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February 27, 2012 7:23 PM   Subscribe

Academic publisher Elsevier backs down. Reed Elsevier withdraws its support for the controversial Research Works Act. Not without some whining, of course. Reps. Issa and Maloney have apparently said they won't be moving the bill forward.
posted by pantarei70 (45 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite

 
Previously.
posted by pantarei70 at 7:27 PM on February 27, 2012


Good. It was terrible legislation. Folks might appreciate this nutshell overview of RWA.
posted by jessamyn at 7:27 PM on February 27, 2012 [6 favorites]


I love this stuff. The damage is done. Elsevier just killed the golden goose.
posted by unSane at 7:39 PM on February 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


How so, unSane?
posted by koeselitz at 7:52 PM on February 27, 2012


Because I think they pushed the academic community over the edge. It won't happen immediately, but I think it was the tipping point for open science. I know people who began working on an infrastructure for open publication and discussion of science papers as a direct result of this debacle.
posted by unSane at 7:57 PM on February 27, 2012 [26 favorites]


Reps. Issa and Maloney have apparently said they won't be moving the bill forward.

"The FBI noticed that this occurred right when Elsevier decided to back down and arrested Issa and Maloney for corruption."

...let me have my fantasy life.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:11 PM on February 27, 2012 [13 favorites]


Along the same lines as unSane's comment, I've run across a few researchers who were already interested in open access, but who've made the decision as a result of this recent clusterfuck that they'll only be publishing in journals that allow open access from now on.

I'm sure Elsevier will stay in business for a good long while still, in one form or another, but this does seem to have been the last straw for some folks. And academic fields are pretty small ponds; having even a few prominent researchers in one field make that sort of commitment to OA is a Good Thing.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:11 PM on February 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


Well, I guess our work is done here. We can all go home now.

Ha! Just kidding, Elsevier! We will fucking END YOU. We will plow salt into your fields and revel in the lamentation of your women. You will be as a footnote in an article from a journal you no longer own.

In other words, you guys still suck.
posted by uosuaq at 8:13 PM on February 27, 2012 [23 favorites]


PLOS is just kind of awesome. Mike Eisen's editorial on RWA.
posted by sciencegeek at 8:14 PM on February 27, 2012


Not to mention FakeElsevier's Twitter feed.
posted by sciencegeek at 8:17 PM on February 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


I agree with unSane. This has been going on for longer than some people may realize—the skyrocketing costs of certain journals and the resulting serials crisis is responsible for the beginnings of SPARC and the open access movement in the late 90s. When librarians published the lists of most expensive journals, it was always Elsevier volumes such as Tetrahedron Letters at the top, charging literally thousands of dollars for an annual subscription. Elsevier charged amounts out of all proportion to their actual cost because they thought the market would bear it—libraries would simply have to purchase these subscriptions even at extortionate fees because their patrons would not be able to work effectively without access to the monopoly they held on the description of research paid for by the public, and reviewed by scientists paid by the public, but distributed through Elsevier's system.

Librarians and faculty soon realized that they did not, in fact, have to grant Elsevier this monopoly and the tools of their own financial ruin. The rest is history.

Without the Elsevier, I'm certain that the open access movement would not be where it is today. We couldn't ask for a better villain.
posted by grouse at 8:28 PM on February 27, 2012 [5 favorites]


I've previously described Elsevier as being "a huge metastatic tumor on the frontal lobe of academic research". That description still holds. The only change is that now they've backed down from trying to outlaw chemotherapy.
posted by dephlogisticated at 8:29 PM on February 27, 2012 [8 favorites]


If you don't add value to a system that you depend on, you're a parasite.
If you gain by taking what others have worked to create, you're a thief.
Having the power of the state on your side does not change these basic facts.

Submitting an article the other day to a major academic journal, I was offered the "opportunity" to remunerate the publisher in exchange for open access rights. I thought, "Hmm. Open Acess is important to me. Maybe I'll do my bit." So I followed the tortuous chain of weblinks to pull up the amount the publisher wanted in exchange for the damage caused by granting me free access to my own intellectual creation. If I can't remember the exact amount, it's because I was distracted by screaming obscenities into my computer screen. High thousands or low tens of thousands. For a thirty-page article. In the humanities. That maybe a dozen people will read this year.

The day I'm tenured, I will vow to publish only in open access journals. Until then...

