Elsevier Ramps Up Its War On Access To Knowledge

from the shameful-behavior-from-a-shameful-company dept

We just recently wrote about the terrible anti-science/anti-knowledge/anti-learning decision by publishing giant Elsevier to demand that Academia.edu take down copies of journal articles that were submitted directly by the authors, as Elsevier wished to lock all that knowledge (much of it taxpayer funded) in its ridiculously expensive journals. Mike Taylor now alerts us that Elsevier is actually going even further in its war on access to knowledge. Some might argue that Elsevier was okay in going after a “central repository” like Academia.edu, but at least it wasn’t going directly after academics who were posting pdfs of their own research on their own websites. While some more enlightened publishers explicitly allow this, many (including Elsevier) technically do not allow it, but have always looked the other way when authors post their own papers.

That’s now changed. As Taylor highlights, the University of Calgary sent a letter to its staff saying that a company “representing” Elsevier, was demanding that they take down all such articles on the University’s network.

The University of Calgary has been contacted by a company representing the publisher, Elsevier Reed, regarding certain Elsevier journal articles posted on our publicly accessible university web pages. We have been provided with examples of these articles and reviewed the situation. Elsevier has put the University of Calgary on notice that these publicly posted Elsevier journal articles are an infringement of Elsevier Reed’s copyright and must be taken down.

Taylor’s analysis of this is worth reading. He basically notes that any shred of a chance for Elsevier to fix their reputation is now gone. In the past, he’d suggested ways that the company could better interact with academics and librarians to rebuild its reputation — but this basically crosses the point of no return.

Because this is, obviously, a very short-term move. Whatever feeble facade Elsevier have till now maintained of being partners in the ongoing process of research is gone forever. They’ve just tossed it away, instead desperately trying to cling onto short-term profit. In going after the University of Calgary (and I imagine other universities as well, unless this is a pilot harassment), Elsevier have declared their position as unrepentant enemies of science.

In essence, this move is an admission of defeat. It’s a classic last-throw-of-the-dice manoeuvre. It signals a recognition from Elsevier that they simply aren’t going to be able to compete with actual publishers in the 21st century. They’re burning the house down on their way out. They’re asset-stripping academia.

Elsevier are finished as a credible publisher. I can’t believe any researcher who knows what they’re doing is going to sign away their rights to Elsevier journals after this.

Of course, there’s a legal-geek part of me that hopes that Elsevier takes that last step off the ledge of insanity and actually files a lawsuit against a University (or, even more ridiculous, an academic author), and we get to see the mother of all copyright battles concerning fair use. Remember, in the US, among the key areas where fair use is likely to be found are “teaching, scholarship or research.” That’s in the statute itself. So, go ahead, Elsevier, bring it on.

The University of Calgary is up in Canada and it has somewhat different rules, including fair dealing, rather than fair use. But the Supreme Court there appears to be quite supportive of fair dealing, especially in academic settings. Other reports note that the company has been similar notices to US-based colleges as well.

Why Elsevier has decided to declare such a war on access is anyone’s guess, but it’s not going to end well.

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Comments on “Elsevier Ramps Up Its War On Access To Knowledge”

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43 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Greed

There are only few private people actually subscribing to real scientific journals. It is all about libraries and larger R&D-minded companies.

What Elsevier is doing here is a moneygrab to get better control of copyrighted material to the loss of their authors. Let us see how well it works for them to ruin their reputation by gnawing the hand that feeds them!

I wonder how long the copyright given to Elsevier is? The longer the copyright, the longer this dino will fight to destroy open access and other competition.

Peter Wakefield Sault (user link) says:

Re: Re: Greed

It has always been a general point of law that an author can recover a copyright that was assigned in perpetuity to a publisher if the publisher sits on the work instead of actually publishing it. Sitting on it is effectively what Elsevier is doing by placing it beyond the reach of all but giant corporations. But Big Academia does not actually want to stop this. Big Academia doesn’t want anyone to find out that it’s been wearing the emperor’s new clothes all along. It is an exclusive oligarchy that has been bought up by the banks and entrance to its ivory towers now depends on inherited wealth rather than merit. It is Big Academia itself which needs to be dismantled (and replaced by the Internet).

Consider this: What has Yale, for example, given the world? Skull’n’Bones (Lodge 322, the Yale Society of Death) is what. And what did Skull’n’Bones give the world? 9/11 is what.

Peter Wakefield Sault (user link) says:

Re: Re: Brilliant idea

“a wikipedia like repository where everyone can access knowledge for free, and contribute to science”

So simple. So elegant. It will never happen because Big Academia cannot risk the world finding out that all the really, really clever people have been excluded from it all along. The power politics of professorial chartered monopoly win every time.

