Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
ISSN 1534-0937
Libraries · Policy · Technology · Media

Selection from Cites & Insights 12, Number 12: December 2012


The Rapid Rout of RWA

Seven weeks—from January 5, 2012 to February 27, 2012. That’s all it took to get from AAP/PSP endorsing HR 3699, the Research Works Act, to Elsevier withdrawing its support and the bill disappearing. By today’s legislative standards, it was all over before it started and scarcely worthy of a story here (except maybe a paragraph in The Back).

But it’s not that simple, and I’d like to believe it’s not really over—that this rapid rout is one in a series of events that will eventually change the landscape of scholarly publishing for the better. That makes the story worth telling. Well, that and my personal sense that it leads into a story that’s not directly related but has similar resonances. More in the next essay.

As usual, the organization of this discussion is mostly chronological, and since I wasn’t personally involved in the rout, it’s all second-hand.

The Beginnings

Darrell E. Issa (a California Republican) introduced the Research Works Act on December 16, 2011. (He found a New York Democrat to cosponsor the bill.) Here’s the full text:


To ensure the continued publication and integrity of peer-reviewed research works by the private sector.

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled,


This Act may be cited as the `Research Works Act’.


No Federal agency may adopt, implement, maintain, continue, or otherwise engage in any policy, program, or other activity that--

(1) causes, permits, or authorizes network dissemination of any private-sector research work without the prior consent of the publisher of such work; or

(2) requires that any actual or prospective author, or the employer of such an actual or prospective author, assent to network dissemination of a private-sector research work.


In this Act:

(1) AUTHOR- The term `author’ means a person who writes a private-sector research work. Such term does not include an officer or employee of the United States Government acting in the regular course of his or her duties.

(2) NETWORK DISSEMINATION- The term `network dissemination’ means distributing, making available, or otherwise offering or disseminating a private-sector research work through the Internet or by a closed, limited, or other digital or electronic network or arrangement.

(3) PRIVATE-SECTOR RESEARCH WORK- The term `private-sector research work’ means an article intended to be published in a scholarly or scientific publication, or any version of such an article, that is not a work of the United States Government (as defined in section 101 of title 17, United States Code), describing or interpreting research funded in whole or in part by a Federal agency and to which a commercial or nonprofit publisher has made or has entered into an arrangement to make a value-added contribution, including peer review or editing. Such term does not include progress reports or raw data outputs routinely required to be created for and submitted directly to a funding agency in the course of research.

You say the text doesn’t seem to have much to do with the supposed intent (the first sentence)? You’re right. It has nothing to do with peer review and “private sector” refers to publishers, not researchers, since this would apply to all researchers who aren’t Federal employees working in Federal government labs. And, of course, it’s all about government-funded research, whether carried out by employees of public institutions (e.g., the University of California) or not—as long as they submit articles to publishers.

The bill is a flat-out attack on the NIH mandate (for green OA to NIH-funded articles) and an attempt to prevent other mandates to make government-supported research available to the public. It’s a deliberate attempt to kill OA except on publishers’ terms.

The bill was introduced on December 16, 2011, just in time for the holiday season. The first real notice of it was on January 5, 2012:

Science-Journal Publishers Take Fight Against Open-Access Policies to Congress

That’s the headline for Paul Basken’s January 5, 2012 item in “The Ticker” at The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Basken gets the real import of the bill right off the bat. The one-paragraph item is about the Association of American Publishers Professional and Scholarly Publishing Division (AAP/PSP) endorsing the bill. He calls AAP “the main lobby group representing book publishers.” He links to the endorsement (which was in late December 2011), which has its own spin on the legislation:

The legislation is aimed at preventing regulatory interference with private-sector research publishers in the production, peer review and publication of scientific, medical, technical, humanities, legal and scholarly journal articles. This sector represents over 1.3 million articles published annually which report on, analyze and interpret original research; more than 30,000 U.S. workers; and millions of dollars invested by publishers in staff, editorial, technological, capital and operational funding of independent peer review by specialized experts. North American-based science journal publishers alone account for 45% of all peer-reviewed papers published annually for researchers worldwide.

Ah, but it’s really all about peer review:

“The professional and scholarly publishing community thanks Representatives Issa and Maloney for supporting their significant investments that fund innovations and enable the essential peer-review process maintaining the high standards of U.S. scientific research,” said Tom Allen, President and CEO, Association of American Publishers.

Carefully worded, that: Allen doesn’t actually say STM publishers fund peer review, since nearly all peer review is done for free. There’s more to AAP/PSP’s press release, and it’s interesting reading, including the standard answer to access questions:

Journal articles are widely available in major academic centers, public libraries, universities, interlibrary loan programs and online databases. Many academic, professional and business organizations provide staffs and members with access to such content.

Can’t read a scientific article? Go to your public library: Don’t they all subscribe to the major STM databases?

The brief item drew 19 comments, including this gem from “2202476” (excerpted):

So the government pays for the research. The researchers do all the work. Other researchers do the peer review. And the publishers make a “value-added contribution” which apparently trumps all that has gone an before. Unbelievable. Have we entered the Twilight Zone?

Another commenter noted that an Elsevier-backed PAC has funded the election campaign of the Democrat cosponsor and to some extent Issa.

Elsevier-funded NY Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney Wants to Deny Americans Access to Taxpayer Funded Research

That lengthy title appears over Michael Eisen’s January 5, 2012 post at it is NOT junk. He notes the NIH policy, which he says was enacted “under bipartisan pressure from Congress to ensure that all Americans would be able to access the results of taxpayer-funded biomedical research” and that the policy has been popular with disease and patient advocacy groups.

But the policy has been quite unpopular with a powerful publishing cartels that are hellbent on denying US taxpayers access to and benefits from research they paid to produce. This industry already makes generous profits charging universities and hospitals for access to the biomedical research journals they publish. But unsatisfied with feeding at the public trough only once (the vast majority of the estimated $10 billion dollar revenue of biomedical publishers already comes from public funds), they are seeking to squeeze cancer patients and high school students for an additional $25 every time they want to read about the latest work of America’s scientists.

Then he goes for the money, showing just how extensively Elsevier has contributed to Carolyn Maloney. His comment:

It is inexcusable that a simple idea—that no American should be denied access to biomedical research their tax dollars paid to produce—could be scuttled by a greedy publisher who bought access to a member of Congress.

There’s a long comment by Tom Reller stating Elsevier’s viewpoint and recounting all the ways people can get free access to articles (if somebody else has paid the big bills). Eisen disagrees in detail with some of Reller’s assertions and offers an interesting analogy to the claim that publishers’ value-add should entitle them to full control over articles:

Perhaps a metaphor will help explain this issue to people unfamiliar with scientific publishing. Consider the process of bringing a new baby into the world. Few would dispute that obstetricians play a significant role in the healthy delivery of a newborn baby. In exchange for their service they provide, they could demand ownership of the baby, and charge the parents a monthly fee to access their child. After all, the doctor “added value” to the baby by ensuring that the birthing process went well, and they deserve to be compensated for it.

Peter Murray took aim at Reller’s assertion that “Free access to journal articles is also provided through research libraries throughout the country”:

That would be big news to research libraries. Those same libraries now pay millions of dollars a year each to Elsevier for the right to offer those articles for ‘free.’

There’s more in a long comment stream (with Reller coming back from time to time with lengthy explications). At one point Reller essentially admits that the peer review process paid for by publishers isn’t peer review (mostly done free): it’s management overhead (not Reller’s words!). And, in that stream of comments, there’s one from Andrew King on January 9 that comes back later in a broader manner—a decision not to review Elsevier articles, by one for whom that’s a real choice that could have negative career consequences. (It’s easy for me to say “I won’t do peer review for Elsevier”—they’ve never asked. It’s not so easy when you frequently do so, as King has.)

I can’t let the comments go without noting one from “Just Saying” that’s a miracle of misdirection and seems to assume that OA is all about print journals; I dunno who wrote it, but it’s a sloppy and direct anti-OA attack. (That’s followed by two more dumb comments from the same pseudonym. He—and I’d guess it is a He—says such amusing things as “there is no excessive revenue in the [STM publishing] system” and that the public doesn’t care about journal articles anyway.)

What can we do? Strike. When should we do it? Now.

The Library Loon posted this on January 7, 2012 at Gavia Libraria. Loon calls scholarly publishing a “house of chicanery,” specifically calling out Elsevier’s SOPA support and evidence that “they bought and paid for the Research Works Act.”

There’s at least one thing we can do. Strike, even as the University of California threatened to Nature Publishing Group. Without our articles, our review labor, our editorial work, what price Elsevier’s information journals?

Was this the first call for a boycott? Possibly, possibly not. I believe it was the first call within librarianship. The Loon went looking for Elsevier LIS journals—which required finding the publishers Elsevier owns (such as Pergamon). The Loon came up with a list of fifty-odd journals, followed by:

Speaking plainly: This is war. Any information professional publishing in or otherwise aiding an Elsevier journal is collaborating (in the Vidkun Quisling sense of that word) with an enemy of librarianship, an enemy of the Internet, an enemy of human knowledge.

That list includes at least one very high profile academic library journal: The Journal of Academic Librarianship. More on that a bit later.

Threat Of Job Loss As Motivation For Research Works Act: Real Or Fear-mongering?

Heather Piwowar asks that question in a January 7, 2012 post at Research Remix—and you can probably guess her response. It’s a detailed post buttressed by facts. Her conclusion is that, at most, we might be talking about 7,000 U.S. jobs—and that’s a true worst-case assumption. I’d suggest reading the post (and comments including a link to Peter Suber’s comment on playing “the job card”) directly.

What Should The Publishers Lobby For?

Piwowar added another question and answer later on January 7, 2012 saying that, while traditional publishers have the “right and maybe even…responsibility” to lobby to shape government policy in their interest, they’re taking the wrong approach. Here’s what Piwowar thinks publishers should lobby for—although she’s not saying they should get these things:

1. Time. They should insist that any federal mandate that requires the article-of-record be made openly, immediately available does not take effect for a year or two, to give themselves time to change their business models (to author/funder pay-on-publish or pay-on-submit or some other method, thereby saving their companies and jobs).

2. Access to publication funds for federally-funded authors. Publication costs are already available to NSF and NIH awardees as budget line items in grants. I don’t know if all other federally-funded investigators have access to author-pays grant money… if not, publishers should argue that access to these resources must be a condition of a mandate. There must be a creative way to redirect money which payed for university library subscriptions into university OA funds or federally-disseminated research distribution reimbursement (has anyone proposed such an approach yet?)…. publishers should lobby for this.

3. Measurement of the impact of the papers they publish. When research papers are openly distributed, redistributed, deconstructed, and mashed up it becomes much harder for publishers to understand (and therefore brag about, and then capitalize on with higher publication charges) the impact their publications have had vis-a-vis their competitors. Publishers could insist that all federal hosting services report back usage stats (as PubMed Central does), and lobby for requiring a manner of attribution that facilitates easy and robust impact tracking (beyond just mention or citation).

I’d argue they’ve already had the first, since the NIH mandate has been around for several years and was being discussed for years before that. The first part of #2 is reasonable, but I really dislike the suggestion that university library money should be “redirected” in this manner: It’s not as though libraries don’t have other worthwhile uses that are being strangled by subscription costs. I don’t know enough to comment on #3.

Around the Web: Some posts on The Research Works Act (Now chronological!)

I’m just going to link to this January 9, 2012 post by John Dupuis at Confessions of a Science Librarian for completists among my readership. (It’s superseded by a later post, which I’ll get to…later.) It’s entirely a set of links, and what a set: More than 170 links through January 17, 2012. Since I’m noting something like 12-14 items through that date, you can easily read ten times as much stuff as I’m considering. Enjoy.

Or not. I don’t have the patience for that much, although I can tell from the authors and titles that some of it would be worth adding to this discussion.

