Opening the pod bay doors: Elsevier and the future of Open Access

Logo-ElsevierElsevier recently started offering Open Access options for most of its publications. A video highlitghts the new options authors have when they want to publish with Elsevier.

The academic world is changing fast: many new editors are joining the marketplace, and old, big publishers such as Elsevier are threatened by start ups bringing the prices down. When you publish in an academic journal, you can either submit your paper for free, to classic, reader-pays journals, like what Elsevier offers, or you can pay to submit your paper and the publisher will make it available for free online. This last option is called Open Access.

Needless to say, the Open Access movement is gaining traction, because people want more and more access to knowledge for free.

But for a very long time, Elsevier and others have been seen as being all about profits. By bundling journals, Elsevier sells top journals such as The Lancet, with other less prestigious ones (the subscription costs thousands of dollars for each journal per year). Elsevier also has a 37-40% margin, which makes people wonder, especially librarians, if it isn’t just greed that runs Elsevier.

Moreover, Elsevier’s transition to Open Access could be a very very tough sell for shareholders and employees. The Open Access options it offers are relatively high priced (between 600 and 3000$ per article), and new competitors such as PeerJ are smashing prices (PeerJ offers an unlimited lifetime publication «permit» for just 299$).

And as Elsevier is a very big company, with lots of services, employees, it doesn’t have the flexibility a young start up like PeerJ can have on prices.

So, here are some questions about the future of academic publishing: will the Open Acces movement kill Elsevier, or how will Open Access change Elsevier? Free access to knowledge will only be possible if big publishers fully embrace Open Access. Are they ready for it?

Elsevier’s stated mission is to «make genuine contributions to the science and health communities» (see the full mission statement below)

 « Elsevier is committed to making genuine contributions to the science and health communities by providing:

-World Class Information: Elsevier publishes trusted, leading-edge Scientific, Technical and Medical (STM) information – pushing the frontiers and fueling a continuous cycle of exploration, discovery and application.

-Global Dissemination: Elsevier disseminates and preserves STM literature to meet the information needs of the world’s present and future scientists and clinicians – linking thinkers with ideas.

-Innovative tools: Elsevier develops electronic tools that demonstrably improve the productivity and outcomes of those we serve – we are dedicated to helping them make a difference.

-Working Together: Elsevier works in partnership with the communities we serve to advance scholarship and improve lives. This interrelationship is expressed in our company’s Latin motto, Non Solus, “not alone”.»

But this beautiful statement has come under fire when academics around the world started boycotting Elsevier in 2012, to promote free access to knowledge, and Open Access.

Open Access, or the lack thereof, has a dramatic impact on research, says Jack Andraka, the student who invented a 99% accurate early pancreatic cancer detection test «On the positive side, I used an open access PLoS journal article to discover the biomarkers I needed to sort through and choose the one that I would use to detect pancreatic cancer. That article was a huge help!

On the negative side I would look for useful articles only to find them locked behind paywalls. I would try to figure out from the abstract if it was an article that would really help me. Sometimes I would chose incorrectly and my mom would be angry to pay for the article only to find it later in the recycling bin because it didn’t turn out to be what I needed.

I had to become really picky about what I purchased because the costs could add up very quickly.»

When confronted with the reality of paywalls, Elsevier’s VP of Global Corporate Relations Tom Reller remains very elusive: « There are a variety of public access options available today». Essentially, Elsevier proposes free access to paywalled papers for Post Docs and Developing Countries’ researchers, but nothing that could help Jack Andraka, who lives in the US.

Tom Reller from Elsevier
Tom Reller from Elsevier

Yet Elsevier is offering more and more Open Access options for its journals. As of today, Elsevier publishes 46 fully Open Access Journals, and 1,500 hybrid Open Access titles (where you can choose to publish in Open Access or not), which isn’t too bad, says a page on their website: «A lot of people might be surprised to read that we’ve offered open access options for authors for several years. The reality is that Elsevier wants to support all researchers by providing greater choice as to how and where they can publish their research.