(Not too like wikipedia, I would hope. Plagiarism is not nice.)

kitsune361 (profile) says:

Yea, outsourcing.

As Taylor highlights, the University of Calgary sent a letter to its staff saying that a company “representing” Elsevier, was demanding that they take down all such articles on the University’s network.

(emphasis mine)
Sounds like they’re outsourcing their enforcement. Whether or not it’s a legitimate mistake (like the incedents of media companies issuing takedown notices w/ Google on their own websites) or they’re testing the waters, using the outsourced company so they can later disavow them, we’ll probably never know.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Yea, outsourcing.

‘or they’re testing the waters, using the outsourced company so they can later disavow them’

That could very well be it. If they did this themselves, then they’d catch all the flack over it. Using another company to act as a ‘buffer’ though, they can gauge the public reaction to something they were considering, and just claim the other company ‘went beyond our directions’ should the backlash be severe enough.

arleenzank (profile) says:

Knowledge Lost

Not a good week for academic publication. Elsevier is busy trying to block authors from dispersing the knowledge in their work at the same time that lots of hardcopy research journals and the data they contain are being thrown away with no archival copies being left for the public to access.

Access to knowledge may soon be displaced by flat out loss of knowledge if those in the academic publication world don’t focus on their users instead of their business model.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Knowledge Lost

They have to get their money from somewhere! Tapping further into the research grants is likely the best way to do it for new publications but for older texts it aint gonna cut it.

Digitizing more than the most popular texts is a dark hole to throw money at for most libraries, museums and other text collecting entities. It still remains to be seen, how to ensure that transition for scientific texts without charity funding (whether from government, private donations or companies).

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Knowledge Lost

You could argue for a move towards other means than capitalism for measuring societal values, but that is a ultimately a political move and it would take quite the transition! I am not sure being that drastic would pay off.

In all fairness, it is not throwing away knowledge as much as a passive restriction (storage on paper is relatively resiliant to time). I agree that it is shortsighted, but the resources have to come from somewhere for the texts to make the transition.

Peter Wakefield Sault (user link) says:

Publishers

1. Authors do not have to assign copyright to publishers. There is no law requiring it.

2. Authors do not have to use a “publisher” at all now that we have the Internet and e-books. There is no law requiring it.

Of course, rubbish authors will always suck up to publishers. That’s why there’s next to nothing new worth reading any more. “50 Shedloads of Gruesome” anyone?

Besides which, Big Academia has brought ignominy upon itself with such nonsense as “Big Bang”, “Global Warming”, “Holocaust” and a general failure to so much as even notice that 9/11 ever happened. It is becoming irrelevant by its own hand. Proof of karma if ever there was.

Karl (profile) says:

Re: Publishers

1. Authors do not have to assign copyright to publishers. There is no law requiring it.

2. Authors do not have to use a “publisher” at all now that we have the Internet and e-books. There is no law requiring it.

What there is, however, is a “publish or perish” mentality in academia. The idea is that if you don’t have a significant body of works published in respected academic journals, it is nigh-impossible to get a tenured position.

This puts tremendous pressure on academics to publish works – and specifically with “respected” periodicals. This means that “respected” journals (read: legacy publishers) have a tremendous amount of bargaining power over academics: if they don’t sign over the copyright to the article, they won’t get published, and probably won’t get tenure.

Moreover, since academics generally don’t care about the market value for their articles themselves, they often don’t see any problem with assigning the copyright to the periodical.

Big Academia has brought ignominy upon itself with such nonsense as “Big Bang”, “Global Warming”, “Holocaust”

…and now you put on your tin foil hat. “Big Academia” must mean “everyone who believes in empirical evidence,” that’s what supports all of the “nonsense” you’ve just mentioned.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Publishers

Here, the “publish or perish” is made into a system of metrics governing the respectability of the publication and the citations/views/lenght of publication/lix-number etc. etc.
Academia-metrics are one of the most important deciding factors in the likelyhood of you getting funding. It therefore sux to be a young professor, while the old and dried out can easily get funding for their less valuable projects.
Moving up in the world to a tenured position is tantamount to being able to get enough grants to keep yourself busy and a bit extra as safety.

I cannot understand his “Big Academia” thinking either. It sound like creationist or lizardmen-variety worldviews…

Jay (profile) says:

Re: Re: Publishers

What there is, however, is a “publish or perish” mentality in academia. The idea is that if you don’t have a significant body of works published in respected academic journals, it is nigh-impossible to get a tenured position.

