Can Elsevier save itself?
“Well, I’ve had most of the day now to digest the news that Elsevier have withdrawn their support of the Research Works Act; and a few hours to get used to the idea that the Act itself is now dead. I’ve had some time to think about what it all means. My first reaction was to be really delighted: the banner headline suggested a genuine change of direction from Elsevier, such as I had challenged them about a few weeks ago. Unfortunately, a close reading of Elsevier’s statement doesn’t support that interpretation. It’s apparent that this is a strategic manoeuvre rather than a a fundamental shift. That’s clear from language like the following: ‘While we continue to oppose government mandates in this area, Elsevier is withdrawing support for the Research Work Act itself [...] While withdrawing support for the Research Works Act, we will continue to join with those many other nonprofit and commercial publishers and scholarly societies that oppose repeated efforts to extend mandates through legislation.’ The second half of this is particularly disappointing because it is basically a manifesto for fighting against the Federal Research Public Access Act — the very thing that a publisher who is truly on the side of science would not do... Or indeed Alex Holcombe’s harsh reading: ‘I predicted they would drop the law, but didn’t expect them to admit its a completely cynical act- that they still actually believe in the law, but are simply trying to placate the misguided concerns of some researchers.’ As if the wording of the statement itself were not tone-deaf enough, the problem was exacerbated by this statement, from the Chronicle of Higher Education: Alicia Wise, Elsevier’s director of universal access, played down the boycott’s effect. ‘It’s something that we’re clearly aware of,’ she said. But she emphasized that Elsevier had been sounding out the authors, editors, and reviewers who continue to work with it. ‘Those are the voices we have been listening to,’ she said. It’s hard to understand quite what Elsevier were hoping to achieve with this charmless passive-aggressive move, but it certainly wasn’t conciliation. The message can hardly be read as anything but a ‘screw you’ to everyone who’s signed the Cost of Knowledge boycott... in all the reactions I’ve read to the RWA announcement (see the link-farm that I’m compiling), I’ve not seen a single one that’s suggested that calling off the boycott would be a reasonable response. And several that have emphatically reaffirmed it. Elsevier’s public statements amount to ‘we have ignored the boycott...’ That tells me that Elsevier are in serious, serious trouble. Because they just don’t get it. They still think they own us... If Elsevier want to survive, they will have to take a deep breath, give up the comforting illusion that we are still their bitches, and figure out how they can provide some actual value to scientists who increasingly have other options... It’s all changing. The reasons to publish as open access are growing rapidly more compelling — we’re headed towards a world where non-open research is going to be crippled in the competition for relevance — and the reasons not to pick an open-access venue are getting weaker... So unless something else shifts very suddenly, I fear that Elsevier has slammed shut their window of opportunity... So here is my honest, helpful-as-I-can-be advice to Elsevier: make a fundamental change, embrace the new world that’s already coming, and signal that change by big, visible support for the FRPAA. Miss that opportunity, and you’ll be a footnote in ten years’ time.”