Have I got your attention? Good. Let’s start with a thought experiment.

Elsevier publishes or helps to publish (through arrangements with society publishers) about 2,500 journals. Let’s imagine a world where Elsevier does not exist. In this hypothetical world every one of these journals is independently published. Thus 2,500 journals means 2,500 publishers. In that world, would the cost of these journals be higher or lower  than the cost today (IRL — in real life), where Elsevier indubitably does exist and publishes a huge portfolio?

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A related question:  Elsevier (or its parent, whose formal name is the unspeakable abstraction RELX) is often attacked for its high profit margins. They are over 30% — you can look these figures up, as RELX is a publicly traded company that perforce must release a great deal of information about its operations. Is it immoral that RELX makes so much money? As a matter of context I would note that 30% is a high figure if you run a shop or a services business, but not out of line with many companies in finance, media, and technology. Indeed, a fair number of not-for-profit publishers have margins that come close to 50%.

In the hypothetical world where RELX is broken into 2,500 different entities, the aggregate profitability of the publishers would come nowhere near 30%. Most of those one-journal publishers would lose money, as do most one-journal publishers IRL. I spend a great deal of time working with small publishers, who may publish anywhere from one to a dozen journals, and they mostly struggle to keep their heads above the water. It’s not that they don’t want to make money. They are not losing money because of the pursuit of their mission (though they will engage in some unprofitable activities on the basis of mission). The problem is that they just don’t have the scale to break into profitability. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule:  the most highly ranked journals (measured by Journal Impact Factor) tend to be the ones that can survive outside of a large portfolio of publications, but, by definition, something can only be highly ranked if it is not the norm. We often hear that the monopoly in copyrights is what makes companies so profitable, but even publishers that lose money have full control of their copyrights. It is scale, not monopoly copyrights, that drives a high level of profitability.

Why would the 30% profit margin (in the aggregate) come down? Because scale brings many, many economic benefits. Large companies, not just RELX, have the benefit of spreading costs over a relatively large revenue base. As John McAfee, the software entrepreneur, once said to me, it’s very hard to build and manage a Web site, but it’s trivial to manage a thousand. With a thousand you can hire skilled professionals and negotiate with suppliers for better pricing. This is what RELX does. On a per-unit basis RELX is probably paying less than the average publisher for the materials and services it needs. Only its peers in scale (Springer Nature, John Wiley, and Taylor & Francis) have the same purchasing clout in the marketplace. The effects of scale extend to personnel, where the biggest companies can afford to pay handsomely for the top people in the industry, whose every decision has an impact across the huge product portfolio.

RELX’s shareholders have benefited from the company’s scale, but so have its customers — and, for that matter, the research community at large. Let’s imagine the cost of working with 2,500 individual publishers. The administrative cost of doing so would be prohibitive. The aggregations of Elsevier and its ilk reduce the cost of assessing and purchasing publications for libraries. This means libraries need a smaller staff in acquisitions and all the support services that go with it. It is simply remarkable how much libraries accomplish nowadays because of their intelligent focus on workflow planning. But if you were to add 2,500 individual publishers to the mix, libraries would lose their internal efficiencies and also, as an unintended consequence, face higher prices, as the lack of efficiencies on the part of these tiny publishers would force them to charge more.

I see a hand go up in the back of the room: Whenever a small publisher partners with Elsevier and its kin, the prices go up, so how can I say that Elsevier keeps prices down? What this question misses is that the price goes up for individual subscriptions, but when the journal is folded into an aggregation or “Big Deal,” the cost per article drops, as price increases for aggregations are for the aggregation as a whole. Of course, large publishers, whose interest is in selling those aggregations, increase the price of individual subscriptions in order to drive customers to renew aggregations (publishers naturally deny this). This is also how many consumer services work; think, for example, of your cable TV bill. It is a structural property of the marketing of media in a digital age, and in this Elsevier should not be singled out either for praise or opprobrium. Misunderstanding this point leads to the uninformed pieces we regularly see in The Guardian and The Chronicle of Higher Education wailing about the increase in journal prices. What these lamentations overlook is that fewer and fewer libraries pay retail any more.

