To the intense joy of Open Access (OA) advocates, Elsevier announced Monday that it has withdrawn its support for the controversial US Research Works Act (RWA). Shortly afterwards, it was reported that the two sponsors of the bill — Representatives Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) — would not be “taking legislative action” on the RWA. In short, the bill is now dead on its feet.
One person who took particular note of the news was Claudio Aspesi, a senior research analyst at the sell-side research firm Sanford Bernstein. Aspesi tracks Elsevier for investors, so on Tuesday he published a new report on the company. While welcoming Elsevier's decision, Aspesi concluded, “Consensus is still treating Elsevier’s problems as cyclical, in spite of the rising evidence the issues are deeper”. So when I received a copy of the report I took it as a sign that it was time to re-interview Aspesi. The interview follows my own thoughts on the current situation below.
The RWA was introduced into the House of Representatives at the end of last year. Had it become law, the bill would have reversed the 2005 National Institutes of Health Public Access Policy requiring that taxpayer-funded research is made freely accessible online within 12 months of publication. It would also have prevented other federal agencies from imposing similar requirements on their funded researchers.
In short, the RWA would have been a serious setback for the OA movement. But the danger has been averted.
Sadly for Elsevier, however, its flirtation with the RWA appears to have wreaked havoc on its relationship with the research community. The blogosphere has been alive with criticism of the publisher, several petitions were launched to stop the bill and, most damagingly, in January a blog post by highly regarded Cambridge University mathematician Timothy Gowers sparked a boycott of the company, with thousands of researchers pledging that henceforth they will not publish in, or referee and/or perform editorial services for any Elsevier journals.
It is important to note, however, that this anger was not just over Elsevier’s support for the RWA. It was soon apparent that researchers have a number of historic grievances against the company, grievances that were reawakened by its support for the bill.
The boycott site (Cost of Knowledge) lists a number of these grievances, including the complaint that Elsevier charges “exorbitantly high prices” and that it has used the Big Deal (aka journal bundling) as a way of forcing librarians to “agree to buy very large ‘bundles’” of journals, including “many journals that those libraries do not actually want.”
As such, the danger is that having opened Pandora’s Box, Elsevier may not be able to close it again, and its retreat from the RWA may fail to stem the tide of researchers joining the boycott. At the time of writing, the number who had pledged to shun the publisher had grown to 7,690, and continues to grow by the hour.
Given the PR crisis it sparked, and the embarrassing climb-down that Elsevier has had to make, one is bound to wonder why the publisher ever supported the RWA in the first place.
Ask Elsevier why and it will tell you that self-archiving mandates like the NIH policy represent an unfair threat to its business — by depriving it of vital subscription revenue it needs to fund the publishing of research papers. It also claims that the NIH policy amounts to unwarranted government interference in the market.
But is it true that self-archiving mandates inevitably cause libraries to cancel subscriptions, as Elsevier claims? This is far from self-evident.
What we do know is that a 2006 study by the Publishing Research Consortium (PRC) — of which Elsevier is a senior member — reported that 44% of librarians indicated they would cancel journal subscriptions if more than 40% of the content became freely available within 12 months of publication.
We also know that in its submission to the consultation on public access organised by the US Office of Science & Technology (OSTP), Elsevier claimed that the NIH policy is already having a negative impact on publishers’ revenues. However, no figures have yet been produced to demonstrate as much. When I asked Elsevier’s director of universal access Alicia Wise recently for evidence, she replied, “[W]e are currently evaluating the best way to disseminate these results.”
We further know that a recent report published by the Committee for Economic Development concluded that there is no compelling evidence that public access mandates impact on subscriptions. “Although there have been cancellations, including some notable cancellations of ‘Big Deal’ bundles by major research libraries,” the report states, “there have not been widespread cancellations — certainly not in the 40 per cent range described in the PRC study.”
The report adds, “[I]f the critics are correct, some negative impact should be discernible — some shadow should be visible over the subscription-supported publishing sector.”
The truth, insist OA advocates, is that there is no shadow.
What is clear, however, is that if Elsevier is correct when it says that mandates are a threat to its revenues then that threat could soon become much greater — for as the RWA sinks beneath the waves a new bill called the Federal Research Public Access Act (FRPAA) has set sail on the legislative waters.
