< Trouble for Elsevier, the Leading Academic Publisher

Transcript

Friday, February 17, 2012

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

From the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology to the European Journal of Vascular and Endovascular Surgery, the multinational media giant Elsevier is the 900-pound gorilla of scholarly publishers. And Elsevier's customers - research institutions and universities - say that it's acting like a gorilla, placing a stranglehold on the specialized information it provides.

But now it seems the Internet is eroding Elsevier's once invincible power, inspiring its customers to fight back with a boycott. Rick Karr reports.

RICK KARR:

Let's say you run a magazine. You don't pay your writers. You don't pay most of the editors who decide which articles appear, and you don't even print on paper anymore; you're running an e-publication. So how much should a subscription cost? 

In a reading room at Columbia University I put the question to Jim Neal who's in charge of the school's libraries. He couldn't answer the question directly because he's signed nondisclosure agreements with journal publishers. So instead, he asked me a question. If I were buying a car right now, how much would it cost?

JIM NEAL:

How much would it be to buy the car outright?

RICK KARR:

Oh for — a halfway decent car that I would like right now, 20 grand.

JIM NEAL:

Okay. Each year for one journal, I can buy one of those cars.

RICK KARR:

Now, multiply that by the hundreds of journals available in a typical university library. What's more, Neal says, publishers restrict what librarians can do with those journals. If a school has to cancel a subscription due to budget cuts, for instance, its faculty might lose access to back issues. They might not be able to loan journals to other institutions or let members of the general public read them.

Neal says for years he and other librarians have been telling university administrators that journal publishers were putting scholarship at risk.

JIM NEAL:

We pay too much. We give too much away. It takes too long to get from the author to the reader. And you, university, you don't care about this problem.

RICK KARR:

Neal and other librarians say the root of the problem is industry consolidation. Three publishers dominate the field. But the Dutch multinational Elsevier is the giant. It publishes 2,651 scholarly journals. And it's a lucrative business. Elsevier's profit margin is 36 percent, higher than News Corp's, higher than Viacom's and even higher than Google's.

TIMOTHY GOWERS:

And looking at Elsevier’s profits, it is obvious that they are making a lot of money on the backs of work done by academics for which they're not paid at all.

RICK KARR:

That's Cambridge University mathematician Timothy Gowers.

TIMOTHY GOWERS:

We are in a position now with the Internet to change and, and do everything much more cheaply.

RICK KARR:

On January 21st, Gowers wrote a blog post in which he said he'd never again submit a paper to an Elsevier journal, nor would he agree to serve as a peer reviewer for the firm. He asked other scholars to join his boycott and suggested that someone should build a website that could serve as an online manifesto and petition. The math world took notice because Gowers is one of its superstars. He holds a distinguished chair at Cambridge and he won the discipline's highest honor, the Fields medal.

Halfway around the world, Tyler Neylon, a young mathematician at a Silicon Valley startup, took up Gowers' challenge.

TYLER NEYLON:

Within about 24 hours, I think, the site was up and people started signing on.

RICK KARR:

By the middle of last week, more than 6,000 scholars had joined the boycott. Neylon says one of the things that has crystallized support is the status of taxpayer-funded research. Right now, scientists who get Federal grants to conduct health research must make their results available to the public online for free.

Elsevier supports a bill that's making its way through Congress that would override that mandate and cut off taxpayers' free access to that research. Neylon says that just isn't how scientists think.

TYLER NEYLON:

They want as many people as possible to know about their research. They do not want to give up the copyright. They do not want it to be behind a paywall.

RICK KARR:

Neylon says even more scholars would sign up for the boycott, if it weren't for the prestige associated with some of Elsevier's journals.

HEATHER JOSEPH:

You want to publish in the best journal in the world.

RICK KARR:

Heather Joseph runs a scholarly publishing reform group called SPARC.

HEATHER JOSEPH:

And, unfortunately, right now many of the best journals have been exclusively owned by commercial companies. So in order for, you know, a — a professor, a faculty member to be able to get tenure, promotion, new grants, they've had to publish in these journals.

RICK KARR:

Elsevier says the boycotters have their facts wrong, that the per-article cost of scholarly publications has actually fallen over the past ten years. And, Elsevier says, it has to put a lot of effort into quality control. Alicia Wise is director universal access for the publishing firm.


ALICIA WISE:

We have full time scientific editors who are mediating the peer review process, are finding editors, are finding reviewers, ensuring those reviews are returned on time. They also are tasked with guaranteeing that the published articles are bias free.

RICK KARR:

Wise says Elsevier also spends a lot to keep articles in the digital domain, to make sure they're searchable and that there are multiple online backup copies.

At the same time, she says, Elsevier is facing mounting costs of its own, as China and India increase their investments in research and development.

ALICIA WISE:

And those investments mean that more scientists are being employed, more research is being carried out and more articles are produced. And that means publishers are doing more work; they have more submissions and we're incurring the costs of ensuring that peer review and the quality control happens.

RICK KARR:

Wise says Elsevier hasn't done a very good job communicating with scholars. So she's been going online to try to explain the company's business model to the boycotters.

But Tyler Neylon, the Silicon Valley mathematician who created the boycott website, says Elsevier's critics already understand the company's business model pretty well.

TYLER NEYLON:

They have three entire sectors of volunteer workers producing skilled labor, of top quality work. It's brilliant, really. What's wrong is that researchers don't need to go through that system anymore. It just exists because historically it really was useful; they really were providing value that -couldn't be provided elsewhere.

RICK KARR:

Neylon says the goal for now is to convince universities, librarians and researchers to rebel against the dominance of for-profit scholarly journals. The boycotters aim to galvanize that rebellion online. 

So call it the "academic spring." That's the phrase used by the British publication New Scientist, which is actually owned by the same parent company as Elsevier. For On the Media, I'm Rick Karr.