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Elsevier Still Charging For Open Access Copies, Two Years After It Was Told Of The Problem

from the work-in-progress dept

For some reason, Elsevier seems to take delight in being hated by the academic world. Its support for the awful Research Works Act back in 2012 led to a massive boycott of the company by researchers. More recently, it has cracked down on academics posting PDFs of their own research. Now Peter Murray-Rust, one of the leading campaigners for open access, has caught Elsevier at it again. Here’s a good summary of what happened from Mike Taylor, whose post “If Harry Potter Was An Academic Work” appeared on Techdirt recently:

1. Two years ago, I wrote about how you have to pay to download Elsevier’s “open access” articles. I showed how their open-access articles claimed “all rights reserved”, and how when you use the site’s facilities to ask about giving one electronic copy to a student, the price is £10.88. As I summarised at the time: “Free” means “we take the author’s copyright, all rights are reserved, but you can buy downloads at a 45% discount from what they would otherwise cost.” No-one from Elsevier commented.

2. Eight months ago, Peter Murray-Rust explained that Elsevier charges to read #openaccess articles. He showed how all three of the randomly selected open-access articles he looked at had download fees of $31.50. No-one from Elsevier commented (although see below).

3. A couple of days ago, Peter revisited this issue, and found that Elsevier are still charging THOUSANDS of pounds for CC-BY articles. IMMORAL, UNETHICAL , maybe even ILLEGAL. This time he picked another Elsevier OA article at random, and was quoted £8000 for permission to print 100 copies.

Stung by Murray-Rust’s outraged post, the Director of Access and Policy at Elsevier, Alicia Wise, replied as follows:

As noted in the comment thread to your blog back in August we are improving the clarity of our OA license labelling (eg on ScienceDirect) and metadata feeds (eg to Rightslink). This is work in progress and should be completed by summer. I am working with the internal team to get a more clear understanding of the detailed plan and key milestones, and will tweet about these in due course.

Although that sounds superficially reasonable, it’s not, as Taylor points out:

First of all, either this is deliberate fraud on Elsevier’s part — charging for the use of something that is free to use — or it’s a bug. Following Hanlon’s razor, I prefer the latter explanation. But assuming it’s a bug, why has it taken two years to address? And why is it still not fixed?

To put things in context:

Elsevier, remember, are a company with an annual revenue exceeding £2bn. That’s £2,000,000,000… Is it unreasonable to expect that two years should be long enough for them to fix a trivial bug?

All that’s necessary is to change the “All rights reserved” message and the “Get rights and content” link to say “This is an open-access article, and is free to re-use”. We know that the necessary metadata is there because of the “Open Access” caption at the top of the article. So speaking from my perspective as a professional software developer of more than thirty years’ standing, this seems like a ten-line fix that should take maybe a man-hour; at most a man-day. A man-day of programmer time would cost Elsevier maybe £500

Once more, Elsevier does not come out of this well. It was told two years ago that there was a problem with the way it presented open access articles, since the impression was given — for whatever reason — that you had to pay for things that were actually freely available. As Taylor points out, even under the most generous interpretation, it is simply not acceptable for a multi-billion dollar publishing company to ignore this problem for so long. Until it fixes this throughout its portfolio of journals — and maybe offers some refunds for the fees it has taken without any justification — the academic community is bound to feel that despite the boycott and bad publicity surrounding its aggressive actions against scholars, Elsevier has learnt nothing and cares less.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca, and +glynmoody on Google+

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Comments on “Elsevier Still Charging For Open Access Copies, Two Years After It Was Told Of The Problem”

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That One Guy (profile) says:

Because money

Why haven’t they ‘fixed’ it? Because money. And absolutely zero penalty for not fixing it.

If academics and schools really want to teach that company a lessen, punish them for their parasitic and greedy actions, then they need to take that boycott and make it permanent. Drive the company into the dirt by starving them of revenue, and I bet the company/companies that show up to replace them will be a lot more willing to work with the people who are providing the content that makes the service valuable.

Also, a ‘bug’ that charges people, or makes them think they need to pay for documents that are supposed to be free… yeah, if anyone actually believes that’s due to a bug, I’ve got some nice real-estate they might be interested in, maybe an anti-tiger rock or two.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Because money

A boycott for publishing new papers only partly solves the problem. Many academics and industrial researchers need access to some of the papers now owned by Elsevier. Producing a new version of an existing paper could make life Interesting, as it could be considered a derivative of an existing work, and Elsevier hold the copyright on the original.

