business of academic publishing

There is an excellent long read in today’s Guardian: Is the staggeringly profitable business of scientific publishing bad for science?

Learn how academic publishing became so profitable, the rapid increase in library subscription costs (the serials crisis) and the start of Big Deals, and the development of open access as an alternative to subscription publishing (see also my other posts on open access).

Sci-Hub, a different way of disrupting the subscription and paywall model, is in the news at the moment: US court grants Elsevier millions in damages from Sci-Hub – though it’s far from clear if or when they may receive any of it:

Meanwhile, Finnish researchers have launched a boycott against Elsevier: “The group behind Tiedonhinta.fi statement urges researchers to refrain from peer review and editorial duties for journals owned by publishing giant Elsevier.  The boycott is launched on a new website nodealnoreview.org. The site welcomes also signatures from international colleagues all around the world, who are worried about cost of and access to research literature in their own countries.”

Reblogged: Time for Elsexit?

Earlier this week, Timothy Gowers posted “Time for Elsexit?” about the new Elsevier deal negotiated with Jisc.  It’s not often that I can cater for my readers interested in Brexit and scholarly publishing simultaneously (enjoy!).  I found the parallels with Brexit interesting, and it’s an excellent summary of the problems that persist in the new deal.

Here is some background to the situation

  • Elsevier is one of the world’s major providers of scientific, technical, and medical information.
  • ScienceDirect is their main platform (website), which provides subscription-based access to a large database of articles and other research. Despite the name, it covers a wide range of subject areas.
  • Jisc Collections is the negotiation and licensing service that supports the procurement of digital content for higher education and research institutions in the UK.
  • A Big Deal is a subscription to most of a publisher’s content as a package, rather than having subscriptions to individual journals.  Publishers often swap titles in and out of the package.
  • Historic spend refers to a figure for each university, established at the point when Big Deals were launched (circa 1997).  Elsevier’s contract requires each subscribing university to match or exceed their historic spend, thus controlling cancellations, as cancellations of individual title subscriptions do not result in lower subscription fees.
  • Why the secrecy? Mike Taylor explains: “when negotiating contracts with libraries, publishers often insist on confidentiality clauses — so that librarians are not allowed to disclose how much they are paying. The result is an opaque market with no downward pressure on prices, hence the current outrageously high prices, which are rising much more quickly than inflation even as publishers’ costs shrink due to the transition to electronic publishing.”

Further reading

  • Serials crisis – the chronic subscription cost increases of many serial publications such as scholarly journals
  • The Cost of Knowledge – a protest by academics against the business practices of academic journal publisher Elsevier
  • Elsevier journals — some facts – including the following questions: How willing would researchers be to do without the services provided by Elsevier?  How easy is it on average to find on the web copies of Elsevier articles that can be read legally and free of charge?  To what extent are libraries actually suffering as a result of high journal prices?  What effect are Elsevier’s Gold Open Access articles having on their subscription prices?  How much are our universities paying for Elsevier journals?

Update: Martin Paul Eve, Jonathan Tennant, and Stuart Lawson have referred Elsevier/RELX to the Competition and Markets Authority on the grounds of abuse of a dominant market position, and problems in a market sector.

Megajournals and how to spot them in the wild

The first megajournal, PLOS One, launched in 2006.  Since then, the presence of megajournals in the Open Access (OA) landscape is growing, and it’s increasingly important to know how megajournals differ from traditional journals:

  • when considering a paper for publication, peer-reviewers consider only whether it is technically sound, whereas traditional peer-review also has requirements for novelty, importance, or interest to a particular community
  • megajournals accept papers from a broad range of subjects (look out for “full spectrum”, “all areas”, “multidisciplinary”)
  • many megajournals’ funding model is to charge fees for publication – article processing charges (APCs) – and they typically charge lower APCs than traditional (hybrid) journals (average APC for full OA journal £1,354 compared with £1,882 for hybrid – Jisc data from 2014-15)

These factors lower the bar for publication and may make these journals more attractive places for researchers to publish.  You can imagine the types of arguments that ensue about whether this sets the bar too low, or helps researchers with less funding to get published; and whether the different requirements at the peer review stage allow megajournals to be flooded with poorer-quality/lower-value articles or whether it breaks the stranglehold of academic hierarchies on what counts as valid research…

If megajournals don’t limit the number of articles in each issue, there is also the potential conflict of interest arising from money to be made from every article accepted for publication.  Traditional journals usually have a limit, which (hopefully) means their APC income generated from each issue published is constant, and papers submitted are judged purely on their own merits (but what happens if the supply of high-quality papers is greater than the journal can publish?).

