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Mergers, acquisitions, dysfunction: The MAD-ness of scholarly publishing

Tue, March 27, 1:15 to 2:45pm, Hilton Reforma, Floor: 2nd Floor, Don Américo


“Academic publishers make Murdoch look like a socialist” was the title of a famous article by journalist George Monbiot in the Guardian in 2011. Academic publishers were described as “ruthless racketeers” and economic parasites, in an illuminating editorial on their business practices. It was predicted that the internet would change things, as would the development of Open Access publishing, but 7 years on, and the scholarly publishing ecosystem seems to be getting worse. Academic research and knowledge, the cornerstone and foundation of our society, is still a hostage, a private corporate asset, to be bartered with by commercial giants with profit margins that exceed that of even Apple and big oil companies.
This paper, based on a desk-based critical research process, sheds light on Elsevier, the most controversial academic publishing company. We have examined the business model and practices of Elsevier, including their organizational and financial structure and their products and services as a commercial publishing and information and analytics provider. We also examine the major criticisms levied at Elsevier, and consider the impact that these have on the higher education sector at large. We take a broad, international approach, providing 4 national case studies, including the effects of past boycotts against the company, and consider recommendations for future research and socio-political action.
Historically, Elsevier have funding links to the arms trade, supported regressive bills and policies (SOPA, PIPA, RWA), created fake journals and peer review rings, have had editorial boards resign en masse, published ‘sponsored’ journals, sold open access articles, blocked legal text and data mining, made legal threats to researchers sharing their own research online, and even now are moving into geoblocking open access. Elsevier are still reporting growing profits each year, in excess of 35-40% in recent years, thanks to deep entrenchment of journals, co-opting of the Open Access movement, and aggressive lobbying and negotiation tactics. Currently, almost 17,000 researchers actively boycott them due to these factors.
Elsevier are one of the largest publishers, a position gained through serial acquisition and merging with smaller publishers. Together, with several other giants, they are strangling the market by operating an unregulated monopoly on research articles, accounting for more than 50% of STM papers published in 2013, and Elsevier alone owning more than 40% of journals in this space. They aren’t really in ‘competition’ with other publishers as such, as each article and journal are non-transferable. This forces research institutes into a deadlock where they are forced to pay for the very content they have produced, with non-disclosure clauses that prohibit price competition. What we have is a business model based on preventing access to research, a tax on public education – one that is sustainable for Elsevier, but not for anyone else.
Just how bad is it? Some Elsevier journals cost more than $10-20,000/year for a single institute; the total cost of these subscriptions now consumes more than 65% of library budgets in many cases. Even the wealthiest institutes like Harvard have cancelled subscriptions to all Elsevier periodicals, with seemingly no ill effect. If you’re wondering why they are still allowed to behave like this, public disclosure of their lobbying spend in the US ($1-4 million/year) might provide some clues. Some are taking a stand. Nationwide negotiations are happening in many countries in Europe, with institutes banding together to collectively bargain rather than as individuals (e.g., the Netherlands, Germany, Finland, and the UK). Some institutes, such as the Université de Montreal (Canada) and those in Berlin, and countries, such as Taiwan and Peru, have already cancelled subscriptions to Elsevier titles en masse, with no ill effect.
However, their evolving business strategy should be examined closely. They are now moving into monopolising not just research outputs, but the entire process and infrastructure of research and its evaluation. Not only is this riddled with conflicts of interest, but provides the basis for a vertical lock-in of the research process, and exposure of new revenue streams through data analytics and usage statistics. There is a critical and urgent need for research communities and public/governmental agencies to collectively regain ownership of research infrastructure and the academic research process.