In late April, Elsevier announced a change in its policy regarding author deposits of articles. In what Elsevier claims is a change to facilitate better understanding of its sharing policies, the previous policy—enacted in 2012—that differentiated between institutions that do have open access policies versus those that do not has been streamlined, and the new policy applies to all institutions, regardless of institutional archiving policies.
Elsevier has added embargoes to the author’s final manuscript version, also known as a postprint; previously, embargoes did not apply to author’s final manuscripts. Per the new policy, author’s final manuscripts can only be available to fellow researchers within the author’s institution, not publicly as before, until the embargo expires. And although many of the Elsevier journals have 12-24 month embargo periods–and a handful as short as six months, there are some that have embargo periods for as long as 4 years. Furthermore, Elsevier is requiring that author’s final manuscripts be released under a CC-BY-NC-ND license, which while some improvement over releasing without a CC license at all, it is unfortunately the most restrictive license among the CC suite.
My hunch is that Elsevier is aiming to curb unauthorized sharing on social media sites such as Academia.edu and ResearchGate, and is less concerned about sharing via institutional repositories. However, this new policy applies to all sharing platforms, institutional repositories and social networks alike, and therefore adds confusion, as it seems that authors may still post their final manuscripts to their websites embargo free–but no where else.
Reaction to the new policy has been mostly unfavorable, and on May 21, the Confederation of Open Access Repositories (COAR) and the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC) released a statement against the new policy. As of June 1, 110 organizations and over 700 individuals have signed the statement.
N.B. – The final policy has not yet been publicized, only announced across several channels, including Elsevier’s website, so all of the above may yet change based on feedback from the field.
As someone who advocates for openness, but readily acknowledges that others do not necessarily view openness with the same value, I can somewhat understand traditional publishers’ desire to protect their investment by limiting access to any and all versions of published articles. That said, there is no evidence that early/immediate access to preprint or postprint versions negatively impacts journal subscriptions, or article submissions. There is no guarantee that all articles in a said journal will be made available via repositories, and therefore libraries cannot justify mass journal subscription cancellations on the off chance that most of the articles will be available—that would be a disservice to our patrons. (There are other reasons libraries choose to cancel subscriptions, annual cost increases that outpace inflation being prime.) So to unnecessarily limit access to versions of articles that are not harming publishers’ bottom lines, but which do limit access to valuable research, is evidence that advancing knowledge is not Elsevier’s ultimate goal; instead, its goal is to make money.
This unsavory truth has been known—and acknowledged—by many for years. But now we are starting to see publishers’ true motivations laid bare. Digital access and sharing have upended traditional publishing practices, theoretically threatening publishers’ profits (although, again, there is little evidence of this, as small publishers just keep being gobbled up by big publishers, who routinely have healthy annual profits). Publishing is a business, pure and simple. And as a business, publishers have to think first and foremost, if not exclusively, of the bottom line.
The uneasy marriage of profit-driven publishing and knowledge-building research has perhaps reached the point where a divorce is inevitable, if yet still some time off. We in academe cannot continue to freely give publishers our intellectual lifeblood and precious review time when in return our institutions’ libraries are hemorrhaging money buying back our research outputs—outputs that are aggressively governed by publishers seeking to stop sharing at all stages. It is time to demand more for ourselves as authors.