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Referring Elsevier/RELX to the Advertising Standards Authority

May 14th, 2018 | Posted by rmounce in Paywall Watch - (Comments Off on Referring Elsevier/RELX to the Advertising Standards Authority)

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

Brand/product: Elsevier

Date: 26th February 2018

Your complaint:
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/about/our-business/policies/pricing which takes one to this PDF URL: https://www.elsevier.com/__data/promis_misc/j.custom97.pdf

I attached images of the offending poster and flyers. Below is a photo I took of the misleading flyer:

Misleading Elsevier 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.

Yours sincerely,

 

Damson Warner-Allen

Complaints Executive

Direct line 020 7492 2173

Advertising Standards Authority

Mid City Place, 71 High Holborn

London WC1V 6QT

Telephone 020 7492 2222

www.asa.org.uk

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…

OpenCon 2015 Brussels was an amazing event. I’ll save a summary of it for the weekend but in the mean time, I urgently need to discuss something that came up at the conference.

At OpenCon, it emerged that Elsevier have apparently been blocking Chris Hartgerink’s attempts to access relevant psychological research papers for content mining.

No one can doubt that Chris’s research intent is legitimate – he’s not fooling around here. He’s a smart guy; statistically, programmatically and scientifically – without doubt he has the technical skills to execute his proposed research. Only recently he was an author on an excellent paper highlighted in Nature News: ‘Smart software spots statistical errors in psychology papers‘.

Why then are Elsevier interfering with his research?

I know nothing more about his case other than what is in his blog posts, however I have also had publishers block my own attempts to do content mining this year, so I think this is the right time for me to go public about this, in support of Chris.

My own use of content mining

I am trying to map where in the giant morass of research literature Natural History Museum (London) specimens are mentioned. No-one has an accurate index of this information. With the use of simple regular expressions it’s easy to filter hundreds of thousands of full text articles to find, classify and lookup potential mentions of specimens.

In the course of this work, I was frequently obstructed by BioOne. My IP address kept getting blocked, stopping me from downloading any further papers from this publisher. I should note here that my institution (NHMUK) pays BioOne to provide access to all their papers – my access is both legitimate and paid-for.

Strong claims, require strong evidence. Thankfully I was doing my work with the full support and knowledge of the NHM Library & Archives team, so they forwarded one or two of the threatening messages they were getting from the publishers I was mining. I have no idea how many messages were sent in total. Here’s one such message from BioOne (below)

Blocked by BioOne

Blocked by BioOne

So according to BioOne, I swiftly found out that downloading more that 100 full text articles in a single session is automatically deemed “excessive” and “a violation of permissible activity“.

Isn’t that absolutely crazy? In the age of ‘big data’ where anyone can download over a million full text articles from the PubMed Central OA subset at a few clicks, an artificially imposed-restriction of just 100 is simply mad and is anti-science. As a member of a subscription-paying institution I have a paid right to be able to access and analyze this content surely? We are paying for access but not actually getting full access.

If I tell other journals like eLife, PLOS ONE, or PeerJ that I have downloaded every single one of their articles for analysis – I get a high-five: these journals understand the importance of analysis-at-scale. Furthermore, the subscription access business model needn’t be a barrier: the Royal Society journals are very friendly with content mining – I have never had a problem downloading entire decades worth of journal content from the Royal Society journals.

I have two objectives for this blog post.

1.) A plea to traditional publishers: PLEASE STOP BLOCKING LEGITIMATE RESEARCH

Please get out of the way and let us do our research. If our institutions have paid for access, you should provide it to us. You are clearly impeding the progress of science. Far more content mining research has been done on open access content and there’s a reason for that – it’s a heck of a lot less hassle and (legal) danger. These artificial obstructions on access to research are absurd and unhelpful.

2.) A plea to researchers and librarians: SHARE YOUR STORIES

I’m absolutely sure it’s not just Chris & I that have experienced problems with traditional publishers artificially obstructing our research. Heather Piwowar is one great example I know. She bravely, extensively and publicly documented her torturous experiences with negotiating access & text mining to Elsevier-controlled content. But we need more people to speak-up. I fear that librarians in particular may be inadvertently sweeping these issues under the carpet – they are most likely to get the most interesting emails from publishers with respect to these matters.

This is a serious matter. Given the experience of Aaron Swartz; being faced with up to 50 years of imprisonment for downloading ‘too many’ JSTOR papers – it would not surprise me if few researchers come forward publicly.