Elsevier editorial boards: The Journal of Academic Librarianship

This from the Library Loon, posted January 9, 2012 at Gavia Libraria. Noting a comment on the Loon’s earlier call for a strike (or boycott) (see “What can we do…” earlier), the Loon notes one useful response: name folks currently donating labor to Elsevier. To which the Loon says: “Fair enough. Editorial boards are public record.”

The Loon suggests that the individuals on Elsevier’s boards have several ethical options, in increasing order of desirability:

Express opposition to SOPA and RWA in an editorial inside the journal, calling upon Elsevier to change its stance and lobbying practices

Make a public statement opposing Elsevier’s stance on SOPA and RWA, calling attention to it within Elsevier as well

Leave the editorial board, individually or in a collective declaration of independence, and explain both publicly and privately why

Then she names the editorial board members of Elsevier’s The Journal of Academic Librarianship, suggesting that those fine folks might want to consider contributing their labor instead to College and Research Libraries or portal: Libraries and the Academy.

The Loon offered similar lists of some other Elsevier LIS journals later; I’ll leave it at this.

Anti-Open Access Rises Again

Bob Grant used that unambiguous title for this January 9, 2012 item at The Scientist. It’s another short item and quotes both sides (Tom Allen of AAP on one side, the Alliance for Taxpayer Access on the other). The final paragraph provides recent history:

The Research Works Act is the latest push in a series of efforts to reverse the NIH’s open-access policy that started soon after the agency enacted it in 2008. The Fair Copyright in Research Works Act (H.R. 6845)—introduced by Issa and Representatives John Conyers (D-MI), Tom Feeney (R-FL), and Robert Wexler (D-FL) in September 2008—languished in legislative purgatory in the House. Conyers resurrected the act (this time called H.R. 801), along with Issa, Wexler, Maloney, and Representatives Steve Cohen (D-TN), Chaka Fattah (D-PA), and Trent Franks (R-AZ) in February 2009, but that bill, an exact replica of its predecessor, still lingers in committee, according to Congressional records.

When it’s not working, try, try again—this time with a shorter title.

Comments are difficult to cope with, as each appears three times or more: one long comment appears at least six times. John Timmer also has a brief article with historical background at ars technica on January 9, 2012: “Here we go again: Congress considers blocking government’s open access policy.” The comment stream there is more readable but not terribly enlightening.

Thoughts on the Research Works Act

Marcus Banks posted this on January 9, 2012 at Marcus’ World—noting the situation, concluding that RWA is so brazen that he’s not worried it will pass, then adding this:

I support discussion among parties that each have legitimate if irreconcilable views. Librarians wish to maximize access, publishers must protect their business interests. This has always been the problem. But this particular bill is stacked absurdly on one side of the ledger.

That said, there would be a silver lining if it actually becomes law. The consequences would be so outrageous that authors may finally break free of the chains of a publishing model that dates from the 17th century. Knowledge is what matters, not articles, and we now have new and exciting ways to spread knowledge. Publishers should be careful what they wish for.

I’m less optimistic that RWA’s passage would have had such a silver lining—but the RWA rout suggests a silver lining in its defeat.

Shoes and other feet

The next day—January 10, 2012—the Library Loon posted (at Gavia Libraria) another suggestion that RWA—not its passage, just its introduction and AAP’s support—might cause some lasting grief to STM publishers. It’s good enough to quote in its entirety (the blog has a Creative Commons BY license):

One aspect of the Research Works Act fracas is generating some little schadenfreude in the Loon’s feathered breast. Small doses of schadenfreude are healthy, so she’ll share.

Faculty and researchers generally display a stubborn sense of entitlement matched only by human three-year-olds. So much as suggesting to them that some of their existing practices deserve reconsideration spurs rather remarkable tantrums. (Don’t you even suggest to the Loon they don’t. The Loon has a quiltful of singed and plucked feathers to show you.)

Historically, the burden of creating praxis change has rested with open-access advocates. “Self-archive,” we said. “Try these new journals,” we said. “There’s more to life than journal impact factor,” we said. And because faculty thought all these things threatened faculty autonomy—”I’ll publish where I damn please, thank you, and I won’t pay a damn penny for it, either!”—the blowback was severe.

With the Research Works Act, the shoe is on the other foot. “Don’t self-archive,” says the AAP. “Don’t enact mandates,” says the AAP, “and if you’re subject to one, don’t follow it.” “Don’t share your data,” says the AAP.

(That last bit is intriguing and appalling all by itself. There isn’t a thriving market in data-sharing. Yet. But because publishers don’t want to manage data—it’s a significant cost center, and they don’t see how they can make any more money off it, openness being most of the point—they don’t want anybody else changing the market in favor of data-sharing, or promoting data to a first-class research product. The Loon is agog at the dog-in-mangering here. How dare AAP members call themselves research advocates? How dare they?)

Faculty don’t like to hear “don’t.” Not from librarians, and not even from publishers. It doesn’t even matter what the “don’t” is, or whether they’ve ever done the thing they’re being told not to do. Encroach on faculty entitlement only at great risk.

Welcome to the Loon’s hell, publishers. You won’t enjoy it. The Loon sure didn’t.

To my mind, the Loon makes a good point here. Another librarian managed to read things differently:

The Final Provocation

Posting on January 11, 2012 at Academic Librarian, Wayne Bivens-Tatum says he’s not quite ready to agree with the Loon. Not that faculty don’t hate to hear “don’t”—but that RWA isn’t directly telling faculty they can’t do something, it’s telling government agencies they can’t do something.

As far as I can tell from the text of the bill…there’s no stipulation that the authors of research articles can’t post those articles on their own websites or in institutional repositories. It just says that the government can’t force them to do that as a condition of funding.

B-T believes that, to be consistent, AAP should also oppose self-archiving and policies such as those implemented by Harvard and Princeton. B-T thinks it will take more to push faculty over the edge, but believes that could happen:

The final provocation of the faculty will come when publishers start paying for legislation making institutional open access policies and personal “networked dissemination” of one’s own research illegal. That will be the moment when faculty start hearing “don’t” from publishers, because that will be the moment that publishers try to deliberately and publicly interfere with decisions about their institutions or their research that the faculty have made themselves. When or if that time comes, we might finally see widespread revolt against the worst abuses of commercial scholarly publishers. The question is whether in their drive for profits the offensive publishers will finally be brazen enough to alienate the community that provides all their free content.

Interesting that B-T didn’t think RWA was brazen enough. I’m inclined to believe (or hope) he was too cautious.

Open access without anger

Here’s an odd one, from Zen Faulkes (an invertebrate neuroethologist at the University of Texas-Pan American), posted January 13, 2012 at NeuroDojo. It’s odd because Faulkes finds herself alienated by much of the RWA discussion, thinks OA has too much “righteous anger” and that it’s just fine for STM publishers to be profitable, thinks publishers add value—but still:

That said, while I am not angry at publishers for running successful businesses, said publishers are annoying me mightily with their refusal to innovate, exemplified by their support of the Research Works Act. While I support your right to earn a profit, publishers, you don’t have a right to do it by trying to get legislation passed that protect your current business plan.

And publishers, when you’re pissing off someone who is kind of on your side...

I don’t believe most OA advocates object to publishers making profits. Some of us look askance at the sheer amount of profit firms like Elsevier make. Many of us, I believe, look even more askance at the extent to which STM publishers are hamstringing libraries through outrageous prices and bundling techniques. Most OA advocates really do believe that people should have access to research and that STM publishers are preventing that access. But never mind…

After also objecting to “the taxpayer” as an argument for OA, Faulkes says why she supports OA—and it’s the most common reason I’ve heard, frankly: the importance of sharing. Still, I don’t quite get this:

Appealing to people’s willingness to share could be a much more powerful argument for open access than appealing to their sense of outrage over payments that many of them will never make. Complaining about value for tax dollars feels kind of small in comparison to, “We just want everyone to be able to read the stuff we do. Because it’s awesome.”

Can’t we have both—and, specifically regarding RWA, isn’t it reasonable to be outraged when stuff like this happens? I appreciate Faulkes’ discussion of good reasons for OA; the rest of it seems off-target, especially given that RWA is specifically about taxpayer-funded research.

Is It Hyperbole To Say That The US Research Works Act Is the Greatest Threat To Academic Publishing and The Open Access Movement?

Another post where the title pretty much states the stance, this time by Michael J. Parry on January 18, 2012 at The Room of Infinite Diligence. Clearly, he doesn’t think so, and quotes a piece by Dr. Mike Taylor calling RWA “a declaration of war by the publishers.”

Nature Publishing Group and Digital Science do not support the Research Works Act

Richard Poynder posted this on January 18, 2012 at Open and Shut?—one of several indications that the supposed AAP/PSP stance was already beginning to crumble. Part of a joint statement from the two (noting that Nature Publishing Group is an AAP member):

NPG and Digital Science do not support the Research Works Act.

NPG and Digital Science exist to support the creation and dissemination of human knowledge on a sustainable commercial basis. We seek to enable the open exchange of ideas, especially in scientific communities, in line with the requirements and objectives of relevant stakeholders.

Poynder notes other AAP members that disavowed RWA: MIT Press, ITHAKA, Pennsylvania State University Press, California University Press, Rockefeller University Press. An update notes a statement from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (which publishes Science) explicitly disavowing support for RWA.

Who Gets to See Published Research?

Finally for this first act in this four-act comedy, Jennifer Howard posted this article on January 22, 2012 in “Hot Type” at The Chronicle of Higher Education. It’s a good overview of the situation at that point—and gives more than adequate representation to AAP’s viewpoint, extensively quoting AAP’s Allen Adler along with briefer quotes from some university press representatives. Excerpts:

In a 19-page statement submitted to the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the publishers’ association argued against the idea that the government should get to decide what happens to the results of research it helps support financially. “It has become necessary for publishers to pointedly remind the federal government that their ‘peer-reviewed scholarly publications’ that report, describe, explain, analyze, or comment on federally funded research do NOT ‘result from’ such research in any sense that can legally justify the assertion of federal government control over the contents or distribution of such publications,” the group said…

I had a long conversation on the topic with Allen Adler, vice president for government and legal affairs at the publishers’ association. After a decade’s worth of debates over public access, “it shouldn’t be surprising to anyone that we come to the matter of government mandates with a jaundiced eye,” he told me.

As his group sees it, mandates like the NIH’s set up the federal government in competition with private-sector publishers. Because of such requirements, “the government becomes an alternative source of access” to the results of researchers’ and publishers’ hard work, Mr. Adler said.

Adler also offers what I regard as disingenuous comments about how much AAP’s members support OA. I’ll refer you to the article for that. As usual with Howard, it’s well written. There are some interesting comments, although we eventually get to the point where CHE’s not patrolling for spam as well as it should.

I could offer dozens more notes from this period—see John Dupuis’ list, for example—but it’s time to move on to the second act, where people start to say “enough!” more forcefully.

The Boycott Begins

The first 20 days were mostly about RWA itself and AAP/PSP—with a growing number of the latter’s members explicitly disavowing support for RWA. But there was an undercurrent specifically pointing to one STM publisher: The biggest of them all, Elsevier, with its 35% profit margins, its (former) arms trade fair, its consistent opposition to OA. PZ Myers used the title “Elsevier = Evil” in a January 16, 2012 post at Pharyngula, calling Elsevier “the gouging publisher scientists love to hate.”

As I read that phrase, I was immediately struck that if scientists truly hated Elsevier, they’d simply stop submitting papers to it and Elsevier’s scientific journal division would disappear. So it’s not that simple: (some) scientists may hate Elsevier, but many want to publish in its journals.

Elsevier’s support for RWA was clear, as outlined in Richard Poynder’s January 26, 2012 post at Open and Shut? “Elsevier needs to get out more.” He quotes email from Elsevier on the issue:

Our support for the Research Works Act comes down to a question of preferring voluntary partnership with government agencies and other funders to promote access to research works, rather than being subjected to inflexible government mandates like the NIH policy, which don’t take into account the needs of different journals.