This is the basic trade-off: libraries have won administrative efficiencies in exchange for the negotiating leverage of the largest publishers. It sounds crazy, but it’s a win-win situation. The losers? Small publishers, who cannot operate at the scale of Elsevier and its peers and that have trouble getting libraries’ attention. And many librarians recognize this in their heads even as their hearts resist. As the head of one of the larger library consortia told me, We don’t have time to meet with small publishers. 

This is not to suggest that librarians should not fight Elsevier’s pricing — or anyone else’s for that matter. That is what purchasing agents do: they negotiate as hard as they can and they seek alternatives. Nor is this an argument to defend Elsevier’s trading practices. Elsevier does what it does because this is what companies do — when they are well managed. We would do the same if we sat in Elsevier’s chair (and if we were as bright). It is reasonable to object to Elsevier’s scale because of the asymmetry of power in negotiations. I would add that the pursuit of customer lock-in that my colleague Roger Schonfeld has written about is something that all libraries should be on the alert for. There is a case to be made that a company can be a publisher or a data analytics and workflow company, but not both. It is within universities’ power to insist that Elsevier be one or the other.

Which brings us back to the notorious 30% margins. It’s a bogus number. It’s real insofar as it reflects the profits Elsevier reports to the tax authorities every year, but it’s meaningless without putting it into context. Elsevier has saved libraries millions of dollars, perhaps more. It is churlish to resent them for being good at what they do.

Joseph Esposito

Joseph Esposito

Joe Esposito is a management consultant for the publishing and digital services industries. Joe focuses on organizational strategy and new business development. He is active in both the for-profit and not-for-profit areas.

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Discussion

59 Thoughts on "Why Elsevier is a Library’s Best Friend"

Dear Joseph,
1. You know perfectly well that it’s not a viable alternative to split Elsevier in 2500 one-journal-publishers. Between five and fifty pieces with 50-500 journals each would be something to think about.
2. You think Elsevier is cheap as compared to other publishers? My numbers tell a much different story if I compare the spendings per published article (of corresponding authors from my institution) to that from other publishers.
Best reagrds,
Bernhard

You write:
“Let’s imagine a world where Elsevier does not exist”
Ok, I imagine a world where Elsevier is replaced by SciELO which provides exactly the same services (only better: OA) for about US$100 per article (and has been doing so for nearly 20 years now), while Elsevier charges about US$5k on average. 2500 journals publish, say, 100 articles per year, each. So for my world we are talking about 250,000 articles per year at the following cost to the tax payer:
Elsevier: US$1,250,000,000
SciELO: US$25,000,000
In my fantasy world, Elsevier would have ripped of the global tax payer to the tune of one billion and twohundredtwentyfive million US$. As a tax payer myself, who happens to be fortunate enough to live in a country where I like paying taxes, I could think of a better use of this billion.
Bottom line: in its current form, Elsevier (and organizations like them) is nothing more than a parasite, living off of subsidies that would be of better use elsewhere.

“But if you were to add 2,500 individual publishers to the mix, libraries would lose their internal efficiencies …”
I wouldn’t be afraid of it. That’s why there are subscription agencies. They can make us forget which journal comes from which publisher.

Buranyi’s article on Robert Maxwell in the Guardian provides an interesting context:
https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/jun/27/profitable-business-scientific-publishing-bad-for-science

The issue here is that, like college athletes who are called amateurs and aren’t “paid” generate large sums of cash for the sports commissions, institutions and those employed in the various sports, the same holds for editors, academics and those who “moil” in the pub/perish mines for a commodity which the publishing industry maintains as critical for their survival.

