Monday, 30 December 2013

The world according to Elsevier

Elsevier is considered by some academics as the worst predatory publisher, and is a favourite target for boycotts. In particular, the negotiations for subscriptions to bundles of journals, which were the subject of my previous post, are particularly difficult in the case of Elsevier, leading to much frustration for academic institutions. But what sets Elsevier apart from other academic publishers? Let me give some tentative answers, based on observations on Elsevier's behaviour. I will first give the data, and then try to explain them in terms of a coherent strategy.
  1. Elsevier considers open access to scientific publications as a threat, and fights against it. This is explicitly said (in milder terms) in their 2011 financial review.
  2. In particular, Elsevier fights against Green open access while pretending to allow it, by trying to make it as impractical as possible. Elsevier also fights against authors sharing their own articles on academic social networks.
  3. Elsevier diversifies to all aspects of scientific information -- not only publications. In particular, they own the bibliographic database Scopus, and recently acquired the social network cum article sharing platform Mendeley.
  4. Elsevier is aggressively marketing Scopus at very low prices, with the apparent aim of replacing Web of Science as the leading bibliographic database. 
  5. Elsevier insists on the perpetual increase of subscription prices for any given institution, and justifies this by concurrently increasing the quality and quantity of services, whether the subscribers want it or not. 
  6. The intransigeance of Elsevier on subscription prices forces some institutions to cancel subscriptions to smaller publishers, including Wiley. 
  7. Elsevier pays the academic editors of some of its journals.
It may be that Elsevier is an academic publisher like any other, which can afford to be meaner and greedier than the rest because it is bigger. It may even be, as some claim, that Elsevier is compromising its long-term survival by maximizing short-term profit -- a theory which would survive Hanlon's razor. Here, I will entertain the opposite hypothesis: that Elsevier has a rational long-term strategy for becoming the dominant company in the field of research-related information.

Too big to cancel.
The basic idea is that the increases of prices and services are not primarily for maximizing short-term profits, but rather for increasing the dependence of academic institutions on Elsevier's products, and for squeezing out competitors. Elsevier wants its bundled subscriptions to be too big to cancel. Once this is achieved, it becomes possible to perpetually increase prices. When overall subscription budgets stagnate or diminish, this forces cancellations of subscriptions to some non-Elsevier journals. This could lead to a positive feedback loop, where non-Elsevier journals would take refuge under Elsevier's ownership, thereby further increasing Elsevier's dominance. 

The threat of open access.
The subscription-based strategy could be ruined by a switch to the Gold open access model of distributing scientific articles, where subscriptions paid by readers would be replaced with publication charges paid by authors. This switch could reintroduce some price-driven competition between journals, something Elsevier surely does not want. Nevertheless, this threat can be managed by taking advantage of the collections of old articles, which Elsevier would still control even if all new articles had to be made openly accessible. Research institutes would need some sort of subscriptions in order to access the old articles, and these subscriptions could be combined with contracts for managing publication charges. So there could well be a smooth transition to Gold open access, where the contents of contracts would evolve, while the prices would keep increasing.

Neutralizing article-sharing.
This scenario could be disrupted if researchers systematically hoarded and shared articles, and would therefore not need Elsevier's old articles. This could be a reason why Elsevier fights against article-sharing on academic social networks, and bought Mendeley. It would actually make sense for Elsevier to initially turn a blind eye to article-sharing on Mendeley, in order to encourage its growth at the expense of its competitors.

From scientists to bureaucrats.
If Elsevier does not care about its bad reputation among scientists, it may well be because that reputation does not matter much. In order to get the work done, only the few scientists who are journal editors really matter, and these editors can be paid or otherwise rewarded for their work. When it comes to decisions about subscriptions, these are increasingly made by bureaucrats rather than scientists, as a result of the bundlings of journals and subscribing institutions. Moreover, bureaucrats have their own needs: while scientists need articles and other sources of scientific information, bureaucrats want bibliometric data and other statistics. So Elsevier may be trying to dominate the production and distribution of these statistics. Elsevier can afford to cheaply sell access to Scopus and such services while journals still generate large profits, with the aim of Scopus reaching quasi-monopolistic status when journals become less important.

The way of Microsoft.
As I understand it, Microsoft's strategy has been to shift from selling the Windows operating system, to selling packages of services and software to enterprises. Elsevier may be trying to emulate this strategy, and to progressively shift from selling articles to scientists, to selling services to bureaucrats. There is an almost unlimited number of services which bureaucrats may be persuaded they need, based on the various facets of the research "business": writing and distributing articles and books, managing careers, organizing scientific data, dealing with administrative reports and grant proposals, managing clinical trials, writing patents, etc. Services for facilitating these tasks tend to be addictive, and may become as hard to cancel as journal subscriptions, especially if sold in big packages.

Even if scientific articles eventually became openly accessible and if the associated costs dropped dramatically, this may end neither the perpetual increase of Elsevier subscription costs, nor Elsevier's stranglehold on research institutions via services deemed too indispensible to cancel. It may be naive to assume that Elsevier's strategy is only to extract as much money as possible from its dominant position in academic publishing.