January 13, 2014

Elsevier issues academics thousands of takedown notices, doesn’t want any friends anyway


Elsevier mug

With all the delicacy and tact of Rob Ford at a press conference, the academic publisher Elsevier has stepped up their attempts to control the circulation of journal articles, sending thousands of takedown notices to websites in December.

Elsevier is using the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (much as music publishers and film studios have done) as the basis for this sweeping attack on websites like Academia.edu and ResearchGate, which allow professors to post papers and research. In the past, Elsevier had issued the occasional takedown notice here and there, but there was a significant uptick in early December.

Academics like Guy Leonard received word from Academia.edu that papers they’d posted had been taken down. According to a blogpost by Jennifer Howard in the Chronicle of Higher Education,

Mr. Leonard, a research fellow in the University of Exeter’s College of Life and Environmental Sciences, tweeted his dismay and posted a link to a screengrab of the notice.

“Unfortunately, we had to take down your paper,” the notice reads. “Academia.edu is committed to enabling a transition to a world where there is open access to scientific literature. Unfortunately, Elsevier takes a different view.”

There was an immediate uproar on Twitter and academic blogs, soon followed by a response from Elsevier, who rather stiffly labeled it “A comment on takedown notices,” instead of something more conciliatory like “We know we’re on your drop-dead list, but just hold on a minute…”. The law is on Elsevier’s side; the contracts academics sign with Elsevier and other academic publishers do give the copyright to the publishers, so their rights have indeed been infringed on when papers are posted without the publishers’ permission.

But, as Mike Taylor on the blog Sauropod Vertrabra Picture of the Week, points out:

Lots of researchers post PDFs of their own papers on their own web-sites. It’s always been so, because even though technically it’s in breach of the copyright transfer agreements that we blithely sign, everyone knows it’s right and proper. Preventing people from making their own work available would be insane, and the publisher that did it would be committing a PR gaffe of huge proportions.

Elsevier, though? You can’t find a gaffe too big for them to try on. Jack up journal prices so high that even the best-endowed university in the country can’t afford them? Check. Publish fake journals that turn out to have been sponsored by pharmaceutical companies? Check. Buy up the start-ups that threaten your business model and use all the data that was freely submitted by its users for your own ends? Oh, check, check, check.

The start-up Elsevier bought last spring, Mendeley, has also been the focus of much discussion in the past month. Because Mendeley, which began as an academic social network and research-sharing site, is in competition with sites like Academia.edu… prompting some to wonder if Elsevier’s new aggressiveness is really just an attempt to stifle the competition, since Mendeley also hosts papers with similarly ambiguous legal status. Elsevier is touchy about this — at the end of the “comment”, Tom Reller, company spokesman, writes:

We’ve also been asked if Mendeley is getting special treatment vis–à–vis other platforms, and the answer is no. Elsevier is both a publisher and — even more so since our acquisition of Mendeley’s research collaboration platform in April — a provider of digital tools and services for researchers and authors. We therefore both send and routinely receive takedown notices and respond to them.

This may be true, but it’s still disingenuous — when the biggest player in a field claims that they too are affected by the penalties that they’re vigorously trying to slap on all the smaller players, it’s hard to muster much sympathy or respect. Call it the “no one cries for bullies” phenomenon.

Furthermore, the takedown notices are a spectacularly tone-deaf move in the current climate, as Open Access publishing contains to develop and gain legitimacy. One indication of how far things have come is the fact that one of the recent Nobel Prize winners, Randy Schekman, who received the 2013 award for Physiology or Medicine along with Thomas C. Südhof and James Rothman back in October, not only criticized the traditional journal system very publicly after the prizes were announced, but is also an editor at the OA journal eLife.

Meanwhile, some of the sites and individuals who received takedown notices are looking at ways to get around them. From the Economist:

The short-term response from scientists and their employers seems to be that if Elsevier persists, and other publishers join in, they will try to find legal workarounds. As the University of California, Irvine, which was on the receiving end of some of the takedown notices, points out in advice to its staff, it is usually only the final version of an article, as it appears in a journal, that is covered by publisher’s copyright. There is nothing to stop scientists making earlier versions available.

Proving that, if nothing else, Elsevier is really, really good at antagonizing people, polarizing situations, and not getting what it wants in the end. Congrats, guys!



Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.