Open access has become increasingly profitable for Elsevier

News | by Frans van Heest

February 22, 2023 | Scientists save millions of hours of unpaid work on a massive scale. That will benefit Elsevier’s parent company, Relx, according to its 2022 operating results. Last year, the company published more articles than in previous years, particularly in the open access arena.

Elsevier’s office in Amsterdam

The number of open-access articles the world has to pay to publish increased nearly 30 percent last year, Relx CEO Eric Engstrom noted last week in a so-called Earning Call. On this occasion, the Board of Directors provides an explanation of the annual figures for shareholders. Six months ago, Elsevier also reported that it was making good money selling Open Access articles.

During the Earning Call, British investment bank UBS asked if this growth in scientific publications could come to an end. Engstrom does not think so, because the number of scientists around the world is increasing. So is the way science is conducted, with new possibilities for conducting research and surrounding developments big data, It ensures that scientific knowledge only continues to increase. In addition, Elsevier can also develop proprietary tools, such as machine learning, that further accelerate this increase in knowledge. So the CEO sees no limit to profit growth in the field of scientific publications in the long term.

However, open access still represents the minority in the number of articles published by the largest scholarly publisher. Of the 600,000 publications last year, a quarter were open source, according to Chief Financial Officer Nick Love.

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100 million free working hours

On the other hand, there is also a lot of criticism of the company, as in the recently published book data cartels By Sarah Lamdan, Professor of Law at City University of New York. In her book, she discusses at length the workings of Elsevier. For example, I calculated that the company makes money mainly thanks to the free work of scientists. In 2019, the company marketed an estimated 100 million hours of free work from scientists. It’s easy to make money, says Lamdan, if you don’t pay scientists for the work they do for the listed company.

The company is also pursuing lawsuits against students who publicly share Elsevier’s posts online, seeking millions of dollars. Elsevier’s ScienceDirect has the slogan “Making extraordinary knowledge common,” while the company does the opposite by putting knowledge behind a paywall.

Prices have increased by 300 percent

Moreover, Elsevier no longer has to maintain costly physical distribution, thanks to digitization. However, subscription prices increased by 300 percent between 1986 and 2006.

In addition, the company operates with confidentiality agreements, so they can charge different amounts for the same services. For example, they look at how much bookstores are willing to pay, rather than the value of the product being delivered

Lamdan says Elsevier is also misleading science about its data collection. If you only have data, every problem also looks like a problem that can be solved with data analysis. For example, university personnel management is increasingly using data analytics from Elsevier products.

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Statistics from Elsevier determine the future of researchers

When statistics determine the future of researchers, the number of publications on their resume is more important than the work they have done. As a result, scientists sometimes feel compelled to direct their research to the journal with the highest impact.

By conducting impact statistics, universities are also becoming a rich source of new analytics. This torrent of data turns universities and support providers into gooseberry scales.

When grantees use services like Elsevier’s Scopus to decide which research proposals to fund, the algorithms are more likely to recommend projects from the best labs at the best-funded universities with the most cited researchers at the top. These projects are often led by older white scientists from wealthy institutions, Lamdan says.

The company along with the shareholders mainly wants to make a profit

The American law professor says that privatizing scientific knowledge and combining it with predictive data analysis is not ideal for the public interest. A company like Elsevier can control academic activity by using proprietary analytics to determine what to publish. Elsevier’s decisions may be based on the public interest, but a company with shareholders, whose primary focus is profit, is likely to also include financial considerations.

In the current system, companies like Elsevier are charged with determining how the world solves its toughest problems, from cancer to climate change. These data companies are not experts, but they make decisions about science, supporting some research projects while stifling others.

Megan Vasquez

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