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.
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