Elsevier needs my help: The 10 ... no, not Commandments, just questions

Elsevier is the main publishing platform of RELX, a highly profitable information company. Their business model is quite unique: the public pays for most of the work, it pays for the publication, and it pays for getting access to the publication. And from time-to-time Elsevier asks its only customers – and slaves (scientists) – on their opinion how to make more money.

For reasons I had little control over, I am co-author of quite a bunch of papers published in Elsevier journals. When you had the pleasure to publish with Elsevier in the last 15 years, you know that it is not the generally poor author handling, the cheap and mediocre proof-setting, the over-expensive, minimum-quality handouts (yes, couple of years back, you'd still order them, to send your paper around physically), or the non-enforced guidelines regarding commonly accepted measures of good scientific practise (e.g. documenting basic data integral to purported, published results) that makes you publish with Elsevier.

But they issue some important journals specialised in your field. For instance, for palaeobotanists there were essentially only two well-merited, specialised international journals: Elsevier's Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology (Rev Pal Pal) and U Chicago Press' International Journal of Plant Science (IJPS). The latter is U.S.-based, and turned out to be a no-go for our papers. We published one paper in IJPS (Denk & Grimm 2009a), but the resistance was fierce. So fierce that the editor apologised to us for one of the (anonymous, naturally) peer reports by saying that he was not aware peers can be so harsh in the field of palaeobotany (palaeozoologists are apparently much nicer to each other, or not, see comment(s) by Fossilist to the article; I allowed me a personal comment, too). As consequence, we ended up with Elsevier's Rev Pal Pal, and we published some quite unique papers there. For instance, a similarity- and network-backed evolutionary history of the beech trees (living and dead; Denk & Grimm 2009b) and our critiques of data used for and practise of the so-called "Coexistence Approach", a pseudo-quantitative, not-really mutual climate range technique to reconstruct past climates using fossil plant taxon lists (Grimm & Denk 2012; Grimm et al. 2016). On all occassions, we spend a lot of time correcting errors introduced by the professional proof-readers hired by Elsevier, and I could hit myself for not having made a photo of how the 2009 handouts, the last we ever ordered, looked like. To save money, Elsevier printed (prints?) them on much thinner paper than in the old days, and pressed them into boxes that effectively were not big enough. So half of what was ordered and paid extra (naturally), was already spoiled when it arrived.

The 10 Magic Questions

Open science is long overdue, after all most (fundamental) scientic research (the real one) is funded by the public hand. Open access publishing is crucial, but why do you have to pay 3300$ (for "hybrid open access" in Rev Pal Pal), when it's done by Elsevier, and just 1000$ when done by e.g. PeerJ for full open access? Here's a link to a PDF with Elsevier's full pricelist ("article processing charges" with "fees [that] range between c$150 and c$5000 US Dollars depending on the journal")
Open sharing of research data should be standard. It is not, and for surely not in the case of the Elsevier journals I came in touch with. Quite the opposite. Aside that, no high-profit publisher should be able to increase its high profit margin by sharing data financed by the public. Instead, our science foundations and institutions could provide the infrastructure or hire/support somebody already providing such services for a much lower price (e.g. datadryad, figshare)
Regarding involving the general public in scientific and research ... I like the notion, but when you've read science-related (sort-of) tweets of Trumpelchen (@realDonaldTrump), you grow hesitant that this is an option anymore.

Really? You want to know your prime workers' (scientists who fill your journals, staff your editorial boards for no pay, and check, and even have to proof-read what you publish) opinion on which machine to use? Why don't you just analyse your access data? Even I can see how many people accessed this blog using Android-, MS-, Mac-OS or Linux.

That's a question not so easy to answer. Landmark papers sound good, new ("important" ?!) protocols/methods are essential to scientific advancement. But who decides what is a "landmark" or "important". Maybe it's a trick question, the natural choice would be "all of this, of course".

Another question that makes me think: does Elsevier know what it is doing? Maybe another trick question: All this of course, when you truly belief in getting the best out of data (and sharing data).

Finally, we come to a question Elsevier is really interested in. Such as do you know and use its products? Clicking on things (links) is a big business these days.

Boring, next question.

Counter-question: Are you aware, Elsevier, that at least some of your journals don't (or reluctantly) follow your policies on open science, ethics, and research data? And that you don't provide them with the necessary infrastructure? For instance, you cannot document special data sets/results by just uploading a PDF, spread-sheet or word-file as supplementary information, you need the flexibility and functionality that e.g. datadryad, figshare or PeerJ provide. I'd would have loved to follow your policies, but alas, I had to store and share my data on my personal homepage (, because I couldn't store it with you.