We first started offering the option to publish open access back in 2006 in 50 hybrid open access titles. Today we have expanded the program and now give researchers the choice to publish in over 1,500 hybrid open access titles. Within these journals, we’ve published 3,286 articles and will be actively encouraging our authors to use this option». But many researchers saw more Open Access coming from Elsevier as a result of the boycott, and perhaps a kind of commercial and hypocritical move to restore its image of being a science friendly editor. Says Tom Reller: «I wouldn’t say we’re ‘jumping’ [to Open Access], I’d say we’re moving at the pace of reality, and not ideology. Which is to say we’re offering more open access options as there’s an actual demand from authors for it. I believe we have over 46 fully open access titles today, which suggests the demand is growing quite well, but the traditional reader-pays model is still the preferred choice for authors around the world.» He adds: « We don’t view Open Access as sudden, we’ve offered open access options in our journals for many years.»

Reller posted a note on Elsevier’s website last year to reflect on 2012 (the year of the boycott), saying:

«And here is where 2012 has been particularly special – and admittedly painful. The confluence of a commercial entity working with governments and academics has created tension for more than a decade. That dynamic isn’t new. What has been new is experiencing the depth of that frustration, coupled with people’s ability to express those feelings more through social media. If we had understood those factors better, perhaps we wouldn’t have supported the Research Works Act, the proposed US legislation that stimulated the expression of a good deal of discontent this year. The lesson from RWA was clear. Even when you believe an action is the principled thing to do, and you have the best intentions of serving your community, it may not be the practical thing to do. It certainly wasn’t the popular thing to do, and many of us were pleased when the company decided to change course.

The silver lining from the boycott is that we now have a much better understanding of the way our community of scientists engage, search and find support and information than ever before. We’re more connected and engaged than ever. We have conversations with people we didn’t talk with before – even those with whom we disagree. And we launched this online community of Elsevier Connect to enable us to engage with readers and bring our business to life.

Another silver lining is that we’ve been responsive. We’ve reduced prices and opened archives in the math community, more than doubled our fully open-access journals to 30, increased the number of hybrid titles we publish to 1,500 and added crucial resources to other journal titles to improve service. And there’s more to come in 2013. Think in terms of text mining, OA pricing and license terms, selective gratis access programs and other creative ideas. If you have any ideas you would like us to consider, please share them.»

But that may not be sufficient for Elsevier to evolve. First of all, Elsevier doesn’t recognize the Research Works Act as bad. Tom Reller only says it was an unpopular bill, but that it was a right one, which could make people wonder on which side of Open Access they really are. (The Research Works Act was a bill which contained some paragraphs trying to prohibit Open Access for publications financed by the federal government, thus reducing free access to academic research). And, the new scientists today were all born in the Internet Age, they want free access to information, and quick access too, and that may result in a tremendous push for Open Access, Andraka says: « I see so many young scientists pushing for open access because they are frustrated with the status quo. The Winnower, Academia.edu, Right to Research, SPARC and lots of open access groups around the world are all fighting for this to happen. People who are very involved in the movement feel positive change will occur.»

Jack Andraka (Copyright TED Inc.)
Jack Andraka (Copyright TED Inc.)

However, Andraka doesn’t see this positive change coming from big publishers: «I don’t think they are going to become totally open access. I see a model where the newest articles are behind paywalls but after 6 months or a year the articles would either be free or greatly reduced in price.». Tom Reller somewhat makes the same prediction: «More content is increasingly becoming open access, but not everywhere, and at a very gradual pace. And generally only for government funded research, and typically under embargoes of varying lengths. But there will in all likelihood remain a strong reader-pays system for many years to come.»

If a future where every publisher only works with Open Access is unlikely, where can scientists (who at the same time want to make their research available to as many people as possible and want to publish in high «Impact Factor» journals, mainly published by Elsevier and others) go to publish? The Impact Factor (IF) measures the influence of a journal. For a researcher’s career, it’s obviously good to be published in a high IF journal. Some of these journals are in Open Access (like the ones published by the Public Library of Science (PLoS), but the vast majority are available via classic, expensive subscriptions. « Scientists should definitely still attempt to publish in the high impact journals.», says Andraka, «They have to think of their careers. However it would be also a measure of the real impact of their work to have their articles be open access and for them to be able to show how many times their work has been cited or downloaded. It could be a much greater volume than what they are getting now and could really show if they were having significant impact on future researchers’ work.»