One of Elsevier’s primary missions is to work towards providing universal access to high-quality scientific information in sustainable ways. We support the bipartisan bill, which seeks to prevent US government policies, like the one imposed by the NIH, that mandate the dissemination of journal articles published and funded by the private sector. Elsevier and other publishers have embraced and nurtured a whole range of access options to ensure broad dissemination — author pays journals, delayed access, manuscript posting, and patient access, to name a few. We’ve worked constructively with a number of government agencies to develop new ways to expand access to journal articles reporting on, analyzing and interpreting agency-funded research. But like other publishers and societies we have always opposed the adoption or extension of the NIH policy, which restricts the author’s freedom to choose where to publish and undermines the sustainability of journals published by the private sector. The legislation is an effort to prevent such unsustainable policies.

Read that statement carefully. Do you believe that Elsevier is intent on “providing universal access to high-quality scientific information”? To my mind, the only significant part of that sentence is the last three words, where “in sustainable ways” means “in ways that sustain Elsevier’s profit margins and salaries.” “Unsustainable” in the last sentence similarly means—to me at least—”threatening to Elsevier’s fat profits.”

Poynder seems sympathetic to Elsevier. Most of the rest of the post is saying that Elsevier needs a public spokesperson so it’s not viewed as “a faceless, anonymous, and unheeding, moneymaking machine intent only on sucking the lifeblood out of the research community in order to feed the insatiable appetite of its shareholders.” I know I’d feel ever so much better about vampiric publishers if they were represented by amiable spokespeople! Poynder also informs us how, as the consummate insider, he sat down for coffee with two Elsevier folks to stress the need for them to talk to people more.

I don’t want to make this about Poynder, but I do note that he fairly consistently misstates how Gold OA works (e.g., his interview with Elsevier’s Alicia Wise, in which he says flatly that Gold OA involves a “one-off article processing charge,” which is simply false for most Gold OA journals) and seems to have become a Harnadian “Green OA is the only way!” follower.

In any case, we had the spectacle of an Elsevier spokesperson providing a remarkably lame explanation of how Elsevier could be pushing RWA and claim to be positive about PubMed Central in a January 19, 2012 post to Liblicense. Alicia Wise makes it clear that PMC just might be ever-so-slightly eroding Elsevier’s sales of individual articles, thus making it “unsustainable”…for Elsevier. Oh, and “inefficient,” because the trivial amount spend on PMC could be considered duplicative of the money spent on Elsevier’s e-platform.

In any case, some scientists weren’t buying the line that Elsevier is really and truly devoted to universal access and found the company to be an appropriate target. Read on…

Goodbye Elsevier, Goodbye Tet Lett etc

That’s the title for this January 26, 2012 post by Mat Todd at Intermolecular. RWA was a U.S. bill and Todd’s an Australian chemist, but that didn’t matter:

I’ve decided to stop refereeing for, and publishing in, Elsevier journals. I was just asked to review for Tet Lett again, and sent notice that I’m out:

“Apologies, but I have decided to stop refereeing for (and publishing in) Elsevier journals because of 1) the lack of a positive policy towards open access (to all content, not just individual articles) and 2) Elsevier’s aggressive commercialism, in particular its sponsorship of the Research Works Act in the United States which would unquestionably harm science. Please remove me from your list of referees.

If Elsevier were, in the future, to decide to support full open access to the academic literature I’d be delighted to resume refereeing duties.”

That’s the start of a long and careful discussion, one that links to Tim Gowers’ January 21, 2012 post at Gowers’s Weblog, “Elsevier—my part in its downfall.” Gowers, a mathematician, outlines the problem with Elsevier and pushes for coordination among academics to boycott Elsevier.

It occurs to me that it might help if there were a website somewhere, where mathematicians who have decided not to contribute in any way to Elsevier journals could sign their names electronically. I think that some people would be encouraged to take a stand if they could see that many others were already doing so, and that it would be a good way of making that stand public. Perhaps such a site already exists, in which case I’d like to hear about it and add my name. If it doesn’t, it should be pretty easy to set up, but way beyond my competence I’m afraid. Is there anyone out there who feels like doing it?

That post drew a remarkable 486 responses—including one from Cameron Neylon, who on January 21, 2012 set up, a site to gather declarations from authors that they will not support Elsevier journals (by publishing, refereeing or serving on editorial boards) “unless they radically change how they operate.”

The boycott began. As of this writing, 12,868 researchers have signed on.

Now, back to the history…

Librarians Oppose Research Works Act HR3699

While I’m characterizing late January and early February 2012 as “The Boycott Begins,” that’s not the only story during this period. Betsy McKiernan posted this item at Out of the Jungle on January 26, 2012, citing a letter from “a coalition of 10 library groups” to the House committee considering RWA. The letter isn’t really from 10 library groups: the groups include Creative Commons and PLoS as well as ALA, ACRL (which is part of ALA), AALL, ARL and others. It’s a good letter, worth reading in full. Here’s what McKiernan quotes from it:

Our government funds research with the expectation that new ideas and discoveries from this research will propel science, stimulate the economy, and improve the lives of all Americans. Public support for science is enhanced when the public can directly see the benefits from our investment in scientific research.

Unfortunately, H.R. 3699 is designed to protect the business interests of a small subset of the publishing industry, failing to ensure that the interests of all stakeholders in the research process are adequately balanced.

Scientific progress depends on the broadest possible dissemination of knowledge, and the subsequent building upon the work of others. To this end, the highly successful NIH Public Access Policy currently ensures that the results of our nation’s $29 billion annual investment in biomedical research reach the broadest possible audience. The Policy simply requires that, in exchange for receiving federal research dollars, grantees make a copy of any electronic manuscript reporting on the results of that research available online via the agency’s PubMed Central database within 12 months of appearing in a peer-reviewed journal….

H.R. 3699 would overturn this vital policy, rolling back the gains that the public has made in these crucial areas. It would prohibit any other federal agency from enacting similar policies, stifling our nation’s ability to effectively leverage our investment in scientific research in areas other than the biomedical sciences, including areas such as energy research, sustainable agriculture, and green technology.

At a time when our focus should be on providing mechanisms to encourage innovation, fuel the development of new ideas, and stimulate job creation – H.R. 3699 does exactly the opposite. It imposes restrictions on access to peer-reviewed research results that benefit one small sector of an industry, rather than encourage their use by the widest possible audience. (snip)

We fully respect copyright law and the protection it affords content creators, owners, and users. The NIH Public Access Policy operates fully within current U.S. Copyright law as articles reporting on NIH-funded research are copyrightable, and the copyright belongs to the author. The NIH Policy requires only the grant of a non-exclusive license to NIH, fully consistent with federal policies such as Circular A-110 and Circular A-102. The author is free to transfer some or all of the exclusive rights under copyright to a journal publisher or to assign these anywhere they so choose – a freedom crucial to the authors of scientific articles, who rightly want to determine where and how their work is distributed.

Under H.R. 3699, authors of articles reporting on federally funded research would face a new restriction. The proposed bill requires authors to seek the permission of a publisher before their work can be distributed through an online, networked government channel such as NIH’s PubMed Central, even if they themselves - as the author of the work and the relevant rights holder – have already consented to do so, potentially limiting the authors ability to distribute their work as widely as they may wish.

Elsevier’s economic case is lacking

So says Joshua Gains in this January 26, 2012 post at Digitopoly. Gains notes the boycott (and links to the Gowers post that started it) and some of Elsevier’s statements…and analyzes why Elsevier’s claims are questionable.

Elsevier could make it a condition of publication that they have to agree to any open access. That means that a publication based on NIH funding could not publish with Elsevier unless, at the time of publication, Elsevier agreed to open access. In this situation, there is no risk that Elsevier makes an investment in a publication that it can’t recoup. Put simply, if recoupment requires it to negotiate open access and perhaps be paid for it, then if that deal isn’t struck, no article is submitted or published and so no investment is made.

Now, of course, it is not as simple as that. Elsevier will argue that this makes it a choice for researchers between having NIH funding or Elsevier publication rather than having both. That raises the costs to scientists of dealing with Elsevier and they may choose not to do so.

But, isn’t that interesting? Elsevier claim they are investing and doing all manner of stuff that improves the dissemination of research—making it easier to access and also providing scientists with greater visibility. These are things that are surely of value to scientists. But then, at the same time, they are claiming that in the potential choice between accessing all of that and receiving NIH funding, the scientists don’t think the Elsevier deal is worth it. In other words, if Elsevier can’t recoup their investments with open access, but those investments are really valuable to scientists, scientists don’t think so. From an economics perspective, on Elsevier’s own assumptions, they shouldn’t be making these investments. And note that, without the economic efficiency case for these investments, their case for the legislation falls away. That is, Elsevier are claiming that the NIH policy prevents them from making investments but, as I have argued here, the very reason those investments are prevented is because scientists would choose not to take advantage of the benefits of those investments.

There’s more here, to be sure.

Publisher statements that may get me on the boycott-peer-review bandwagon

That slightly strange title (was there really a bandwagon to boycott peer review itself?) appears over a January 27, 2012 post by “DrugMonkey” at their eponymous blog. The post dissects Tom Reller’s comments on a post previously discussed. It’s an interesting discussion, one that might be considered fisking if anybody still uses that term: unrelenting, hard-edged and powerful. It’s actually fisking both Reller’s comments and a Graham Taylor piece in the Guardian. I refer you to the post itself—it’s funny and pointed—but I will quote one item, responding to a claim that public funds don’t pay for peer-reviewed articles, they “only” pay for the research:

Another falsehood, wrapped up with a disingenuous misdirecting belittlement. “Only” for the research? ONLY????? These publishers seem universally unaware that the VAST, VAST majority of the value of an academic article is the bloody research. The damn content. That is what has value. The fancy layout? That’s nice and all but we can do without that. The science is the thing. Trying to dismiss this as a minor contribution is...well.....that takes some serious chutzpah.

Lots more in the post, including a response to Graham Taylor’s seeming claim that interfering with the private STM publishing market would result in “a Stalinist nightmare.” Only 27 comments, some of them well worth reading.

Branding academic publishers ‘enemies of science’ is offensive and wrong

Here’s the Graham Taylor piece that DrugMonkey wasn’t thrilled with, in the January 27, 2012 Guardian. This Taylor is responding to another Taylor, Dr. Mike Taylor, who offered an item in the January 16, 2012 Guardian that does indeed use that label. Mike Taylor’s piece has a stirring opening paragraph:

This is the moment academic publishers gave up all pretence of being on the side of scientists. Their rhetoric has traditionally been of partnering with scientists, but the truth is that for some time now scientific publishers have been anti-science and anti-publication. The Research Works Act, introduced in the US Congress on 16 December, amounts to a declaration of war by the publishers.

Mike Taylor’s piece is forceful; Graham Taylor’s response is scornful and dismissive.

I won’t comment on the multiple references to one significant publisher – which is just one of 2,000 active scholarly publishers, most of them learned societies – but it is unfair and wrong to characterise a progressive industry in these terms. These publishers are not anti-science, anti-publication, pouring scorn on new entrants to the industry, exploiting people with preventable diseases (are you serious?) or doing almost nothing to earn their “obscene profits”.

Graham Taylor says “publishers are human too” (is Elsevier a man or a woman?) and offers this astonishing statement:

The scholarly world is not yet fully open access, nor even approaching it, but that is not the fault of the publishers.

Because, y’know, STM publishers have never done anything to slow down OA! He goes on to say “Publishers are certainly not opposed to open access.” That will come as news to many who have followed the machinations of the past—but, of course, Graham Taylor has special definitions of OA in mind. It’s quite an astonishing article, actually; after reading it, I’d call DrugMonkey’s response fairly mild. (Who is Graham Taylor? “Director of academic, educational and professional publishing at the UK Publishers Association.”)

