Stepping back from sharing

The announcement from Elsevier about its new policies regarding author rights was a masterpiece of doublespeak, proclaiming that the company was “unleashing the power of sharing” while in fact tying up sharing in as many leashes as they could.  This is a retreat from open access, and it needs to be called out for what it is.

For context, since 2004 Elsevier has allowed authors to self-archive the final accepted manuscripts of their articles in an institutional repository without delay.  In 2012 they added a foolish and forgettable attempt to punish institutions that adopted an open access policy by purporting to revoke self-archiving rights from authors at such institutions.  This was a vain effort to undermine OA policies; clearly Elsevier was hoping that their sanctions would discourage adoption.  This did not prove to be the case.  Faculty authors continued to vote for green open access as the default policy for scholarship.  In just a week at the end of last month the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Penn State, and Dartmouth all adopted such policies.

Attempting to catch up to reality, Elsevier announced last week that it was doing away with its punitive restriction that applied only to authors whose institutions had the temerity to support open access. They now call that policy “complex” — it was really just ambiguous and unenforceable — and assert that they are “simplifying” matters for Elsevier authors.  In reality they are simply punishing any authors who are foolish enough to publish under these terms.

Two major features of this retreat from openness need to be highlighted.  First, it imposes an embargo of at least one year on all self-archiving of final authors’ manuscripts, and those embargoes can be as long as four years.  Second, when the time finally does roll around when an author can make her own work available through an institutional repository, Elsevier now dictates how that access is to be controlled, mandating the most restrictive form of Creative Commons license, the CC-BY-NC-ND license for all green open access.

These embargoes are the principal feature of this new policy, and they are both complicated and draconian.  Far from making life simpler for authors, they now must navigate through several web pages to finally find the list of different embargo periods.  The list itself is 50 pages long, since each journal has its own embargo, but an effort to greatly extend the default expectation is obvious.  Many U.S. and European journals have embargoes of 24, 36 and even 48 months.  There are lots of 12 month embargoes, and one suspects that that delay is imposed because those journals that are deposited in PubMed Central, for which 12 months is the maximum embargo permitted.  Now that maximum embargo is also being imposed on individual authors.  For many others an even longer embargo, which is entirely unsupported by any evidence that it is needed to maintain journal viability, is now the rule.  And there is a handful of journals, all from Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East, as far as I can see, where no embargo is imposed; I wonder if that is the result of country-specific rules or simply a cynical calculation of the actual frequency of self-archiving from those journals.

The other effort to micromanage self-archiving in this new policy is the requirement that all authors who persevere and wish, after the embargo period, to deposit their final manuscript in a repository, must apply a non-commercial and no derivative works limitation on the license for each article.  This, of course, further limits the usefulness of these articles for real sharing and scholarly advancement.  It is one more way in which the new policy is exactly a reverse of what Elsevier calls it; it is a retreat from sharing and an effort to hamstring the movement toward more open scholarship.

The rapid growth of open access policies at U.S. institutions and around the world suggests that more and more scholarly authors want to make their work as accessible as possible.  Elsevier is pushing hard in the opposite direction, trying to delay and restrict scholarly sharing as much as they can.  It seems clear that they are hoping to control the terms of such sharing, in order to both restrict it putative impact on their business model and ultimately to turn it to their profit, if possible.  This latter goal may be a bigger threat to open access than the details of embargoes and licenses are. In any case, it is time, I believe, to look again at the boycott of Elsevier that was undertaken by many scholarly authors a few years ago; with this new salvo fired against the values of open scholarship, it is even more impossible to imagine a responsible author deciding to publish with Elsevier.

18 thoughts on “Stepping back from sharing”

  1. You state that Elsevier is “mandating the … Creative Commons license, the CC-BY-NC-ND license for all green open access.”

    Yet looking at Duke University Press’s OA policy, I observe that its author agreements grant authors the right to mount post-prints with “copyright and source information provided along with a link to the published version as soon as it is available.”

    So Duke mandates a copyright statement, while Elsevier grants a more permissive and liberal Creative Commons license for its green OA. Perhaps you should clean your own house before you go criticizing others.

    In your last salvo you proclaim, “… it is even more impossible to imagine a responsible author deciding to publish with Elsevier.”

    Surely, given Duke’s more restrictive policy, your imagination about authors deciding to publish there must run even wilder.

    1. Jeffrey,

      Your comment seems to imply that you think that a statement of copyright is incompatible with a Creative Commons licence. Surely that can’t be what you meant, can it? You must at some point in your anti-OA quest have actually read one of the statements in a PLOS ONE article where it says:

      Copyright: © 2013 Taylor, Wedel. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

      Or one of the similar copyright-and-CC-licence statements to be found in the articles of many other OA journals?

