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Opinion: Elsevier are corrupting open science in Europe (theguardian.com)
244 points by slbenfica 8 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 57 comments

Elsevier have always been like this, it's just that now, with cheap internet globally available and having seen what Napster did to the record industry (indirectly creating Spotify, Apple music, etc.) they're fighting to protect their monopoly with whatever (dirty) tricks they can muster.

As far as I can see, the only things they now provide that hasn't been replicated as a 'free service' is matching editors and referees to submissions, and journals of repute, i.e. publish in Nature and it's a bona fide article, publish on your blog and no-one knows who you are or whether your work was refereed.

To be clear Sci-Hub merely provides copies of work that has been accepted for publication in a journal, it's not a free replacement for the full 'service' that Elsevier and other publishers provide.

> As far as I can see, the only things they now provide that hasn't been replicated as a 'free service' is

...providing a brand name that signifies whether someone's work is considered good enough. (It's debatable whether it's a good measure of being good enough, but it is the measure that is accepted.) That's the main reason why researchers keep publishing in the same old journals - even if alternative journals exist providing exactly the same services.

The biggest thing Elsevier does that requires actual work is final typsetting and editing of your article. They have someone take your preprint submission and take care of the formatting for the final article.

I don't think this justifies their ridiculous fees and business practices, but it is a service they provide that costs money.

I have published with Elsevier and Springer. Every single time they proof my article it comes back as unreadable garbage. Sometimes a non-native English speaker has 'corrected' my grammar by adding incorrect articles everywhere, sometimes they fail to wrap formulas that are wider than the page, sometimes they make tables or figures so small they are entirely unreadable.

Elsevier and Springer and others hire the worst bottom-dollar outsourced 'proofers' they can find and every single time it takes so long to get across to them what they've done wrong and to pore through the paper to find all the errors that it would have been better for everyone if they just told me how they wanted the paper and I supplied the PDF!

Anyway I don't disagree with what you've written but I had to get the rant out. Has anyone NOT had this experience??

Indeed, their "typesetting" is mostly done by people with no subject expertise who is more likely to introduce a mistake than correct something that matters.

Elsevier requires a strict format on submissions so it can be put through their typesetting pipeline. There's almost no humans involved in that. Nor do they have professionals that edit the papers.

This is the case for the whole scientific publishing industry.

Not true, having just gone through publishing in an Elsevier journal (and not for the first time). There was a person involved, because I discussed several of their edits over the phone. It's partially automated, but there is definitely a person involved doing actual work.

It is not, however, a full blown copy editor - it's primarily just minor changes, fixing formatting, and figure placement etc. Again, I don't like Elsevier, but it's not fair to say that they do nothing.

That was not my impression when dealing with them as author. Any justification for that?

This contract is causing outrage in the open science corner of the world. Many people think this is a conflict of interest. And many are unhappy that closed, private infrastructure is being used. In the broader context, hardly a day goes by without a story about problematic public infrastructure contracts. Organised commercial companies always have an advantage over open, transparent, community projects.

Here's my take on the collection of some of this kind of data:


> In the broader context, hardly a day goes by without a story about problematic public infrastructure contracts. Organised commercial companies always have an advantage over open, transparent, community projects.

Can you clarify whether you mean if the open public infrastructure is broken, or has trouble getting contracts? Because if you mean the former, I'd say that arxiv.org has been running just fine for ages.

I was drawing wider parallels with processes for public contracts outside scholarly publishing, the "Big four" style government contracts. An endless stream of stories and comments appear here. Eg https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1740428

Edit: not comparing Elsevier to McKinsey per se, but the power imbalance of proprietary vs open.

Thank you, that helped me make sense of your arguments and links :)

Every student I know already uses Sci-Hub anyway, either directly or through Citationsy Archives (https://citationsy.com/blog/new-feature-citationsy-archives/). All this does is push everyone further into piracy.