Another customer question for increasing profit. It's overdue, considering how little you earned last year. The end may be near, or not (an interesting The Guardian long read from June last year).

This is actually a very good question. I would have liked to communicate with my peers, in particular those not convinced by what we showed, on a direct, eye-to-eye basis. Engaging in an open debate to eliminate misunderstandings and exchange arguments. But that will remain an utopic dream. Meanwhile, you can make the peer review process transparent, so that arguments exchanged during review are not lost, and the many good peers and careful editors get credit for their often splendid work (see e.g. PeerJ, journals by Copernicus Publishers, and even Springer-Nature's The EMBL Journal) and can be distinguished from the not few bad apples, currently comfortably hiding behind the Impermeable Fog shrouding the Forest of Reviews.
Interestingly, this is pre-made option here. Probably, because it'd be just something good for science (Elsevier calls us researchers "stakeholders"), but not for RELX shareholders. Scientific meetings, online communication platforms, LinkedIn, Mendeley, and social media generate profits. Twitter's and Facebook's currency are link clicks. And every week or two, I (still) get one-two invitations to conferences organised by companies (not RELX-Elsevier or similar established science publishers) behind known predatory publishers at exotic locations.

Yeah, you would like to know, so you can corner the market even more. Not going to tell you.

And just in case the survey people missed something important, the last question (#10) is an open one.

I very much like the idea of "resource centres". In fact there will be a post in two weeks on Genealogical World of Networks on why we want to share our data and results, including phylogenetic networks (see also this 2013 post). But I wouldn't trust such an important task to a company like RELX' Elsevier that (still) restricts even the access to long-published, fundamental research papers.

For instance, the original article introducing the BLAST search in 1990, nearly four decades ago, to find similar sequences in gene banks. Something probably every molecular geneticist has used (and still uses), and an article cited probably more often than it actually has been read (it's also in my literatude database, flagged as "nie gelesen", i.e. never read).

Altschul SF, Gish W, Miller W, Myers EW, Lipman DJ. 1990. Basic local alignment search tool. Journal of Molecular Biology 215:403-410.

It's also part of the basic education of future bioinformaticians and molecular systematicists.

You can find the paper on Elsevier's/RELX' Science Direct service.

To read it, give it to your students, you have to buy it unless your university/institution library pays already for the access to the package including the Journal of Molecular Biology. No idea, what it costs, individually. When you press "Purchase", you first have to log-in. Equally fun is to "Check for this article elsewhere" and see where the button on the linked page leads you to. Surprise, surprise...

Hiring the wolf (and quite a humongous one) for herding the sheep may not be the best choice when it comes to a fragile but vital flock, i.e. open science and data.

A few links
  • A 2012 post by Richard Poynder on Elsevier's pretty-last-minute retreat from supporting the Research Works Act that was designed to revoke the NIH's policy on free access. Includes links explaining different sorts of open access models.
  • A The Guardian long read and podcast on RELX and others unique business model. You build a house, you staff the workforce, you do the finishing, and then you buy it from the a real-estate company such as the Trump Organization.
  • The Guardian has, by the way, an interesting collection on Peer Review articles
  • Homepage of the recently fledged Coalition of Responsible Sharing, Elsevier's response to us researchers freely sharing our results; for those who chatter into the World using the cute little blue birdie make good use of @CFRSharing 
  • RELX' information for investors (results 2017); see also the stock market development (select to show the last 10 years). Quite impressive. And very impressive thinking that a good deal of this is just due to a steady flow of tax-payers money pouring in, thanks to us scientists. We really did a good job here!
  • For German-capable: Aufgebauscht, bis es falsch wird. Interview of the Spiegel with a nobel laureate about Nature and Science. Both are not Elsevier products, but the same problems apply to Elsevier high-fly and mid-tier outlets as well. A nice example of the difference between policies (as mentioned in Elsevier's questionaire) and reality.

References (the papers, I sneaked into the introduction of this post, I'm still pretty proud of them, and consider them worth sharing)
Denk T, Grimm GW. 2009a. Significance of pollen characteristics for infrageneric classification and phylogeny in Quercus (Fagaceae). International Journal of Plant Sciences 170:926–940.
Denk T, Grimm GW. 2009b. The biogeographic history of beech trees. Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology 158:83–100.
Grimm GW, Denk T. 2012. Reliability and resolution of the coexistence approach — A revalidation using modern-day data. Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology 172:33–47.
Grimm GW, Bouchal JM, Denk T, Potts AJ. 2016. Fables and foibles: a critical analysis of the Palaeoflora database and the Coexistence Approach for palaeoclimate reconstruction. Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology 233:216–235.

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