To be fair, it is not the publishing industry that has created the publish or perish dynamic (though it was, as you note, Maxwell that first imagined how to best exploit it). This was created, and continues to be reinforced, by universities (whose faculty comprise hiring and tenure committees). And while it is true that reviewers and authors are are not paid by publishers (although editors often are) they are of course paid by their universities for their time, which includes the expectation of authoring and reviewing. Universities could “take back publishing” but have, over the last 50 years or so, instead gone in the opposite direction. University presses market share of journal publishing, especially in the sciences, has declined sharply. Which is to say that universities (Oxford and Cambridge aside) have determined that it is more effective (or perhaps simply more efficient) for them to outsource the publishing process to third parties rather than do it in-house via the university press. In this sense, publishers are service providers to universities who have determined that, factoring in subscription costs, they are better off outsourcing to Elsevier et al. than doing it themselves.

Yes, Michael, I agree and your focused comment is very important. Universities and funding agents have defaulted, not just on how/where research is published but to building some measure of value by an undefined algorithm that weighs numbers of publications mixed with impact factors without even knowing what was published or the half-life or future of those publications. In some institutions, faculty have demanded that students’ advancement also depends on being published, almost regardless of the journal, though certain ranking criteria prevail.

Maxwell’s insights and exploitation of those factors prevail today and journal publishers are far from passive in their use. Your comment on the fact that researchers and academics are “paid” is the same argument that, in the US, the NCAA and universities use with regards to compensation to college athletes while running a highly profitable sports enterprise.

What is problematic here is that this symbiotic relationship between publishers and those who have swallowed the “blue pill” is that we now have a proliferation of increasingly diluted research publications. The saving grace is the increased sophistication of AI search that is capable of extracting the wheat from the chaff. But it does not answer the exploitation problems.

You are talking about taxpayers money being used to publish research results funded by taxpayers money resulting in a profit margin of over 30% for some publishers – and it sounds like you feel it is unfair that the public get to know about this just because we are talking about publicly traded companies. Sorry, but I would be surprised if the scientific community feel they are getting value for money. Just posted a twitter poll to find out.

I think this is something of a misconception. Taxpayer funds are not used to pay to publish research results (except in cases where grant funds are used for open access APCs or page charges). Most frequently, such funds pay for the research itself, and then the researcher then chooses to pass along the costs of publication to the readers of the papers about the research.

Depending on how your university system is funded, taxpayer funds may indeed be used to pay for that access, but at least in the US, I’m told the majority comes from student fees and tuitions.

Also, your Twitter poll may suffer from sampling bias:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sampling_bias

We are about to pay:

$75 submission fee
$625 supplementary file fee (5 x $125 per supplementary file, which we were forced to separate out from one perfectly readable document, to individual files)
$650 page fees ($54 per page)
$897 colour image charge (After we downgraded the quality of our other figures to avoid having to pay $1776 for 3 images)

So we’re being charged $2247 to publish one paper. We are not publicly funded, but the fees are no different for those who are.

Exactly which costs of publication is being passed along to the publisher here? I agree that researchers are being paid to publish already, so shouldn’t expect to take a cut from the publisher’s sales of their work, but how can it be right for researchers to also be asked to cover all these fees?

If the publisher needs money to publish colour figures, or supplementary files, they should be making sure that comes from the profit on selling these papers, given to them for FREE, surely?

I’m not sure that really matters, the publisher is one of the big 5, but I still don’t see why we should have to pay to give them product to sell.

If the publisher thinks the article is worth publishing, and will make a profit from it, should researchers who can’t afford the fees really be prohibited from submitting their work because publishers won’t use their own profits to cover their own costs?

I don’t think anyone should have to pay these admin/publication fees, but I especially object to public money being spent on them.

What’s interesting to me is that, even knowing these charges, you still chose to publish in that journal. Clearly the costs are overcome by what you perceive you’re receiving from doing so.

