I used to have a hard time explaining the anger, resentment, and hostility that many scientists feel toward the big academic publishing houses. It’s been getting easier, though. Recent events have, unfortunately, provided people with an experience that makes it easier to relate to what the academic community has been going through.
Gas prices are going up. You’ve been combining trips, cutting your milage as much as you can, driving a more efficient vehicle, and your fuel costs are still going up. You drive home from work, stopping along the way to put $30+ dollars worth of gas into the 10 gallon tank in your Prius. You sit on the sofa, turn on the news, and hear that Exxon-Mobil just reported quarterly profits of about $1,500 per second. The price of something that you need to buy is going through the roof, it’s making things inconvenient for you, and the people who sell it are making money faster than the mint can print it. How happy are you?
If you want to understand the anger that the major publishing houses are generating, that’s a good place to start.
Publishers don’t make money at anything close to the clip that Big Oil does, but they’re not doing badly. Elsevier is probably the biggest fish, and they come in at a respectable $1,700 per minute. That’s 60 times less than Exxon-Mobil, but it’s still a nice chunk of change.
The university libraries that make up a large proportion of their customers have beenfeeling the pinch more and more. The cost of the journals has been rising at a much higher ratethan inflation. This means that either the library need to receive a significant budget increase every year (and if you’ve ever worked at a university you know exactly how easy that is to do) or they need to cut spending somewhere else to make up the difference.
It’s important to remember that access to journals is, for scientists, as much of a necessity as gasoline. In fact, it can be easier to cut utility usage than it is to cut journal use. If it’s a sunny day, I can turn the lights off in the lab. But if I can’t get access to the most recent developments in my field, I’m not going to be able to work effectively.
So far, the situation that I’ve described with journal prices is similar to the gasoline analogy I presented. Both are necessities (at least under certain circumstances). Both have been increasing in price. And the providers of both are making large profits, while their customers suffer.
That’s where the analogy ends, though, because scientists are not only the end customers for journals, they’re also the people who provide the content. For free. If you want to continue the analogy, you’d have to pretend that during the whole time that gas prices and profits have been rising you were spending five or ten hours a week working on an oil rig, and that you’re doing it without pay.
Online journal charges have, however, been rising much faster than comparable prices, and Elsevier prices have been in the lead. Library acquisition budgets are increasingly being driven by unsustainable increases in journal prices. Elsevier’s revenues and profits have been rising fast in recent years. Their profits were up 26% in the last year. Elsevier’s prices are not proportional to the use of these journals made by UC faculty. Access to Elsevier journals costs the UC system 50% of its online budget, and use of these journals is only 25% of total online journal use.
UC Faculty members are important players in Elsevier’s journals. 10-15% of the content is written by UC faculty, 1000 faculty are on the boards of Elsevier journals, and about 150 faculty are senior editors for those journals.
The University of California started negotiation with Elsevier seven months ago, seeking to establish a sustainable relationship with Elsevier. Those negotiations have not yet concluded but there is a chance they will break down if Elsevier is unwilling to price its product in an affordable way that avoids punishing annual price increases that are 2 or 3 times the Consumer Price Index rate of inflation.
The relationship between publishers and the scientific community is not a partnership. It’s parasitic.
And it gets worse, because the parasite doesn’t even have the decency to try and hide what it’s doing. Instead, the major academic publishers seem to feel that they are entitled to continue to make enormous profits selling scientific research to scientists at outrageously inflated prices.
This sense of entitlement has been at its most obvious where the open access movement is involved. Publishers like Reed Elsevier fought tooth and nail against legislation that would require researchers to make a copy of their work freely available within a year of publication. Along the way, they claimed credit for the entire peer review process, slighting the editors and reviewers who actually do the work – for free – for them. Then, when they finally give in after fighting tooth an nail against open access requirements for years, they brag about their “leadership” when it comes to making their products more accessible.