Quite a few comments on Graham Taylor’s article. Almost none of them favorable to his viewpoint.

The ‘Research Works Act’ is a distraction that works

Björn Brembs is one of the more extreme voices on research publications and seems to see certain extreme unilateral actions as both possible and plausible, as in this January 27, 2012 post at his eponymous blog.

The RWA is a distraction that works: for weeks now have open access supporters from all walks of science spent countless hours in opposition to this legislation. All these hours could have been spent developing an alternative scholarly communication system that doesn’t require publishers with obscene profits. All these hours could have been spent convincing librarians to withdraw their funds from these publishers by cutting their subscriptions and leave them without their main source of income. All these hours could have been spent investing the saved funds from these canceled subscriptions into a system that hosts and makes accessible all scholarly literature and data via our libraries. Instead, we keep sending money to publishers who use it against us. Isn’t this an absurd situation: we take time out of our day to complain about hat corporate publishers do with scholarly funds, while at the same time we keep sending them exactly these funds so the publishers can pay more politicians to write yet new legislation and pay more employees to write incendiary articles to keep us busy? Is nobody else seeing the Quixotesque situation here?

He cites some profits of STM publishers—but his solution is, in my opinion, wholly unworkable:

[F]rom now on, I will try to reduce the amount of opposition to publishers and instead focus my efforts more on convincing librarians to skip commercial publishers altogether and use the funds currently tied up in subscriptions to buy some servers to host all the literature and data.

Let’s bring our scholarly communication system back into our hands! Hit the publishers where it hurts: their pocketbooks.

Libraries, cut off corporate publishers from the funds that fuel their anti-science activities and cancel all your subscriptions to journals from corporate publishers!

“Buy some servers” is a little simplistic—but the bigger problem here is that libraries don’t have that kind of power. I know of no academic library director who believes she could simply say, “Sorry, but we’re cancelling all the Big Deals and all of our journals published by corporations. You’ll have to do without.” Which would not only remove access to future articles but to all existing articles. For that matter, it’s odd and interesting that Brembs only attacks corporate publishers—presumably leaving, say, the American Chemical Society untouched.

The Research Works Act: a damaging threat to science

This January 28, 2012 editorial is particularly interesting because of where it appears: in The Lancet. Which is, ahem, published by Elsevier. The editorial quotes Mike Taylor’s comment and summarizes RWA. Since it’s very much marked with copyright and any attempt to quote the key paragraphs (there are only four paragraphs, and the last two are key), I’ll refer you to the original—which calls RWA “a startlingly ill-considered strategy” and comes out in strong opposition.

Interesting times.

Researchers boycott publisher; will they embrace instant publishing?

That’s by John Timmer, writing January 31, 2012 at ars technica. He notes the RWA, the reaction, the boycott site—and the Faculty of 1000, a site that promotes post-publication peer review. (Or does it? When I go to that site, it seems to be promoting a subscription service for articles based on “expert recommendations.”)

The real story here is F1000 research—a proposed publishing system that uses an “initial sanity check” followed by instant repository-based publication with open post-publication peer review to accompany articles (and easy ways for authors to modify articles). Timmer’s take:

This approach could run into trouble, given some of F1000R’s other goals for the service. For example, they’re apparently willing to accept preliminary work, negative results, and thought experiments. Will all of these end up being reviewed? Does anyone even think having their preliminary work formally reviewed is a good idea? There’s time to sort out details like that before the service launches later this year, but details like this could be essential for determining how it ends up being used (if it’s used at all) by the research community.

Interesting comments, some carefully skeptical. I think linking this to RWA may be a stretch, but maybe not. (I find it a little odd that the proposed publishing system is focused on biology and medicine, rather than being open in the manner of PLoS One.)

Will Academics’ Boycott Of Elsevier Be The Tipping Point For Open Access—Or Another Embarrassing Flop?

That loaded question heads Glynn Moody’s January 30, 2012 item at techdirt—and he dates the boycott back to a January 7, 2012 post by Peter Suber, recognizing that Tim Gowers’ post was “the park for the explosion of anger that followed.”


This is certainly the most visible revolt in recent years against the exorbitant profits of companies like Elsevier, and their tight control of the academic publishing process, but it’s not the first or the biggest. Back in 2000, right at the dawn of open access, the Public Library of Science (PLoS) was created with the same aim of making research more widely available. To achieve this, the three founders of PLoS circulated an open letter calling for “the establishment of an online public library that would provide the full contents of the published record of research and scholarly discourse in medicine and the life sciences in a freely accessible, fully searchable, interlinked form”, which contained the following passage:

To encourage the publishers of our journals to support this endeavor, we pledge that, beginning in September 2001, we will publish in, edit or review for, and personally subscribe to only those scholarly and scientific journals that have agreed to grant unrestricted free distribution rights to any and all original research reports that they have published

Nearly 34,000 scientists signed that letter, but only a handful of publishers committed themselves to making their articles available as the letter requested; worse, few signatories followed through with their promised boycotts of the publishers who refused. Will things be any different this time, in the post-SOPA world?

2000 was not “right at the dawn of open access”; not even close. But a number of us are haunted by the same question: What’s different this time? Will those who sign the Cost of Knowledge statement hold to it? Will it make a lasting difference? Only time will tell. (One comment by William Gunn is not too promising: “Even those academics who do feel compelled to publish in an Elsevier journal can support this boycott until the Research Works Act is pulled.” [Emphasis added.] And then just go back as though nothing happened?)

Elsevier Publishing Boycott Gathers Steam Among Academics

Josh Fischman wrote this story on January 30, 2012 in the “Wired Campus” section of The Chronicle of Higher Education. It’s a good brief overview of the state of affairs as of that date, including a few key quotes from signers of the boycott as well as this:

There are occasional defenders in the blog comments, such as this response to the blog Crooked Timber’s rallying cry for the boycott: “As a neuroscientist, Elsevier journals are an important factor in publication choice. Losing a crucial set of publication outlets to a poorly informed rally against this company will certainly damage the integrity of the scientific record in my field.”

Poorly informed? I wonder. This is certainly a crystal-clear case of “The journals are too important, therefore we can’t do anything” thinking. Which Elsevier certainly encourages and probably counts on.

Lots’o’comments, some of them worth reading, a few trolling.

Why boycott Elsevier?

That’s the question Kevin Smith asks in this January 31, 2012 post at Scholarly Communications @ Duke—and by this time the Cost of Knowledge petition was well underway, with 2,100 signatures. Smith notes the three “charges” (high prices, bundling and support for RWA), agrees these are significant problems and notes that Elsevier isn’t the only “sinner” (and not necessarily the most culpable).

This does not mean I am particularly sympathetic to Elsevier, and I am glad to see the petition for a couple of reasons.

First, the boycott movement is coming from scholars themselves. It is not simply a matter of radical militant librarians (some of my favorite people, btw) who are upset about high prices. This petition represents a growing awareness amongst scholarly authors that traditional publication models not only are no longer the only option, but in fact may be bad choices for those concerned with the overall dissemination of knowledge. It is simply becoming clearer to many scholars that the values they hold are not the same as the ones that commercial publishers are pursuing.

Second, when framed as a divergence of values it is much easier to see that the core issue in this movement is who will control the the changing course of scholarly communications and the scholarly record. It seems less and less acceptable to trust commercial publishers with the responsibility for scholarship now that we no longer will be dependent on the printed artifacts they created. As scholarship becomes digital, we are quite rightly seeking new models of control that serve the needs of scholars first, regardless of the business models that may thereby be left behind.

Well stated in both cases. Smith notes that he’s not part of the “abolish copyright” movement because scholars do want some control over how a work is used by others. He’s hoping that scholars will use rights to serve their own needs.

Boycotting Elsevier may not bring about that revolution by itself, but it is a step toward demanding that the rights and concerns of scholarly authors themselves actually drive decisions about how scholarship is shared in the digital environment.

Indeed. The story of RWA might not be worth recounting by itself—but I believe and hope that it’s a step toward reforming scholarly publishing.

Elsevier Boycott, My Thoughts

Michelle Kraft offers her thoughts on February 1, 2012 at The Krafty Librarian. After a brief introduction to the situation, she cites a Forbes article that, in her opinion, minimizes the actual expenses of online journal publishing. The paragraph comes off as an apologia of sorts for traditional publishers (which she says she’s not supporting).

She then notes the F1000 idea and offers an odd criticism: “In order for it to work you have to get a group of people who are going to read the articles then are willing to critique it and write educated comments and evaluations. That is a lot to ask when there is yet no incentive for researchers to do it.” But…that’s exactly how traditional peer review works. Scholars read the articles and critique them, with no direct incentive to do so since they’re neither paid nor honored. And Kraft basically says a boycott won’t work because too many people will ignore it.

Here’s the final paragraph, which I find sad (especially after Kraft’s seeming defense of the enormous costs of journal publishing):

Everybody is all a twitter (litteraly and figuratively) about the boycott. It is the news du jour and I do hope something positive comes out of it. However, I am not holding my breath. Perahps I am just in a cynical mood today (I am a GenXer afterall so finding me not in a cynical mood is quite rare), but I read these stories and all I can think is that it is the same ol’ same ol’. I can’t get excited about Gower’s boycott or any other ones. I can’t get excited that publishing models will finally change if all of the authors and reviewers boycott, because everybody doesn’t boycott. I guess I am like this because I feel these type boycotts just really don’t work. Part of the reason is they are only boycotting half of the problem. Academia’s advancement structure feeds into this problem. Gower’s boycott doesn’t address that. Gower’s boycott doesn’t give alternatives to PostDocs who aren’t tenured. If they are supposed to be good little boycotting researchers, where do they publish without hurting their chances of advancement? I think it is going to take a cataclysmic event within the publishing/library/research world for things to change. Boycotts are not the cataclysmic event.

So nothing can be done? How sad.

The Research Works Act and the breakdown of mutual incomprehension

Remember Cameron Neylon? I haven’t cited anything by him up to now, but he’s the one who started the boycott site Cost of Knowledge. This post appeared on February 3, 2012 at his Science in the Open blog. It’s Neylon’s own sense of the situation and a fairly bold prediction of how it will play out. It’s also CC0—that is, explicitly in the public domain, which means I could legally call it my own, copying it wholesale and not even providing attribution. I won’t do that. I will, however, quote the entire 1,499-word post, because I think Neylon’s offering a well-thought-out discussion, even if I can’t be as optimistic as he is about outcomes. (Copied-and-pasted intact, including the occasional typo.)

When the history of the Research Works Act, and the reaction against it, is written that history will point at the factors that allowed smart people with significant marketing experience to walk with their eyes wide open into the teeth of a storm that thousands of people would have predicted with complete confidence. That story will detail two utterly incompatible world views of scholarly communication. The interesting thing is that with the benefit of hindsight both will be totally incomprehensible to the observer from five or ten years in the future. It seems worthwhile therefore to try and detail those world views as I understand them.

The scholarly publisher

The publisher world view places them as the owner and guardian of scholarly communications. While publishers recognise that researchers provide the majority of the intellectual property in scholarly communication, their view is that researchers willingly and knowingly gift that property to the publishers in exchange for a set of services that they appreciate and value. In this view everyone is happy as a trade is carried out in which everyone gets what they want. The publisher is free to invest in the service they provide and has the necessary rights to look after and curate the content. The authors are happy because they can obtain the services they require without having to pay cash up front.

Crucial to this world view is a belief that research communication, the process of writing and publishing papers, is separate to the research itself. This is important because otherwise it would be clear that, at least in an ethical sense, that the writing of papers would be work for hire for the funders – and part and parcel of the contract of research. For the publishers the fact that no funding contract specifies that “papers must be published” is the primary evidence of this.

