Show me the data!

The growing monopoly of academic IP by Elsevier

January 25th, 2013 | Posted by rmounce in Open Access | Open Data

Just a quick post.

I happened to see @wisealic Tweet about her “new Atira/Pure colleagues” yesterday. I didn’t know what Atira was, but I’d heard of PURE.

I googled it to find out more… and soon found the official Elsevier press release , dated August 15, 2012 (so this isn’t really new news). But combined with recent rumours it does worry me. Elsevier own perhaps a fifth of the academic literature, whatever the true figure it’s a significant share. Despite the research that went into most of those papers being publicly or charitably-funded, Elsevier now rent access to this work back to us (the world) for vast sums of money each and every year.

Not to mention the fake journals they published, the arms dealings their parent company (Reed Elsevier) was involved in, their initial support for the RWA (since withdrawn), the megabundling of journals, the non-provision of open bibliographic metadata (even NPG release this!), the obscene profit margins (and to be fair they’re not the only corporate publisher making a killing here by selling freely provided academic work),  there are 1001 reasons why –  this isn’t an exhaustive list of all the evils…

So Elsevier are not a well-loved company in academia at the moment – more than 13,000 people have signed a boycott of them.

There are rumours that Elsevier are in talks to buy Mendeley at the moment. And Atira/PURE now part of the Elsevier (Umbrella?) corporation are I think the exclusive(?) providers of the research information ‘management’ systems that the UK will be using for it’s next Research Evaluation Framework (REF formerly RAE) exercise in 2014.

So… Elsevier own a significant portion of our papers,  and they may soon own a significant chunk of the bibliographic metadata stored by academics (Mendeley data) and all the commercial insight and advantage that gives, AND they own the company that is managing the data that evaluates UK academics and more round the world no doubt.

I do wonder if there isn’t a significant conflict of interest if thousands of UK academics have publicly boycotted Elsevier and now their academic work is going to be evaluated by… Elsevier. Academic jobs thoroughly depend on the results of these evaluations as I understand it, and heads will roll if the results at an institution are below expectations.

From a purely business perspective many financial analysts would rightly applaud these acquisitions as “good business moves” (good for profits no doubt). But from an ethical standpoint? Elsevier now seem to have a worrying empire of services built around academia and a significant amount of data which presumably they can pool together from each of these different services to gain additional insight? They also have a very poor record when it comes to providing open data. Why are we still giving them our data so easily – they’re only going to rent it back to us at a later date?

To me it’s clear, we’re giving up far too much of our data to this company and they do not have our best interests at heart – shareholder profits are by definition their primary goal. They have a sizeable monopoly on academic data in all it’s forms which they can and do leverage and I suspect we’re going to be made to pay for this mistake in the future as we have with hugely inflated journal subscription prices.

Is it just me that’s worried?

  • Peter Cock

    The potential conflict of interest during the UK RAE/RAF alone is scary – for instance what’s to stop subtle bias in favour of academics publishing more with Elsevier, or worse institutes buying more Elsevier subscriptions? I’m not saying they would do this – I would hope and expect the Atira/PURE unit would operate independently of the parent company – but my point is would there be any checks and balances to prevent such bias?

  • | could raise similar concerns about the power google has: my email, my searches, my contacts, my android phone, my google drive, etc.

    • I was certainly thinking of Google when I wrote this. But at least Google is well-known for it’s motto “Don’t be Evil” and I don’t think they’ve ever been involved in arms dealing! Reed Elsevier on the other hand…

    • Mike Taylor

      Yes. The difference is, you’re not obliged to use Google products if you prefer not not. Whereas you need to read papers published in Elsevier journals, and your output will be assessed by an Elsevier-owned company whether you like it or not.

  • Phillip Lord

    The REF is scary anyway — we are already judged by strange and false metrics that force us to publish in strange ways. It is sad that scientific publication has become more about assessment than communication; for me, it has only become about assessment.

    I think you can worry too much about Elsevier in particular. I would be much happier if academic publishing was in the hands of a not-for-profit or charity with all the demands for public accountability that this brings. I fear, however, that the general move is away from this; the notion of a public good is becoming alien to modern politics. So, where it not Elsevier, then who else? Springer Verlag?

    Manuel, you are right, you could raise similar concerns about google; please do, is my suggestion. What difference does this make to the issue at hand?

  • Chris Rusbridge

    Not sure I really understand the PURE thing, but isn’t it a platform rather than the content? If Elsevier own the software company, but universities run the software, add and maintain the content, and supply the experts that evaluate it, that’s not so much control or conflict of interest, surely?

    • re:PURE

      That might be true. But is this software open source? Does the software report back information to Elsevier? Moreover, I’ve also read that the REF evaluation is based upon SCOPUS data which is another Elsevier (closed) information product – like any journal/citation data this database is selective in what it encompasses and ranks journals (interestingly, quite different rankings to Thompson Reuters JCR rankings).

      It seems to me that Elsevier own too much of the entire information ecosystem from end-to-end. Even if university admin select the data themselves, they’ll be selecting from a Scopus(Elsevier) derived view of reality, that could subtly favour Elsevier journals, and store/manipulate this information into the PURE (Elsevier) black box software.

      Little transparency, and plenty of motivation to introduce subtle bias…?

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  • NIck Kearney

    What is strange is that public funding bodies do not require open publication of the results of the work that they fund…perhaps attention should be focused on them.