An Open Letter.
A little background
As anyone who is reading this probably already knows, the publishing giant Elsevier has recently placed itself at the center of a shitstorm of animosity from the research community, thanks in part to its vocal (and financial) support of the Research Works Act (RWA). Currently, the National Institutes of Health mandate that the research products they fund with tax dollars must be made freely available to the public; the RWA would make such mandates illegal, enabling Elsevier to keep research papers resulting from taxpayer-funded research behind paywalls for as long as they like. There’s some douchey attempted subterfuge in the language of the bill about not locking up the research results themselves, but make no mistake: research papers are our output as researchers, and they are what makes up the scientific literature. While manipulating the legislative process for financial gain would be galling by itself, Elsevier has a long history of douchey behavior towards the academic community, and the RWA is really just the latest straw on the camel’s back.
My (very small) part in this story started a little over a week ago, when I started a parody Twitter account called “@FakeElsevier“. Since then, I’ve been posting as much Elsevier-related satire as I can manage in my free time, 140 characters at a time. It’s been carthartic for me to inject a tiny bit of humor into an otherwise frustrating and seemingly impossible situation, and the account has gotten much more play on the internet than I was expecting. It seems that others in the academic community want to laugh about this too, even if the jokes all have the flavor of gallows humor.
I now feel compelled to add my two cents in a serious way. It has become clear to me that Elsevier, and its employees, don’t understand what exactly is pissing off everyone in the research community. What follows is a not-in-character, as-concise-as-I-can-make-it, get-straight-to-the-point statement of what I see as our grievances. Total seriousness. No jokes for the rest of this post. This is the “real” me talking.
And despite my Twitter satire, I do believe that the vast majority of Elsevier employees are not personally evil, naive, or irrational, and that they in fact genuinely want to help make the world a better place. Indeed, if you joined Elsevier because you wanted to help disseminate knowledge and advance the human condition, consider the rest of this letter addressed directly to you.
It’s not about money and never has been
I get the impression that the PR people at Elsevier would love to reduce the debate to something so simple. Through this lens, they see scientists as being irrational, or naive to the realities of the economics of publishing. Maybe there are some out there who really believe that publishing has no costs associated with it, but I think the majority do understand that even if we are doing all of the writing and reviewing, inviting/hounding reviewers and building/maintaining websites costs real money. We could debate about what exact costs are reasonable, and we could argue about how much of the process is actually done by scientists themselves, but doing so would detract from the real point:
As far as we are concerned, publishers have ONE JOB: disseminating the results of our work to the widest possible audience.
Helping us manage anonymous peer review by our colleagues, and “credentialing” papers with respect to their importance are — for better or worse — parts of this process, but the core thing that we need from publishers is the distribution of our work. Back in the days before the internet, the need to oursource distribution was painfully obvious, since physical paper journals needed to be carted around the planet in order to distribute our work to colleagues. Given the physicality of distribution, centralized subscription-based pricing even made good sense, since receiving institutions needed libraries and librarians to store and catalog the physical copies, and the storage and purchasing made sense as two sides of the same coin. However, in the internet age, the idea that you would restrict access to anyone seems utterly asinine. Let me say it in bold, just to be clear:
In the internet age, Elsevier is doing an unbelievably shitty job of accomplishing its ONE AND ONLY PURPOSE: to distribute our work as broadly as possible
See now why we, as customers, are unhappy? You’re distributing our work to a really small audience, and you’re making even that access irritating and painful. Don’t patronize us by telling us how you are “committed to universal access”. If you were genuinely committed to universal access, you’d make things universally accessible. Your marginal distribution cost is effectively zero, so why not act like it? Along the way, you’ve obscured the true flows of money both on the author-side and the subscriber-side, and you’ve set up an unwholesome set of incentives that play to scientists’ worst impulses (and to your benefit). Researchers at big institutions can afford to be apathetic about the plight of those at smaller ones, because they can afford the enormous subscription fees that block access to research, and individual researchers have a financial incentive to choose cheaper closed-access options, even when open access options are theoretically available. Such decisions are in turn driven by scientists’ limited budgets and their need to fill their CVs in order to get promoted or get funding. The result is a fractured, Balkanized literature, riddled with paywalls. Make no mistake, scientists themselves are complicit in contributing this mess because of these individual incentives, even if they are aware of the negative system effects. And this is why funding agencies — whose goal is making sure taxpayers see the benefits of the work they fund — have stepped in to demand that scientists and publishers use their money appropriately. Elsevier’s attempts to subvert that through lobbying… again, see why we’re mad?
“BUT THE COSTS! HOW WILL WE SUPPORT THE COSTS?” you cry. We’ll leave aside, for a moment, that you pull down an astonishing-in-any-industry, surely-ripe-for-disruption 36% profit margin. The obvious (to me at least) solution is that all work needs to be made available under a true open access license (think Creative Commons BY), so that anyone can access it, and funding agencies need to shoulder the costs of doing so in a much less circuitous way. This would be a radical suggestion, except for the fact that the Public Library of Science (PLoS) was founded under these exact assumptions years ago and is making this model work, RIGHT NOW. Authors pay some $1.5-2.5k or so to cover the costs of managing peer review and making the paper available (usually this comes of out of grant funds and is comparable to existing page/figure charges at the likes of Elsevier), and in return, PLoS does an amazing job of making the work available to anyone with an internet connection. If authors cannot afford the fees, they are waived. PLoS seems to understand its one job, and it behaves accordingly, to the benefit of all.
