The Kraken awakes – Elsevier increases pressure on ResearchGate (through the backdoor)

Just got the message. Elsevier and the American Chemical Society start pursuing ResearchGate to force them to clean the uploaded PDFs for those that should not be there. Naturally using a backdoor, a German Landesgericht (regional court).

A reminder. Typically, when you publish with one of the big profit publishers, you transfer all your rights to the company – so much for intellectual property – unless you are U.S. American – their big science societies threatened the big companies, and got a special deal. The company then sells your work back to your employer or other state institutions to generate the usual 20–25% net win (after taxes) for its shareholders. A unique, fail-proof system: the company does little work (and what it does, it does poorly in Elsevier's case; repeated personal observation). Most work is done by people paid by taxpayers’ money (by the way, don't forget to #FightTheFog), and the main customers buying the product are publicly funded institutions or organisations. This is like building a house on your own, paying all the bills, and then paying the Trump Organization for the right to use your own house (actually not so different regarding the TO's business model of Trump-labelled buildings in the world). Plus, any guest visiting you or your neighbourhood, will have to pay a fee to get in. By the way, this includes the authors: I have no online access anymore to most of the papers I co-authored. Unless, you pay an extra for free entry. In the case of a scientific journal published with Elsevier (or Springer-NPG) this ‘gold open access’ fee is usually a couple-of-thousand dollars (tax-payers’, usually). Big profit, no risk, and the guys paying the bills (the ordinary taxpayers, not scientists!) give a crap about the waste of money.

The insanity of the system has been criticised more than once. Five years back, there was even an article in the Forbes magazine that this obscure business model may come to an end, but little has changed. Meanwhile, some research agencies like the Austrian Science Fund FWF force their funded researchers to publish open access and vouch for a good deal of the costs (a thank you from my part for that; I'm afraid with the new Austrian government that may be a thing of the past, they probably need the money to build a border wall...) Others like the Swedish Research Agency, the Vetenskaprådet, expect the researchers to use their grant money. The research has been made possible by public money, so its results should be accessible to the public. So far, so good.

Those that cannot afford the often too high open access fees [link1, link2] are forced to publish in journals of predatory publishers, charging only 150 or 250$ per publication (and guarantee to publish no matter what), or use the traditional journals and no open access. Which means that a huge number of scientists will never have access to this work. They won’t read it, and not cite it, so it’d be research effectively for the bin. [For non-scientist readers: Citations (‘impact’) are what researchers need most in their career.]

ResearchGate and similar services have long been a work-around, and the big publishers have tolerated the practise of sharing even copyright-transferred work on such platforms to a) not piss off the entirety of scientific world and b) increase the reach of their products: More readers, more citations, higher impact factors, thus more attractive for high-profile, rich research groups from the First World that can easily afford spending thousands of dollars on a paper. The benefits of a somewhat free exchange of knowledge cannot be underestimated, in particular for scientists in the Second and Third World.

But obviously, the time of tolerance comes to an end. Ironically so, with regard of RELX's profit increase in the first two quarters of 2017. If it is not faltering sales, I wonder whether this has to do something with the fact that science is not valued anymore in highest government circles ... the prey is weak right now. Whatever reason, backed by a U.S.-based society, Elsevier – the scientific publishing branch of RELX – and allies, the “Coalition for Responsible Sharing”, is going against ResearchGate in a lesser German court [English]. It has to be expected that German politics will not be bothered by this blow against free flow of science; scientists are a tiny electoral minority with little relevance. And the only thing the German science community will probably do, is not to protest or issue a call to the arms to fight Elsevier’s attack, but to make sure to take down pieces protected by according copyright. Like my Alma Mater just did in a round mail (thanks for sending, old colleagues).

Auch wenn die Verlage noch keine Maßnahmen gegen Einzelpersonen angekündigt haben, empfehlen wir Ihnen, Artikel vor dem Hochladen zu prüfen: Sind Sie der (alleinige) Autor des Artikels – bzw. haben auch die Co-Autoren einer Veröffentlichung zugestimmt? Und: Sind Sie im Besitz eines Zweitveröffentlichungsrechtes – etwa weil dieses im Veröffentlichungsvertrag vereinbart worden ist? Wenn Sie sich unsicher sind bzw. Unterstützung bei der Prüfung benötigen, zögern Sie nicht, sich an die Stabsstelle Urheberrecht der Universitätsbibliothek zu wenden:” — Auszug aus der Rundmail der Uni Tübingen an alle Mitarbeiter, 16.10.2017

Here's the translation: Although the publishers have not yet announced any action against individual scientists, we suggest to check all articles before uploading them. Are you the (only) author of the article, and did the co-authors agreed to upload the article? Do you have the right to share the article in such a manner, e.g. because it is explicitly said so in the copyright agreement [yes, read the small-script, some publishers and journals explicitly grant you the right to share a copy on scientific platforms/homepages; Elsevier doesn’t, so give it a thought next time you decide on a journal for submission.] In case you’re unsure or need assistant, call the copyright department of the university library.

What they should do, however, is to get the same deal U.S. and British scientists got, or to issue a full-scale boycott of Elsevier, Wiley and Wolters Kluwer … but it’s just a small country with globally insignificant research, it cannot do anything against big international companies, right?

PS Not all profit publishers are evil. Springer-Nature announced to find an agreement with ResearchGate (the also have some strong OA horses in the stables). And Taylor & Francis, the only for-profit publisher that I made good experiences with (professional proof-reading and author handling, relative modest costs), and a partner of the Austrian (FWF) open access publishing initiative, is also not part of the “Coalition-of-Making-Us-Working-For-Them-For-Free-And-Then-Sue-Us” (see also this TechDirt article for more links and info).

Further reading

Robert Maxwell and how scientific publishing has become a licence to print money: Is the staggeringly profitable business of scientific publishing bad for science? By Stephen Buranyi, The Guardian. The long read. (Thanks to David pointing me to it.) 

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