Introduced in both the House of Representatives and the Senate in February, rather than outlawing the NIH policy, the FRPAA would propagate it — to all federal agencies with an annual research budget of $100 million or more (around a dozen). In addition, it would reduce the embargo period from 12 months to six months.
As it happens, observers do not expect the FRPAA to be any more successful than the RWA, certainly in the short term.
Nevertheless, argue OA advocates, open access to publicly funded research is inevitable, and last year’s America COMPETES Reauthorization Act will likely make this happen sooner rather than later.
Section 103 of the Act, reports Heather Joseph, executive director of OA advocacy group SPARC, directed the OSTP to convene an Interagency Working Group to develop recommendations on science agency public access policies for both data and articles. “The provision required the Working Group to submit these recommendations to Congress in the form of reports,” says Joseph.
It was Elsevier’s submission to this process that we referred to earlier, and the results of the consultation have already been considered by the Working Group, says Joseph. “I understand that the reports have been drafted, and are currently under review by the agencies who participated in the Working Group.”
We cannot yet know the outcome of this, but OA advocates express quiet confidence.
At the same time, however they also draw attention to the fact that, even as it stepped away from the RWA, Elsevier took the opportunity to take another pot shot at mandates. “While we continue to oppose government mandates in this area,” its statement reads, “Elsevier is withdrawing support for the Research Work Act itself.”
What this clearly demonstrates, suggest OA advocates is that the battle is far from over.
Elsevier’s problem, of course, is that as a public company it finds itself caught between the conflicting demands of its shareholders — who expect revenues to grow constantly and maximally — and its customers, who maintain that it is overcharging for its services, and who believe that in a networked world access to publicly-funded research should be possible without the need to negotiate pay walls.
The trouble is that for so long as the debate is framed in terms of a battle between greedy publishers and noble open access activists the underlying problem remains obscured.
What is the underlying problem? Simply that the research community can no longer afford to pay the costs of publishing its research in the traditional manner. While OA may change the way in which research papers are distributed (whether by means of publishing in a subscription journal and then self-archiving a copy on the Web, or by paying to publish in an OA journal), it does not change the fundamental publishing model, including the utilisation of the costly process of pre-publication peer review.
This suggests that even if there is no evidence that mandates are causing mass cancellation today, cancellations seem inevitable in the long term if nothing changes. However, these cancellations would likely not be a consequence of self-archiving, but of the mismatch between falling university budgets and the rising number of papers researchers want to publish. The latter figure is growing at around 6% to 7% per annum, and shows no signs of falling off.
As things stand, therefore, sooner or later a train wreck could occur. After all, if the cash-strapped research community found it had no choice but to cancel more and more subscriptions, journals would eventually have to be closed, leaving fewer outlets for researchers to publish. One has to ask what value self-archiving mandates would have if researchers couldn’t get published in the first place. While they could choose to publish in OA journals instead, it is far from clear that this would be any more likely to solve the underlying affordability problem, as I suggest below.
Not just a problem for Elsevier
Claudio Aspesi has been drawing attention to this underlying problem for a number of years. As he put it to me last year, the scholarly journal system is being buffeted by three overlapping trends: “a long term unsustainable trend, a cyclical funding crisis and a more tough minded and analytical community of librarians.”
If Aspesi is correct, then even if the cyclical funding crisis were to go away tomorrow, and librarians became pussycats overnight, the long-term unsustainable trend would continue to pose a significant threat to Elsevier, as it would to all scholarly journal publishers, and indeed to the research community itself. The problem is the research community appears not to be focused on this deeper problem.
Two years ago Aspesi told me to me that Elsevier appears to be "in denial on the magnitude of the issue potentially affecting scientific publishing.” As a consequence, he added, it appears to have no “Plan B” should it find itself confronted by a long period of flat revenues, as Aspesi believes it will.
Aspesi has continued to alert the world to the impending crisis he anticipates through his periodic investment reports, and the day after Elsevier announced that it was no longer supporting the RWA he published a new report. “This is the right decision in our view, and we commend Reed Elsevier for avoiding stubbornly supporting a self-defeating course of action,” he wrote, “although action could and should have been taken sooner.”
Nevertheless, he added, “Consensus is still treating Elsevier's problems as cyclical, in spite of the rising evidence the issues are deeper.”
