Elsevier offers hybrid journals
SPARC Open Access Newsletter, issue #98
June 2, 2006
by Peter Suber
Elsevier is making six of its physics journals into hybrid open access journals, and will do the same for 30 more journals, in different fields, in the next two months.

It doesn't use the term "hybrid open access" or even the term "open access", but using these terms is the quickest way to introduce the news.  I'll pick different terms below.

First, the key part of the announcement:

The author charge for article sponsorship is $3,000. The fee excludes taxes and other potential author fees such as color charges which are additional. Information about selecting this option is now available on the journal homepages at www.elsevier.com as well as Elsevier's author gateway site, authors.elsevier.com. The availability of this option will be offered to authors of the above-mentioned journals only after receiving notification that their article has been accepted for publication. This prevents a potential conflict of interest where a journal would have a financial incentive to accept an article.

Ten thoughts:

(1) This is a large, welcome step. Hybrid journals provide genuine OA for authors who select the OA option --or they can, depending on the fine print. The step is welcome for providing more free online access and welcome for putting Elsevier's weight behind it. Just as Elsevier's decision to permit postprint archiving in June 2004 broke the ice for many publishers who were not already green, this decision may also break the ice for those that are not already offering a hybrid option. (Note that Springer, Oxford, Blackwell and others already offer a hybrid option and broke the ice for Elsevier.)

(2) The step is welcome even though the program is flawed. It has essentially the same defects that the Springer Open Choice program had when it was first announced. Elsevier's processing fee is very high (the same as Springer's), and may generate a low uptake by authors, especially since traditional page charges will be laid on top of it (same as at Springer). A low uptake will not indicate low interest in OA. Nothing in the announcement or at the journal sites suggests that Elsevier will waive the fee in cases of economic hardship.  Nothing suggests that it will deposit copies of its articles in an OA repository to guarantee their long-term OA availability. Further, Elsevier appears to demand transfer of copyright even for authors who select the new option (more below).

(3) Like other publishers who have decided to accept author-side fees, Elsevier will have to stop arguing that these fees corrupt peer review.  Elsevier must follow PLoS, BMC, Hindawi, and others, in erecting a firewall between the editorial and financial sides of the enterprise so that peer-review judgments are not affected by the financial incentives. It has done so, but unfortunately the original announcement makes it seem porous and paradoxical: don't tell authors that the fee-based OA option even exists until the paper is accepted --but at the same time, tell them (through this announcement and the journal web sites) that the option exists. The explanation at the web site for Nuclear Physics A is much clearer:  Elsevier won't ask authors for their access decision until it notifies them that their paper has been accepted.  This makes sense.

(4) The page at Nuclear Physics A adds a detail missing from the original announcement: "When calculating subscription prices we plan to only take into account content published under the subscription model. We do not plan to charge subscribers for author sponsored content." This policy, pioneered by Springer, is becoming customary for hybrid OA journals.

(5) It appears that authors who select the OA option must still sign Elsevier's standard copyright transfer agreement. At least the order form for requesting the OA option makes no reference to an alternative.

Springer required copyright transfer even for its "Open Choice" authors until October 2005 when it let authors retain copyright and adopted a home-grown equivalent to the Creative Commons Attribution-NoCommercial license. I hope Elsevier will follow Springer's lead here.

(6) Currently, Elsevier only provides the free online access through ScienceDirect.  It will be interesting to see how this aspect of the policy interacts with Elsevier's standing permission for postprint archiving (for the final version of the author's manuscript, not the published version).  When authors choose the OA option, will Elsevier provide OA to the published edition in ScienceDirect and allow authors to provide OA to the final version of the manuscript through another repository?  If so, very good.  If not, then Elsevier would be retreating from its green policy and not offering OA in an independent venue --leaving authors and readers to wonder whether it will one day turn the OA articles on ScienceDirect back to TA (toll access).  PLoS and BMC reassure their readers that their OA articles will remain OA by depositing in an independent OA repository --in their cases, PubMed Central.  Elsevier seems to have no such plans.

Note that the Wellcome Trust has a strong requirement that articles arising from Wellcome-funded research must be OA through PMC or UKPMC, in part because these repositories are publisher-independent.  OA through ScienceDirect will not suffice.  Unless Elsevier (or Wellcome) permits OA through other venues, Wellcome-funded authors will have good reason not elect the new Elsevier option. 

