Sunday 14 November 2021

Universities vs Elsevier: who has the upper hand?


The academic publisher Elsevier is currently negotiating a deal with UK universities. In Oxford, as in other universities, there have been extensive discussions about the proposed deal; the goals are to reduce costs to sustainable levels and to provide full and immediate open access to UK research. I have a nasty feeling that we could end up in the situation of those at the COP summit: with a deal that where the publishers feel they are giving away a huge amount, while the consumers are still unsatisfied. 

In the print era, publishers already had a large profit margin.  I was a journal editor when electronic publishing first came in, and I remember discussions with the publisher - who was clearly very nervous about how this might damage their bottom line. With some clever business practices, such as bundling, they managed to keep going, making more rather than less money.

Other new developments - the advance of metrics and requirements for open access publishing - also pose challenges to them, but their response, like any savvy business, is to take control of these new developments and find a way to profit from them as well.

So should we go along with this? The discussions have largely centred around money, and this is a real concern. Publishers charge massively inflated subscription charges, taking as profit money that our libraries could otherwise put to good use. But the problems go way beyond that, including blocking open access to authors' own work, and giving poor quality and even fraudulent material a veneer of respectability. The publisher currently has considerable power over what gets published but takes little responsibility when things go wrong.

But we also have power, and I think it's time we started to wield it. I have two proposals: one radical and the other less so, both of which go beyond what is currently being considered in the JISC discussions.

The radical option: move publishing in-house  

In an ideal world, we would not have any deals with for-profit publishers. Universities would take control of academic publishing. A model which I have found works well is the Wellcome Trust journal Wellcome Open Research (WOR). I served on its Editorial Advisory Board in the first years of its operation and I have published eight papers in WOR. 

Quality control is maintained by requiring that work published in WOR has been Wellcome-Trust funded. The platform is paid for by the Wellcome Trust, and all material is Open Access, with no charge to authors.

Universities could use this as a model for developing their own platforms for publishing work of their researchers. As with Wellcome Trust, researchers would be encouraged rather than required to publish there. Setting up and maintaining the platform would cost money, but this might be covered by savings from stepping back from deals with big publishers. This is not a perfect solution, of course; we would still want access to past material published by traditional publishers. But I feel this option should be given serious consideration.

The less radical option. An agreement with Elsevier that reflects what we want and need 

If we are to retain a working relationship with Elsevier, then we need to ensure that we are getting value for money, and that they are delivering what we want.

One way in which they fail to do this is through the copyright agreements that they require authors to sign. I agree with Sally Rumsey that any publisher that does not allow an author to retain rights to their own work is problematic. Furthermore, there is concern that even if Elsevier were to say they agreed to author rights retention, they would continue to adopt practices that would mislead authors into signing away their rights.

Another issue is how publishers deal with matters related to misbehaviour by editors and authors. We have a number of serious problems with the academic publishing system that have been developing for years, and have been thrown into stark relief by the pandemic. Publications in journals are a kind of academic currency, with potentially huge rewards in terms of promotion, pay and tenure of academic staff. Unfortunately, this means that some people will go to great lengths to procure publications, and this can include fraudulent means. A reputable publisher should recognise and indeed anticipate such problems and take steps to deal with them. Elsevier has been notably poor in doing so. I will give a handful of examples.

Clearly erroneous/fraudulent work remains in the literature In recent years, a massive problem has been discovered with so-called paper mills - a form of industrialised cheating that involves generation of literally thousands of fake papers.  This phenomenon was discussed at a meeting this summer, the Computational Research Integrity Conference (CRI-Conf), which brought together some of the scientists who uncovered paper mills and representatives of publishers (including Elsevier) and university integrity officers. A repeated complaint of the 'data sleuths' (scientists who uncovered the paper mills) was that when the problems were drawn to the attention of the editors or publishers, typically nothing was done.  Some of these papers are highly cited and have medical implications - see, for instance work by Jennifer Byrne and Cyril Labbé on cancer biology, or by Elisabeth Bik on image manipulations.

To its credit, Elsevier was recently cited as acting promptly when a cache of nonsense papers in special issues was uncovered, but one still has to ask how these papers, some of which were complete gibberish, originally got through the supposedly rigorous peer-review process. For another recent example, see here.

Part of the problem seems to be that there is very little oversight of editors.  I first became aware of Elsevier's lax attitude to research integrity when I discovered a ring of editors. There was overwhelming evidence that a set of editors were publishing one another's papers in their journals, with publication lags so brief as to indicate there had not been peer review. Emails to Elsevier received no reply, and so I started reporting the events on my blog. This created such publicity that Elsevier then posted a reply, but initially they denied that any papers had been published without peer review. Eventually, as the evidence mounted up, they were forced to acknowledge the problem, and claimed to be investigating it, but at no point did they communicate with me, and their investigation went on for years and has never led to any consequences. One of the offending editors, Johnny Matson, quietly disappeared without comment and is now editing another journal for another publisher. The unreviewed papers, many of which are concerned with intervention for children with developmental disorders, remain in the literature. 

