Re: Interview with Derk Haank, CEO, Elsevier

From: Stevan Harnad <>
Date: Mon, 1 Apr 2002 15:58:57 +0100

On Mon, 1 Apr 2002, Richard Poynder wrote:

> interview... with Elsevier Science chairman Derk Haank...
> in April's Information Today:

The interview is interesting and shows the Elsevier chairman to
be very reasonable, open and well-intentioned.

I think that this confirms yet again that it is and always has been a
waste of time and energy to demonize and vilify publishers like
Elsevier, who really are not any better or worse than any other
company, but just happen to find themselves in an anomalous business,
with large profits but an unusual confluence of interests, including
conflicts of interest, in a radically changing technological setting.

Instead of misdirecting more time and energy into trying to portray
Elsevier as venal, it would be infinitely more constructive -- and more
likely to help resolve the large and growing conflict of interest
between what is best for research and researchers and what is best for
research journal publishers in the online era -- to focus instead on the
empirical points Derk Haank makes in the interview. Two of these are the
most relevant ones:

(1) What are the products and services that research and researchers
want and need from research journal publishers in the online era, and
what are their true costs?

(2) Will researcher/institution self-archiving, in providing free
online access to the full texts of all existing 20,000 research
journals (over half science/tech/medicine, and 1500 of them Elsevier
journals) eventually alter the current system (its products, services
and costs), or will it simply exist in parallel to it?

This is a very reasonable question. It is clear that Elsevier is not
trying or intending to block the freeing of access to the entire
research journal literature through self-archiving. Elsevier is simply
assuming that either self-archiving will not take place on any
significant scale, or, if it does, it will have no appreciable effects
on the overall structure of research journal publishing.

And this is all very reasonable and welcome! It confirms that the Budapest
Open Access Initiative (BOAI) should
proceed with vigor in reaching its goal of Open Access. As soon as BOAI
succeeds the goal of open access is (by definition) attained: it is
no longer true that any researcher, anywhere, fails to have online
access to the full corpus of 20,000 research journals because his
institution cannot afford the access tolls.

The further question of whether or not the research journal system
will remain more or less as it is now under these new open-access
conditions is an empirical question -- and one on which [NB!] nothing
urgent or important for research and researchers worldwide depends! Once
online access to it all is free for all, any continuing journal price
rises will become an irrelevant side-show for research and researchers,
for they will have free access to it all. The conflict of interest will
be resolved.

Regarding BOAI Strategy 2
(the establishment of alternative, open-access journals --
self-archiving is BOAI Strategy 1), it is quite understandable that
established journal publishers like Elsevier should hope that there
will be no success: To hope otherwise it to wish success onto one's
competitors! But here too it is an empirical question whether the
research/researcher side of the PostGutenberg conflict-of-interest --
the side that is increasingly pressing to have, at long last, the lost
research impact that access-denying toll-barriers have cost them for
350 years, now that access-barriers are no longer necessary -- will
resolve the conflict of interest not only by self-archiving its
refereed research online, but also by creating new open-access journals
(and converting established ones) for that research, and preferring
those journals to the established toll-based ones for submitting to and
publishing in.

The way to answer such empirical questions is not for researchers to
continue to sit and deprecate Elsevier and the status quo, but to go
ahead and implement BOAI Strategies 1 and 2. At the very least, the
outcome will be Open Access at last. The rest remains to be seen (but is
far less urgent or consequential).

Stevan Harnad

NOTE: A complete archive of the ongoing discussion of providing free
access to the refereed journal literature online is available at the
American Scientist September Forum (98 & 99 & 00 & 01):
Discussion can be posted to:

See also the Budapest Open Access Initiative:
Received on Mon Apr 01 2002 - 15:59:45 BST

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