BTW, I suspect that Elsevier's main reason for limiting the free access option to ScienceDirect is to help it measure download traffic more accurately.  When copies exist in multiple repositories, some beyond your control, accurate download measurements are virtually impossible.  I hope Elsevier will support OA through independent repositories, but I sympathize with its desire for good traffic data.  This is an experiment after all.  If the experiment supports OA, I want it to have the data it needs to know that it supports OA.  More on this in point 10 below.

(7) The chief strength and the chief weakness of hybrid OA journals are the same: because only some authors in a given issue will select the OA option, libraries cannot justify cancelling their subscriptions. This postpones the day that libraries and universities will save money from OA journals, but for the same reason it reduces the risk for publishers and encourages them to try the experiment.  Every celebration that another publisher is trying the experiment must be tempered with the realization that libraries and universities are still hurting --and vice versa, every lamentation that libraries and universities are still hurting must be tempered with the realization that the body of free online scholarship is growing.

(8) Elsevier doesn't yet have a name for its new program, like Springer's Open Choice, Blackwell's Online Open, or OUP's Oxford Open.  But in its announcement it refers to "sponsored articles", a "sponsorship fee", and a charge for "author sponsorship".  So for now we can call this a sponsorship or author-sponsorship option, especially if we don't want to call it an OA option.

Will users be free to download and redistribute the sponsored copies from ScienceDirect or re-deposit them in independent OA repositories?  We don't know yet but I suspect the answer will be no.  From one point of view, this doesn't matter.  Since Elsevier isn't calling the program "open access", it needn't live up to the definition.  But in another sense it does matter:  will users pay $3,000 plus page charges, and give up copyright, if they don't get full OA (and long-term reassurance of OA) in return? 

(9)  When Elsevier went green and permitted postprint archiving, I noted that it was perfectly consistent for the company to be friendly to OA archiving but unfriendly to OA journals. 

But what is it now?  It might still oppose full OA journals, at least in its own case, but will it still argue that OA journals are unsustainable, second-rate, a threat to peer review and the publishing industry?  Will it still lobby against OA archiving initiatives on the ground that they increase the pressure on journals to accept author-side fees?  In June 2004, "writing in [Elsevier's] in-house Review newsletter, Sir Crispin Davis warned that asking researchers to pay for their work to be published but then making it freely available on the internet 'could jeopardise the stable, scalable and affordable system of publishing that currently exists.' " 

Will we see arguments like that fade away?  Let's hope.  Will we see a retraction?  Probably not.

(10) This is not Elsevier's first experiment with free online journal access.  It's currently running a year-long experiment, started last August, to offer free online access to _Information & Computation_ (I&C) and 10 years' worth of its back issues.  During the experiment, the journal will not charge author-side fees, but live off pre-paid subscriptions bundled into ScienceDirect.  Subscribers will notice no change, not even any savings; only non-subscribers will notice a change --free online access.  The purpose, therefore, isn't to see whether author-side fees could suffice to pay I&C's bills, or how large such fees would have to be.  Instead, the purpose is to monitor journal traffic and see whether the price barrier has denied access to readers who would like access.

Elsevier hasn't announced the results of the I&C experiment yet and it may never do so in public.  But it will undoubtedly use what it learns when analyzing the results of its new sponsorship experiment.  What if it finds that free articles are downloaded significantly more often than priced articles from the same journal?  What if it finds (as Harnad, Eysenbach, and others have found, see the top stories section below) that free articles are *cited* significantly more often than priced articles from the same journal?  That might lead it to spread its sponsorship option to more journals.  But what if it also finds that its sponsorship option generates a low uptake among authors?  Will it lower the fee?  Encourage rather than merely permit OA archiving?  This isn't a fanciful dilemma.  I suspect that this is exactly what it will face.  Whatever its response, it will be acting on first-hand information generated in-house, putting it well ahead of many other publishers who are still watching from the sidelines.

In October 2003 the French financial analysis firm, BNP Paribas, said there was a 50% chance that in 10 years the major commercial publishers would convert to OA and continue to dominate scholarly publishing as they do today, "retaining their market share but with less pricing power."   We're not seeing that yet, but we may be seeing intelligent probes by one such company to learn where the paths are in this still largely unmapped landscape.

* Postscript.  As I go to press, Elsevier's new experiment is 10 days old and I still haven't seen *any* coverage of it outside blogs and listservs.


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