“BUT THE COSTS! We would be forced to make everyone pay $3k for the ‘sponsored article’ option in order to maintain business as usual!” Indeed, if you feel your added value is worth $3k, so be it. It would be more obvious to everyone that Elsevier is a pricey option (e.g. relative to the much cheaper PLoS), and yes, some less well-funded labs might not be able to afford to publish in Elsevier journals if you were unwilling to waive the fees as PLoS does. If authors decide that the clout of the journals Elsevier has launched or acquired is worth the extra money, then so be it; this would be a straightforward market force. However, the status quo is intolerable from any reasonable perspective: if you lock away large swathes of the literature such that many institutions (not to mention the public) can’t even ACCESS it… that goes against everything that science is about. And it serves me as your customer very poorly. Remember, your ONE job, that I am counting on you to help me with, is to make my research available. If you fail in this job and subvert the scientific literature with self-serving pay-walls, don’t be surprised that we organize against you. Don’t be surprised if we call Elsevier a enemy of science, or a parasite on the process of scientific and medical research. We have devoted our lives to science, and we care about it, and you are doing the one thing that threatens its integrity most: locking it up.
However, bear in mind that we and our boycotts are the least of your troubles…
Adapt, or be disintermediated
A confession: honestly, I’d be perfectly happy to see Elsevier go out of business. As I mentioned above, Elsevier has done many diverse, arguably unforgivable things that damage the integrity of Science. Really bad things. Bad. Baaad. But I also see that Science changes slowly, and I would also accept a world where Elsevier changes and thrives.
Here’s some free advice. Scientists are accustomed to holding none of the cards, and we are correspondingly timid in our actions, as a group. Funding agencies, on the other hand, DO hold all of the cards, and they know it. For those that crow that government shouldn’t interfere with publishing business models, know that no one needs to legislate your business model to kill your business. You see, funding agencies are perfectly happy telling us scientists what to do. If they told us to jump up and down and bark like a seal as a condition of getting an NIH R01 or an NSF CAREER award, we’d probably do it. They already place all kinds of conditions, in excruciating detail, on how we spend and account for our spending of taxpayer money. Do not for a moment think that they cannot command us to only publish in journals that are open access. We would be compelled to obey, and we’d do it with a smile. This wouldn’t so much be them dictating your business model, as mooting it. Whether you acknowledge it or not, you are a effectively a government subcontractor, that takes tax-payer money to provide a distribution service for government-funded research. The government and taxpayers derive no value from you, a middle man, making outrageous demands on the rights to the work that you are contracted to distribute.
And here’s a head-spinner: what if Elsevier, like most other successful and admired businesses on the planet, were actually focused on serving its customers? You’d work with authors to make their work more accessible, not less. Why can’t my colleagues read my papers and have an awesome experience on any device — epub, Kindle, smartphone, tablet? Have you seen the buzz surrounding textbooks with iBooks Author? Why aren’t you working with me to make my content more interactive, dynamic, and informative? Why aren’t you working with me to openly distribute code and data that would make the scientific process more reproducible. Why aren’t you focusing on the few journals you own that make a serious contribution instead of the panoply of disreputable crap-journals you also churn out. Invest in things that make your value obvious, not in locking things up and strong-arming the government into supporting your shitty pre-existing business model.
Look, some of you Elsevier employees seem like genuinely nice people. I’m sure you love your families, and volunteer in your communities, and wake up everyone morning thinking about you can help distribute the world’s information better. But if this is what you wake up believing you will do, please know that the facts are very different. Somewhere there is a cancer patient trying to learn about her disease, who can’t because of paywalls everywhere (I know, because I have abused my institutional privileges to help her). Somewhere there is a journalist trying to make sense of the literature, and a teacher trying to teach a precocious student who just might grow up to do something great. Somewhere there is a scientist trying to do his job, trying find out what’s been done before, so that he can be inspired and so he can push the envelope (or at least not repeat an experiment that’s been done already, at great expense). Even people who work at extremely well-funded institutions are weighed down and made less effective a by daily litany of irritations and inconveniences imposed by your model. You have one job, and whatever goal you think you’re achieving, the structure of your company and how it makes money is fucking that up, making it harder for all of us to do our jobs and make the world a better place. The alternatives to your model already exist (and are gaining traction), and I suspect that it is only a matter of time before funding agencies flex their muscles accordingly. FRPAA is just the first salvo.
Irrespective of what your current leadership says or does, you, the employees of Elsevier, have a right to ask whether your company is actually doing the things it purports to do. If all you care about is making profit for your shareholders, then fine, move along and support the status quo if you can. But if you work for Elsevier because you want to do something good for the world, know that you have the power to make things better. Companies are their people, and the future is coming.
If you agree with any part of what I’ve said above, ask your colleagues and your boss how what you’re doing is part of a solution and not part of the same old problem. Email your CEO, and talk to senior management. A person named Liz Smith has seemed willing to engage on issues (on Twitter, at least) and she is apparently your VP of Internal Communications. She might be a good person to start with. If you’re not satisfied with the answers that these people give you, ask yourself whether you should continue working for firm that is going to be disrupted if it doesn’t change course.
It’s your move.