The researcher

The researcher’s perspective is entirely different. Researchers view their outputs as their own property, both the ideas, the physical outputs, and the communications. Within institutions you see this in the uneasy relationship between researchers and research translation and IP exploitation offices. Institutions try to avoid inflaming this issue by ensuring that economic returns on IP go largely to the researcher, at least until there is real money involved. But at that stage the issue is usually fudged as extra investment is required which dilutes ownership. But scratch a researcher who has gone down the exploitation path and then pushed gently aside and you’ll get a feel for the sense of personal ownership involved.

Researchers have a love-hate relationship with papers. Some people enjoy writing them, although I suspect this is rare. I’ve never met any researcher who did anything but hate the process of shepherding a paper through the review process. The service, as provided by the publisher, is viewed with deep suspicion. The resentment that is often expressed by researchers for professional editors is primarily a result of a loss of control over the process for the researcher and a sense of powerlessness at the hands of people they don’t trust. The truth is that researchers actually feel exactly the same resentment for academic editors and reviewers. They just don’t often admit it in public.

So from a researcher’s perspective, they have spent an inordinate amount of effort on a great paper. This is their work, their property. They are now obliged to hand over control of this to people they don’t trust to run a process they are unconvinced by. Somewhere along the line they sign something. Mostly they’re not too sure what that means, but they don’t give it much thought, let alone read it. But the idea that they are making a gift of that property to the publisher is absolute anathema to most researchers.

To be honest researchers don’t care that much about a paper once its out. It caused enough pain and they don’t ever want to see it again. This may change over time if people start to cite it and refer to it in supportive terms but most people won’t really look at a paper again. It’s a line on a CV, a notch on the bedpost. What they do notice is the cost, or lack of access, to other people’s papers. Library budgets are shrinking, subscriptions are being chopped, personal subscriptions don’t seem to be affordable any more.

The first response to this when researchers meet is “why can’t we afford access to our work?” The second is, given the general lack of respect for the work that publishers do, is to start down the process of claiming that they could do it better. Much of the rhetoric around eLife as a journal “led by scientists” is built around this view. And a lot of it is pure arrogance. Researchers neither understand, nor appreciate for the most part, the work of copyediting and curation, layout and presentation. While there are tools today that can do many of these things more cheaply there are very few researchers who could use them effectively.

The result…kaboom!

So the environment that set the scene for the Research Works Act revolt was a combination of simmering resentment amongst researchers for the cost of accessing the literature, combined with a lack of understanding of what it is publishers actually do. The spark that set it off was the publisher rhetoric about ownership of the work. This was always going to happen one day. The mutually incompatible world views could co-exist while there was still enough money to go around. While librarians felt trapped between researchers who demanded access to everything and publishers offering deals that just about meant they could scrape by things could continue.

Fundamentally once publishers started publicly using the term “appropriation of our property” the spark had flown. From the publisher perspective this makes perfect sense. The NIH mandate is a unilateral appropriation of their property. From the researcher perspective it is a system that essentially adds a bit of pressure to do something that they know is right, promote access, without causing them too much additional pain. Researchers feel they ought to be doing something to improve acccess to research output but for the most part they’re not too sure what, because they sure as hell aren’t in a position to change the journals they publish in. That would be (perceived to be) career suicide.

The elephant in the room

But it is of course the funder perspective that we haven’t yet discussed and looking forward, in my view it is the action of funders that will render both the publisher and researcher perspective incomprehensible in ten years time. The NIH view, similar to that of the Wellcome Trust, and indeed every funder I have spoken to, is that research communication is an intrinsic part of the research they fund. Funders take a close interest in the outputs that their research generates. One might say a proprietorial interest because again, there is a strong sense of ownership. The NIH Mandate language expresses this through the grant contract. Researchers are required to grant to the NIH a license to hold a copy of their research work.

In my view it is through research communication that research has outcomes and impact. From the perspective of a funder their main interest is that the research they fund generates those outcomes and impacts. For a mission driven funder the current situation signals one thing and it signals it very strongly. Neither publishers, nor researchers can be trusted to do this properly. What funders will do is move to stronger mandates, more along the Wellcome Trust lines than the NIH lines, and that this will expand. At the end of the day, the funders hold all the cards. Publishers never really did have a business model, they had a public subsidy. The holders of those subsidies can only really draw one conclusion from current events. That they are going to have to be much more active in where they spend it to successfully perform their mission.

The smart funders will work with the pre-existing prejudice of researchers, probably granting copyright and IP rights to the researchers, but placing tighter constraints on the terms of forward licensing. That funders don’t really need the publishers has been made clear by HHMI, Wellcome Trust, and the MPI. Publishing costs are a small proportion of their total expenditure. If necessary they have the resources and will to take that in house. The NIH has taken a similar route though technically implemented in a different way. Other funders will allow these experiments to run, but ultimately they will adopt the approaches that appear to work.

Bottom line: Within ten years all major funders will mandate CC-BY Open Access on publication arising from work they fund immediately on publication. Several major publishers will not survive the transition. A few will and a whole set of new players will spring up to fill the spaces. The next ten years look to be very interesting.

There are 38 comments (and 129 reactions), and they’re worth reading. I don’t think I need to add many comments here. Clearly, I don’t believe universal Gold OA mandates are likely to happen. I’m not even sure I believe they’re the best future. But the discussion…well, it was interesting and thoughtful enough that I chose not to excerpt.

The Exciting World of Research Information

Finally for this act, here’s an odd article by Chrysanne Lowe, VP Global Marketing Communications for Elsevier, published February 2, 2012 in LibraryConnect (which has the lovely subtitle “Partnering with the Library Community”—which to me now reads somewhat like hookworms asserting that they partner with humans). Lowe provides the standard Elsevier pitch—that access to published content is greater and “at its lowest cost per use” than ever before; that Elsevier offers lots of ways to buy content (and that you can’t possibly argue that bundles don’t enhance access); that Elsevier’s mission is to expand access to content, not restrict it. Lowe states these as facts; others will argue that the reality contradicts them.

Most of the post comes off as a simple canned retelling of The Elsevier Line, along with Lowe’s argument that “simple slogans won’t serve science in the long run” and that we need “respect” to advance the cause. There are nine comments, and I must note that the first two are from librarians I’m acquainted with; it’s fair to say that neither one is fully convinced by Lowe’s arguments. Neither are any of the other commenters. I wonder why?

Elsevier Supports, The Boycott Grows

This third act begins with “A Message to the Research Community: Elsevier, Access, and the Research Works Act,” published on February 3, 2012. If the statement didn’t have such a clear © post at the bottom, I’d quote it in full in order to give Elsevier’s side. As it is, here’s the start:

In recent weeks we have heard a wide range of views and reactions to Elsevier’s support of legislation introduced in the U.S. Congress. Much of the discussion has painted a very misleading picture. It’s time to correct that distortion and clear the air.

Elsevier supports the principle that the public should have access to the output of publicly funded research. We encourage researchers to make their datasets and reports and draft manuscripts available as widely and as soon as is possible. We are committed to the broadest possible dissemination of published research as well.

The costs of publishing services need to be met and are in addition to the costs of doing the research. Publishers invest heavily to add value to research reports and draft manuscripts through the publishing process. Academics do too through the peer review process, but without publishers and peer reviewers the 3 million manuscripts submitted each year would not be transformed into the 1.5 million articles published each year. Researchers function more efficiently and effectively because of the value that is added by all of us through publishing processes.

The statement goes on to repeat how happy Elsevier is to provide OA (as long as its prices are paid) and its willingness to meet any “sustainable” business model. Why does Elsevier support RWA? “We are against unwarranted and potentially harmful government laws that could undermine the sustainability of the peer-review publishing system… Governments are simply not in a position to be able to know what is sustainable for individual journals whose dynamics vary significantly. As those who invest to deliver the publications, we believe that we should and must be involved in these decisions particularly when governments seek to distribute for free what we have paid to develop.”

Maybe you should read the whole thing in the original. It’s not that long. Nor, I’m afraid, is it all that convincing—especially in these closing sentences that somehow make it seem as though Elsevier is supporting RWA against its will: “We feel we have no choice but to support the Research Works Act and oppose legislation that would dictate how journal articles or accepted manuscripts are disseminated without involving publishers. That said, it is our sincere wish to de-escalate from the constant cycle of legislation and lobbying that has marked the scholarly communication landscape for many years, and accelerate collaborative work in partnership with other stakeholders.”

How many readers believe Elsevier played no part in RWA being written and introduced? I’m guessing “de-escalate from the constant cycle of legislation and lobbying” means something different to most of us than it does in this statement.

In any case, the statement failed to convince everybody of the rightness of Elsevier’s approach.

A Couple of Points about the Elsevier Response

Wayne Blivens-Tatum posted this on February 3, 2012 at Academic Librarian. He notes his speculation in the summer of 2011 that a faculty boycott would be a necessary step towards more OA, although that had to do with the GSU situation.

B-T characterizes Elsevier’s response as “business as usual is the best thing for everyone.” He’s actually discussing the LibraryConnect article, not the Elsevier PR, but I’m not sure there’s an enormous difference.

The implication is that anyone who believes that publicly funded research should be open to the public just doesn’t understand all the complexities of the issue, even if they’re the ones funding or performing the research. Instead, the people who really understand the issue are vice presidents of global marketing for large publishers with a serious investment in defending the status quo.

As he explains, Elsevier’s trying to derail the general debate by specific and misleading assertions. As he notes, scientists have always wanted to disseminate their findings broadly—but “they haven’t been so good at creating mechanisms for the wide distribution of the results of their research.”

The network of noncommercial scholarly journals didn’t keep pace with the output of scientific research, and enterprising publishers with commercial values at odds with scientific values emerged to fill the gap. Scientists were so intent on publishing, they didn’t think about the implications of creating a large commercial network of journals to publish research that was often publicly funded. They also haven’t thought much about the refereeing and editorial work they did for these journals, treating all scholarly journals as equal, regardless of whether they were published by a commercial firm dedicated to profit or by a noncommercial association dedicated to the dissemination of scholarship.

He also challenges the claim that Elsevier aims to make research more accessible—by pushing for a law that does the opposite. And closes: “It would be ironic indeed if a push by Elsevier to overturn a law supporting a principle they claim to uphold leads to radical change in scholarly publishing.”

Around the Web: Research Works Act & Elsevier boycott

Another of John Dupuis’ roundups of links—this one dated February 6, 2012 and with so many links to items after the previous roundup (and those in that roundup) that I gave up even counting them. So if you feel I’m not providing enough of a picture, well…have at it!

Tiptoeing Toward the Tipping Point

Barbara Fister weighs in on February 2, 2012 in “Peer to Peer Review” at the Library Journal. As always with Fister, I recommend reading the original, both for the quality writing and the quality thinking behind it. The “tipping point” in this case is…well, here are the first two paragraphs (emphasis added):

The Association of American Publishers (AAP) has done academic librarians a huge favor. When it publicly got behind the Research Works Act, it accomplished something librarians have been trying to do for decades. It turned a lot of scholars into open access activists.

Until now, the majority of the academics we work with found the phrase “scholarly communication” a little bogus. It’s not an expression scholars use themselves. It’s a slogan that marks the speaker as a librarian, concerned about library stuff and trying to drag busy researchers into their parochial problems. Those who are sympathetic to libraries tended to believe it wasn’t anything that couldn’t be fixed by increasing the library’s budget. Those who couldn’t be bothered had more important things to do. Of course, it’s not just librarians doing the work; there have been strong open access advocates in the disciplines for years, but they haven’t been able to make much headway against tradition, either.

There’s quite a bit more, of course, all of it good. She points out the absurdities in AAP’s statement supporting RWA, the Cost of Knowledge boycott site and some true silliness from Rep. Maloney’s baloney (sorry, couldn’t resist) responding to a critic of RWA:

The letter also raised a scaremongering, though extraordinarily silly, objection that has been raised in the past as publishers argue against federal research mandates: a xenophobic fear of foreigners. “Two-thirds of the access to PubMed central is from non-US users,” Maloney wrote. “In effect, current law is giving our overseas scientific competitors in China and elsewhere important information for free.” Apart from seeming to claim that the NIH is leaking state secrets that would not otherwise fall into the hands of foreigners, she seems to have forgotten that many of the companies that would benefit from this bill and have lobbied hard for it are based overseas, too, and benefit hugely from the free basic research our tax dollars support.