In some ways publishers are caught between a rock and a hard place. Let’s say your publisher does away with all those charges. Remove the submission fee and the number of submissions massively increases. That means more editorial costs in dealing with those submissions, so the subscription price (or APC) has to go up. Similarly, if a journal publishes 20 articles a month, and your costs are average, that means $539K in revenue must now come from another channel, which again, to keep things equal means higher APCs or higher subscription prices. And then, just as you’re complaining about the funds coming out of your pocket, subscribers will complain about the increases and high costs.

But I’m not going to justify another publisher’s business methods or profits. There’s one publisher getting a lot of grief on Twitter this week for charging authors for color figures online, which in my mind is completely impossible to justify. There are lots of journals out there with different policies, different levels of profit and different costs. You, as an author, have to decide what’s best for your purposes and what you’re willing to pay. Choose wisely. If these things really matter to you, why are you voluntarily contributing to them?

The premise that the 2,500 journals would automatically be broken into individual entities is faulty. If these journals were published by their interrelated universities and or professional associations, the necessary economies of scale can be attained. This is possible as I have once helped this to be realised, removing journals from the Elsevier claws (given that the association retained ownership rights), partnering with sister organisations and publishing independently with long term success.

The author’s repeated defense and apparent sympathy for a business model that is morally and economically undefendable cannot but make one wonder about the ulterior motives of the author.

“Ulterior motives of the author”? Sheesh. How about simply getting the numbers right. Incidentally, most of my business activity is working with independent not-for-profit scholarly societies.

Joe, sorry to cast aspersions, please accept my apologies, but one must understand the total distain that a great portion of the academic community has for this company. Some of us have had the opportunity to witness this up close and first hand, while many have not. While I recognise the tougue in cheek nature of your article and its intention to be provocative, this is a very sensitive nerve in the academic community and will remain so until significant change is introduced.

Daniel:

Thank you for the laugh on this rainy morning. I have known Joe for years and I just cannot picture him hanging around the doors of Elsevier salivating over a potential consulting contract!

Ad hominem attacks are generally made by those who have nothing to say!

Hi Dave,

I am pleased that you speak on behalf of the author’s credibility, attesting to his objectivity and fairness. Unfortunately we live in a world of conflicting interests and opaque motivations, and I do not know him or his business interests.

It is impossible to provide a holistic and objective impression of Elsevier’s business practices and convey them on a public forum such as this. One only has to speak to persons who have worked with them or for them (I have even heard horror stories from present employees), but for obvious reasons, this information will never be expressed on such a public forum. I therefore suggest that TSK focus on publishing principles and concepts and leave specific references to commercial publishing companies out of the mix…yes it might provoke TSK readership and raise metrics, but it does not necessarily facilitate an objective discussion of the relevent scholarly publishing issues.

At the same time, I’ve heard strong praise of the company from current and former employees. This speaks to what, at least to my eye, was the point of this obviously deliberately provocative post. There is a knee jerk reaction when it comes to all things “Elsevier”, as they are the chosen bogeyman of the industry. The reality is much more complex and doesn’t fit into a simple “evil empire” storyline, no matter how compelling that may be.

As for TSK’s content, we are and will remain a mixed bag of opinions. The subjects chosen are those that interest our individual bloggers (and our guest authors). There are no limitations placed on those authors as far as subject matter (as long as it is relevant to the world of scholarly communications) and there is no enforced editorial viewpoint to which they must adhere (other than that any argument made has to be logically constructed and hold water). We have little motivation for chasing any metrics as we are largely a volunteer effort. The site does make some small amount of money from advertising, but we aren’t at a point where we’ve sold our current full capacity, so adding more capacity does not bring in any extra funds.

May I suggest that you cast your net a little wider to include bloggers that are constructively critical of traditional commercial publishing practices? From my standpoint, there is a lack of alternative perspectives on TSK.