That may be a short-term solution but that also does nothing to tackle the rentism problem created by these multinationals. They still own and control the communication chanels and researchers are still obliged to serve the rentier's self-interests to see their papers published for the sake of their career.

Why do I need to sign up to something to use that software? It makes it seem like a scam. For example, look at this: https://www.zotero.org/

There I just download it...

It looks to be a major miscalculation by the European Commission and they should fix it.

It is not a miscalculation, by design the European Commission is proprietary and almost always make proprietary decisions that often have to be corrected by the relative toothless European Parliament.

This us by far the biggest criticism that I have of the structures within the EU: far too often the Parliament takes up a position that is friendlier to the citizens themselves, but they are not heard or overpowered in the decision making process by the Comission or the Council of Ministers. Complex processes also help direct attention away from this.

If anything, I wish that the EU structures are reformed into something that resembles a "standard" modern democratic government with a clear balance of powers. But it seems people are preparing to tear it all down and plunge Europe into the next war instead of fixing it.

Oh, and just to finish my rant: even RMS calls for the dismantling of the EU! His argument is exactly that it is too friendly to corporations in his opinion. I came close to walking out of the room in anger when I heard him advocate for that. Don't throw good things away as long as there is a chance to fix them.

> I wish that the EU structures are reformed into something that resembles a "standard" modern democratic government

The problem with that is that it would give democratic legitimacy to the EU parliament and commission. This would then place them in conflict with national parliaments.

The EU is by design a "Union of States", preserving national sovereignty, rather than a "Union of people".

The Parliament is already legitimized by the people in a direct vote. Having multiple levels of governments legitimized by the people is nothing new, either. Both the Federal Republic of Germany and the United States of America work that way. This is a system that works in practice.

The council of ministers (delegates from each member state) can veto any legislation proposed by the commission or parliament.

In Germany, USA, etc, the demos elects the president, in the EU the president is proposed by the council of ministers. EU parliment is not allowed to do likewise.

This way ultimate power lies with the member nations, not in the Brussels hierarchy.

>In Germany ... the demos elects the president

Not exactly. The German Bundespräsident is elected by the Bundestag (although that position is arguably mostly representative anyways).

Even the German chancelor is suggested by the Bundespräsident and then voted in by the Bundestag. Of course it's usually the leader of the largest faction in th last federal election that's suggested, but that's technically not a requirement.

Minor correction: The Bundespräsident (President of the Federal Republic) is elected by the Bundesversammlung (Federal Convention), which only exists for this purpose. It consists of the members of the Bundestag and an equal number of members chosen by the states.

It is a quirk of the German constitution that the executive positions in the government are voted on by the legislative branch and not by the people directly. It prevents populists from gaining easy access to important government positions.

> This way ultimate power lies with the member nations, not in the Brussels hierarchy.

This is a slight simplification. Only the executive branches of the state governments hold power over all branches of the EU. The legislative branches of the member states get none of that. This imbalance is part of what makes the EU lawmaking such an opaque (and arguably even exploitable) process.

Perhaps. However, EU legislation only covers a limited number of areas, mostly to do with trade and standards. With a few additional areas such as migration within the EU itself.

That is, it has limited impact on purely national matters, or military or foreign affairs.

> Don't throw good things away as long as there is a chance to fix them.

It's like the NIH syndrome, but for politicians.

> I didn't build it, so it sucks. Let's start from scratch, with me building it!

I would put it differently: it is often easier to agitate people to be against something than convincing them of the good of something.

In a democracy, politicians need a power base made up of followers (future voters). The more, the better. And when the right conditions meet, sowing a seed of destructive opposition leads to a plentiful harvest of loyal voters.

Why people fall for this mostly nationalistic rhetoric that opposes the EU is quite complex. I don't think that I have a good enough picture of that to say more about it.

For political structures the NIH syndrome isn't as innocuous as for software, you can't have a powerful political organisation without a powerful mandate, if people feel like they didn't have much of a say in the creation and functioning of a political structure you can be certain they will want to tear it down and build it from scratch.