  2. Kevin,

    Thanks first for acknowledging that Elsevier has had a long-standing policy that supports authors to archive and share content. You neglected to mention one dimension to the 2004-era policies—while we supported authors’ voluntary decisions to post AMs, we were always concerned about mandates for repositories, whether organized by funding agencies such as NIH or by universities themselves. Mandates with short or no embargo periods represent to us, and to most other journal publishers, a competitive concern. Outside of the context of an author-pays model, these mandates have no business model in and of themselves, and have to work with other business models such as subscription or transactional purchases. So our policy then was that if a systematic mandate was involved, then we wanted to do this under an agreement with the repository, and our agreements included embargo periods. Embargo periods have also come to be a common issue and debating point when talking about funding agency policies, and are certainly not new.

    To be frank, that policy of supporting authors’ voluntary actions but requiring an agreement in the context of mandates, was difficult to navigate for all parties, and we think it was a good idea to move away from it.

    We did not change our policies in 2012 as you say we did, but communicated more about them— I think what we were doing was simply pointing out to a number of repositories that they did not have agreements with Elsevier for their mandated policies, and there were questions about final versions of published articles as opposed to pre-final versions. I don’t think that equates to an attempt to “punish” these institutions, but of course you are free to interpret this as you like.

    In the past several months we decided to do a major refresh of our sharing and hosting policies in the context of social networks for researchers, something we strongly support and are focused on, as is obvious when you think about our acquisition of the researcher collaboration site Mendeley. Mendeley however is less about public posting and sharing and more about sharing within researcher groups, which can be quite broadly defined—and we think that works well for many researchers. We decided at the same time that this distinction between voluntary actions and mandatory actions didn’t make sense, and with the growth in understanding and use of embargo periods, we had an opportunity to create a uniform set of policies for both scenarios. I’m sure the list of journal embargo periods can look daunting, but when it comes to author submissions to a particular journal, they will be directed to the relevant embargo period, and we will be tagging manuscripts with the embargo end date so it is not quite as confusing as it may sound. Complicated? Sure, but more complicated than prior policies? I don’t think so…

    Two points on the NC ND license—let’s keep in mind that actually authors when asked in surveys often choose NC ND of their own volition (see the T&F study from 2014 at )– further given that we are talking about Green OA and the fact that these approaches must work together with the subscription business model, we don’t think it’s crazy to go with NC ND.

    And while I’m here, I’d like to add that I don’t think the language in your post related to dictating, controlling, punishing, etc., is accurate—it’s certainly not how we see things when we develop such policies. Publishers are thrilled when users can access their content—that is what we are in the business of doing. We simply want to do it in such a way that we can ensure that the business has continuity, so we can continue innovating and serving the community as we have for more than 130 years. We have to make judgments about where we balance the rights noted above, and we do acknowledge mistakes and change our thinking and approaches. We work as you know on accessibility for the visually impaired, access in the developing world through Research4Life, and are against government-imposed sanctions on who can read what in certain countries around the world.

    Mark Seeley, General Counsel, Elsevier

    1. Mandates with short or no embargo periods represent to us, and to most other journal publishers, a competitive concern.

      I never know whether to laugh or cry when I read this statement. it amounts to an admission that the manuscript, which has not been typeset or copy-edited, is as useful as the final product — in other words, that the publisher doesn’t add enough value for its product to be worth buying.

  3. The solution it would appear is just to encourage the use of preprint servers. Elsevier’s own guidelines allow for the updating of preprints with the accepted version. As far as almost all of my papers are concerned (except the ones where the journal ballsed up the “value-added” copy-editing whilst preparing proofs) that is my final author version. This seemingly gets you past the embargo issue, with institutional repositories perhaps linking to the preprint until they can officially host the paper at the end of the embargo period?

    Encouraging the use of preprints has other advantages for science and researchers, behind sticking it to Elsevier and it’s shambolic policies & attitudes, and as such should be encouraged.

  4. When Mike Taylor phrases it thusly: “… that the publisher doesn’t add enough value for its product to be worth buying …” I think we should distinguish two scenarios: a) there are (mostly native) English speaking authors who are perfect editors and (Tex/LaTex etc.) typesetters as well. Then there are those whose craft is not as well developed and then … there are those European and Asian (and less so, African, still in need of further academic development) that are not so well versed in English (even if they might have invented typesetting, it does not add any value if the idiomatic language is a challenge). And publishers, unlike OA repositories that I’ve seen in Europe so far, have been adding value (and even if only to save a lot of otherwise distinguished scholars a lot of embarrassment) by for example making sure that the published articles were in the end grammatically, orthographically and, above all, stylistically, correct and will be so for the next ten generations who read them. And the “worth buying” part … well there have been voices that 85% of the stuff authors (!) want published is actually worthless in many sciences.

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