*shrugs*
posted by R. Schlock at 8:34 PM on February 27, 2012 [6 favorites]


Yeah I have the same problem. I would be happy to publish as open access, since I basically had no access as a undergrad student in India , but I just can't afford it!
posted by dhruva at 8:49 PM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


As someone who is currently way down at the undergrad level but who hopes to have a long and productive career publishing in academic journals, I just want to say that I am watching this fight with great interest. I know where I'll be trying to publish when my day comes.
posted by Scientist at 8:54 PM on February 27, 2012


Also, I daresay that a blow has been struck today in favor of the democratization of knowledge. Hopefully this is a tipping point, and twenty years hence we can look back on this day as the beginning of the end of closed academic publishing.
posted by Scientist at 8:59 PM on February 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


The day I'm tenured, I will vow to publish only in open access journals. Until then...

As someone who is currently way down at the undergrad level but who hopes to have a long and productive career publishing in academic journals, I just want to say that I am watching this fight with great interest. I know where I'll be trying to publish when my day comes.

Elsevier is just a bloated tick on on the dead dog of academia... keep that in mind.
posted by ennui.bz at 9:01 PM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Just a side note: PLoS is open access, but still does charge over $1,000 in publishing fees per article.
posted by one_bean at 9:11 PM on February 27, 2012


ennui.bz: in case it wasn't clear, I will be trying to publish in open journals. PLoS Biology is already an extremely respectable journal.
posted by Scientist at 10:08 PM on February 27, 2012


I understand that Elsevier is, at best, a parasite on research. THe thing I don't know is: what do they get out of it besides scads of cash? How did they get to be this... monopoly on publishing research?

is it just that publishing the journals is so expensive that they can just wave their hand and make it what they want?

(not an academic, but curious)
posted by mephron at 10:10 PM on February 27, 2012


You god damned better back down. Seriously, publication organizations are getting out of hand. Just make them non-profit orgs with payout limits for executives and be done with it.
posted by spiderskull at 10:21 PM on February 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


The real issue is copyright control. I’m lucky enough to work in a field (archaeology) in which most journals are published through universities or scholarly organizations. They’re not turning huge profits like Elsevier is, but they’ve still got full rights to my articles. At the very least, I know the copyright is protected to some degree. There has to be an alternative that allows us some proprietary control over the research we pour our hearts into that doesn't require our turning it over to the Internet. I really do support open access, insofar as the research is free to read, but I’m not too comfortable with the idea of someone (i.e., a publisher) making money off my work by reprinting an entire article I wrote—maybe as a book chapter—without my permission.
posted by TropicalWalrus at 11:25 PM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


How did they get to be this... monopoly on publishing research?

Fucking bundling. The same crap that makes cable service so unbearable and beer choices at so many bars so shitty.

You want "Brain & Cognition" and "Journal of Molecular Biology"? Well, you'll need to buy "Journal of Applied Woodland Animals" and "American Journal of Thumbtacks" too. That and academic libraries are pretty much required to buy the top journals, leading to inelastic demand. They'll pretty much pay what the journals demand they pay.

Those economic tactics have led to huge profits, which have led to mergers in the academic publishing world, which have led to even higher prices.

Ironically, a lot of the work being done studying the economics of academic publishing is being done by newer Information Economics groups in iSchools.
posted by formless at 11:31 PM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


I suspect that the incorporation of impact factor into promotion/tenure considerations also has a lot to do with putting Elsevier the position to squeeze higher rents out of their journals. It makes it harder to take your business elsewhere (as we are reminded every time this topic comes up on metafilter and comment after comment reads, "Yeah, I hate Elsevier too, but I always publish in their journals because I can't take the risk of having a lower impact factor...").
posted by hattifattener at 12:12 AM on February 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


TropicalWalrus, I don't really understand your objection. You wouldn't lose your copyright just by making your work publicly accessible, so it would be no more legal for publishers to reprint your work without permission than it is now. I guess you could argue that it would be easier for such an unscrupulous publisher to get hold of a copy of your article if they can harvest it automatically from the web or something, but plenty of scholars already make reprints available online, apparently without widespread piracy breaking out.
posted by No-sword at 2:06 AM on February 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


High thousands or low tens of thousands. For a thirty-page article. In the humanities. That maybe a dozen people will read this year.
-------------
I’m not too comfortable with the idea of someone (i.e., a publisher) making money off my work by reprinting an entire article I wrote—maybe as a book chapter—without my permission.

Yeah I am sure that once all research is available for free on the Internet that book will just be flying off the shelves... and your article will be the top download at The Pirate Bay...

Wait, what?
posted by Meatbomb at 4:52 AM on February 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


I've actually even stopped reading articles and abstracts from Elsevier. Why bother? I won't be citing them.
posted by fuq at 4:53 AM on February 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


But who will employ all the recently minted PhD's who can't/don't want to get academic jobs but a) can write and b) know enough about science to talk to the authors?

