Sunday, June 10, 2012

What is up with Elsevier?

Whether you like it or not, Elsevier matters in the dissemination of research in Economics. By far the largest player in the field, it enjoys considerable market power (and a profit margin around 30% that comes with it). And even though journals are not at the frontier of research in Economics, it still matters what happens at Elsevier because it controls so many of the top field journals.

According to its web page on the global dissemination of research, Elsevier states:
We recognise that access to quality research is vital to the scientific community and beyond. For us this means providing support and the latest tools to maintain the quality and integrity of published scientific literature, achieving the widest dissemination of content, and embracing the opportunities of open access. We will continue to identify access gaps, and work towards ensuring that everyone has access to quality scientific content anytime, anywhere.

These are all nice words, but this is not all what Elsevier practices. First of all, all of the Economics content of Elsevier is gated, and academic libraries have to pay through the nose to let faculty access the content, including their own works. Even errata and retraction notices are gated. There is no open access journal in Economics, and even in other fields where it is available, the cost is prohibitive (usually US$3000, even more with color charges!), which cannot be justified in any reasonable way by hosting costs. Indeed, Elsevier spends considerable resources trying to keep potential readers away, by gating the material for the general public and making it difficult for individuals to buy subscriptions, especially for hard copies. All this management of subscriptions and filtering of web traffic would disappear with open access, making it much cheaper, not more expensive.

But this is not an issue only with Elsevier (Springer is much worse in this respect). Elsevier, with its market power is trying to kill any competition and any initiative that tries to open up the dissemination of research. For example, it was a huge backer of the Research Works Act in the US, which would have prohibited mandates that publicly funded research should be available in open-access repositories. Of course this generated a huge outcry from the scientific community (you know, the one that Elsevier claims to serve) and lead to a call for a boycott. This seems to have been successful, as Elsevier reversed its stance, thereby killing the bill.

Unfortunately, few economists seem to have participated in the boycott, which is probably why Elsevier continues to flaunt the research community with no remorse. For example, it has not updated the listings of its journals for over a year in RePEc, and still vigorously refuses to let RePEc perform citation analysis on its contents. Repeated attempts to get a reaction from Elsevier have unsuccessful from my part. My suspicion is that RePEc is threatening some of the products that Elsevier is pushing (Sciverse, Scopus), and the interest of the research community becomes second fiddle. From what hear, people are deserting the Economics desk at Elsevier, starting with its head, which makes you wonder who is in charge of "the widest dissemination of content."

To understand further what a fine business Elsevier is, here are some of my previous posts:
The evil empire strikes again
The evil empire strikes again (II)
Copyright and the lack of competition in academic publishing
Why I am boycotting Elsevier


mOOm said...

On the other hand, Elsevier lets authors post a final copy of their paper on the web. And they do allow access at low cost to members of academic societies whose journals are published by Elsevier. So I really don't get all this anger directed at this company. Yes, I'm an associate editor of an Elsevier journal but these are just objective facts.

Economic Logician said...

Virtually all publishers have similar practices, nothing unusual here. But Elsevier tried to make this illegal.

Anonymous said...

One minor point. There is at least one open-access journal in economics but it hasn't caught on in mainstream American circles:

Platforms do exist, but the challenge is to maintain some version of quality control.

Kansan said...

There is no reason that OA journals would face different issues from gated journals in terms of quality. They are younger, thus obviously less established.

Economic Logician said...

I finally got a reply from Elsevier, which seems to be just a standard answer template:

Dear Customer,

This is just a short note to inform you that we are aware that RePEc is
not up to date on Elsevier publications.
We are experiencing some technical problems and hope to have these
solved shortly. We apologize for the inconvenience.

Kind regards,
Elsevier - RePEc

What is worse? Unwillingness or technical incompetence?

Christian Zimmermann said...

Elsevier has indeed "technical difficulties." RePEc volunteers are currently working on possibly getting a metadata feed to operate from a different source. This source would also provide references for citation analysis.

RePEc volunteer time should not be devoted to accommodate commercial publishers. But given the market position of Elsevier, it turns out to be inevitable.

Anonymous said...

Re: m00n "they do allow access at low cost to members of academic societies whose journals are published by Elsevier."

What's the relevance of this? What percent of the adult population is is a member of an academic society whose journals are published by Elsevier? The government funds most research in the US. Most of the rest is funded by undergraduate tuition dollars. University libraries and the gov't itself shouldn't then be gouged.

What is Elsevier's value added here? They are just pure rent-seekers. The fact authors are allowed to post their own work doesn't change things for me.

Anonymous said...

m00n: Just curious, how much does Elsevier pay you to be an associate editor? I bet it's chickenfeed compared to the profits...