Taming the ‘Elsevierse’!

by Susan L Robertson

Image Source: Susan Q Yin for Unsplash.com

If you have managed to have a paper published recently in a journal owned by one of the big publishing houses like Taylor and Francis, and you are named lead author, you will have had an email that may have caught you by surprise (in a good way). This was the offer to make it  ‘gold access’ at no extra cost!

In case you weren’t aware of the complicated language that has emerged in the world of publishing over the past decade, ‘gold access’ is highly desirable. Your published research is circulated instantly, openly, accessibly, and globally. But it costs money, and for most scholars without a large grant, ‘big money’. The lead author passes over some £2500 (or more, depending on the journal) and the publishers unlock the paywall. Green access, in contrast, is a pre-published version of the paper that sits in a university repository. Anyone interested in reading your research can make a request for the paper, but it is not the final version, and it is also more difficult to find.  

Yesterday, the University of Cambridge updated us all on the ‘Elsevier Renewal Negotiations’ it has been having with Elsevier about the cost of its subscriptions, which are significantly less generous than some of its fellow publishers. Elsevier is a huge publishing house which owns 16% of the global academic publishing market and has profit margins of around 40% (higher than Microsoft, Google and Coca-Cola). Around the world, countries and universities are saying to Elsevier, enough is enough. France and Germany have placed a moratorium on Elsevier. Universities like Berkeley put a ban on Elsevier journals, whilst some Elsevier journal editors have resigned, describing Elsevier as predatory monopoly – not unlike Zuckerberg’s Metaverse. 

At issue here is not just cost, but ‘double dipping’. First, universities are asked to pay a whopping subscription for the journal; then the individual authors are expected to pay another big wad of money to Elsevier to make the article accessible. Little wonder Elsevier has made such big profits.  What keeps the engines of the journal publishing world turning is the tie-in between academic promotions and publishing. It is not easy for researchers to turn their backs on a money-spinning giant like this as it is publications in high-profile journals like The Lancet and Cell that make your career. It needs institutions to collectively weigh in and hold their nerve while negotiating a deal that represents a fair price for all concerned.

Will it be possible to tame the ‘Elsevierse’? That Elsevier’s competitors – Springer, Taylor and Francis, and others – have come to the table and offered universities and its researchers a far better deal, now puts the pressure on Elsevier to do the same, or risk losing significant business. And, of course, here the beneficiaries are not just those in the wealthier universities of the Global North, but those with fewer resources in the Global South. For open access democratises access to knowledge, while acknowledging that the publishing world does provide some kind of added-value. It also makes visible asymmetries in the politics of knowledge production, not only within the academy, but between the academy and the corporate world.

Susan L. Robertson is Professor of Sociology of Education and Head of the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge. Her research focuses on transformations of the state and education, spatialising projects, governance and social justice. Susan is also founding editor of the journal Globalisation, Societies and Education.