25 Jan 2007

The Evil Empire Strikes Back

Picture, if you will, Darth Vader. Big, black armour. Heavy breathing. Imagine that, tired of being right hand man to the Emperor, Darth Vader has decided to venture into scientific publishing. Imagine what his publishing house would be like.

Elsevier has a reputation as "evil" (as seen here, here, here , here, here, here, here and here, but not here or here). This is mainly due to making massive profits (total revenues for 2005 were £1.4 billion) while restricting access to scientific research. They have also been noted for an involvement in the arms trade, and the censorship of published work.

Open access has been a thorn in Elsevier's side, much as the Rebel Alliance were to the Imperials in Star Wars. Open access threatens the ability of publishers like Elsevier to maintain their hold over library budgets, which is why Elsevier has repeatedly criticised OA (several society publishers have joined in too as they perceive OA to be a threat to their society's income, drafting the Washington DC Principles).

However, Elsevier recently announced a Sponsored Article option on some of their journals. Their hand was effectively forced by CERN, doing in effect what PLoS' boycott failed to do. Elsevier refuse to call it open access, and authors do not retain copyright. They even allowed authors to post preprints, allowing self-archiving. It might have been thought that Elsevier had laid to rest their hostility to open access.

We'd have been wrong. In a brilliant piece of investigative journalism, Nature have revealed a fruitful relationship that Elsevier, Wiley and the American Chemical Society have with a PR guru, advising them on how to take on the open access movement. Not just any guru, but the same one who represented Enron and ExxonMobil. A director at Wiley is quoted as saying that "Media messaging is not the same as intellectual debate". This explains some of the outrageous spin we've seen about open access ("government censorship"; "no peer review").

The blogosphere is beginning to react. The IWR blog understates it somewhat when they say that this will "do little for the reputations of the publishers involved". Chris Leonard predicts that "they won't be able to use these arguments even if they wanted to", while Jonathan Eisen has confidently exclaimed that "Their ship is sinking and they are grabbing at the last little pieces of wood they can find".

Hopefully, this news thoroughly discredits the smears of these publishers against open access. Was this their open exhaust port?

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