I'm not joking. Symptom of larger problem etc....
posted by lalochezia at 5:52 AM on February 28, 2012


Just a side note: PLoS is open access, but still does charge over $1,000 in publishing fees per article.

The problem with Elsevier (and often Springer and Wiley too, let's not forget...) is not that they're charging money, but that they're earning sizeable profits based on some pretty shitty monopolistic behavior.

It's inevitable that there will be money involved somewhere. One thing I've learned from this kerfuffle is that academics seriously undervalue the work involved in managing and organizing a large operation. A lot of professors, once they notice that the commercial publishers are evil, jump straight to the idea that publishing should be entirely free for everyone. "Well, the authors write for free; the reviewers review for free; and what other work is there?" But editorial staff do important work — not just copyediting, though that's important work in itself, but also coordinating between authors, reviewers, copyeditors and printers or webhosts. If you think that work is gonna be done for free, you're seriously underestimating how time consuming and dull it is, and how important it is for making a journal happen.

So there are three options: the readers can pay, the authors can pay, or the journal itself can rustle up some grants. #1 sucks; and for whatever it's worth, I prefer #3, which is starting to catch on in places. But there are fields where #2 is also pretty reasonable. In particular, if you're looking at a nonprofit publisher like PLoS, and you're in a field where everyone's research is grant-funded anyway and you can write publishing fees into a grant budget, then #2 basically reduces to a roundabout form of #3 — the NSF or whoever is still ultimately footing the bill, there's still nobody skimming profits off the top, and the readers still get access to the information they need. Sounds like an okay model to me.

(In fields where you can do serious research without grants, the PLoS model would be inappropriate, because you couldn't assume that everyone with results to publish had money to pay for pulication. But PLoS isn't in those fields: there's no "PLoS Non-Euclidean Geometry" or "PLoS Syntactic Theory" or whatever. My guess is that they'll never be able to expand into those fields. If you tried charging a mathematician $1,000 to print an article, they'd laugh in your face, because everyone knows they don't have that sort of money sloshing around.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:27 AM on February 28, 2012 [5 favorites]


But editorial staff do important work — not just copyediting,

Wiley person here. I know y'all think you are geniuses of expression - and since you are on MetaFilter you most likely are. However, I think we could have about six months of belly laughs looking at some of the un-edited submissions that authors present as their first drafts. Christ.

That said - I'm not in opposition of any of the other points made here.
posted by spicynuts at 6:59 AM on February 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


You wouldn't lose your copyright just by making your work publicly accessible, so it would be no more legal for publishers to reprint your work without permission than it is now.

This, you're wrong about. You're giving up quite a bit with something like a "Creative Commons Attribution License", like that at PLoS Biology.

From their website: "Under the CCAL, authors retain ownership of the copyright for their article, but authors allow anyone to download, reuse, reprint, modify, distribute, and/or copy articles in PLoS journals, so long as the original authors and source are cited. No permission is required from the authors or the publishers." [my emphasis]

Well, shit. What's the point of a copyright? My point was that I'd want some say if more than one or a few extracts were being lifted.
posted by TropicalWalrus at 7:25 AM on February 28, 2012


Wiley person here. I know y'all think you are geniuses of expression - and since you are on MetaFilter you most likely are. However, I think we could have about six months of belly laughs looking at some of the un-edited submissions that authors present as their first drafts. Christ.

Ugh. Reading back, it totally looks like I'm calling copyediting unimportant, doesn't it? That wasn't what I meant to imply at all.

It's more like this: most professors at least know that copyediting happens, though they still undervalue it enormously. But a lot of them don't even bother to think about all the organizational functions that an editor fills.
posted by nebulawindphone at 12:11 PM on February 28, 2012


Ah, I see! Sorry. I wasn't aware that PLoS applied that to everything they publish (they're not in any of the fields I'm interested in, and for the reasons given by nebulawindphone probably never will be). In that case, I can understand your objection. I don't think the argument has to end there necessarily (e.g. the point of the copyright is that people have to attribute the work to you, can't modify it; if it's available to anyone for free, there's just not going to be widespread for-profit reuse; etc.) but sure, if you're not comfortable with CC-BY, you're not comfortable with it. My apologies.
posted by No-sword at 12:17 PM on February 28, 2012


TropicalWalrus: “Well, shit. What's the point of a copyright? My point was that I'd want some say if more than one or a few extracts were being lifted.”