While this post is obviously written to be provocative, it will hopefully start an interesting conversation around scale. Scale is the primary driver in not just the scholarly publishing market (https://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2015/06/25/the-changing-nature-of-scale-in-stm-and-scholarly-publishing/), but in all media and many other markets in the digital era. Digital seems to focus markets down to one property — one Facebook, one Google, etc. Amazon is doing everything it can to become the world’s only “everything store”. There are only a handful of major music companies left, very few movie studios (now that Disney is swallowing Fox). Newspapers, radio and television stations are increasingly owned by a small number of conglomerates. This is the current way of the world.

As Joe points out, there are tremendous business advantages to scale, so all these mergers and acquisitions make business sense. We’ve also moved from an era where startups were deliberately trying to be disruptive and take over markets to one where any promising startup is rapidly purchased by the incumbents in the market to further cement their leadership position.

And there are benefits to the customer. Librarians have tied up much of their budgets in big deals in return for cheaper access to more material. The convenience and low prices (easier to do when you’re a company that doesn’t have to turn a profit) of Amazon are enticing.

But with those benefits come problems. Libraries have lost bargaining power and flexibility. Many areas have seen their downtowns dwindle as local stores close, forfeiting tax revenue and local employment (unless you happen to have an Amazon warehouse nearby).

Where do we as a society draw the line? What are we willing to give away in order to save a few $ and a few minutes?

All you have to do is look at the “Related Articles” at the bottom of this page to understand Elsevier’s long-term business objective is to remove libraries totally from acquisitions, discovery, and delivery of intellectual property of their institutions authors. Go ahead, compare Elsevier’s business practices to a “cable TV bill” – I for one will always choose and support more equitable access to knowledge over cable television.

It should be noted that Elsevier is more than a publisher of journals. Additionally, in the journal’s field they provide more than just journals. They have a suite of tools that both authors and libraries utilize and whose costs are wrapped up in the costs of subscriptions.

I wish someone would focus on costs and impact, as well as profit. Funding bodies, policy makers, librarians, university administration, aren’t they all paid by tax-payers money? I have no opinion to share here about my former employer but I do want to say that profit is just one variable. Oh and I would like to note that doing research without proper access to relevant literature is really hard!

Funding bodies, policy makers, librarians, university administration, aren’t they all paid by tax-payers money?

Sometimes but not always. There are lots of private funding bodies (Wellcome, American Heart Association, etc., etc.). Policies are often formulated by thinktanks and consultants. Universities and their libraries are sometimes publicly funded, sometimes privately funded (certainly in the US). You’d have to look at each university’s finances to determine how their funds are allocated (grants and government funding versus tuitions, donations, patent fees, etc.).

Suggesting that non-profit publisher’s surplus and for-profit publisher’s profits are the same thing is a false equivalency. One must use those funds for its stated charitable aims, the other uses them to pay shareholders.

An important note here — many non-profits sit on large sums of retained earnings. In the publishing space, these can be hundreds of millions of dollars. These are then put into the investment market, to generate returns. The fund’s growth often becomes an end in and of itself, pursued without regard to the charitable purposes of the organization, and rationalized in a number of ways (“rainy day fund,” etc.).

These retained earnings are different, but not in a good way, in my opinion. No for-profit company would rationally allow so much cash to sit idle in a good market. Publicly traded companies would be forced to distribute excess profits as dividends and so forth. Non-profits that are successful in this space do sit on a lot of money. This includes universities.

So, yes, the surpluses are different, but non-profits tend to sit on theirs while for-profits generally make more productive use of their excess revenues.

It might additionally be pointed out that the shareholders of Elsevier (as well as Wiley and soon Springer Nature) include many university endowments, the reserve funds of societies, sovereign wealth funds, and the pension funds of state employees (e.g. CalPERS which manages the retirements of many faculty) among many others. So in addition to the licensing fees that commercial publishers pay to the societies that work with them, a not insignificant portion of their profits find their way back to not-for-profit and government shareholders.

