Re: Interview with Derk Haank, CEO, Elsevier

From: Jean-Claude Guédon <jean.claude.guedon_at_UMontreal.CA>
Date: Tue, 2 Apr 2002 11:28:53 -0500

Let me respond in the body of the text below.

Le 1 Avril 2002 09:58, Stevan Harnad a écrit :
> 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 would rather say that he is clever and tries to avoid direct confrontation.
> 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.

It seems to me that a company that is intent on maintaining as high a profit
rate as it can in the context of social transactions (information largely
produced by public money, given away by their authors, reviewed freely by
peers, and bought by libraries or research labs with largely public money)
has to face the fact that its legitimacy will be hotly contested. I do
believe that the intensense barrage if criticisms levelled at Elsevier and
other similar companies has something to do with the Elsevier Chairman and
his apparent reasonable stance...
> 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:

I believe the two are not mutually exclusive and the former remains useful to
keep the pressure on these companies so as to encourage them to behave a
little better.
> (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?

I would rephrase this as: "Are there any products and services ... in the
online era that could not be provided by a suitably organized network of
libraries, 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?

If the two systems exist in parallel, it will essentially mean that a new
division of labour will have occurred: on the one hand, scientific
information will have been freed; on the other hand, the evaluation through
labelling will remain safely in the hands of publishers who will make public
institutions pay dearly for the logo (not even the service as it is provided
free by peers). Once the question of open archives is solved, the question
will become : do we need the logos, i.e. must we delegate our evaluation
needs to these commercial publishers? Must we also delegate to these
commercial publisher the right to promote some researchersto the level of
gatekeepers through their being invited to be editors of new journals
constantly being created as part of an investment strategy.

Incidentally, Elsevier will put out 1,700 journals by year's end, thanks to
Academic Press being absorbed into Science Direct, and this figure must not
be compared to the 20,000 journal figure (incidentally, where does this
figure come from?) that Stevan quotes, but to thenumbe rof "core" journals.
This is more of the order of 6,000 titles if one relies on SCI. Even with a
few more global indices added, I doubt one reaches 20,000 titles.
> 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.

I think Elsevier is counting its options and, as I suggested in my Oldenburg
paper (, Ibelieve
publisher ssuch as Elsevier are now focusing on economic prospects that can
be derived from archiving (see the projects at Yale with Ann Okerson),
evaluating, and intelligence gathering from real-time usage of a significant
fraction of the world literature.

It is interesting, in this latter regard, to read Anthony F. J. van Raan's
article in the Garfield Festschrift and note that "Elsevier Science supported
many of our somewhat strange and exotic research projects" (p. 314). Given
the fascinating claims that Prof. van Raan makes in his paper, it is not
difficult to see the intelligence and prospective potential of some
scientometric tools being developed. Obviously, Elsevier (and probably other
publishers as well) are looking in this direction as well.
> 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.

I agree fully with this, of course. Stevan and I were in Budapest together in
December. But it has little to do with Elsevier and other commercial
publishers, except that it modifies a good fraction of their working context
by removing the circulation and archiving of documents from their hands.
Their problem is to reinvent abusiness plan without alienating researchers,
librarians and administrators further.

> 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.

The conflict of interest will be resolved from the perspective of the
researchers, but Elsevier's business plan may well be shot to pieces and you
cannot expect a company as rich and powerful as Elsevier to wait for this
lying down and smoking pot. They will fight back with everything they have in
hands if they feel threatened and sweet, placating words are part of the
strategy to protect and extend a very profitable business scheme that manages
to tax public money for the profit of private interests.

There is also some urgency in solving this problem as many researchers are
presently disenfranchised by limited access to the scientific literature of
the world. Ask the excellent scientists in Central and Eastern Europe what
they think of the present situation and ask the same thing of the equally
excellent scientists in Latin America, and you will hear a clear sound of
utmost urgency. We are in a knowledge economy and limiting the spread of
knowledge in the world is also part of the game. This should not be forgotten.
> 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).

Again, I agree with the Open Access objective, but that is obvious. But I
also believe that keeping the critical pressure on the Elseviers of the world
is quite useful. Without it, we probably would not have had this kind of
interview. One only has to compare it with the other interview given back in
the summer of 1995 in Le Monde (July 20th, p. 15) to see the difference in
tone achieved in seven years. Back then, arrogance dominated.

Jean-Claude Guédon
> 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):
> or
> Discussion can be posted to:
> See also the Budapest Open Access Initiative:
Received on Tue Apr 02 2002 - 19:21:14 BST

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