I don't really understand. How is material being "lifted" if it's attributed to you?
posted by koeselitz at 1:13 PM on February 28, 2012


(Also, what in god's name is the point of publishing scientific work if you don't want other people attributing it to you and citing you?)
posted by koeselitz at 1:14 PM on February 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


No-sword: no need for apologies at all. Honestly, I didn't know that's how it worked until I considered publishing something open-access a couple of years ago. If someone approached me to re-publish an article I'd written, I'd probably say yes. (Of course, I'd like the option of saying no if it was going into a book called Research That Sucks!)
posted by TropicalWalrus at 1:14 PM on February 28, 2012


Do scientists typically have control over reprinting of their work under the traditional, closed model? If I were to publish something in, say, Conservation Biology and then ten years later Wiley decided they wanted to reprint my article in a compendium or retrospective or something, would they have to ask me? If someone wanted to reprint a section of that article for a textbook, would they have to talk to me about that, or Wiley, or both of us? I am genuinely unaware of how this works and am curious.
posted by Scientist at 7:20 PM on February 28, 2012


TropicalWalrus: “Of course, I'd like the option of saying no if it was going into a book called Research That Sucks!”

But you wouldn't have any say at all. Provided it was printed in an open, non-profit journal for educational purposes – and I think it's safe to say pretty much all journals are for educational purposes – you have no way to prevent people from publishing even copyrighted articles. Copyright gives you no benefit whatsoever here. Attribution is all you can hope for, and copyright doesn't even explicitly guarantee that. Creative Commons offers you more explicit protection in this case than copyright.
posted by koeselitz at 7:58 PM on February 28, 2012


Koeselitz: I'm not sure that's strictly true, although it's often true in practice in many contexts. For instance, I don't think it's legal for me to unbind a textbook, scan it into a PDF, and then share that PDF with the internet despite the fact that I am doing so for free and for educational purposes.

I know that there's a lot of gray area out there in terms of the moral/legal overlap but looking at the U.S. Copyright Office's page on Fair Use, it looks like while the purpose of a copy is a factor which considered (and nonprofit educational purposes are considered a Good Thing there) it doesn't say anywhere that everything is fair game just because it's for nonprofit educational purposes. Also it seems to be talking more about the purpose of the copy rather than the venue of the original work. (So, whether it's published in an open or closed journal is less relevant here.)

Also, while it's true that there are many cases in which people make copies of copyrighted works for nonprofit educational purposes (c.f. all my professors who cheerfully hand out journal articles and excerpts from textbooks for students to read as assignments) this is certainly not the only context in which people might want to copy a journal article. In fact, neither of the two cases I mentioned above need be considered nonprofit – textbook companies, for example, are certainly not nonprofit entities.

Now, I personally feel like society at large benefits from having academic research disseminated and made available in as many venues as possible, and I generally would have no qualms about people republishing anything that I might (hypothetically) publish in that vein. However, if Elsevier or McGraw-Hill felt like they wanted to put my work (published in an open journal, outside of their domain so to speak) in an anthology or a textbook and then sell it to people at their usual obscene markup , I would ideally want them to have to at least cut me in on that. (Or I might not give them permission at all, given how shitty they are.)

Granted, if the flipside of losing that control is that more people can read primary research because it's published in an open journal rather than locked away behind a high paywall and guarded by a hundred lawyers with flaming swords, then I think that's a worthwhile trade, an excellent trade actually. Ideally though I'd like to see something more like a CC BY-SA or CC BY-NC-SA license (attribution/share-alike or attribution/noncommercial/share-alike) so that the usual bad actors (Elsevier et al, not to mention other parasites who might try to make a small industry out of selling to the ignorant what they don't realize is available for free e.g. content scrapers and the like) can't simply take what was once open and repackage it in a closed format. Still though, I feel like PlOS's model is a huge step up over the status quo, and something that I could be satisfied with despite some imperfections.

Bear in mind this is all from the perspective of someone who has never published a scientific article but who hopes to do so one day.
posted by Scientist at 6:09 AM on February 29, 2012


Oh, when I say "mentioend above" in my third paragraph, I meant my other comment two spots up from that one, which didn't directly address your points but which used some hypotheticals that I thought relevant. Upon non-preview, that does seem a bit confusing.
posted by Scientist at 6:12 AM on February 29, 2012


Scientist: “I know that there's a lot of gray area out there in terms of the moral/legal overlap but looking at the U.S. Copyright Office's page on Fair Use, it looks like while the purpose of a copy is a factor which considered (and nonprofit educational purposes are considered a Good Thing there) it doesn't say anywhere that everything is fair game just because it's for nonprofit educational purposes.”