Could it be that the RWA was Plan B for Elsevier — based on the mistaken belief that the OA tide could be held back by legislative measures? If it was, then we must assume that the publisher’s strategy is now in tatters.
Curious to get Aspesi’s latest thinking on these matters I invited him to do another interview (see below).
Readers must draw their own conclusions, but for me the take-home point is that this is not just a problem for Elsevier, or even a problem for commercial scholarly publishers at large. It is a problem confronting the research community too. And the suspicion must be that the research community is itself in denial about it.
I say this because the evidence suggests that even if Elsevier were to announce tomorrow that it plans to make all its journals OA, the underlying problem would not go away.
After all, we have learned over the past few years that even well-intentioned non-profit OA publishers like the Public Library of Science (PLoS) appear unable or unwilling to solve the affordability problem. Yet the research community appears to have concluded that OA publishing is the answer to all its problems.
It is hard not to conclude, therefore, that the research community itself has no Plan B, and there is consequently no Plan B for scholarly publishing.
The interview begins …
RP: On Monday Elsevier announced that it was withdrawing its support for the US Research Works Act (RWA). In an investment report you published the next day you said, “This is the right decision in our view, and we commend Reed Elsevier for avoiding stubbornly supporting a self-defeating course of action”. What in your view went wrong here? Would it be fair to conclude that Elsevier shot itself in the foot?
CA: It is difficult to understand how Elsevier picked the course it chose. Most people I speak to think that public mandates are an irritant, but not a mortal threat to the major STM publishers, and the decision to support the RWA was bound to raise heckles.
Elsevier argues it opposes rigid mandates, but rigidity is a word many people in the academic community would easily associate with Elsevier.
RP: As I understand it, Elsevier supported the RWA because it believes that self-archiving mandates like the one introduced in 2005 by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) threaten to unfairly damage its business. As its submission to the OSTP puts it, “Early indications show that the NIH Public Access Policy has had a negative impact on Elsevier and other publishers.” I am not aware that any figures have been published to demonstrate this, but what is your view: does the NIH mandate pose a financial risk to scholarly publishers?
CA: I find it somewhat difficult to believe that any academic or research library has cancelled a single subscription to a medical or life sciences journal because it would be able to access, twelve months later, a relatively modest percentage of the articles published in any one issue of that journal. To argue otherwise invites disbelief and cynicism.
It may be true that, at the margin, some articles which would have been sold as an individual download were not downloaded, but — once again — to argue that this makes a material difference to Elsevier's revenues or profits can only irritate and antagonize even more the academic community. I am always happy to learn where I make mistakes and improve my analysis, and would be delighted if Elsevier produced evidence to disprove my scepticism.
In general, Elsevier could easily prove that the supporters of the NIH policy are wrong by producing figures and opening up to scrutiny the “early indications”. I have no doubt that many highly intelligent people in the academic community would vet the evidence and come to a fair conclusion on whether the facts support the claim.
After all, if Elsevier and the other publishers demand or oppose changes in public policy, they should provide factual evidence that they will be harmed.
RP: You have over the last few years repeatedly said that Elsevier is “in denial” about the challenge its scholarly journal business faces, and that you do not see any “Plan B”. Perhaps Plan B was the RWA. If so, now that the bill is dead in the water, where does Elsevier go from here, and what lesson should it learn from the last couple of months?
CA: If the RWA was Elsevier's plan B, then they need to think harder about their plans.
I believe their plan B is actually to try to shift spending decisions away from academic libraries and into research labs and departments. When the company held at the end of 2011 an investor day in London focusing on Elsevier, they had a grand total of one slide mentioning (in passing) academic libraries, which probably still account for 40 to 50% of their revenues.
In the normal course of events, one would expect management to spend a great deal of time discussing their larger customers, but the company has been talking virtually exclusively about the broader scientific community.
Whether this strategy works or not is a function of several factors: how fast will the research community embrace new tools, and how much pressure will library budgets put on revenues and profits in the meanwhile.
Also, academics have been largely insulated from the price points of academic journals by the fact that libraries were disbursing the funds. I am not sure whether academic and research staffs will view with equanimity the prices practiced by the leading publishers.