Remember that the leader of the Commission is chosen by the parliament. This is a recent development which massively increases the power of the parliament.

So, usual ignorance of anything not related to software and talking out of his behind by RMS. Not surprising. Irritating, but not surprising.

Please don't post unsubstantive comments here, regardless of how you feel about RMS.

I guess this shows that RMS is no philosopher. If you want to promote openness in technology at such a fundamental level, I guess you need to start looking at how it fits into the bigger structure of ethics. You need to construct a consistent value system that includes all human rights and the tradeoffs between them.

I see no signs that RMS is going that far when forming his views. This makes him single minded, and I am tempted to say, even in a way very similar to religious zealots. I agree that open software and hardware can be good things. But you need to draw boundaries in practice. And when RMS seems to ignore these or moves them further out than anyone else would, he comes across as what you described so vividly.

Any reference proving this statement?

The business model of these large publishing companies is not selling access, it is peer review. Science and Nature keep their reputation despite Elsevier because it is notoriously hard to pass their peer review process, and the academic world trusts it.

We may live in a better academic world if rigorous peer reviewing was a full-time paid job. Presumably it would not be difficult to do better than 90% of the current peer reviewing by letting people with full-time experience (and the overview of the state of science that comes with it) do it. It may also solve a couple of other problems with anonymous peer reviewing.

(eventually with ever-more complex methodology and involvement of complex programming routines and tools we still have to get rid of the scientific paper as the main form of communication)

This is what the finest lobbyists at the highest level can buy you...


That's a bit misleading. Lobbyists have to be registered and controlled in the European Parliament. Of course Elsevier is going to talk to MEPs and try to influence them. I would much rather that process happened under public scrutiny than not.

Does it matter? I get the impression that big journal has essentially already lost the war.

The open line of reasoning seems to align well with scientists so I don't a version where it doesn't slowly take over the world.

One thing to keep in mind is that none of this, even when it comes to Elsevier, is black and white. Yes, Elsevier has been one of the staunchest opponents of the move to Open Access. And yet simultaneously, Elsevier has made one of the most aggressive pushes into OA publishing. They are likely the largest OA publisher by article volume today. Yes, they have the most to lose with a big shift to OA, but they also have the most to gain. And OA publishing has proven that it can be very very profitable, particularly for Elsevier.

The argument in the piece is largely that Elsevier is a bad actor in the larger academic publishing space, so therefore they shouldn't be given the contract/power to produce reports for the EU about the movement to open access. But even if you hate Elsevier, they are indeed in a position to have a lot of the data needed. Elsevier isn't just a publisher, they're a data company as well. They compile a database of all journals and citations (as do a few others, like for-profit Clarivate and non-profit Crossref). They have bought up a number of analytics companies (Mendeley, Plum), as the article makes note of. So like it or not (and I assume most people don't like it), they do indeed have a huge amount of the data needed for a project like the EU Open Science Monitor.

The argument about conflict of interest is a valid argument, but feels like it's getting overblown in this context. The author argues that Elsevier's CiteScore metric (a competitor with Journal Impact Factor from Clarivate) is biased toward Elsevier content. Except CiteScore isn't being used at all in the Open Science Monitor [1]. They're only using total citation counts that come from a variety of sources. So the author manufactures a conflict of interest to bolster his point that isn't backed up by the facts.

Plum analytics is mentioned as a conflict, except the only data from Plum that's being used is Twitter mentions, so I don't see what the perverse incentive is - nobody would be inclined to use Plum Analytics, they'd just be inclined to game Twitter.

The use of Mendeley readership stats I do find bullshit. That's a clear case of Elsevier pushing the use of their product, and I think that should be removed as a metric entirely. I think most "social" signals should probably be removed, like Twitter mentions, because IMO they're not good indicators of quality at all.