Specifically under that page's definitions, fair use is suggested if one wanted to publish part of a paper in a volume entitled "RESEARCH THAT SUCKS." That's what we're talking about here – and that use clearly constitutes a parody usage. Note please that attribution is nowhere suggested by this page; it's not something copyright is concerned with. In fact, this page specifically states that attribution doesn't affect copyright status.

The point that I think needs to be sort of absorbed here is that copyright is a frontier that scientists and technical writers generally have not visited and have not had to meet with. This is in part because of companies like Elsevier, but it's also because science is a field with a functional tradition of respect and some social pressure to make sure that due notification happens. Because of this, I've noticed that published authors come to expect on principle all kinds of things they have no legal grounds to expect – notification in cases of fair use, for example, or attribution in cases of fair use, or permission to excerpt chunks of their work, etc. None of these expectations are actually grounded in law; they're grounded in the culture of scientific research, nothing more.

I mention all of this because TropicalWalrus seems to be under the impression that copyright does certain things that it absolutely does not do. This is common, I think, because a lot of published authors seem to believe that the way things have generally gone for them, and the social norms and customs they've experienced, are set in law under the name of "copyright." This isn't so, however. And when those authors fear that letting go of "copyright" will mean letting go of the social norms and customs of publishing scientific research, they're confusing one thing for another.
posted by koeselitz at 7:29 AM on February 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


I would still really like to hear from an actual scientist or someone who works in academic publishing what the legality is of excerpting and reprinting material from closed journals such as those owned by Elsevier and reprinting it for sale in something like a collection. (Whether that collection be titled "RESEARCH THAT SUCKS" or "RESEARCH THAT ROCKS".)

If I go to my University library, trawl through the academic journals, gather up a couple hundred papers that I think are relevant to some topic, and then have them printed and bound and put them up on Amazon in an anthology for $100 a copy, am I in the clear? If not, would I be in the clear if I got permission from the publishers? Would I be in the clear if I got permission from the original researchers? Do I need both? If I removed the author credits from the papers so that it was unclear who wrote them, am I still OK? What if I gave the collection away instead of selling it? How does this sort of thing currently work, in practice and in theory? How does publishing the articles with a Creative Commons: Attribution license change this situation?

I would love to hear about this from someone who works in a field that relates to academic publishing, or who can provide concrete examples of real-world precedent for the sorts of situations I am describing. It's an important subject, because while it's important for information to be easily accessible I think it's also important for people to be able to easily see where, when, how, and by whom that information was discovered. To a lesser extent, I think there's also some value to the idea that the original publishers of information should have some measure of control over how their work is used in the future, where it appears and in what context, although I think there is a lot of room for debate regarding what kind of control is appropriate, to what extent, and for how long after publication that control should last. This is about more than simply copyright, it is about access to and control over information as a general topic.
posted by Scientist at 8:42 AM on February 29, 2012


Or at least, I would like it to be about more than simply copyright. I don't claim to own the discussion, but I think that there is something different at stake here than in the usual copyright battles, and that the terrain is a little bit different as well.
posted by Scientist at 8:48 AM on February 29, 2012


Scientist: “I would still really like to hear from an actual scientist or someone who works in academic publishing what the legality is of excerpting and reprinting material from closed journals such as those owned by Elsevier and reprinting it for sale in something like a collection.”

Why would someone who works in academic publishing know more about the law than, say, an IP lawyer? That's who I would like to hear from. That was kind of my point: I don't actually see why someone who works in academic publishing would necessarily know much at all about the law behind copyright, and while I mean it as no offense to anyone who is involved in publishing academic work, my experience is that that field is regulated more by social norms than by the law.

“This is about more than simply copyright, it is about access to and control over information as a general topic.”

Absolutely. I think copyright actually plays a pretty small role here.
posted by koeselitz at 8:52 AM on February 29, 2012


An IP lawyer who specialized in academic publishing might indeed be a nearly ideal responder for my question. But a senior scientist, Elsevier administrator, grant writer, or copyeditor -- in short, anyone directly involved in the publication of scientific research -- would be better suited than an undergraduate like myself or, respectfully, a database programmer like you. Given that most of the people on Metafilter directly involved in this fight are scientists, and given the days-old nature of this thread, I'm not holding out for a professor of academic IP law (not that that wouldn't be great) but I am still hoping that someone who has more direct experience than you or I might weigh in on the particulars of this somewhat esoteric topic.
posted by Scientist at 11:38 AM on February 29, 2012


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