Scientists are still likely to publish in the journals that will better help advance their carreers, even if the fruits of their research aren’t accessible to everyone. And the vast majority of what has been published since the begining of the academic publishing industry and an unnegligable fraction of what will be published in the future is copyrighted (and thus, paywalled). So even if Open Access becomes the norm, how will Elsevier, which sits on an enormous amount of knowledge, make it more accessible? Apart from the programs for researchers in Developing Countries and Postdocs, Elsevier doesn’t really have a plan. Tom Reller talks about «free walk in access in many libraries, for those who come across the proverbial paywall. And you can always just email an author and ask him for a copy of their manuscript.  These options may take a little effort, but often getting something for free requires a little effort.»

So even if we can hope that in the future every paper will be distributed in Open Access, we still won’t be able to access the vast majority of the scientific litterature, and perhaps individuals and non profits fighting for FREE access to knowledge should consider this issue more thoroughly.

Back to promoting Open Access. If scientists are still favoring traditional journals, how can Open Access be promoted? As Andraka puts it, «Scientists are among the knowledge elite – the less than 1% of the world’s population who have free access to scientific knowledge through their jobs. So scientists have no good reason to promote open access. It takes energy to work for open access (which they already have) and they could use their times better to work on their own projects. It is society as a whole that suffers because of paywalls and because people in the middle and poor classes can’t have access to scientific knowledge.». Some think that because the government funds a lot of research projects, it would be a good thing if the federal government promoted Open Access. « Since much research is publicly funded through government grants it seems ridiculous that taxpayers have to not only fund the research but have to pay again to learn from it. I believe governments should provide open access to results funded by tax dollars after a waiting period.», Andraka says.

If the government were to impose Open Access for every papers coming from research it funds, which is becoming the norm now in Great Britain and in the US, and if the new generation of scientists actively pushes for Open Access, could Elsevier survive?

Bernstein Research, an investment management firm, published some reports about Elsevier’s profitability and its future. The last one, called: «Reed Elsevier: Transitioning to Open Access – Are the Cost Savings Sufficient to Protect Margins?» was published in November 2012. It estimates that a transition to Open Access would be desastrous for Elsevier’s margin (37% in 2013), with a decrease from 53 to 89 %, even if the costs of publishing would go down «deriving primarily from discontinuing physical print, the elimination of production management, and the phase out of the sales force.»

This enormous decrease in profitability isn’t as bad as it seems though. With a 53% decrease, Bernstein estimates that Elsevier would still turn a $192 million  profit, and a $46 million one with the worst case of a 89% decline in profitability. Of course it’s not as good as a $412 million  profit, but it’s not that terrible.

It’s unclear whether Elsevier’s shareholders will tolerate that, although Reller seems confident they understand well the challenges ahead (Bernstein Research proposes a progressive break-up of the company, separating academic publishing from the other activities of Reed Elsevier): « Open Access has been around for a long time, and our shareholders are highly engaged and knowledgeable about the topic. It’s not for me to speak on behalf of shareholders». Does that mean they embrace Open Access or that they are willing to fight it to preserve margins? Repeated requests to contact major shareholders were so far unsuccessful.

Andraka thinks that Elsevier could survive with a hybrid model (which is the way Elsevier is approching publishing right now) : «I think a careful business model where scientists can publish papers in peer reviewed journals and then allow open access after a period of time would work. Or gather the literature together and have an iTunes-like model where people could pay a small fee per article.». Or perhaps a «streaming» service, à la Spotify?

«I think the big publishers see that the Open Access movement is gaining popular support and that they need to be thinking of how they will have to change. They are big business though and will not just open access to journal articles out of the goodness of their hearts! A compromise will have to be made or the decisions will have to [be] taken out of their hands by a disruptive model of totally open access.»

When talking about his future work, Andraka said he’d «rather publish in an Open Access journal but if I were on a team who wanted to publish in non OA I would try to work it out to only be behind paywalls for a specified period of time»

Time will tell if Elsevier survives the new landscape of academic publishing. One thing’s sure: in order to make the scientific papers both old and new more available, scientists and Open Access advocates will have to consider new options to make paywalls disappear and to make Open Access ubiquitous. Not sure Elsevier’s 100% into this.

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