An interesting article and it seems all anyone has to do is just mention Elsevier and the firing squad is assembled and ready to shoot. As someone that has followed and interacted with Elsevier since 1970, I can say that Elsevier did not start out as the big E. It took many years of careful management and running a business with great care and dedication. I have known all of the senior executives and some were ruthless but always focused on quality. Year after year they sold lesser quality journals without hesitation. They always aimed to have the top journals and were not afraid to sell off any title that missed the mark. I also had the privilege of knowing Robert Maxwell (he defined ruthlessness). The explosion of expenditures in science and technology by the government helped drive the enormous growth of manuscripts and Elsevier was in a position to take advantage of that growth as well as being in position to buy other publishers who were less focused and often near bankruptcy. If you look at the top 5 STM publishers all of them have 30% net margins. Many of the not for profit publishers also have high margins and yes they are sitting on a huge pile of cash.

Even with OA achievements over the past 15 years or more little has changed at the top STM publishers. Manuscript submissions are strong, sales of subscriptions remain stable, net margins remain at 30%. Elsevier has become the poster child for everything that is evil. Librarians love to complain bitterly about them, their recent acquisitions and yet it is the same libraries that are still buying journals and books mostly written by their own faculty. So we end up in a war of words and while Joe makes many valid points, everyone is happy to beat him up just because we are frustrated at Elsevier. Elsevier is trying to help libraries not cut them out. They have valued the relationship they have with libraries and have invested in companies that build tools for researchers. Given that libraries are responsible for 97% of the Elsevier revenue, why would they want to kill the golden goose that keeps them in business?

Dear Joseph: My main complaint about Elsevier is that they (and other commercial publishers) effectively destroyed the old ‘reasonable subscription pricing + reasonable author page charges’ publication model and also introduced a cost/article pricing structure that far exceeded that of major society publishers. It has been over 10 years since I looked at this problem, but at that time Physical Review B was priced at $1.33/article compared to Thin Solid Films at $7.30/article, Materials Science and Engineering B at $8.27/article and Journal of the Mechanics and Physics of Solids at $28.42/article. Might this suggest that 30% profit margin is on top of already excessive production costs? There were also some seeming oddities with foreign exchange rates at the introduction of the EURO. Thus, the benign view of Elsevier, as the library’s friend, seems a little exaggerated.

I’m afraid you are mistaken. You assume libraries purchase individual journals. They sometimes do, but most journals are published in large aggregations, which drives down the cost of individual articles (in the aggregation) and brings enormous efficiencies to libraries because of the scale of these aggregations.

Joe: Isn’t it more accurate to state: Most journals are ALSO published in large aggregations and that enoumous efficiencies can be achieved only if a majority of the articles are of sufficient interest to actually be read?

Firstly, thank-you Joe for such a stimulating post. Secondly, is it only David who puts his finger on the key point: scale? When the Internet came along, most thought it would reduce the barriers to entry, allow a thousand flowers to bloom and erode the power of incumbents. How wrong we were. The only incumbents who lost power were those who didn’t move fast enough to embrace the Internet but Elsevier, along with just about all other journal publishers, moved very fast indeed. They not only shifted their operations to digital, they digitised their blacklists and launched new products which gave a vastly better service at much lower total lifetime cost (how much less do libraries spend now on things like chasing missing issues, re-binding, re-shelving and long-term storage?) – for how else to explain why libraries gave up printed subscriptions for the big deals? David is right, in many areas, the new economics of scale that came with digital has led to their being only one player stomping remorselessly on neighbouring flowers and raising the barriers to entry. This is a significant management and societal challenge for us all. In this light, that there are still four-five big players in the journals market and a fairly long tail too – and no significant new entrant disruptor – is what’s remarkable, not the margins earned (which are not dis-similar to those earned prior to digital.) But Monique’s point about cost and impact is also important. When I joined the OECD 20 years ago, we published c300 new books annually, c150 papers and 300 datasets – all in physical formats, nothing was online. On the basis of what usage data existed at the time, I estimated that total reading of OECD’s works was around 250,000 a year from an audience based at around 400-500 institutions, all in rich countries. Today, we publish pretty much the same number of publications but are delivering 250,000 full-text accesses a week and have 4,500 institutions choosing to pay for our premium services, many in developing countries. I’m sure other publishers have the same experience. However, on cost, there has been no reduction. Sure, we have much smaller printing, postage and packaging bills, but these have been more than offset by significant and ongoing investments in IT – essential if we are to keep up with user expectations and continue to grow audience share. This is where scale kicks in (and it hurts).