There’s a severe irony in doing this… The number of tenured positions has dropped immensely while the number of adjuncts has increased in academia. You can be a grad student for quite some time, saddled with debt and still barely make enough to pay your bills.

It’s like people are running around in a rat race and don’t know how to get out of the maze.

Anonymous Coward says:

FUTON bias

Making the articles less available makes them less valuable. Quoting Wikipedia,

“[…] articles that are available as full text on the Internet have more visibility and impact, as they are more likely to be accessed, read, quoted, and incorporated into new research.”

Researchers want their articles to have more visibility and impact. Researchers want their articles to be cited more often. Making their articles less available goes directly against that.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: FUTON bias

The word value does not always equate to money.

Knowledge has value regardless of its ubiquity, knowledge widely dispersed throughout a society makes that society more valuable. Attempting to monetize the distribution of knowledge is counterproductive to the betterment of that society, but greed seems to blind many to this.

Anonymous Coward says:

Does anyone here have any idea how and from where ER receives articles for inclusion and publication in its various journals/reference books? I very well understand the how publication works within academia and industry. Whether a paper is “owned” by a professor/ private sector employee/employer/other, almost universally journals require that they, as a condition of publication in a journal transfer title to copyright to the journal (not license on an exclusive basis for some period of time as some might expect, but actual title – ownership of the associated copyright). Sadly, very few in the collective group providing such “assets” to journals have a clue what the signing over of title really means, and do so because “that is the way it has always been done. The almost universal norm does not have to be if authors/copyright holders simply take the time to talk with someone who understands copyright law and its licensing. Only in very rare circumstances is one who takes a hard stand and refuses to title transfer told “too bad, no publication for you”. I well know this to be the case because this is precisely what I conveyed to journals and professional organizations publishing such papers, and in every case they dropped their demand for title and accepted an appropriately limited license for publication.

My familiarity with the “process” does not extend to how various articles get from the original rights holders or later rights holders like journals to ER. That would certainly help analyze from a legal perspective what is happening and any weaknesses associated with such transfers.

In the context of this article it is a bit frustrating to understand what is going on because the author of the linked article does not say if what was posted on the University’s website are articles by members of its faculty or articles by persons not associated with the university. If the former, it is a shame that title was likely transferred to a third party, and that title was used by the third party to work out a deal with ER to the possible detriment of the original rights holder.

Karl (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Does anyone here have any idea how and from where ER receives articles for inclusion and publication in its various journals/reference books? […] My familiarity with the “process” does not extend to how various articles get from the original rights holders or later rights holders like journals to ER.

Elsevier is the (privately owned) publisher that owns the journals in question.

If you follow the link to the other Techdirt article, you’ll get this description of Elsevier’s M.O.:

They don’t pay their writers, the academics who submit articles (for some journals in some fields, academics actually have to pay significant sums to submit articles), they don’t have to pay the peer reviewers who do such reviews for free. So they get content and a certain type of editing entirely for free. Then, they charge obscene sums of money to universities for subscriptions and try to block off all kinds of other access to research if people don’t pay up — which is especially troubling when the research is federally funded. Oh yeah, they also claim the copyright on any research submitted.

If you want more, this is a good resource:
http://thecostofknowledge.com/

hopponit (profile) says:

Elsevier

I was thinking about the comment that the need to be “published” is a factor in gaining tenure. I can see that as being valid. I have noticed a push to cut down on tenured positions to cut costs (even as education costs skyrocket). This makes me wonder if this will result in a point where there are too few folks bothering to post to Elsevier and the like. Will it be because they have killed the gold plated goose by raising costs?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Elsevier

In their war against education, the wing nuts have vilified tenure as if it were some sort of evil plot to destroy ‘merica. This ridiculous blather has resulted in use of adjunct professors to fill full time positions. The low pay in itself is enough to cause a lack of qualified professors, but the constant pressure to sell out is beyond stupid.

Zach says:

Let’s put this in perspective. Elsevier “bought” a lot of their content from varous scientific publishers. This was a very seedy deal, as the majority of this was publicly funded research for which the vast majority of the cost and effort was through the blood sweat and tears of hard working scientists, not publishers running spell checks and getting free peer reviews. Their pricing models (which should cost pennies for a pdf on a server but cost $35!!) are based of supply-demand-monopoly rather than fairness, and are blatantly extortionist (and questionably legal). A few grad students could have scanned the majority of the publicly funded research into a wiki project and we would have free access to the most important ideas to improve our world. I don’t think it is an overstatement that Elsevier has inhibited scientific progress, and the education of our professional class, including doctors. The cost alone in medical errors alone probably could be recouped simply by governments stepping in at these extortionish atrocities and just buying it (again) from them if their is no other legal recourse.

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