It is worthwhile observing that Elsevier is not the only company which will have to deal with these issues, but as the largest one, and as a division of a public company, it will be most vulnerable to any issues in this transitional phase.
RP: I note that the number of researchers signing on to the boycott against Elsevier is still growing, despite the company’s withdrawal of support for the RWA. Currently it stands at over 7,500. Is it possible that “Occupy Elsevier” (as you called it in a recent report) might have gained a momentum of its own? If so, what more can Elsevier do to placate the research community?
CA: I very much doubt Elsevier can do much else. We argued back at the beginning of February that the company should abandon the RWA, but it cannot and will not abandon its price points and its commercial practices until events force it to.
The company probably hopes the boycott dies down, and ultimately it can still weather it if the only negative consequence is a somewhat smaller pool of articles submitted for publication and a smaller pool of people willing to participate in peer review.
What would change that is a visible number of editorial board resignations. This would paralyze journals, and — if it proved impossible to replace the people leaving — could lead to shut downs.
Even if the number of journals initially affected was small, the news would have a profound impact on the company. The stock market is a powerful mechanism to discount the future value of even small events, and if investors started to abandon the stock, the company would have to rethink its approach.
RP: We should also note, however, that eleven years ago a similar boycott was proposed, and 34,000 researchers committed to have no further dealings with any publisher that did not make the papers it published OA within 12 months of publication. In the event, most publishers ignored the threat, and most of the scientists who signed the pledge carried on as before. It also appears that some of the signatures on the Cost of Knowledge site are not genuine — I believe someone added your name to the boycott for instance. How serious a threat do you think the boycott poses?
CA: As I mentioned earlier, much depends on editorial board participation. Some academics are becoming increasingly sophisticated about the role the stock market can play. Whether it will or not largely depends on the academic community itself.
A word on the signatures: I doubt that many are illegitimate. When I discovered (by chance) that my name had been added, I made sure that it was removed and documented the event. There is no way for sure what went through the mind of the person who did this, but I doubt it was done to help the boycott.
I don't like to make myself central to all of this, because I am not. The fact that someone went through the motions of adding my name, however, shows that they are taking this very seriously, to the point of doing something that they must know is wrong.
Makes no sense
RP: Last March you said that a “crunch point” had been reached for scholarly journal publishers, and you predicted the demise of the Big Deal (aka journal bundling). Your reasoning was that there are three overlapping trends: a long-term unsustainable trend, a cyclical funding crisis and a more tough minded and analytical community of librarians. Is that still your view? Have you adjusted your analysis in any way?
CA: Largely speaking, I still think the system for academic dissemination that has emerged once distribution became digital makes no sense.
There are questions around timing, because the long (and lengthening) duration of contracts means that libraries get a chance to rethink their relationship with each individual publisher only two or three times in a decade. What could change all of this is mass resignation from editorial boards, leading to the effective suspension of tens or hundreds of publications.
Elsevier has made the commercial terms of their contracts very opaque, so it is unclear what recourse libraries have. I doubt, however, the contracts would hold if libraries demanded massive discounts in the wake of Elsevier stopping publishing a third or half of its journals (or even a smaller number, if these were the leading journals in their respective disciplines).
RP: In discussing the Big Deal with me last year you cited the stand that was then being taken by Research Libraries UK (RLUK), which was insisting that it would not sign a new Big Deal with Elsevier and Wiley-Blackwell unless the subscription costs were reduced by 15%. There were a number of other demands too. It is my understanding that RLUK did not get all it asked for, but signed another Big Deal anyway. Are you still predicting the death of large bundled journal contracts?
CA: Librarians still like the Big Deals. So, if Elsevier was willing to work within the confines of what libraries can afford, both by moderating annual revenue growth to 1 to 2% and in some cases re-adjusting prices when the libraries cannot meet current levels of spending, I think Big Deals could survive for a long time.
Elsevier would have to work much harder at extracting efficiencies within its own processes. This would allow them to both pass along some of the efficiencies to its customers by permanently moderating “price” inflation and continue to expand their own margins.
RP: What clearly annoys the research community is that it believes Elsevier charges too much, and so earns excessive profits. There seems to be some confusion as to exactly what these profits are. OA advocates tend to cite figures anywhere between 25% and 40%. I realise that analysts calculate these figures differently, but what figure do you cite, how has that figure changed over the last ten years or so, and how does it compare with other industries?