More recently I did a bibliometric analysis of editors of psychology journals who publish prolifically in their own journals, and broke down the results by publisher. Elsevier had the highest number of editors-in-chief in this category,

A related case in another field is that of Didier Raoult, who was senior author on a paper advocating hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for Covid-19 that appeared in 2020 in an Elsevier journal for which he was Editor-in-Chief. It has subsequently been shown to be riddled with methodological errors, but, although Elsevier claimed to be investigating it in April 2020, it has not been retracted.

At the CRI-Conf publishers said that they were doing their best, but the problem of fake and fraudulent practices was so huge they could not be expected to tackle all of it. Yet we know publishers make enormous profits, so why aren't they putting more effort into checking the integrity of the work they publish - and dealing promptly with the problems that are drawn to their attention? Elsevier is not the only large publisher to be affected, but if it wants to be seen as a leader in the field, it should recognise that integrity of published material is of supreme importance - especially in clinical fields where people's health and wellbeing can be affected (as in the cases of Raoult and Matson noted above).

If UK Universities do strike a deal with Elsevier, then they should take the opportunity to include in any future contract conditions requirements that: 

(a) Elsevier allows authors the retention of the rights to their publications and  

(b) it provides annually an open report on the number of integrity issues that have been raised about its publications and how these have been dealt with. 

This would go some way toward ensuring that we get value for money, and are not simply adding to the profits of a company whose underlying ethos is not aligned with promoting scientific quality.

Universities have historically been extremely meek in accepting the terms and conditions imposed by big publishers, who have in turn treated academics as a cash cow. We on the one hand produce for free the product that they sell, and then pay to publish and read it. They cannot survive without the research created in Universities: we should start recognising that we need not bow down to their demands.

DISCLAIMER: I am writing in a personal capacity and not as a representative of the University of Oxford.


P.S. Some further examples of integrity problems with Elsevier have been pointed out to me on Twitter:

Geoff Frampton (@Geoff_Frampton) noted 'Elsevier had the largest market share among the publishers of retracted Covid-19 articles in our study

Patricia Murray (@PMurray_65) tweeted: Elsevier have failed to retract this 2008 Lancet paper that is known to be fraudulent and poses a risk to patients: The paper stated the so-called 'bioengineered' airway had "a normal appearance and mechanical properties at 4 months." 

It is particularly shocking that the publisher is still making this article available (at a cost of $31) given that the author had a prison sentence for faked research, and conducted unethical experiments on seriously ill patients: see this report. 

PPS - it gets worse. There have been strenuous attempts to get the journal to retract the paper, to no avail. This has made the national news in the UK.


Comments on this blog are welcome, but may only appear after a delay as they are moderated to avoid spam. 


  1. “Universities would take control of academic publishing.”
    In principle this could work. However, I have seen several of such journals, which are basically run by a small group of friends and/or researchers who share similar attitudes and values. It will be impossible for any author with the “opposite” view about certain research topics to publish in such journals. Here is an example of such university-run journal and their “media awards”:
    I am afraid that university-run journals would have even less diverse editorial boards than the current journals owned by large publishers…
    Igor Radun

  2. You write:
    "The academic publisher Elsevier"
    By their own words, they're not publishers, but have their roots in publishing:
    Thus, with their interest now firmly focused on collecting and monetizing data from the users not only of their legacy publishing platforms, but also from their now numerous (some open!) science tools, why should they invest anything in the content of something as quaint as a scholarly article? Who cares about content, when the real money is in user data?

    "This is not a perfect solution, of course; we would still want access to past material published by traditional publishers."
    Most subscriptions come wit archival rights, so this is not a problem in most cases.

  3. "Universities could use [Wellcome Trust's 'in-house' F1000 platform] as a model for developing their own platforms for publishing work of their researchers."

    Universities do. It's called "Library-led publishing" and the Library Publishing Coalition is an excellent source of resources and community support for universities eager to take this on.

  4. Thanks for an informative and thought-provoking post. I support looking for radical options, but your proposal would seem to limit publishing to those who work at rich universities or receive grants from the likes of the Wellcome Trust and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. I don't have a better proposal unfortunately, but it seems the solution should make it easier for a more diverse group of researchers to publish, not harder.

  5. WRT platforms as 'radical' (i.e., tackling the root - radix in latin) solutions: this is precisely what we propose here:
    and this would not prevent less rich institutions from publishing as a) publishing costs only about 10% of what we are currently paying on average:
    and b) if even that is too much, one can easily come up with, say, partnership programs where partner institutions publish on the same platform.

  6. I have reached the stage that I tend to think that Elsevier is assuming some of the characteristics of a predatory publisher. I may well be mistaken but they seem to be putting out some very dodgy journals.

    I agree that smaller universities do not have the luxury that same of the larger universities do but I wonder that many of the professional organizations do not take back the role of publishing. I believe any number of groups still do. The American Psychology Association, ACM and many others still seem to do so.

    From a technical point of view, modern software and telecommunications appears to have made the "mechanics" of printing much simpler and from what I read, most of the actual work of publishing, editorial acceptance, peer review and so on is done by uncompensated academics anyway.

    Academic publishers of journals appear to be pure rentiers at the moment. I don't know about books.