Indeed. Take Elsevier, for example… Another paragraph (and two sentences) too good not to quote:

[O]nce the article the researcher wrote is submitted to a journal, the journal’s back office work transforms it into unique and valuable intellectual property that thereafter belongs to private sector interests, the act’s supporters claim. The authors have no claim to those articles at all.

Librarians have been pointing this out for years, without having much impact. But we never put it quite so bluntly: publishers not only own the publication rights to your work, they totally own that research. Scholars would scoff if a librarian made that claim, but when the publisher comes right out and says it—that’s a good way to get a researcher hopping mad.

Fister’s also realistic: The boycott itself won’t change the status quo—but it’s a start.

Why Elsevier?

The Library Loon deals with that question in this February 7, 2012 post at Gavia Libraria.

Talk around the backwaters of academe has occasionally taken a why-Elsevier turn. This itches the Loon’s feathers something fierce. There are good and cogent reasons Elsevier is the current target; let us lay them out in the open.

The Loon does so rather nicely. Going after all the publishers was what PLoS tried in 2001: “It didn’t work then, and it won’t work now.” It’s too diffuse and confused, and doesn’t give you a named target. Also (and probably more the cause of the earlier failure):

The other problem with PROTEST ALL THE PUBLISHERS, of course, is that faculty careers still depend on one big pig or another. There’s enough overlap in the journal market now that many, even most, can avoid one big pig without enormous sacrifice. All the big-pigs? No. Certainly not in 2001, and not even now, though we’ve come a good bit closer to that happy day since 2001. What happened in 2001—faculty ticked an online tickybox, then shuffled away to do what they do—was inevitable; relying on tickyboxen without considering the larger context is silly.

Nor does the Loon believe everybody who’s signed on to Cost of Knowledge will stick with it—but the Loon thinks it will be a higher percentage than in 2001.

So why Elsevier?

The Loon happily grants that nearly all characteristics of Elsevier as a publisher and as a business are replicated by other publishers. It’s not hard to find other publishers who buy legislation, publish fake ghostwritten journals, spread (and fund the spreading of) outright lies about open access, bamboozle faculty every chance they get, abuse librarians and library budgets, make obscene profit margins, et cetera.

It’s mildly difficult (though certainly not impossible), however, to find another publisher who’s done all these things, studiedly, repeatedly, and shamelessly. And, let us not forget, powerfully. Elsevier is the biggest of the big-pigs. Make a dent in Elsevier, and watch how fast the rest of the industry changes.

There’s more, including notes on an earlier boycott—and the Loon is as realistic as Barbara Fister:

Does that mean the current boycott will actually succeed in its nominal goals? No. The Loon wouldn’t bet her tiniest pinfeather on it. It does mean that more faculty have been made aware of the issues. It does mean that more faculty have been radicalized about them. Thanks in some part to Tim Gowers’s honesty (the Loon is enormously grateful to him for admitting outright that he held a longtime bias against e-journals; nobody ever believed the Loon when she said this was part of the problem!), it does mean that faculty are starting to confront some of the less-than-conscious, wholly irrational prejudices and practices that have historically hindered open access.

Realistically, “Why Elsevier?” is as much a disruptive tactic as anything—not as bad as “there is nothing we can do, so we shouldn’t even try,” but close.

Occupy Elsevier?

Bob Grant’s story on February 7, 2012 in The Scientist has a significant subtitle: “A boycott of the publishing giant swells, but is the criticism warranted?” Lots of folks are quoted—but it basically boils down to all those hothead scientists vs. Elsevier’s own spokespeople, who say “a misunderstanding of its intentions, and not unfair business practices, are fueling the boycott.” The article includes more detail, but some librarians may find it a bit hollow. For example:

Clark [of Elsevier] rebutted the criticism voiced in Glowers’s blog post, starting with the claim that Elsevier’s subscription prices are too high. “Our list prices, on a price per article basis, are absolutely on the industry average,” he claimed. “This image of these journals becoming more and more expensive and less and less accessible simple isn’t true.”

Clark also refuted the notion that Elsevier was forcing institutional libraries to buy bundles of journal titles and ruthlessly negotiating those deals. “If you look at what libraries choose to do, they do choose to take some of these packages,” he said. “We’re not in the business of forcing people to take journals.” Clark added that libraries have the option of purchasing each of Elsevier’s publications individually if they don’t want to buy bundled packages.”

And, yes, Clark says academic authors just don’t understand the business side of Elsevier.

Lots of comments, beginning with applause from [Elsevier’s] Alicia Wise for a “balanced article.” Some are useful. Some are…well, here’s Thane Kerner’s comment in its entirety: “Silly, silly children, kicking and screaming and ignoring economics.” Who is Kerner? He’s on the Executive Council of AAP/PSP. Yet another way to derail a serious discussion: dismiss people as childish and ignorant.

Elsevier’s Alicia Wise on the RWA, the West Wing, and Universal Access

I’m linking to this February 8, 2012 Richard Poynder interview of Elsevier’s Alicia Wise at Open and Shut (preceded by a fairly lengthy discussion which, once again, mischaracterizes Gold OA) in the interests of fair play. Even the summary includes most of Elsevier’s standard talking points, and we immediately get “ad hominem” when a commenter notes Alicia Wise’s past practice. I will be honest: I did not read the entire 17-page (PDF) email interview (the first two pages largely repeating the piece’s introduction). If you do, I believe you’ll see “sustainable” repeated quite often, and should remember whose sustainability is at stake.

Good Citizens and the Historic Spend

Here’s an interesting commentary from Wayne Bivens-Tatum, posted February 8, 2012 at Academic Librarian after reading the whole Alicia Wise interview (the one I gave up on). He notes Wise’s admission that Elsevier increased prices steeply year after year in the 1980s and 1990s, saying “We got it wrong then. But we’ve improved and have become good citizens.”

They got it wrong, sort of. In my own previous summary of Elsevier’s actions, I wrote that “Publishers know how unlikely we are to sacrifice key titles. Many years ago they tried to maximize their profit by raising journal prices at four times the rate of inflation. When libraries finally cracked and started cutting subscrip­tions, they got us to give up all con­trol and agree to multi-year pack­ages where they would raise the prices each year by only twice the rate of inflation, and we agreed to ease our pain.” They “got it wrong” because they were raising prices faster than library budgets but were leaving libraries with the option of unsubscribing from individual titles. Now they’ve “gotten it right” because they’ve removed that option.

Yes, the big deals slowed the rate of price increases—but with consequences. And, as B-T notes, it’s not like libraries started paying less to Elsevier than the prices Elsevier sort-of now semi-acknowledges might have been exorbitant. “They still pay more, but the ‘more’ rises less.”

Combine this thought with a phrase Elsevier likes, the “historic spend.” Elsevier wants libraries to continue to pay for access to their journal packages based upon what they have paid before, the “historic spend,” regardless of current needs or budgets. But the “historic spend” grew out of pricing levels that were so exploitative libraries finally had to stop subscribing to journals they needed. Add to this the fact that Elsevier doesn’t want anyone to know what anyone else is spending on Elsevier journals, going so far as to sue Washington State University to keep them from releasing an unredacted copy of their contract with Elsevier.

I wonder whether “sustainable” correlates to “historic spend” nicely: That is, the only sustainable future is one in which Elsevier gets all of the historic spend—plus, of course, increments at least equal to inflation and probably higher?

B-T doesn’t actually call Elsevier evil; he calls them a typical corporation. “However, that doesn’t mean that anyone in academia should believe their corporate spin.”

Explaining resistance to the Elsevier boycott: Practicalities

This is an excellent discussion, by DrugMonkey on February 8, 2012 at their eponymous blog. DM notes the relatively low number and percentage of boycotters in the fields DM is most familiar with and some realistic reasons people might not be ready to sign—quite apart from impact factor and the money Elsevier pays to societies for some of its journals.

Two of the most interesting discussions are on cost and convenience. I’ll quote the first:

Cost: Somewhere or other (was it Dr. Zen?) someone in this discussion brought up the notion that paying Open Access fees upfront is a big stumbling block. Yes, in one way or another the taxpayers (state and federal in the US) are footing the bill but from the perspective of the PI, increasing library fees to the University don’t matter. What matters are the Direct Cost budgets of her laboratory (and possible the Institutional funds budget). Sure, OA journals allow you to ask for a fee waiver...but who knows if they will give it? Why would you go through all that work (and time) to get the manuscript accepted just to have to pull it if they refuse to let you skip out on the fee? I mean, heck, $1,000 is always handier to have in the lab than being shunted off to the OA publisher, right? I don’t care how many R01s you have...

Boy, does that sound familiar. “Library subscriptions are Somebody Else’s Money, so they don’t matter. Just don’t touch my grant!” There’s also convenience—Elsevier’s manuscript handling system is slick. There are several others; well worth reading.

The Other Academic Freedom Movement

This one’s by Konstantin Kakares, posted February 9, 2012 at Slate—and as is frequently the case with Slate, that’s one of two entirely different titles. (The web page carries the title “Federal Research Public Access Act, the Research Works Act, and the open access movement”; the article itself carries the shorter title above.) The subtitle’s intriguing in its promise: “How scientists broke through the paywall and made their articles available to (almost) everyone.”

The article notes Paul Ginsparg, arXiv, PubMedCentral—and how FRPAA (reintroduced on February 9) and RWA would change that landscape. There’s a charming paragraph of exemplary numbers:

The invisibly siphoned revenue stream that Ginsparg referred to comes from institutional subscriptions, which don’t come cheap. A year’s print subscription to Cancer Genetics, say, will run you (without discounts) $5,010 per year. (Individuals can subscribe for $280.) Cancer Genetics, along with 2,637 other journals, is published by Elsevier, a multinational conglomerate that made $1.1 billion last year on $3.2 billion in revenue—a 36 percent profit margin. This is typical of the industry. It helps that the “referees” who peer-review journal articles perform the job for free. (Almost 5,000 scholars are now boycotting Elsevier in protest of price-gouging and other practices, in a movement started by a British mathematician on Jan. 21.) Erik Engstrom, Elsevier’s current CEO, made $3.2 million in 2010; his predecessor Ian Smith got more than $1.7 million as a parting gift when he left after eight months on the job.

A discussion of the reasons for journal articles—and the reasoning behind PLoS—begins with this lovely pair of sentences: “A journal article serves many purposes. One of them is to make money for publishers.” After more discussion, including AAP’s Allan Adler’s doubt that OA is sustainable, it’s noted that PLoS is cash-flow positive and that its CEO didn’t starve either: he made more than $400,000 in 2010. There’s more and it’s worth reading, offering an interesting journalistic perspective that’s pretty clearly pro-OA.

Not a lot of comments and one anonymous one is a pretty good set of nonsensical claims about OA. Not quite good enough to quote, but many of the misleading talking points are there.

John Wiley & Sons have no plans to endorse the Research Works Act

Another one from Richard Poynder, this time on February 10, 2012 at Open and Shut? He cites email from Wiley saying that legislative initiatives aren’t the best way forward. That’s basically it, along with a recounting of the growing list of publishers (AAP members and others) backing away from RWA. Oh, and an anonymous comment that begins with this remarkable statement: “Open access has nothing to do with the RWA.” Sure it doesn’t.

An Open Letter to Elsevier

Stephen Curry wrote this on February 11, 2012 at Reciprocal Space. Curry says he’s been working to stimulate dialogue since the start of the whole RWA shindig, is pleased to see the various posts from Elsevier employees, and wishes to continue the dialogue…by doing a bit of fisking. So, for example, an Elsevier statement and Curry’s response:

“Being criticized by even one researcher, let alone all the signatories of the petition, is difficult for a company whose reason for being is to serve the research community.”