CA: The best way to look at this is the Adjusted Operating Profit of Elsevier itself, which was 35.7% in 2011. Of course, within Elsevier there are many businesses, and all have different profitability, but it is impossible to really know from the outside.
RP: Last year you were predicting 2% growth for Elsevier in 2013 (where other analysts were predicting twice that). Is that still your forecast? Presumably it implies lower profits for the company? If your estimate is right, how do you see it impacting on Elsevier’s profits over the next few years?
CA: My understanding is that one year ago other analysts were also predicting growth in 2012 to reach 3.7%, and have now taken their numbers down to 2%. I think that we will continue to see growth average around 2% and profits stabilize around the current level.
What is Elsevier to do?
RP: The RWA is dead, but there is another bill in play that will doubtless prolong the mandate controversy. The Federal Research Public Access Act (FRPAA) would propagate the NIH mandate to other federal agencies, and it would reduce the embargo period required before a paper is made freely available from 12 months to six months. Presumably this poses a new (and greater) threat to Elsevier. But how great a threat?
CA: As I said at the beginning, I doubt even one subscription was cancelled because of the NIH policy. Even extending the policy to all research funded by the Federal Government would only affect 60% or so of US research at most, which translates into a bit less than 15% of global research.
Even allowing for the disproportionately high impact factor of US research (which is about 50% higher than average), I have a hard time envisioning cancellations of leading journals because 1 or 2 articles out of 10 will be freely available in six months.
On the other hand, a US public mandate may be the tipping point which leads many other countries to follow, and then incentives for librarians to cancel subscriptions would mount. Also, public mandates may not affect leading journals, but most publishers have journals with lower impact factors and low readership numbers.
The risk is that libraries would want to pay even less for those journals and push back on the pricing of collections and Big Deals would rise.
RP: So what is Elsevier to do? One obvious move would seem to be to migrate its 2,000 plus subscription journals to an open access model as quickly as possible. When I suggested this to you in June 2010, however, you replied, “I doubt that shifting to supporting OA would work for them, since they would probably insist on maintaining or increasing profits to do so. In a challenging funding environment, I am not sure that any OA model that Elsevier could support would meet the funding issues of the academic world.” Is that still your view?
CA: I have not changed my mind. The risks involved in transitioning to a completely different business model are high, and there is little incentive for most management teams to do so unless an external catastrophic event pushes them in that direction.
RP: You also suggested that the company should undergo a “progressive divestiture”. Is that still your view? If it did, could it hope to benefit to the same degree as it would have done then? I think you estimated a 15/20% upside to the share price at that time.
CA: The upside changes all the time with both the share price of the company and the expected value of a divestiture. At present the upside is still in that region.
RP: I am wondering if perhaps one consequence of the RWA fiasco is that the debate is now moving on from a discussion about the relative merits of subscription versus open access publishing, to a discussion about how researchers can take responsibility for disseminating their research themselves — by means, for instance, of arXiv-like services. This seems to be the thrust of much of the debate on the Math2.0 site. Elsewhere, one-time Elsevier employee Jan Velterop has argued that if the research community were to move to an “endorsement” model like that used by arXiv it could save $3 billion a year in publication costs. Since this would involve abandoning pre-publication peer review it might suggest that scholarly publishers face not just lower profits, but redundancy. Do you have any views on the likelihood of that?
CA: I doubt the academic community is — by and large — ready to abandon peer review. If this happened, of course, then the role of journals would be further diminished, but I would not expect that to happen any time soon.
I find interesting hybrid models like SCOAP³, which preserve peer review but use repositories for dissemination. The experience of SCOAP³, however, is that even small and tightly knit communities can take years to coalesce around alternative models. Doing so for larger communities may prove impossible.
RP: How do you see the OA debate, and Elsevier’s role within that debate, playing out over the next 12 to 18 months?
CA: Much depends on the academic community itself. If someone emerges as a charismatic leader, actively working to leverage pressure points, such as politicians, opinion makers, and their own colleagues sitting in academic boards, we could see an acceleration of change. Or this could all end up in making no difference.
RP: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me.
Aspesi’s latest report on Elsevier can be downloaded here.