What we really need is some set of metrics that can quantify real-world impact of scientific findings. For social science this would be something like the effect on public policy and societal outcomes. For medicine, something like the number of people in the global population positively impacted. These are really hard things to measure and quantify, but I do think there's a need for something more than citation-based impact metrics.

Disclaimer: I'm a family owner and director of Sage Publications, a private for-profit publisher that does a lot of both paywall and open access academic publishing.

[1] https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/info/files/open_science_moni...

> And yet simultaneously, Elsevier has made one of the most aggressive pushes into OA publishing. They are likely the largest OA publisher by article volume today. Yes, they have the most to lose with a big shift to OA, but they also have the most to gain. And OA publishing has proven that it can be very very profitable, particularly for Elsevier.

They made the push into their version of OA, the hybrid OA, where they can charge exorbitant rate on top of the subscription, that no author would pay, whereas many journals such as the members of the Free Journals Network https://freejournals.org/ do not charge at all. And yes, it is obviously very profitable, so why would they not push it?

> But even if you hate Elsevier, they are indeed in a position to have a lot of the data needed.

Their date will reflect their own interest, where conflict of interest is obvious.

> They compile a database of all journals and citations (as do a few others, like for-profit Clarivate and non-profit Crossref).

Except that their database excludes many independent journals.

We wanted free news and look where that got us. Hopefully the open source research model also doesn’t go in that direction eventually.

The whole difference is that free news implies that you need new models to remunerate the writers.

Here, the writers are already remunerated _before_ publishing their papers. What we need is a new way to quickly assess a scientist's worth.

There is value in curation but this doesn’t seem to be playing well with the HN crowd.

I do not really understand the outrage.

Nobody forces you to publish in Elsevier journals. Just publish it in a blog, where there will be comments. Out of these you make your choice whether the publication makes sense.

The ones to blame are univesities and grant commitees which use the impact index as The Universal Science Ruler.

It is akin to blaming Oracle for closing their databases. You do 'ot like it, move to Postgres, mysql or something else.

Yes, quality of publications will suffer for some time. Yes, papers (blog posts) will be more difficult to get to but it will settle down. Until we have open source science.

I don't think this could work for a few reasons.

1. Blogs aren't peer reviewed. Anything that is going to be referenced later needs to be reviewed by other people.

2. It is easy to change the content of a blog after the initial publication. This causes issues for referencing, and removes the "story" of how things were developed which is very important. Hundreds of ideas might end up being wrong before the right idea is found. We shouldn't be able to "delete" the ideas which were wrong from history. This is a part of the reason that papers don't reference websites (with some exceptions e.g. links to software tools or result databases). This is even taught to first year undergrads who try to reference blogs in their lab reports.

3. The journal acts as an independent trusted third party, blogs wouldn't have this. How do I know whether I can trust a blog owner?

There are probably more reasons. All in all I'd like a more diverse group of distributors but I don't think self-publication could replace journals.

Then how is the Apache web server peer reviewed? Or LaTeX? or some other open source software?

By means of people evaluating it (good, bad, knowledgeable or yahoo people), then you read their reports and you make up your mind.

When the subject is one I am an expert in, I will use it and tell everyone it is fine.

When the subject is not one I am an expert in, I will look at what others say and find out the ones who I can trust. This is how, say, Stack Overflow works. And it woks really fine.

The fact that the content is going to change is good. It means that there is a place where the knowledge is updated. Heck, it may become one day the ultimate reference. If it is handled properly it will have updates which keep track of the past.

I have a PhD in physics and had my fair share of publications in the medieval system of "peer reviewed, high impact journals". I am now in industry and I much more prefer to have multiple independent sources of truth and decide on my own. Not a single one is in a journal, all are in places which either state good stuff or are lost in a corner of Internet.

