Why blame Elsevier? Understanding who “owns” scholarly work

There is currently a very angry discussion among some academics about how the publisher Elsevier is taking down papers that were published by Elsevier and uploaded onto Academia.edu by the author. (This blog post gives a detailed account of what happened, and there was a long thread on AOIR’s listserv.)

The fact of the matter is that Elsevier does not allow authors to upload the version of the article that is the same as the one published. This is made explicit in the terms that the authors sign before publishing through Elsevier, so I don’t know why the authors are surprised, or even complaining, that Elsevier does not want the article being distributed for free because they otherwise charge people to view it. I’m not saying that this model is a great one, but the authors should have known what they were getting into when they signed the contract.

Moreover, it seems unfair that Elsevier is being labeled as the bad guy, because in fact, they do allow you distribute your work for free. If you want to post the article online, you can post the complete article- just not in the paginated format. For example, I created this alternative version of a recent article published in Computers and Education (an Elsevier publication) that is the entire article but not formatted to look like what it does in the actual journal. This is a way of sharing the content that is completely legal.

Now that does not mean that I agree with the system of academic publishing. It is a very silly system, where scholars produce the work and review the work for free, yet their institutions have to pay publishers to have access to the content. It is a very odd system and really demeans the higher purpose of knowledge sharing and contribution to science that is, in my opinion, the reason why we want to publish stuff in the first place.

While scholars are contributing content for free, there are logistical things involved in publishing that still require human resources. These people have to paid, so there has to be some business model if the curated approach to publishing is to persist. Of course we can cut the middle man, get rid of journals entirely, and post to some central repository, such as SSRN, and let time sift the good articles from the bad. Do I think that is the best solution? No, but it is worth thinking of other options, and certainly there are a growing number of journals that try to take different approaches in regards to access, including having the authors pay. There really isn’t any “perfect” solution..at least, not yet.

I feel like people’s anger regarding the flawed publishing system, the pressure of publishing in higher impact factor journals, and the fact that there are so many restrictions on how our work is distributed is being misdirected. If there are several different options in terms of how to put your published work online, I don’t think choosing the one option that you explicitly agreed not to do is a very smart move.

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3 thoughts on “Why blame Elsevier? Understanding who “owns” scholarly work

  1. “The authors should have known what they were getting into when they signed the contract.”

    That’s the heart of the matter. Because I do know, I’ve never submitted to an Elsevier journal and never will. (As of a couple of years ago, that goes for all non-open publishers). But the fact is that most authors don’t know what they’re getting into, and sign the ubiquitous copyright transfer agreement with exactly as much scrutiny as they give, say, the iTunes terms of service before clicking “OK”.

    So part of the reason I’m making a noise about this is precisely to make authors aware of what they’re doing then they give their work to Elsevier and other publishers. Of course, by being the one that’s issuing the takedown notices, Elsevier is reinforcing its reputation as the most malicious as well as biggest of these for-profit barrier-based legacy publishers; but that’s pretty consistent with how they’re behaved towards their authors at other times.

    • That is an excellent point. I wonder how many scholars read the fine print when agreeing to transfer their copyright. If anything, hopefully these discussion will create more awareness in the scholarly community.

      • Exactly. I admit to my shame that for my own first few papers, I Just Signed, having been told that that’s just How Things Are. It was only several papers into my academic career that I gradually became aware of what I was blithely signing away. Clearly this stuff should be part of a post-grad ecucation; unfortunately I think more graduate supervisors are equally ignorant!

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