Multigrain Discussion: Another Response to the Elsevier Boycott

As most of you know we have featured the Elsevier boycott as the Hot Topic of the Week on the ATG NewsChannel.  In fact, it’s so hot we have featured it twice – with updates.  Now, in this Multigrain Discussion piece,  Chuck Hamaker adds his perspective to the ever-growing list of viewpoints on the Elsevier boycott.  Drawing on his personal experience as Associate University Librarian – Collection Development and Electronic Resources at UNC – Charlotte, Chuck responds to Rick Anderson’s recent Scholarly Kitchen post “Mysteries of the Elsevier Boycott.” below.  (And as always, feel free to join in the discussion.)

 

Another Response to the Elsevier Boycott

by Chuck Hamaker

So what’s actually going on in the big picture of serials pricing for academic libraries. ? Is it just authors and peer reviewers who should be engaged in outing Elsevier? If you read Rick Anderson, a librarian at the University of Utah in the Scholarly Kitchen, you’d think there is really no beef with Elsevier just with publishers in general. (See his “Mysteries of the Elsevier boycott” posted Feb. 2, 2012.

Let’s look at the three complaints of Elsevier protestors and a different approach than Rick’s.

1.     Elsevier charges exorbitantly high prices for their journals. Well, yes, says Rick, but so do others. In truth, there is not another large collection of high priced journals in the world that compares to Elsevier. Furthermore, Elsevier’s claim that the average download cost per article worldwide is $2.00 is astounding. See “Scientists sign petition to boycott academic publisher Elsevier.”   Elsevier  doesn’t provide libraries current year download statistics for the current year of any journal. They count ALL years of a journal’s downloads, I suspect, to reach $2.00. Take as a case in point, Thin Solid Films, which has a list price of $14,952.00 for 24 issues for 2012. Last year my library had 665 article downloads from the FULL RUN of the journal. On a straight subscription basis that would be $22.48 an article or even more if previous years are excluded from the statistics. Those articles come from all issues of the journal volumes the library has already purchased and has archival access rights to. We’ve been paying full subscription price since1995. We have paid about $170,000.00 for that journal– $55,000 in the last 4 years.  So our experience is ten times more than what Elsevier says is “normal”. And for 17 years, the subscription price paid reaches about the cost of a fairly nice home!

2.     Bundling.  It’s disingenuous of both Rick and Elsevier to imply there are reasonable alternatives to bundling. Does $36.00 an article for copyright fee  use of an article for  Interlibrary loan from the Copy Right Clearance Center for an article from Thin Solid Films seem reasonable to anyone but Elsevier for content they received for free, peer reviewed for free? Are there other options besides bundling, subscription, or CCC fees that libraries can pursue to experience a reasonable cost for Elsevier articles? If not, then yes, it’s most likely many libraries will feel they are being forced into a less than desirable option.  After 115 or so downloads of an article from Thin Solid Films, Elsevier’s gotten $3,000 worth of value from the article, which is about equivalent to paying an Open Access fee. Couldn’t an individual article with that use level from paying customers then be free to anyone in the world? Now that would be revolutionary!

3.     Finally, Elsevier’s “support” for SOPA, PIPA and the Research Works Act. Well it’s a bit more than “support”.  Again Rick’s response: “Why is Elsevier being targeted specifically?” How about because they paid for, lobbied for, and claimed that somehow their money machine will be destroyed if the legislation isn’t passed? (See MapLight.org figures.) Clearly Elsevier has been one of the major leaders in this attempt to impede open access to research taxpayers have paid for.

So what’s the take away? The Leopard’s spots have not changed. Elsevier is still the chief leopard in scholarly research.

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3 thoughts on “Multigrain Discussion: Another Response to the Elsevier Boycott

  1. Instead of responding to the points I actually make in my piece, Chuck seems to be using my piece as a springboard for comments about larger issues surrounding Elsevier and its business practices. There’s nothing wrong with such comments, of course, but they shouldn’t be mistaken for a response to my SK posting. Most of these issues have been thoroughly(!) aired in the 100-plus comments that the posting itself prompted, and in my responses to them.

    That said, I do want to point out a couple of areas in which Chuck has (rather sneakily, I think) taken what I said and then responded to it as if I had said something very different — a strategy employed by several SK commenters as well.

