March 31, 2014

Elsevier loves Open Access, especially when they can still charge for articles

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Cake: Elsevier likes to have it. And eat it.

Cake: Elsevier likes to have it. And eat it.

Academic publisher Elsevier, whose various malfeasances we’ve covered here, here, and here, is at it again. It turns out that they’ve been charging for access to Open Access articles. Furthermore, this has been going on for quite some time now — at least two years, according to academic Mike Taylor.

Recently, Peter Murray-Rust, reader in molecular informatics at the University of Cambridge, asked fellow academics to send him examples of Elsevier charging for OA articles, in order to put pressure on the publisher, who, when confronted with these outright violations, has responded with what Murray-Rust calls on his blog “mumble” and most people would just call “bullshit.”

In a post on the Elsevier Connect website, Chris Shillum, VP of Product Management, Platform and Content, and Dr. Alicia Wise, Director of Access and Policy, ascribe it a third-party problem: essentially, while the site pages for articles in question were labeled “Open Access” and were free for readers, they also contained links to Rightslink, a service that handles reprints. It’s when users went to reprint the articles or share them with students that they were slapped with fees —£ 8000 for 100 copies, in one case.

Chillum and Wise state for the record that the charges users encountered were a mistake, occasioned by the demands of squaring up all the metadata for a large amount of material. And the bilked parties are getting refunds. They add that they are now “ensuring all of our OA content includes an explicit link to the relevant license stating re-use terms” and it’ll all be set by summer 2014.

But the “ahhh we are big so big we can’t even keep track of times we accidentally charge you thousands of pounds for something that should be free sorry it’s just you know bigness sigh” defense fails to convince in the end. For a couple of reasons:

–It’s a long-standing problem. Mike Taylor wrote about this issue two years ago on the OA/Sauropod Vertebra blog, posting screenshots that showed Elsevier charging for £10.88 to share an article with a single student. Then, as Taylor posted recently, Peter Murray-Rust pointed it out again, eight months ago. So if Elsevier had, say, access to the internet and any real desire to fix this, it had a long, long time to do so. And it didn’t.

–It’s really not that hard to fix. As Taylor points out, the changes that need to be made to these pages are minimal, and amount to disabling a link so that it’s clear the material can be used and re-used freely. Taylor compared Elsevier’s response to that of PeerJ, the OA scientific journal for biology and medicine, which is a much smaller company:

When I reported three bugs to them in a course of a couple of days, they fixed them all with an average report-to-fix time of less than 21 hours.

–It’s been making them money. And that money is on top of the money they’ve already received from organizations like the Wellcome Trust, which pays to make papers based on research funded by the Trust open access to begin with. Meaning they’re getting paid coming and going, while still allowing Elsevier to appear to be supporting Open Access publishing. And though, in the past, this type of fumble would just have made Elsevier look clumsy and/or hypocritical, with the arrival of the OA mandate in the UK and similar initiatives in the US, it’s increasingly looking downright illegal.

Last week, Murray-Rust put up a singularly disheartening post about how an OA-but-paywalled article that he’d drawn attention to (“The asexual cycle of apicomplexan parasites: new findings that raise new questions”) first came out from behind a paywall, and then, inexplicably, went back behind one. Whether it’s simple incompetence or something more self-interested, the question this type of problem raises grows ever more imperative: should anyone — universities, funding bodies, libraries — be giving their money to Elsevier?

Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.

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