Open Access is increasingly profitable for Elsevier
News | by Frans van Heest
February 22, 2023 | Scientists provide millions of hours of unpaid labor on a massive scale. This will benefit Relx, the parent company of Elsevier, according to operating results for 2022. Last year, the company published more articles than in previous years, especially in the area of Open Access.
The number of open access papers the scientist has to pay to publish has increased by nearly 30% in the last year, as Relx CEO Eric Engstrom reported last week in the so-called Earning Call. On this occasion, the Board of Directors provides an explanation of the annual figures to the shareholders. Six months ago, Elsevier also reported that it was making a lot of money from the sale of open access articles.
During the Earning Call, the British investment bank UBS asked if this growth in scientific publications could stop. Engstrom doesn’t think so, as the number of scientists in the world continues to grow. Also the way science is conducted, with new opportunities to conduct research and the developments surrounding it bigdata, ensures that scientific knowledge continues to increase. In addition, Elsevier can also develop special tools, such as Machine Learning, which further accelerate this increase in knowledge. The CEO therefore sees no limits to profit growth in the field of scientific publications in the long term.
Nevertheless, Open Access still represents a minority in the number of articles published by the largest scientific publisher. Of the 600,000 publications last year, a quarter were open access, according to chief financial officer Nick Luff.
100 million hours of free labor
On the other hand, there is also a lot of criticism against the company, as in the recently published book “Data Cartels” by Sarah Lamdan, professor of law at the City University of New York. In her book, she discusses at length the working method of Elsevier. For example, she calculates that the company mainly earns money from the free labor of scientists. In 2019, the company marketed around 100 million hours of free scientist work. It’s easy to make money if you don’t pay the scientists for the work they do for the publicly traded company, Lamdan says.
The company is also pursuing lawsuits against students who openly share Elsevier publications on the Internet, seeking millions of dollars. Elsevier’s ScienceDirect has a slogan of “making unusual knowledge commonplace”, while the company does the opposite by placing knowledge behind paywalls.
Prices have increased by 300%
Additionally, Elsevier no longer has to maintain costly physical distribution, thanks to digitization. Yet he raised subscription prices by 300% between 1986 and 2006.
Additionally, the company works with confidentiality agreements, so it may charge different amounts for the same services. For example, they look at how much libraries are willing to pay, instead of the value of the product that is delivered
Elsevier is also a misleading company for science when it comes to data collection, Lamdan says. If you only have data, every problem also looks like a problem that can be solved by data analysis. For example, academic personnel management is increasingly using data analytics from Elsevier products.
Elsevier statistics determine the future of researchers
When statistics determine the future of researchers, the number of publications on their CV is more important than the work they have done. As a result, scientists sometimes feel compelled to direct their research to the journal whose numbers have the most impact.
By compiling impact statistics, universities have also become a rich source of new analysis. This barrage of data turns universities and grant providers into gooseberry weighers.
When grant providers use services like Elsevier’s Scopus to decide which research proposals to fund, the algorithms are likely to recommend projects from the top labs at the best-funded universities with the most cited researchers at the top. These projects are often led by older white male scientists from wealthy institutions, Lamdan says.
A company with shareholders mainly wants to make profit
Privatizing scientific knowledge and combining it with predictive data analysis is not ideal for the public interest, believes the American law professor. A company like Elsevier can control academic activity by using proprietary analytics to decide what to publish. Elsevier’s decisions may be based on the public interest, but it is likely that a company with shareholders, whose primary objective is profit, will also include financial considerations.
Under the current system, companies like Elsevier are tasked 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.
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