In late 2016, Martin Eve, Stuart Lawson and Jon Tennant referred Elsevier/RELX to the Competition and Markets Authority. Inspired by this, I thought I would try referring a complaint to the UK Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) about some blatant fibbing I saw Elsevier engage-in with their marketing spiel at a recent conference.
The content of my submission is below:
Name: Ross Mounce
Ad type: Leaflets, flyers and circulars
Date: 26th February 2018
Elsevier, a large academic publishing company, have flyers and a large poster, both containing the same information at the Researcher to Reader Conference (British Medical Association House, London). They claim on both the flyers and the poster that “Fact #2: Our APC prices are value for money Our APC prices range from $150 – $5000 US dollars…” [APC means Article Processing Charge, a publishing service for academic customers] I believe this is false advertising as some of their journals clearly charge $5200 US dollars as an APC. $5200 is greater than the maximum of $5000 advertised. They also report these prices without VAT added-on, this is also misleading as this meeting is in the UK. UK customers choosing this service would have to pay the APC plus VAT tax and so the prices should be displayed inclusive of taxes in adverts like this. There is no mention of the need to pay VAT on either the flyers or the poster. I went to their website the same day and found thirteen journals published at Elsevier, that by Elsevier’s own price list charge $5200 US dollars, not including VAT. Those journals are: Cancer Cell, Cell, Cell Chemical Biology, Cell Host & Microbe, Cell Metabolism, Cell Stem Cell, Cell Systems, Current Biology, Developmental Cell, Immunity, Molecular Cell, Neuron, and Structure. For reference I have attached a PDF of Elsevier’s online price list which I downloaded from Elsevier’s official website here: https://www.elsevier.com/
I attached images of the offending poster and flyers. Below is a photo I took of the misleading flyer:
I am pleased to announce that the UK Advertising Standards Authority upheld my complaint.
Here is their reply:
ASA Enquiry Ref: A18-443580 – RELX (UK) Ltd t/a Elsevier
Dear Dr Mounce,
Thank you for contacting the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).
Your Complaint: RELX (UK) Ltd t/a Elsevier
I understand from your complaint that you felt that Elsevier’s advertising was misleading because it did not accurately reflect the price range of their products and they do not quote prices with VAT. Please note that we have only reviewed the leaflet which you forwarded to us, because we considered that the sign constituted point of sale material, which is not covered by our Codes.
We have concluded that the leaflet was likely to have breached the Advertising Rules that we apply and I am writing to let you know that we have taken steps to address this.
We have explained your concerns to the advertiser and provided guidance to them on the areas that require attention, together with advice on how to ensure that their advertising complies with the Codes.
Comments such as yours help us to understand the issues that matter to consumers and we will keep a record of your complaint on file for use in future monitoring. If you would like more information about our complaint handling principles, please visit our website here.
Thank you once again for contacting us with your concerns.
Direct line 020 7492 2173
Advertising Standards Authority
Mid City Place, 71 High Holborn
London WC1V 6QT
Telephone 020 7492 2222
I am thrilled that the Advertising Standards Authority has officially upheld my complaint, and I encourage others who notice similar problems with Elsevier’s business practices, and that of other academic publishers to come forward with further complaints. These companies are not immune to regulation – they must abide by the law at all times. The punishment for now is just a slap-on-the-wrist but if they are consistently caught misadvertising, stronger punishments can and would be meted out. Perhaps now is the time for more regulators to start seriously investigating complaints about these richly profitable publishing companies with dubious business practices? Watch this space…