    First, notice the disjunction between the second and third of these three sentences: “Elsevier charges exorbitantly high prices for their journals. Well, yes, says Rick, but so do others. In truth, there is not another large collection of high priced journals in the world that compares to Elsevier.” Notice how the phrase “in truth” makes it sound as if Chuck is correcting what I said, whereas in fact he’s simply amplifying the statement to which I had responded, which is that Elsevier charges high prices. Nowhere in my piece did I (or would I) defend Elsevier’s pricing or its method of defining cost per download. Notice also the careful qualifications in that third sentence: “…there is not another large collection of high priced journals in the world that compares to Elsevier.” True enough, and if research libraries only had to worry about providers of large collections of journals, then Elsevier might be the only logical target of a boycott like this. But in fact, we deal with hundreds of publishers, some of whom (the American Chemical Society comes to mind) are at least as predatory as Elsevier in their pricing practices, and pose additional problems as well (such as serious conflict-of-interest issues). The question isn’t whether or not Elsevier is a problem; the question is whether it makes sense to act as if Elsevier is the only problem, which is what the boycott does.

    Now notice the rhetorical sleight-of-hand Chuck employs in his discussion of bundling: “It’s disingenuous of both Rick and Elsevier to imply there are reasonable alternatives to bundling. Does $36.00 an article for copyright fee use of an article for Interlibrary loan from the Copy Right Clearance Center for an article from Thin Solid Films seem reasonable to anyone…?” Notice how Chuck has put bundling on one side and per-article purchases on the other, as if those were the only two options. Also notice how he has imported the word “reasonable” into my observation, as if I had suggested anything about the reasonableness of Elsevier’s pricing. In fact, I had simply pointed out the fact that the boycotters gave erroneous information about the availability of individual subscriptions as one of the three reasons for the boycott. As I said several times during the subsequent discussion: whether Elsevier’s pricing gambits are fair or appropriate is an important question — but it’s not one that I address in this particular SK posting. The assertion I was correcting was the plainly erroneous one that libraries do not have the option of buying individual Elsevier subscriptions. (Those who consult the boycott website will see that the boycott organizers have now corrected that statement.)

    As for my third point (asking why Elsevier should be uniquely targeted for its support of SOPA/PIPA/RWA when it is only one of many who supported it), Chuck responds by saying that Elsevier was a “major leader” in the lobbying efforts. OK, fair enough. If that was the case, then that provides a partial reason for the boycott’s unique focus on Elsevier. But not, in my view, a sufficient one to explain that focus — especially in light of the other weird or false premises on which the boycott was founded.

    I’ll say it again because it seems to be necessary, though I confess that I find the necessity somewhat frustrating: nowhere in my piece do I defend Elsevier or any of its practices. My issue is not with those who oppose Elsevier; it’s with those who seem to think that since Elsevier is “the enemy,” therefore any attack on Elsevier is justified — no matter how poorly reasoned it is, no matter how ill-defined its goals, and regardless of whether the premises of the attack have any basis in reality. Such thinking on the part of the academic community, in particular, is both disappointing and disturbing to me.

  2. RE: Rick’s Scholarly Kitchen piece :I think what I am most reacting to is the overall position Rick is taking that Elsevier is problematic like a lot of other publishers, therefore they shouldn’t be the only target. In my professional experience we’ve tried the” they are all acting irresponsibly” response for over 30 years now, and it didn’t get us anywhere except even higher price and more concentration of publishing resources.

    I believe we should be encouraging anyone who wants to point out major issues with Elsevier, in whatever forum and I believe Rick’s piece gives more comfort than is warranted to the largest most expensive publisher in the world. We’ve been busy with big deals and contracts and negotiations to the point some might assume Elsevier is not problematic. My point is that they haven’t changed much. In fact, I don’t think Rick and I disagree much with the problems with what Elsevier is and does. (I’m sure he’ll correct me if I’m misreading this).

    “” Notice how Chuck has put bundling on one side and per-article purchases on the other, as if those were the only two options” I have mentioned three options above: per article for the example of TSF($36.00-CCC price); bundling ( If we take ALL downloads for my institution bundling is about $4.50 an article). The other option described above for Thin Solid Films is a straight subscription purchase. Given those three options, what can we say about bundling except that many libraries feel forced to go with that option. For many libraries there is no other option that makes economic sense. If there are other options I’d be interested in learning of them.

    The reason I wrote this piece is because Rick says that nowhere in his post does he ” defend Elsevier or any of its practices”. Certainly this is true, however I believe the protestors have it basically right and deserve our support.
    Chuck Hamaker

  3. Pingback: I am not a radical, but I am boycotting Elsevier | Geometry Bulletin Board

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