On Thursday morning, Elsevier’s new CEO Kumsal Bayazit debuted in front of a librarian audience with a keynote address at the Charleston Conference. Bayazit stepped up to the podium amid high expectations. Her predecessor Ron Mobed retired earlier this year, as renewals with major accounts, including the University of California system, appeared stalled. Might Elsevier be rethinking elements of its negotiating tactics, product vision, or corporate strategy?
Bayazit’s full talk is available on video, so I will not attempt to recap all the details. Here is what stood out for me from the style and substance of her keynote.
Bayazit is clearly trying to reset the nature of Elsevier’s relationship with the library community. There was no need for Bayazit to come before this audience (a conference of mostly librarians but with a healthy representation of publishers and other vendors) unless she was truly interested in, as she put it, building bridges with this community. Judging from the audience reaction, it seems that at least in the near term this talk was disarming. Bayazit took a humble and direct approach, acknowledging librarian grievances and agreeing that in some cases at least they have merit. She asked for trust but emphasized that it would need to be earned through actions. What actions might these be?
Bayazit hinted at more deal-making flexibility than Elsevier has previously shown its library customers. In response to an audience member question, she admitted to pricing inequities across customers, referring to the current array of global content deals as “spaghetti,” given that many are still ultimately based on historic print spend. She committed Elsevier to a customer by customer unraveling of the spaghetti. But she also sees that different customers have different metrics of value, for example content access, usage, post-cancellation rights, or other attributes, which she anticipates will continue to yield some variation across customer agreements. How will Elsevier rebalance its customer agreements to provide more equitable pricing without sacrificing aggregate revenue?
Bayazit is committed to moving Elsevier towards greater open access — within the marketplace as it exists. As she put it powerfully, “No one can dispute the beauty and vision of freely accessible immediately available research content.” But Bayazit was also quick to list three key obstacles to open access: 1) The lack of open access adoption by faculty members even when it is made available on an opt out basis; 2) The insufficient resources available to publishing intensive institutions, will which are being asked to pay a greater share of publication fees in a gold open access ecosystem; and 3) Predatory publishing. Bayazit was absolutely clear that Elsevier will offer a variety of solutions in response to the demand of various market segments, rather than try to impose a single approach to open access globally, dashing hopes (if indeed any still existed) that Elsevier will lead a coordinated global flip.
Bayazit’s talk focused at length on product vision, giving no hint of any change in Elsevier’s strategic direction. She was optimistic and firm about Elsevier’s future as an analytics and workflow provider, entirely consistent with previous corporate communications such as this interview with chairman YS Chi last year. Bayazit called on the audience to “imagine” numerous specific benefits that might result from greater investment in these areas. In response to an audience question, she also was firm that growth in analytics would not result in any retreat from primary publishing, since “content is king.” We can certainly expect that under Bayazit’s leadership Elsevier will continue its massive investments in analytics and workflow.
Ultimately, Elsevier’s sense of its identity remains far more as an engine of science than a vendor to libraries. It will be fascinating to see whether Bayazit’s leadership results in a meaningful change in Elsevier’s brand position among its core customers.