Thursday, 17th September, 2020

On academic publishing, open access & Elsevier

I was recently approached by an editor of a well-known academic journal—published by Elsevier—asking me to review a submitted manuscript. Although I have occasionally published in their journals, reviewed for them, and even participated in conferences organized by them, a recent flow of negative press regarding Elsevier's actions caused me to decline carrying out any free work for them.

Specifically, I cited the following articles published by the Guardian:

For links to discussion on the topic elsewhere, see the end of this post.

Clearly, I'm by far not the only one to have refused to work for Elsevier recently. In fact, already 1441 researchers have signed a pledge at The Cost of Knowledge refusing to publish in, refereeing for, and/or doing editorial work for Elsevier. There is also a pledge called Research Without Walls—at the moment signed by 432 researches—stating that the signatories

"...will assist in the peer review process (as a reviewer, board/committee member, chair, editor, etc.) only for conferences, journals, and other publication venues that make all accepted publications available to the public for free via the web."

Apparently Elsevier is taking this movement relatively seriously since I received a response signed by Rob van Daalen. To provide their view on the topic I quote his reply below in full:

Dear Dr. Kotakoski,

I have been informed that you rejected to review for [an Elsevier journal], which is a very unfortunate. As publisher of the journal I would like to add a shade of meaning to the articles published by the Guardian on which you have based your decision.

1) From 2000 to 2005, our Australia office published a series of sponsored article compilation publications, on behalf of pharmaceutical clients, that were made to look like journals and lacked the proper disclosures. This was an unacceptable practice, and we regret that it took place. This was an isolated practice from a past period in time and it does not reflect the way we operate today. The individuals involved in the project have long since left the company. Our CEO has affirmed our business practices as they relate to what defines a journal and the proper use of disclosure language with our employees to ensure this does not happen again.

We will continue to partner with all scientists and clinical investigators, including those in the pharmaceutical industry, to help communicate the findings of high-quality, peer-reviewed medical research. We have strict disclosure rules in place so that readers are aware of any financial interests behind a specific article or journal, or when entire compilation products are created for pharmaceutical marketing purposes.

2) Our support for the Research Works Act comes down to a question of preferring voluntary partnership with government agencies and other funders to promote access to research works, rather than being subjected to inflexible government mandates like the NIH policy, which don't take into account the needs of different journals.

One of Elsevier's primary missions is to work towards providing universal access to high-quality scientific information in sustainable ways. We support the bipartisan bill, which seeks to prevent US government policies, like the one imposed by the NIH, that mandate the dissemination of journal articles published and funded by the private sector. Elsevier and other publishers have embraced and nurtured a whole range of access options to ensure broad dissemination - author pays journals, delayed access, manuscript posting, and patient access, to name a few. We've worked constructively with a number of government agencies to develop new ways to expand access to journal articles reporting on, analyzing and interpreting agency-funded research. But like other publishers and societies we have always opposed the adoption or extension of the NIH policy, which restricts the author's freedom to choose where to publish and undermines the sustainability of journals published by the private sector. The legislation is an effort to prevent such unsustainable policies.

Elsevier has been continually expanding access to content. In fact, we were the first and largest contributor to PubMed Central as part of the NIH's voluntary posting pilot in 2005. What we're opposed to is the mandate that forces us to contribute our content to PubMed Central, and potentially other platforms, in ways that aren't sustainable to commercial and non-profit publishers. That's why publishers are fighting these government mandates even if it means taking an unpopular stance.

For several years, Elsevier has been a major partner in three information philanthropy initiatives. Health InterNetwork Access to Research Initiative (HINARI), Access to Global Online Research in Agriculture (AGORA) and Online Access to Research in the Environment (OARE) are aimed at those countries that have the least amount of access to information resources. In most advanced countries, access to research is not a pressing problem for researchers, when compared to other issues, such as funding. In the poorest countries, it is a more fundamental barrier. Publishers like Elsevier have been working hard to close down this gap. Together the programs offer scientists in 114 eligible countries free or low-cost access to some 7,500 scientific journals, books and databases.

I hope that this background information will be useful to you and that it may (even slightly) change your opinion on our company.

With kind regards,

Rob van Daalen
Publisher Physical & Theoretical Chemistry
Elsevier - Amsterdam - The Netherlands

Discussion elsewhere

There has been much discussion all over the 'net about Elsevier specifically and the Research Works Act (RWA) specifically. Hence, the list below is necessarily far from complete, and only presents some parts of the complete picture.

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