A distinction without a difference

The discussion of the new Elsevier policies about sharing and open access has continued at a brisk pace, as anyone following the lists, blogs and Twitter feeds will know.  On one of the most active lists, Elsevier officials have been regular contributors, trying to calm fears and offering rationales, often specious, for their new policy. If one of the stated reasons for their change was to make the policy simpler, the evidence of all these many “clarifying” statements indicates that it is already a dismal failure.

As I read one of the most recent messages from Dr. Alicia Wise of Elsevier, one key aspect of the new policy documents finally sunk in for me, and when I fully realized what Elsevier was doing, and what they clearly thought would be a welcome concession to the academics who create the content from which they make billions, my jaw dropped in amazement.

It appears that Elsevier is making a distinction between an author’s personal website or blog and the repository at the institution where that author works. Authors are, I think, able to post final manuscripts to the former for public access, but posting to the latter must be restricted only to internal users for the duration of the newly-imposed embargo periods. In the four column chart that was included in their original announcement, this disparate treatment of repositories and other sites is illustrated in the “After Acceptance” column, where it says that “author manuscripts can be shared… [o]n personal websites or blogs,” but that sharing must be done “privately” on institutional repositories. I think I missed this at first because the chart is so difficult to understand; it must be read from left to right and understood as cumulative, since by themselves the columns are incomplete and confusing.  But, in their publicity campaign around these new rules, Elsevier is placing a lot of weight on this distinction.

In a way, I guess this situation is a little better than what I thought when I first saw the policy. But really, I think I must have missed the distinction at first because it was so improbable that Elsevier would really try to treat individual websites and IRs differently. Now that I fully understand that intention, it provides clear evidence of just how out of touch with the real conditions of academic work Elsevier has become.

Questions abound. Many scientists, for example, maintain lab websites, and their personal profiles are often subordinate to those sites. Articles are most often linked, in these situations, from the main lab website.  Is this a personal website? Given the distinction Elsevier makes, I think it must be, but it is indicative of the fact that the real world does not conform to Elsevier’s attempt to make a simple distinction between “the Internet we think is OK” and “the Internet we are still afraid of.”

By the way, since the new policy allows authors to replace pre-prints on ArXive and RePEC — those two are specifically mentioned — with final author manuscripts, it is even clearer to see that this new policy is a direct attack on repositories, as the Chronicle of Higher Education perceives in this article.  Elsevier seems to want to broaden its ongoing attack on repositories, shifting from a focus on just those campuses that have an open access policy to now inhibiting green self-archiving on all university campuses.  But they are doing so using a distinction that ultimately makes no sense.

That distinction gets really messy when we try to apply it to the actual conditions of campus IT, something Elsevier apparently knows little about and did not consider as the wrote the new policy documents.  I am reminded that, in a conversation unrelated to the Elsevier policy change, a librarian told me recently that her campus Counsel’s Office had told her that she should treat the repository as an extension of faculty members’ personal sites.  Even before it was enshrined by Elsevier, this was clearly a distinction without a difference.

For one thing, when we consider how users access these copies of final authors’ manuscripts, the line between a personal website and a repository vanishes entirely. In both cases the manuscript would reside on the same servers, or, at least, in the same “cloud.” And our analytics tell us that most people find our repositories through an Internet search engine; they do not go through the “front door” of repository software. The result is that a manuscript will be found just as easily, in the same manner and by the same potential users, if it is on a personal website or in an institutional repository. A Google or Google Scholar search will still find the free copy, so trying to wall off institutional repositories is a truly foolish and futile move.

For many of our campuses, this effort becomes even more problematic as we adopt software that helps faculty members create and populate standardized web profiles. With this software – VIVO and Elements are examples that are becoming quite common — the open access copies that are presented on a faculty author’s individual profile page actually “reside” in the repository. Elsevier apparently views these two “places” – the repository and the faculty web site – as if they really were different rooms in a building, and they could control access to one while making the other open to the public. But that is simply not how the Internet works. After 30 years of experience with hypertext, and with all the money at their disposal, one would think that Elsevier should have gained a better grasp on the technological conditions that prevail on the campuses where the content they publish is created and disseminated. But this policy seems written to facilitate feel-good press releases while still keeping the affordances of the Internet at bay, rather than to provide practical guidelines or address any of the actual needs of researchers.

4 thoughts on “A distinction without a difference”

  1. Well-stated, Kevin — these distinctions make no sense at all. Our faculty are linking to their work in the university repository from their personal webpages, Academia.edu, and other repositories.

    1. And what of products like bepress’ Selected Works, an add-on to their IR platform that aggregates content from the IR into author-controlled (and therefore by any definition ‘personal’) webpages. Should we therefore need to find a way to suppress the full-text content on the IR side while allowing on the author side? Absurd.

  2. From an email I sent to Nick Shockey at SPARC after last week’s Elsevier policy conference call.

    Kevin mentioned that Elvevier had different sets of rules for content in IR’s vs. personal web pages or blogs and that he thought it was curious that Elsevier was distinguishing between those, since at Duke many of the occurrences of content on authors’ web pages or blogs point back to content stored in Duke’s IR. That might be the case at Duke, but I don’t think that’s nearly as prevalent a situation at many other shops. Those with more well developed and supported IR’s, maybe, but not at lots of other places. My take on that distinction focuses to two points.

    First, permanence. Authors’ personal web pages (and heck, the authors themselves) and blogs come and go, so within (in some cases) just a few years there’s a significant percentage of records findable via your web search engine of choice that are going to come back with bad links. If those links are bad and the Elsevier (or other publisher) one is always good, that can affect user behavior and lead them to preference the publisher’s link if the see it on a search results page. The links that are much more likely to be there long term are the publishers’ and the IRs’, so the IR would be seen as more of a threat as a long-term source of content than would authors’ personal pages or blogs.

    Second, if Elsevier was to impose the same rules on personal web sites and blogs that they did on IRs, if they then wanted to _enforce_ those rules they would have to deal directly with _authors_, not with a level one stepped removed from those authors (like library/IR staff). And no publisher wants to deal with authors (their life’s blood) on a negative issue like that if they don’t absolutely have to.

Comments are closed.