David says:

So what? That's what CC-BY means.

CC-BY means that they can charge whatever they want for providing access. They may not restrict the recipients from redistribution, have to attach the license, and properly attribute.

I don’t see that they don’t do this. There is no obligation for a business to tell people “you can get this elsewhere cheaper” (but classifying this as “open access” actually does that as well).

Customer relations would likely make it prudent to tell people at least for electronic copies that they can be redistributed freely before someone springs the money for 10000 copies. Even then, they provide the access and download capacity for that number of copies.

So no, I don’t see anything wrong with that. Richard Stallman financed the early FSF by selling tapes with GNU software on it (freely redistributable) for $150 a pop.

They may have a problem regarding bad customer relations here (we are talking Elsevier, right?), but not really a legal problem.

If they were not attaching the licenses, or if they were suing people for further redistribution or anything like that: sure, we are talking.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: So what? That's what CC-BY means.

All that’s necessary is to change the “All rights reserved” message and the “Get rights and content” link to say “This is an open-access article, and is free to re-use”.

This time he picked another Elsevier OA article at random, and was quoted ?8000 for permission to print 100 copies.

Elsevier is using a misleading labeling, which casts doubts on the CC indicator. While the can charge for the original download, they are charging for users making their own copies. That is they are saying we are denying you the rights granted by a CC license, by requiring you to pay us for copies you make.

Peter Murray-Rust (user link) says:

Re: So what? That's what CC-BY means.

The point is that funders pay Elsevier to be the PRIMARY source of material. If Elsevier hide it behind a paywall no-one can see it. It’s a contract between authors, funders and Elsevier and Elsevier have failed to honour the contract. They aren’t taking an Open CC-BY document and reselling it, they are preventing anyone getting at the CC-BY document.

And it can cost up to 6000 GBP for the authors so the service should be gold-plated

David says:

Re: Re: So what? That's what CC-BY means.

So? The authors are free to offer some other way of getting their paper rather than through Elsevier. Even if they have an exclusive contract with Elsevier for whatever stupid reason, all one needs is to purchase one copy and put it on a nicer server.

Frankly, distributing a CC-BY paper through Elsevier is likely not using CC-BY the way it was envisioned, but as long as the author or anybody else does not set up parallel channels, there might even be some royalties getting back.

It’s not a convincing fit for me, but if Elsevier manages to make it work, they are just better at finding suckers.

It’s not like RedHat does not make a killing with marketing Free Software as well.

Tom Reller (user link) says:

Elsevier's explanation

We’ve explained why it’s taking so long here. http://www.elsevier.com/connect/open-access-the-systems-journey

In summary:

Every article on ScienceDirect had a link offering readers the opportunity to purchase additional rights which in some cases were not needed.

We never intended to charge for material or rights that should be free. This problem should not have arisen, and now that it has, we are taking all possible steps to correct it and reimburse those affected. We are immediately refunding all those we are aware of, as well as others we learn of.

About 50 customers have paid unnecessarily. Eleven of the articles were published under a CC-BY license (totaling less than $1,200) and the rest under other CC licenses or the Elsevier User License. The total value of all these orders is about $4,000.

We are stopping the means that led to inadvertent requests for payment and expect the issue to be largely resolved as a result. We readily invite users to contact us via universalaccess@elsevier.com immediately if they find remaining loopholes.

In this article we provide insight into the many systems changes that Elsevier and other publishers are making to support growing interest in open access.

Anonymous Coward says:

why would they change, unless forced to do so, when they are coining it in? as for the comment by Alicia Wise, it seems to be nothing other than a mockery comment. for someone in her position at the head of a company, she is doing absolutely nothing for the image of either Elsevier or herself. taking money under false pretenses, is what it seems like to me. perhaps a law suit would make the change hurry along? as it is, there would need to be some serious compensation. after all, Elsevier has gained the interest on the ill gotten gains!

AFalseName says:

Re: Re: What bug?

I used to work for Elsevier in their IT dept right when electronic publishing/access was an emerging thing. They used to filter by IP block alone – the whole of the electronic content was downloadable by anyone behind the great proxies of Israel or AOL by clumsy access/filtering. Point is it still took ~2yrs to get that fixed when it meant giving away content, this may not be the conspiracy many feel it is, just a huge organisation with a complex business model and creaky back-end systems.

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