Were it not for their track history, I suspect that neither the Mad Biologistor I would have been quite as irritated when they “borrowed” some of our work for internal use. With the track history, though, seeing our words sitting, without proper credit, permission, or attribution, on a page that bears a prominent notice protecting their copyright becomes something more. It goes from being a minor discourtesy to being another symptom of the company’s lack of respect for the people who do the bulk of the work to produce their profits, and provide the bulk of their customer base.
Like most bloggers, I have an ego. I’m not mentioning that by way of apology, but as an explanation for why I was browsing through my sitemeter statistics last Friday. Every now and then, I head over to sitemeter, call up the view that lets me see what websites referred people to my page. If I see a link that’s coming from a source I don’t recognize, I browse over and look to see what people are saying about me. Yeah, it’s sad. Yeah, it’s shallow and self-centered. And, yeah, I know a bunch of you have your own blogs and do it too.
Anyway, I’m almost at the end of the list from the last 100 hits when I come across this link. I don’t recognize it, so I click on it and I’m taken to this page. (I saved it as a pdf because I’ve got a feeling that it won’t be accessible at the link for much longer.) That page contains the majority of a post about open access that I wrote a few weeks ago.
I was not asked for, and did not give, permission for my work to appear on that page, much less in that format. Needless to say, I felt a little slighted.
The website in question appears to be a custom version of the LexisNexis search engine. This particular version appears to be Elsevier’s own custom version, intended for internal use. I don’t have conclusive proof of that, but the title bar at the top of the page reads, “Elsevier Corporate”, and the person who accessed my blog from that page had an IP address that’s registered to MD Consult, which is an Elsevier subsidiary. My guess is that Elsevier’s keeping track of news articles and blog posts that mention them, along with the context in which they’re mentioned.
So, someone at Elsevier apparently made a copy of something I wrote criticizing Elsevier, and made that copy available to whoever has access to their (apparently not well-secured) house version of LexisNexis. This might technically be a copyright violation, but if it is it’s basically just the electronic equivalent of clipping a news article, photocopying it, and sticking the copies in co-workers’ mailboxes. Is this really something that I should care about?
Clearly, I think it is, or I wouldn’t be writing this post.
This blog, like almost all blogs, is an open-access publication. There’s no charge to read this blog. If you’ve got an internet connection and time to waste, you can scroll through the things I’ve written to your heart’s content. The thing is, open access doesn’t mean that nobody gets paid.
If you’re reading this material on my blog, you’re going to see some ads. The ads bring in income for the Seed Overlords. They use that income to cover the not-insignificant costs of running this online Zoo. They also pay me (and the rest of the bloggers). The more people read my posts, the more opportunities there are for someone to actually look at one of the ads, and the more I get paid. I don’t get paid when people read this on someone else’s website.
Advertising-supported web publishing is a business model that Elsevier understands quite well. In fact, it’s a business model that they use. They run a cancer information site that’s open accessand supported by advertising. And because they get paid only for the ads that appear on their site, they have a copyright policy that prohibits reposting their material on other sites without their consent.
That’s not the only time that Elsevier has shown a very acute awareness of where their money comes from. They’ve consistently opposed open access initiatives around the world, because open access requirements would have a very large impact on their bottom line. In fact, they’ve gone to great lengths to try to protect their income stream. As you may remember, they were one of the publishers involved in the astroturf group “PRISM” that their attack dog PR expert put together to lobby Congress in opposition to an open access initiative.
Elsevier has spent a great deal of time, energy, and money in an effort to get people to respect their income flow. They apparently didn’t bother to think about mine.
I’m not upset about this because of the money, though. (It’s not like I get paid all that much anyway.) I went into the financial aspect partly because it’s a clear illustration of Elsevier’s thoughtlessness, and partly because I’m not entirely certain that they will understand any other basis for objecting to their actions. The money isn’t the real issue. The real issue is respect.
Scientists provide the content for Elsevier’s journals. They donate their time to review, and often edit, the articles that appear in the journals. They make up the bulk of the audience for the journals. Yet Elsevier has, time after time, demonstrated a complete lack of respect for scientists and the scientific community. It’s not a surprise that they would decide to grab my post, while ignoring my rights to my own material. It’s simply another example of where their focus is: intellectual property matters if and only if it’s theirs.