This rather skips over the fact that Elsevier has a duty to make profits for its shareholders, which is another important reason for its being.

Or another:

“We have invested heavily in making our content more discoverable and more accessible to end-users and to enable the research community to develop innovative research applications.”

“Our content”? There they go again. How easily the publisher seems to forget where that content comes from. On Twitter Elsevier employee Liz Smith explained to me “‘Our’ content means the article we’ve invested in. It’s not our work and we know that.” I’d like to suggest that our partner tries harder to find a form of words that more clearly acknowledges the shared nature of the content. To be fair to them, however, perhaps the publisher is simply relying on the fact that most authors sign over to them the copyright of their journal articles.

There’s more, and it’s interesting. In this case, I also heartily recommend the comment stream, strong on useful discussion, weak on invective.

Why scientists are boycotting a publisher

This opinion piece by Gareth Cook appeared on February 12, 2012 in The Boston Globe. Cook calls the boycott “the beginning of [the scientific community’s] own Arab Spring” and says Boston should play a special role. Cook on Elsevier, after noting that it publishes some prestigious journals:

But Elsevier has settled on a business strategy of exploitation, aligning itself against the interests of the scientific community. Most of the intellectual work that goes into Elsevier’s journals is provided for free, by scientists whose salaries are largely paid for by taxpayers. Then Elsevier charges exorbitant rates for its journals, with many titles running in the thousands of dollars a year. This sharply curtails the sharing of results—the fuel of scientific discovery—and makes it prohibitively expensive for the public to read what appears in its pages. Yet for Elsevier, this looks like success: In 2010 Elsevier reported revenues of about $3.2 billion, of which a whopping 36 percent were profit.

Cook then notes RWA as “an odious bit of legislation” and discusses the boycott, level of profits…and, to be sure, the “Australasian” pseudo-journals from Elsevier. He believes the protest movement needs clearer demands and that the community needs better alternative models.

But what is most urgently needed now is the equivalent of a mass uprising in Tahrir Square. And that’s where the research community in the Boston area can play a role. Researchers should sign the boycott petition and encourage colleagues to sign. Those on an Elsevier editorial board should resign—and take fellow board members with them. This will not just send a message to Elsevier, but to an industry that needs to change.

Penguin ebooks & The Research Works Act: Publishers gain, communities lose

John Dupuis had been doing great work in gathering up links for articles on the RWA situation. Here, in a February 13, 2012 post at Confessions of a Science Librarian, he speaks out—relating RWA to Penguin’s decision to withdraw ebooks from library circulation. He started with a series of tweets, and while his post is well worth reading in its entirety, those five tweets get to the heart of the matter:

Penguin withdrawing ebooks from libraries & The Research Works Act are the same things.

Publishers want to monetize all reading and sharing transactions. Are publishers basically saying that they are opposed to the core values that libraries represent?

Both Penguin and the RWA are cases of legacy industries protecting rapidly crumbling business models in the face of rapid technological change.

At a certain level, the challenge is not just how to stop them but also to build a fairer system that can include diverse players.

Scholarly publishers have never been libraries’ friends, but it’s sad to see it happening on the trade publishing side too, though I guess just as inevitable.

For more, go read the original (and the comments).

Could Backlash to Research Works Act Boost FRPAA’s Odds of Passage?

This essay is about RWA, but it wouldn’t hurt to mention FRPAA again (it’s been noted already), since in some ways it’s the flip side of RWA, the Ceiling Cat to RWA’s Basement Cat. Andrew Albanese offered this article on February 14, 2012 at Publishers Weekly. He notes that 2012 is the third try for FRPAA and quotes SPARC’s Heather Joseph to the effect that it’s facing an uphill battle in an election year (and that it was referred to Darrell Issa’s committee). But the landscape has changed:

“One thing is for sure,” Joseph told PW, “the nature of the conversation on the [public access] issue has changed. The RWA debacle has helped to engage researchers on this issue in droves, so we’re seeing a more substantive discussion of how opening up access to this information helps scientists do their work.”

FRPAA would require free availability of final versions of publicly-funded articles no more than six months after publication. RWA, of course, goes to the other extreme: forbidding any such mandates.

How’s FRPAA doing? I don’t see any signs of progress.

Joining the Movement: A Call to Action

Here’s Barbara Fister’s February 16, 2012 take on the situation, at “Peer to Peer Review” on the Library Journal site.

Something interesting is happening. People are beginning to see connections and patterns and thinking, “It’s not just my corner of the information infrastructure that’s borked. The whole thing is messed up. And I think I can see why.” This isn’t just a library issue anymore; it’s an issue many scholars and ordinary citizens are seeing as their own fight.

It never was just a library issue—it’s just that librarians haven’t had much success in getting others involved. That’s changing. Fister brings in an issue that helps sharpen perceptions:

The fact that one giant publishing conglomerate after another has basically said that, in a digital age, public libraries are a bad idea has given the industry a bit of a PR problem. Until recently, the public mostly blamed their local public library when ebooks weren’t available, or were hard to download. They are now becoming aware that publishers actually want a system that cuts public libraries out completely.

There’s the ebook/RWA connection again. There’s more to this section, which you should read in the original. Then she gets to RWA and the unfortunate reality of library costs in the past:

Academic librarians have said for decades that the price of journals is unsustainable and damaging, but it seemed like a problem too mired in its own picayune academic context to be fixable. Publishers know that the majority of scholars who give them content, review it, and provide editorial work for free don’t care how much the finished product costs and aren’t interested in changing a system that so far works for them. This has been a “library problem” for most scholars, and what libraries have done to solve the problem has in many ways made it worse. We have used our money as duct tape to hold a broken system together and protect our users from its long-term consequences.

“Decades” is absolutely not an exaggeration: I was involved in a 10% serials cut in the 1970s at UC Berkeley—because the price of journals was unsustainable five decades ago. (Back then, it was mostly print. Ejournals haven’t improved the situation.) Ah, but consider that last sentence—and a key expansion, the extent to which libraries are abandoning the future:

In shifting our resources from developing shareable long-term assets to buying and using up massive amounts of duct tape, we’ve abandoned future library users in order to keep our current clientele happy. Somewhere along the line, we decided that good customer service trumps every other library value. That could be connected to the fact that some of our more vocal faculty are bullies and we have been intimidated by them. But it’s mostly because it’s one value that works for both libraries and for corporations. We care about service. And that works out swell for big publishers.

Strong language there, but not undeserved. Then she gets into the current RWA brouhaha and the extent to which it’s like “poking sleeping scholars with a sharpened stick.” She wonders why libraries keep doing as they’ve done—and shows that she’s walking the talk. She signed the Elsevier boycott, but that’s easy. More to the point, Fister—who writes mystery novels as well as being a librarian and library writer—has decided she won’t sign a contract with publishers that withhold ebooks from public libraries, a category that includes her current publisher. That’s putting it on the line. She wants others to be brave:

I challenge academic librarians to be as brave as the principled academics who are willing to make a sacrifice for the greater good by signing the Elsevier boycott. This would mean not writing, reviewing, or providing editorial services for some pretty significant journals in our field, including the following (a relatively short list, but including some high-profile journals such as Elsevier’s Journal of Academic Librarianship and Serials Review).

Fister closes:

To paraphrase distinguished mathematician Timothy Gowers, the moral issues here are among librarians, rather than between librarians and particular publishers. If you publish in journals owned by corporations that you feel are inhibiting the flow of knowledge, you are making it easier for these corporations to take action that harms libraries and their missions, so you shouldn’t.

Do read the comments.

Elsevier boycott: Time for librarians to rise up!

We’ll close the third act with John Dupuis’ February 21, 2012 call for action at Confessions of a Science Librarian. He quotes Cost of Knowledge’s call to action and some related links—and notes that he’s now signed the boycott. That’s become easier to do, since the site added Library and Information Sciences to its subject list.

Dupuis recently declined an opportunity to publish in an Elsevier professional newsletter in the library field and cited RWA as a reason. He’s now putting out the call:

I would ask all the librarians and library/information science people reading this to consider adding their names to the boycott as well.

Thus ends Act 3. The final act begins with a blink…

Elsevier Blinks, RWA Dies

“Elsevier withdraws support for the Research Works Act.” In all caps, that’s the heading on a February 27, 2012 “message to the research community” from Elsevier. This time I’ll quote the whole thing, since the action is so fundamental to the fourth act:

At Elsevier, we have always focused on serving the global research community and ensuring the best possible access to research publications and data. In recent weeks, our support for the Research Works Act has caused some in the community to question that commitment.

We have heard expressions of support from publishers and scholarly societies for the principle behind the legislation. However, we have also heard from some Elsevier journal authors, editors and reviewers who were concerned that the Act seemed inconsistent with Elsevier’s long-standing support for expanding options for free and low-cost public access to scholarly literature. That was certainly not our intention in supporting it. This perception runs counter to our commitment to making published research widely accessible, coming at a time when we continue to expand our access options for authors and develop advanced technologies to enable the sharing and distribution of research results.

We welcome indications that key research funders are more willing to talk to publishers to explore collaborative approaches. This is a good sign because we firmly believe that more cooperation and partnership between funders and publishers is the best way to expand free public access.

While we continue to oppose government mandates in this area, Elsevier is withdrawing support for the Research Work Act itself. We hope this will address some of the concerns expressed and help create a less heated and more productive climate for our ongoing discussions with research funders.

Cooperation and collaboration are critical because different kinds of journals in different fields have different economics and models. Inflexible mandates that do not take those differences into account and do not involve the publisher in decision making can undermine the peer-reviewed journals that serve an essential purpose in the research community. Therefore, while withdrawing support for the Research Works Act, we will continue to join with those many other nonprofit and commercial publishers and scholarly societies that oppose repeated efforts to extend mandates through legislation.

We are ready and willing to work constructively and cooperatively to continue to promote free and low-cost public access through a variety of means, as we have with research funders and other partners around the world.

I’m not going to parse that announcement. I suggest reading the fourth and fifth paragraphs very, very carefully. Twice. I will say that it’s followed by a link back to the February 3, 2012 statement of support for RWA, and Elsevier deserves full credit for keeping both items on the record. A few hours later, RWA’s sponsors dropped the bill like a hot rock—essentially disowning the idea in the process.

Elsevier blinks, once

That’s Library Loon’s take on the Elsevier message in a February 27, 2012 post at Gavia Libraria. The Loon says the blink is “an entirely welcome development…but it’s unlikely to help them very much.”

As with the 2007 protest, throwing the least-essential part of their strategy to the wolves only made sense, no doubt. Moreover, the RWA didn’t look like passing anyway, so why dwell? Call DC, call off the paid legislators, done. The only obvious cost is a minuscule amount of face on the part of those legislators, and legislators are accustomed to that, so they’ll keep taking Elsevier’s phone calls.

Will this allow Elsevier to regain face with boycotters? The Loon rather doubts it. It might have done once, but because The Cost of Knowledge has three parts to its manifesto, boycotters have been introduced to more about Elsevier than just its shady dealings with legislators. Boycotters will see this move for what it is: a sop to the wolves.

The Loon does think the move will allow Elsevier to regain face with provosts—for now. But down the line, with “the next comically oversized bill presented to a library,” not so much.

PubMed Central is probably safe from open Elsevierian meddling of the RWA sort henceforth. It’s here to stay, then, and open-access advocates should count that a significant victory. The Loon wouldn’t be entirely surprised to see the PRISM Coalition make a reappearance, as Elsevier tries less open (so to speak) methods of throwing sand in the gears, but the PRISM Coalition never did accomplish anything and seems unlikely to now.

If you’re too young to have heard of PRISM, a quick search on the Cites & Insights homepage will yield a bunch of references including at least one essay on the odd “coalition.”

The Loon considers whether Elsevier’s blink improves the passage of FRPAA. Go read that at the Loon’s pond; this piece isn’t primarily about FRPAA.

