When interests collide: Elsevier start threatening the scholars who publish with them if they post copies online

An interesting story which hasn’t really reached critical mass was mentioned to me by a correspondent this morning.  Via Wired I read:

Elsevier clamps down on academics posting their own papers online

… Guy Leonard, a research fellow at the University of Exeter, posted a screengrab of the message, which said: “Academia.edu is committed to enabling the transition to a world where there is open access to academic literature. Elsevier takes a different view and is currently upping the ante in its opposition of academics sharing their own papers online.”

Since then, Elsevier has also targeted academics at the University of Calgary who had posted their research papers on publicly accessible university web pages. “In going after the University of Calgary, Elsevier have declared their position as unrepentant enemies of science,” said an outraged palaeontologist Mike Taylor, from Bristol University on his blog.

Taylor also urged people to sign the Cost of Knowledge declaration, a protest by academics against the business practices of Elsevier. So far, more than 14,000 researchers have pledged to refrain from publishing, refereeing or editorial work in Elsevier’s journals. The declaration argues that Elsevier charges “exorbitantly high prices” for subscriptions to individual journals and forces libraries to buy large, expensive bundles.

Techcrunch add (emphasis mine):

Reed Elsevier, which owns many of the most prestigious research journals in the world, has been sending mass research takedown notices to everyone from startups like Academia.edu to individual researchers and universities. They brought in about $1.65 billion in scientific and medical research revenue in the first half of this year, through journals like the Lancet and Cell.

For years, they’ve operated a business model where academics provide their research for free and give journals publishing rights to the final versions of their articles in exchange for distribution in prestigious journals. Sometimes academics have quietly published their research on their own personal web sites or new emerging, social networking platforms like ResearchGate or Academia.edu. They’ve done this without feeling too much blowback from the publisher.

But now Reed Elsevier is cracking down on this…

This is an interesting case.  This is the point of impact, the point where the arrival of the internet has struck academic publishing.  This is the point at which the interests of Elsevier (and indeed many other academic publishers) and the interests of the public are now clearly and diametrically opposed to each other.

The public fund the world of scholarship through taxes or private donations.  The scholars’ careers depend on formal publication.  They give the copyright on their articles to journal publishers like Elsevier in return for the kudos of publication.  Elsevier get scholars to donate their time to run the journals.  Elsevier pay for the output to be printed (not an expensive process) and sell the results to university libraries.  The university libraries are also funded by the public taxes.  But this closed system makes nothing visible to the public.  Most of these articles are read hardly at all by anyone.

In consequence, academics have started to place drafts of their work online.  The collaborative effect of the internet benefits everyone.  Academics get fan mail from non-academics.  People discover each other.  It works for everyone … except Elsevier, who worry that nobody will pay them to publish the stuff in journals.  So they would like to shut it down, unless they can get money from it.

The publishing lobby has the keys to legislators’ tables and wallets, and consequently to their hearts.  In Germany the government has basically acted as the stooge for every kind of stupid and short-sighted greediness by that industry.  In consequence the German internet is virtually useless.  It would be a brave man who could predict that, in the USA, the ruling class will rise above such bribes and promote the public interest.  They have shown no urge to restrain the ever-extending term of copyright.

But at the same time, we have come at last to the crossroads.  Elsevier is now unnecessary.  It really is.  All that is needed is for the academics who do the work of editing journals to move away.  Printing can be done easily on Lulu.com, if need be.  The public interest is now served definitely by getting rid of the academic publishers.

A little bit of social engineering is required here.  The skills of a politician are what is needed.

Of course if we got rid of Elsevier, the cost of running universities would fall.  Budgets could be cut.

That sounds like something that could be sold to politicians in the current climate.