Don’t know, but looks like a paid PR exercise, the problem with Elsevier is that they are commercial and totally profit driven company, the arrogance as a company is legendary. In the process they have lost a humane face and Journals price is just one of the many ills in this company.

Economies of scale bring down cost, but incase of Elsevier they have increased it and become monopolistic, the biggest mistake was to let them acquire Publishing companies in 90s and become greedy and fat.

The author of this article tries to honey coat the brilliant content they have with their devil like policies in terms of pricing and arrogance.

Surely there is an obligation for a conflict of interest representation here. Does the author consult for Elsevier or for organisations with a strong interest in the Elsevier model for academic libraries? Since Elsevier itself is a sustaining organisational member of the SSP, isn’t some conflict inherent in this article’s existence on the site? Does the author work with SSP in any compensated capacity?

Where we see a direct conflict of interest (or even a possible one), we ask our authors to make such a note. You’ll see a lot of posts with “full disclosure” parentheticals included. As noted on our “About” page (https://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/about/):

The Scholarly Kitchen is a moderated and independent blog aimed to help fulfill this mission by bringing together differing opinions, commentary, and ideas, and presenting them openly…
Opinions on the Scholarly Kitchen are those of the authors. They are not necessarily those held by the Society for Scholarly Publishing nor by the authors’ respective employers.

Given that nearly every company mentioned on this site is an SSP member in some capacity, not to mention the many librarians that are members, it would be impossible for this site to exist if we had to avoid all mention of any entity with any connection to the Society. As far as I know Joe does not do any compensated work for SSP (and as with all our bloggers, is a paying member).

As far as I know, the author is an independent publishing consultant without direct ties to Elsevier. We ask our authors to provide such statements, and I know that Joe has, in the past, recused himself from writing about certain topics because of his business.

I take your point about the pointlessness of avoiding mention of organisations that support the society. But that’s not actually what I was suggesting, and I apologise if I wasn’t clear. Let me revise my question: why not simply require authors to declare any conflicts for each article they write (as many journals require) instead of relying on editorial judgement about whether to ask. Besides being simpler, less work, and less prone to editorial mistakes, it would also address in advance questions like mine about the conflicts in any particular article

Our author instructions specifically include the following:

Contributors should be careful to disclose all connections to people and organizations they write about. These disclosures should include past connections.

I have never consulted for Elsevier; I have never worked there. I receive no compensation from Elsevier. I do not “support” their trading policies or practices: I merely describe them. A careful reader would see that there is a strong criticism of Elsevier in the post, to wit, I do not believe that a company should be both a publisher and a data analytics company at the same time. That would be a conflict of interest.

I’ve been working in OA and OER for years and am a strong advocate. I am appreciative to Joe for offering this nuanced argument that it is not good vs. bad in these areas. We don’t have to love Elsevier, Springer Nature, Wiley, etc., to admire what they have been able to accomplish and can learn lessons from them about best to compete with them. Thanks for the post!