Can Elsevier save itself?

This is a fairly long post by Mike Taylor on February 28, 2012 at Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week—which has the subtitle “SV-POW! … All sauropod vertebrae, except when we’re talking about Open Access.” Taylor took the better part of a day to digest Elsevier’s blink and the wording. At first he “hoped that this was the first step on a path towards real change, leading to reconciliation with all the authors, editors and reviewers that they’d alienated.”

But then he went back and read the statement closely—and concluded (as I do) that “this is a strategic manœuvre rather than a fundamental shift.” He notes others who’ve had the same reaction—and this quote from the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Alicia Wise, Elsevier’s director of universal access, played down the boycott’s effect. “It’s something that we’re clearly aware of,” she said. But she emphasized that Elsevier had been sounding out the authors, editors, and reviewers who continue to work with it. “Those are the voices we have been listening to,” she said.

[By the way, the Chronicle piece—”Legislation to Bar Public-Access Requirement on Federal Research is Dead“—is by Jennifer Howard, nails the point that Elsevier’s withdrawal effectively killed the legislation, sees the bill’s sponsors suddenly saying quite the opposite of what RWA said, and in general is an excellent piece of journalism, well worth reading.]

Taylor’s response?

It’s hard to understand quite what Elsevier were hoping to achieve with this charmless passive-aggressive move, but it certainly wasn’t conciliation. The message can hardly be read as anything but a “screw you” to everyone who’s signed the Cost of Knowledge boycott. “We didn’t listen to you, we listened to the people who like us”. In other words, we listened only to the people who are already on our side. Far from being an attempt to win back former authors, editors and reviewers who had abandoned Elsevier, Wise’s statement brilliantly contrives to frame the RWA capitulation as both a bit of mutual backscratching and insult to the boycotters.

Well. How else to read that but as “We don’t want you back”?

There’s a lot more here, including a rather lovely renaming of a certain extremist anti-OA blog as Scholarly Echo Chamber.

Taylor concludes Elsevier just doesn’t get it.

In the context of a welcome concession of a very nasty piece of legislation, they’ve managed to botch the announcement and surrounding discussion in a way that betrays their core misunderstanding. They still think they own us. They have been careful to stop using the phrase “our content” in public since they saw how it upsets people, but at bottom they still think that the world of publications is all about the process of publishing rather than about what is published. And it just isn’t.

Taylor believes Elsevier will “be a footnote in ten years’ time” unless it makes a fundamental change—and, among other things, visibly supports FRPAA. I’d be surprised if Taylor’s prediction works out, much as I’d be surprised if, say, more than 75% of those signing the boycott actually stick to it. But it’s a lovely idea. (Interesting comment stream as well.)

I don’t have time…

Cameron Neylon, very active in the Elsevier boycott, posted a quick response to the Elsevier blink on Google+ on February 27, 2012. His four key points (and the bulk of his post):

1. The bill is dead. Essentially no-one else was supporting this bill. The AAP was working closely with senior Elsevier people and there was essentially zero engagement from anyone else. Apart from the Ecological Society of Amercia, no other AAP member or any other publishers supported the bill. For Elsevier to back down a deal must have been done to allow Maloney and Issa to save face.

2. This is a backdown, not a change of heart. The statement says very clearly that Elsevier will continue to oppose mandates. They distinguish at some level between government mandates and “working with funders” but Elsevier’s current practice is to consistently make life difficult and/or expensive wherever a mandate is applied, whether by government, funder, or by an institution. Senior Management at Elsevier believe that this is a principled position. I believe that is wrong-headed and tactically and strategically inept, but it seems unlikely that the position is likely to shift.

3. With no change of heart there will be no swing behind FRPAA. This is a tactical withdrawal to enable a more coherent publisher coalition to be built to oppose FRPAA. The AAP will do so strongly, along (probably) with Springer, Wiley-Blackwell, and a range of society publishers. Key questions are which way will Nature Publishing Group and the AAAS come out given they have given strong support to the NIH mandate. Remember that Issa is chair of the committee where FRPAA is currently lodged.

4. Shifting from a negative campaign against something towards something positive will be hard. FRPAA should be a major target for support and a means of bringing the coalition closer together. In the UK the Finch report provides an opportunity for the significantly grown OA community to demand that its voice be heard. And in the moves towards Horizon 2020 in Europe and the development and implementation of policy for that there are also large opportunities. Time to move on from what we oppose to what we support - and to articulate clearly both what that is, and how we get there from here.

If you were a publisher…

The Library Loon again, this time on February 28, 2012 at Gavia Libraria. The Loon suggests a thought experiment: So you’re Elsevier…

You just suffered a highly-public legislative defeat, in the process of which considerably more critical attention was drawn to the basic illogic and grotesquerie of your standard business practices than you would prefer. You are being soundly trounced on opinion-forming online social media by voices you can’t shut down owing to their pseudonymity. Worst of all, the activist cadre you inspired now smells your blood, refusing (thus far) to shuffle quietly away and ignore you again.

What do you do? Or what do you do if you’re Wiley or Springer or Taylor & Francis? It’s an interesting post—interesting and well-written enough that you should probably read it in the original. The Loon notes that Elsevier wants to ward off competitive threats, limit the PR damage and prevent FRPAA—and also that Elsevier’s PR capabilities appear to be somewhat wanting. But hey, here’s more.

Elsevier cannot be seen to campaign against FRPAA passage just now; the boycotters are on to that dodge, thanks to the language in yesterday’s press release. Elsevier has three US-based puppet organizations at hand that are not yet wholly compromised, the PRISM Coalition, the Association for American Publishers, and the Society for Scholarly Publishing. The Loon fully expects any of these, the PRISM Coalition likeliest as it is pure puppet, to start a full-on anti-FRPAA blitz…

… unless. Unless AAP/SSP members are too scared of the boycotters’ gimlet eyes to risk it. Or unless they see enough of their hated rival Elsevier’s blood in the water that they’ll throw Elsevier to the sharks. (Yes, yes, Elsevier’s demise will most likely take their fabled business model along to hell for the ride. They’ve been shortsighted so far; they’ll stop now why exactly?)

The Loon doesn’t think matters are considered quite that dire as yet, so she expects the puppet-blitz. She hopes that academe will avoid its usual werewolf pattern around change in scholarly communication: one night of soul-rending jagged-toothed violence subsiding to long days of toothless apathy.

Because Elsevier will be doing every single backroom deal it can swing. They hired Eric Dezenhall; they have no shame. And American politics is more than corrupt enough at present for backroom deals to overcome mild public protest.

We’d better be sure the protest will be more than mild, then. That is our next challenge. May we surmount it.

If you’re too new to the discussion to have heard of Dezenhall…well, the link in the Loon’s post might be a good place to start…if, ahem, you have access to this paywalled resource. I don’t, so I can only read the abstract, so I won’t comment on it. Or you could search “Dezenhall” at Cites & Insights to get to the times I mentioned him in 2007.

Elsevier withdraws support from Research Works Act, bill collapses

That’s Cory Doctorow on February 28, 2012 at boingboing. Doctorow’s own take:

I believed from the start that Elsevier would be vulnerable to a boycott threat. The Research Works Act was a desperate bid to eliminate competition arising from the scientists and scholars who supply Elsevier with an endless stream of free work that Elsevier then charges high fees to access, generally charging the institutions whose scientists produced the work to begin with. The question isn’t whether Elsevier deserves to make money, or makes too much money: the question (for institutions, scholars and scientists) is whether paying Elsevier is the best way to do science and scholarship. Elsevier isn’t a charity, and there’s no reason to expect institutions to pay for its journals if they can get better science and scholarship for less through the open access movement.

He believes the trend toward OA will be more pronounced and that Elsevier is vulnerable—and quotes without comment two paragraphs from the release, including the one that’s most telling about Elsevier’s real feelings. There are surprisingly few comments—including one from “tdberg” with some of the usual falsehoods about OA, specifically the assertion that all Gold OA requires author fees. Oh, and this gem from “gregbaker”:

Here’s the thing that baffles me: Elsevier withdrew their support, so the bill collapsed. This was a bill before Congress.

Aren’t congresspeople supposed to at least pretend these things are being done for the good of the country, not as the result of blatant bribery? I can’t believe they didn’t at least say “we’re going to think about it more” and let it drop silently, rather than pretty much come out and say “The paymasters said to stop this one.”

An extraordinary week

Kevin Smith commented on Elsevier’s blink, the rapid abandoning of the bill by its sponsors and more in this February 29, 2012 post at Scholarly Communications @ Duke. He recounts the events—including Elsevier’s open letter to the mathematics community, a remarkable document that you can read on its own. Some of Smith’s comments:

·         Regarding the bill’s abandonment:

It seems it was Elsevier’s legislation from the start, so the publishing giant got to call the shots for Congress. The announcement from Representatives Issa and Maloney contained the first extraordinary statement of the day, when they said that “The American people deserve to have access to the research for which they have paid.” This, of course, is what they had tried to prevent, and we must read the statement with a suspicious eye. But on its face, it seems to acknowledge the fundamental justice behind public access policies.

·         Regarding the “appeal for collaboration” in Elsevier’s letter, he offers three paths for mathematicians to pursue. “Talk with them, by all means, but don’t believe everything you hear.” (Followed by an excellent paragraph of discussion.) Keep exploring alternative publication models. And…well, I’m going to quote the third one n full:

Whenever you or a colleague/student does publish with Elsevier, look carefully at the publication agreement that is offered and cross out any language that ties your right to self-archive your work to the non-existence of an open access mandate from your institution of funder (you can find a sample agreement with this language here). This is an outrageous interference with academic freedom, and authors should not tolerate it. Simply pick up your pen and cross out any language that says you may only post a final manuscript of your work if you and your colleagues have not adopted a policy saying that you must do so. In this regard, it is worth noting this article by Kristine Fowler from the AMS website analyzing the relative success that mathematicians have had negotiating the terms of their publication agreements with the largest publishers in their discipline.

A tale of two bills: the Research Works Act and Federal Research Public Access Act

That’s the major essay by Peter Suber in the March 2, 2012 SPARC Open Access Newsletter. As you’d expect from Suber, it’s even-handed, brings up a number of points that hadn’t really been mentioned elsewhere (e.g., that RWA would in effect amend copyright law), is very extensive and just loaded with links. It’s well worth reading on its own.

You’ve signed on to the Boycott, now what?

We’re at the point where those still alive in this tragicomedy turn to the audience to deliver the moral to the story, after which the players all come out for appropriate applause or thrown vegetables. Instead of that coda, we’ll close with this: A SPARC Guide for Campus Action, issued—well, I’m not sure just when it was issued, but I tagged it on April 27, 2012. It’s intended as a resource for SPARC’s members, “to help you to engage your faculty and researchers, and talk with them about options for taking [appropriate] action.”

The piece provides as background the full text of RWA and a quick summary of what happened.

Once they have signed the boycott pledge, many scholars find themselves asking “what do I do next?” This document is intended to provide practical options for boycott signatories, as well as those who support the principles of the boycott. It enumerates a set of actionable activities that will can contribute towards remaking the scholarly communication ecosystem into a more efficient, more open, less costly environment.

The guide stands well on its own. Broadly, SPARC recommends considering OA journals, examining subscription prices, knowing your rights as an author, choosing referee assignments carefully, leveraging your influence as an editor (if you are one), investigating campus publishing initiatives, promoting a better tenure system, advocating for campuswide OA policies and engaging in the larger policy debate.

Those are just the key points. The guide is best read in the original.


For now. RWA is gone. Elsevier’s commitment to fighting against government mandates and true OA is not. Neither is the boycott. Will it be effective? Only time and the thousands of signatories will tell.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 12, Number 12, Whole # 156, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced irregularly by Walt Crawford.

Comments should be sent to Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large is copyright © 2012 by Walt Crawford: Some rights reserved.

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