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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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For an open-access advocate, it's easy to pick on Elsevier. An enormous and immensely profitable publisher, it has been, in my personal view, obstructive towards the implementation of open access. Again, in my opinion, this seems to be because it fears for its revenue stream, rather than because it cares about science. The ElsevierValentines hashtag was puerile, but fun, and demonstrated this sentiment. But these are just my opinions.

As I mentioned recently, though, in a recent Research Fortnight interview Alicia Wise of Elsevier said: "I’m not exactly clear what that term [double dipping] means in conversation any more". As the interviewer continues: "According to Wise, there is no connection between subscriptions and APCs: they are “decoupled”. She says the money coming in through a journal subscription is used to pay for a particular number of articles, and that open-access articles in hybrid journals are additional to that". As I remarked in that last post: in other words, APCs are a way in which Elsevier can just grow, rather than transition. David Prosser also wrote about this. Let us assume that the interviewer has represented this fairly.

For some years now, a librarian called Jeffrey Beall has maintained a list of publishers that he deems to be potentially "predatory". I cannot say that I agree with Beall on all points. In a recent article, he made claims about the open-access movement that I believe are patently untrue, namely that "The OA movement is an anti-corporatist movement that wants to deny the freedom of the press to companies it disagrees with".

Beall does, though, have a list of criteria derived primarily from two sources on publication ethics that contribute towards a classification as predatory. Some of these are contentious and I think overly broad. For example, "The publisher publishes journals that combine two or more fields not normally treated together". Well, yes, I'm sure that the "International Journal of Business, Humanities and Technology" might be dodgy, but interdisciplinary formations rely on the ability to juxtapose disciplines that didn't previously work together. This then becomes extremely normative. Interestingly, though, I would contend that some of these criteria might apply to Elsevier and particularly so in the hybrid mode that Wise describes. These are not, according to Beall, part of the formal classification as "predatory". They are, in this instance, drawn from the "authors' beware"-type section:

  • The publisher creates a publishing operation that demonstrates rapacious entrepreneurial behavior that rises to level of sheer greed.
  • The publisher appears to focus exclusively on article processing fee procurement, while not providing services for readers, or on billing for fees, while abdicating any effort at vetting submissions.

Well, I think most OA advocates who dislike Elsevier would certainly classify its operation as "sheer greed".

More to the point, though, the logic of Wise's statement runs thus: Elsevier does conduct peer review on all articles (this is not in doubt); but OA articles appearing in a hybrid open-access journal only appeared there because the author could pay. Does this mean that Elsevier is saying that you can only appear in a "full" hybrid journal if you can pay? Remember: "According to Wise, there is no connection between subscriptions and APCs: they are “decoupled”. She says the money coming in through a journal subscription is used to pay for a particular number of articles, and that open-access articles in hybrid journals are additional to that". That sounds a lot like the ability to be published is centred purely on the ability to pay.

Let's explore the hypothetical scenario: two articles are submitted to the same journal. One is simply to be published in a subscription mode. The other is to be published in a gold open-access mode. Both pieces pass peer review after going through revisions etc. At this point, what happens? Both authors are only at this point offered the option to go OA, so it looks as though the ability to pay had no bearing on whether or not the piece was selected to be published. Presumably, the subscription piece goes into production and is queued for publication. The hybrid gold OA author pays their fee and likewise the piece goes into production. The pieces appear in the same issue. It looks like two revenue streams that are completely clear and Elsevier are OK.

Except, wait, what's happened here? This idea that there must be two revenue streams, strictly delineated, seems to rely on the notion that there are a fixed number of articles in an issue and that these are paid for by the subscription revenue. When an author can pay an OA fee, the size of the issue should simply increase, because this is just a "bonus". It's worth saying that the idea of "issues" is somewhat antiquated in the online space (it's a matter of print correlative) but no matter.

Take an Elsevier journal such as "Journal of Electrostatics", though. This is a hybrid publication with both subscription and open-access options. For instance, Volume 71, Issue 6 contains an open-access article. In total 71, 6 contains 27 articles. Interestingly, though, 72, 1 only contains 17 articles. In issue 72, 2, there are only 12 articles. (These figures include the editorial board preface and all that jazz).

The point I want to make here is that saying that a library stream pays for a certain number of articles in a subscription mode is clearly false. You can't guarantee that you will get X number of articles that pass quality control. The only decent thing for a publisher of science to do is to publish everything that meets their review criteria and have issues of different sizes accordingly. Wise's statements about how Elsevier pays for its articles are impossible to substantiate. Perhaps, she might argue, these figures refer to articles across Elsevier's entire subscriber base, not per journal. She might also say that the costs for each article vary and that each issue provides uniform value. Furthermore, she might retort that subscription articles were simply put into a queue and the author would have to wait until a slot was available (I can't see any evidence that this happens when there are variably-sized issues). But how can we ever know? Does Elsevier promise to publish X number of articles for its subscribers and that hybrid will mean they simply publish more in that issue? If so, they can't claim to be focused purely on peer review.

Elsevier argues that it does not double dip. David Prosser put it this way: "if the UK had not gone for gold, these OA papers would still have been published as subscription-access papers, only available to subscribers. The payment of the APC takes the paper out of subscription-control. If no APC had been paid the total number of papers under subscription access would have been higher. And the subscription income? It would still have been £14,259,959. Without hybrid OA the total from these 20 institutions is £14,259,959. With hybrid OA it is £15,197,490. It is clear that this is additional revenue for the same content – i.e., double dipping!" In addition to David's argument, I contend that Elsevier's statements on the separation of revenue streams are at the moment simply an assertion that they have in no way demonstrated. It is also fundamentally linked to notions of quality control, though. It is said that the point of quality control comes before the author is given the choice to pay, supposedly separating these streams. If issue sizes are variable, though, wouldn't both pieces have been published at the same time? In other words, you can't have your cake and eat it. Either quality-control is all and you will publish whatever meets your standards in a mode of variable-sized issues (the revenue streams are mixed), or you have a fixed number of articles that must be published (implying that quality control is not the be-all and end-all) and OA articles are extra (the revenue streams are separate).

Perhaps not predatory but certainly far from proving that it doesn't double dip and it may, in fact, be impossible to ever fully decouple economics from quality control.