It seems to me that the advantages of scale are rather obvious. Elsevier’s ability to achieve this scale was faciliated by its nefarious business practices (see https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/jun/27/profitable-business-scientific-publishing-bad-for-science), allowing it to amass tremendous financial resources in order to build its publishing infrastructure. If these business practices can be successfully deconstructed, we would see a redistribution of these resources which would help alternative, more equitable publishing models to achieve similar economies of scale.

or the articles could just be free and the librarians wouldn’t have to worry about negotiation with publishers, and focus on their actual job of finding content and making sure that others can find it too? negotiating the purchase of content is the least important thing that librarians do. other services that elsevier provides (e.g. indexing) could be readily replaced in an ecosystem that valued that- look at what pubmed/GScholar do.

very weird to assume that the legacy economy of print publishing from the mid-20th century is the only important factor in library services today. not even elsevier thinks that it’s important these days, compared to decentralized publishing: https://twitter.com/rschon/status/951791224201056256

Maybe I’ve missed something but it seems that all this discussion of the economic “benefit” of dealing with a large publisher makes one rather large assumption: that academics actually need access (and therefore subscriptions) to all 2,500 of the journals that are aggregated in Elsevier’s Big “Deal” – or the similar “deals” offered by other large publishers. Irrelevant, poor quality or unnecessary journals are routinely mixed in with the journals that institutions and academics are actually hankering after. So we aren’t actually talking about replacing a Big Deal with a like-for-like array of journals from individual small publishers, we are instead talking about replacing a Big Deal with the opportunity to selectively subscribe to those journals that are relevant to our academics. The consumer is not given a choice in this matter. We get what we are given, whether we want it, need it, or not.

On a personal note: as somebody who has published with and reviewed for Elsevier in the past, somebody else making 30% profits on my hard work is pretty galling.

And yet, like another commenter on this article, you still published with Elsevier despite those profits. So clearly there was something you received back that made you think that it was worth it, that outweighed the “gall”. There are lots of journals and lots of publishers with different policies and profit margins. Each author must decide for him/herself what’s most important, and make an informed decision about where to publish.

somebody else making 30% profits on my hard work is pretty galling

Then be sure not to purchase an iPhone, iPad, Mac or anything from Lego.

You diregarded his ‘on my hard work’ when making the inappropriate comparison. He did not submit a research paper free of charge to Lego or Apple. TSK again shows its traditional publishing defence ‘spots’.

So Apple and Lego give him those products for free? He didn’t have to do his “own hard work” to earn funds to pay for those products?

With journal publishing, one has a choice — pay directly for the publication services (open access APCs as an example), or shift the costs of those services onto others (subscription journals as an example). Again, this choice is up to the author. Choose wisely.

David, that’s an inane and rather rude response that I will just file under ‘ad hominem’. Firstly, when I published with (and reviewed for) Elsevier long ago I was a young, naive and over-worked early career researcher with little experience of how the world of academic publishing worked. I thought I had no option than to publish in certain journals because that’s where everybody around me (including my supervisors) published. After a few years in the business, I realised that Elsevier was making huge profits while I was working for them for free. I then stopped doing so immediately and haven’t published with them or reviewed for them since.

Now, to move this discussion forward (rather than sniping at each other’s personal asides) would you care to address the main point I was trying to make, that of the glaring assumption of like-for-like replacement of journals in this “economic” argument, rather than attacking me?

I’m sorry — it was not meant as an attack. But you’re not the first person commenting here that declared that you made a voluntary decision to publish in an Elsevier journal, actively supporting their business practices, then complained about those same business practices. I’m glad that over time you have become more informed about the choices in the market and have adjusted your behaviors. As someone who has deliberately only worked in the not-for-profit publishing sector, I can tell you that this behavior is rare. Most researchers (like most humans in general) act in their own self interest. Clearly there is some benefit being offered by Elsevier to authors that overcomes the negatives they also offer. If one wishes to displace them, then one must be clear on what those benefits are and try to replicate them through other channels.

But I didn’t comment on your other point because I largely agree with it. I work for a company that offers packages of journals but does not require “take everything or nothing” deals, and we work carefully with librarians to create custom packages that meet their needs without adding anything they don’t want. I think this is a much better way to do business, and that if you want someone to subscribe to your journal, you do so by making a high quality and desirable journal to read.

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