Elsevier: The Big Bad or Walking with Dinosaurs?

You can’t help but have seen in the last few weeks all the press about Elsevier in the blogsphere and news media, especially The Cost of Knowledge Petition.  It’s been hard to avoid, and it’s been a matter of debate within the UKCoRR Community as well.  One thing that raised my eyebrows more than their prices was the statement from COAR urging them “…to reconsider its prohibitive approach to open access and revise its policies to allow the deposit of research articles with minimum delay.”  I think it’s a brave move, although one fraught with political issues – coming down so heavily on the “anti” side of the debate.

UKCoRR certainly feels that the support of such retrograde ideas as the RWA by the AAP, and chief among them Elsevier, is something that has the potential to have significantly deleterious long term effects on the cause of opening access for all to the treasures of human knowledge.  As the Big Bad (it seems) for the RWA, we are not at all surprised that they are now reaping the whirlwind.  Not to mention their continued muddying of the authors licenses and permissions which causes each and everyone of us a headache I’m quite sure.  But they are not the only publisher to be guilty of these sins against open access, and part of me feels that singling them out for such a public barracking perhaps might let other issues or publishers slip back into the shadows.  I think we all need to remain vigilant and sound the alarm just as loudly should any other organisation or stakeholder in the scholarly publishing domain make such similar policy moves.

One thing UKCoRR has striven to do from our very earliest days is attempt to engage with publishers, along with other stakeholders, to seek a joined up future of scholarly communication.  To date I will confess these giants in the playground have ignored the minnows in the corner (from their perspective at least).  However, one only needs to point to the lessons of history and perhaps remind them that the massive and preeminent lifeforms that were the dinosaurs were once as all dominant while tiny rodents scampered around their feet.  When the sea change came in the shape of the K-T extinction event the dinosaurs were so locked into their evolutionary niche that they were unable to adapt, and their successors rose from beneath their claws.

Is open access the world killer for the publishing dinosaurs?  Personally I hope not, but seeing this increasing reactionary inflexibility from the big boys of publishing does certainly ring one or two points of commonality in my head.  The more they dig into their 19th/20th Century position as gatekeepers, guardians and protectors of the IP of the scholars of the world, and the more the 21st Century makes it easier, faster and simpler for others to fill the various roles, the more I think they’re going to back themselves down into their very own Chicxulub crater.

But it also means that we in the repository sector have to remain just as agile if we are to survived the impact.  I often say to my team that what we do and how we work with repositories today is very much evolved from where we were when I entered the field in 2006.  We’ve been evolving, and we need to keep evolving if we are to meet the needs of our academics as they, hopefully, finally wise us to the fact that they don’t need publishers like they used to; and that the apparatus and expertise to help them share, curate and celebrate their knowledge output is just a short walk across the campus to the repository office.

One thing I would charge all UKCoRR members with is going through the signatories on the petition to see if they can find any local authors and academics.  It is without a doubt a golden opportunity to make use of these self-declared opponents of restrictive knowledge exchange paradigms.  These fine people are willing to speak out, and up, about open access and should be approached as potential local champions of the cause.  Cherish them, support them and above all make use of their insights from the academic perspective; because I often sense that we repository workers don’t always quite manage to chime to right bells for academics. 

As some UKCoRR members have said to me – the press visibility in the academic sphere over the restrictions that publishers make on access to our shared knowledge has never been higher.  If nothing else the Cost of Knowledge row is not going to go away quickly, and there will be more than a handful of previously unaware and perhaps uncaring academics who can be brought into the open access fold and the light of a new, better, more open tomorrow.

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