I think we have to start thinking about a way to make it work. There is pressure in some areas for papers backed by things like Jupyter notebooks, and machines make accessing the horde of information associated with a paper easier. We also need to disintermediate Elsevier and other bad actors, they're really causing a lot of trouble at this point. The problem IMO is that the internet is too much of a bazaar, and too little of a library. If there was a means to mark off the 'library' content of the internet such that if you asked for a resource at time t, you would get that resource at time t, many of these issues would go away. Sort of the wayback machine on steroids. Yes it would be hard, but not NP hard. This could also allow the use of blogs, in much the same way as private communications can be cited in papers. For example, "We elected not to run fluorine experiments due to advice from this source -- http://blogs.sciencemag.org/pipeline/archives/2010/02/23/thi...

I know it isn't easy, but we really do need to embrace the internet with respect to scientific literature, not keep walling it off. Cornell's arxiv seems a good start.

Sure, nobody forces you to publish in Elsevier journals, you will only have less chance of obtaining a grant or tenure in an already outrageously competitive market if you don't.

> Sure, nobody forces you to publish in Elsevier journals

Actually, some researchers are forced to publish in Elsevier journals. Some research institutions require researchers to meet publication quotas and a paper only counts if it's published in a journal that's included in a precompiled list of reference publications. If every single journal is ownrd and controlled by the likes of Elsevier then these researchers have no alternative, because they will get fired if they don't.

> already outrageously competitive market

Indeed, this is a market. If people say "fuck it, I will not publish there" then with exactly zero publications in Elsevier journals these semi-god committees will have to change their minds;

One of the main reasons I left academia is because of this feudal system and the fact that people are busy with their research to change something.

The market I was talking about is the academic job market, not the publishing market - the latter of which is very dysfunctional. That said, you're assuming collective action, but researchers are stuck in a prisoner's dilemma where it might be good if all of them boycotted Elsevier (and the other traditional publishers), but whoever moves first is penalised. You can't really fault researchers for not being the ones to sacrifice their academic careers (and even then some still do so - this article's author being one of them).

I was also talking about the job market.

With this mindset of not being the first one to react, we would not have had any changes in civilization (starting with slow changes, ending with revolutions).

Startups disrupted traditional companies, low-cost services (airlines for instance) disrupted traditional services, open source disrupted traditional software.

Academia is a stone which is not disrupted by anything. No wonders that it is being pushed around.

I am definitely not saying the system cannot be disrupted (heck, I started my own non-profit that aims to do that), just that it is unfair to expect people who are aiming for an academic career to do that. Changes in civilisation have also been the result of collective action, e.g. through governmental action or by people who have nothing to lose.

This isn't the right solution.

A large funding body just needs to announce that starting from 5 years in the future, they will only count articles published in open journals on the applicant's track record.

That will fix things quick smart.

Why isn't it the right solution?

And why 5 years and not tomorrow?

By "large funding committee" you mean a grant-providing one? If so this is more or less the main culprit of my comment.

The total lack of incentives aside from ‘doing the right thing’ perhaps?

> I do not really understand the outrage. Nobody forces you to publish in Elsevier journals.

Scientists are people too, and as people they need to think of their careers. Say you publish in open journals and your colleagues publish in "reputable" closed journals like the ones peddled by Elsevier. Then they're going to get ahead of you. So you need to compete on the same level with them. How would you solve this problem? The interest of the individual is in conflict with the interest of the field on the whole.

Yes, you are correct. This problem exists everywhere, except that there are places where people actually try to react instead of whining because the ugly big corporation is not nice to them by making them pay for the journals.

We had exclusively commercial, proprietary software and then the open source mouvement started. We have a choice now and the ugly companies must adapt and do not have a monopoly anymore.

We had women in the kitchens and at church, they reacted and they are slowly getting equity.

What I am trying to say is that academia is not making efforts to change the paradigm. The Professor God, The TA Semi-God etc. Revered Grant Commissions. All that.

I know all of that, I used to be part of this until the day I said good bye and moved on. I still have a lot of friends in academia and this subject comes back from time to time. And every time the arguments are the same as yours, plus the whining.

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