Some things to consider:

  • The platform (or publisher’s name) has long been considered a proxy for the quality of the research it publishes.  To what extent is this still the case?
  • How are new publications to prove their worth?  To what extent are predatory publishing practices found?
  • How are we to assess the trustworthiness of a journal?  The reputation of the peer reviewers is often the best guide, and this requires good knowledge of the field and the people involved.  This is where discussions with academics in each department are essential in establishing the value of a megajournal to a given subject area.

Think.Check.Submit. is a campaign to help researchers identify trusted journals for their research – it’s a checklist researchers can use to assess the credentials of a journal or publisher.  It has some useful questions to use as a starting point for discussions with academics about judging journal quality.

Further reading

Perspectives on the Elsevier takeover of Mendeley

Quotations are cherry-picked to represent the points I found most interesting – please follow the links to each post to see each in its original context.

Elsevier’s press release

“Mendeley is an innovative company with great culture, talent and collaborative spirit, and we will keep it that way,” said Olivier Dumon, Managing Director of Academic and Government Research Markets at Elsevier. “Not only that, but together we intend to scale and evolve Mendeley in ways that benefit the entire research community. We will provide greater access to content, data, and analytics tools to Mendeley’s users and its flourishing third-party app ecosystem, all of which will enable us to increase both Elsevier’s and Mendeley’s engagement with researchers.”

Announcement on the Mendeley blog

Of course, we are aware that – especially in the past year – the academic community has criticized Elsevier for some of its policies and positions. Our own relationship with Elsevier has been conflicted at times. Elsevier is a multi-faceted company with over 7000 employees, so it is impossible to put them into a single box. We were being challenged by some parts of the organization over whether we intended to undermine journal publishers (which was never the case), while other parts of the organization were building successful working relationships with us and even helped to promote Mendeley.

See also this follow-up post: Mendeley and Elsevier – here’s more info

A Matter of Perspective — Elsevier Acquires Mendeley . . . or, Mendeley Sells Itself to Elsevier from Scholarly Kitchen

Mendeley’s future at Elsevier seems to be a mix of “remain a standalone platform, building on what people know and like” and “integrated more deeply with Elsevier’s sales and technology strategies.” There seem to be some obvious paths for Mendeley at Elsevier, as a discovery tool for readers in Science Direct or as an almetrics tool built into Scopus. In a blog post published last night, Mendeley has this cryptic description of its role at Elsevier:

“Mendeley will become Elsevier’s central workflow, collaboration, and networking platform, while we continue on our mission of making science more open and collaborative.”

So perhaps Scopus and Science Direct are about to be subsumed by Mendeley. 

Comment on this post by Rick Anderson:

Personally, I’d like to see our community stop using the word “sharing” when what we actually mean is “copying.” The word “sharing” invokes a halo effect (just as the word “piracy” does the opposite), whereas “copying” has the twin virtues of accuracy and political neutrality. It seems to me that the more we call this behavior what it is, the more likely it is that we’ll be able to have rational conversations about it.

The Story Behind the Elsevier Purchase of Mendeley – Interview with Co-founder Victor Henning from mmit blog

The truth is that no one really knows what impact this will have on the open access and altmetrics movements just yet. In addition how it may impact digital copyright, as many saw Mendeley as not only the iTunes of Reference Management, but also the Napster.

A fiery response to the news: why I’m quitting Mendeley (and why my employer has nothing to do with it)

Elsevier’s practices make me deeply deeply angry. While academic publishing as a whole is pretty flawed, Elsevier takes the most insidious practices further at each and every turn, always at the expense of those of us who are trying to produce, publish, and distribute research. Their prices are astronomical, bankrupting libraries and siloing knowledge for private profit off of free labor.

Read the comments too!

On Twitter, some users signalled their intention to delete their Mendeley accounts using the hashtag #mendelete.  Jason B. Colditz sums it up nicely: Word of the day: “mendelete”.

All in all, yet another a tale about a small independent being bought out by a big multinational – but with so many additional layers about data, privacy, piracy, access, Open Access, subscriptions, licences… It will be interesting to see whether the initial angry response from many Mendeley fans has any effect in the longer term.