Friday, March 16, 2012

Annealing Elsevier

Through a bipartisan pair of shills, Elsevier introduced a bill that would have abolished the NIH open-access mandate and prevented other government research-funding agencies from requiring open access to government-sponsored research. In this Research Works Act (RWA) episode, Elsevier showed its hand. Twice. When it pushed for this legislation, and when it withdrew.

Elsevier was one of the first major publishers to support green open access. By pushing RWA, Elsevier confirmed the suspicion that this support is, at most, a short-term tactic to appease the scholarly community. Its real strategy is now in plain sight. RWA was not done on a whim. They cultivated at least two members of the House of Representatives and their staff. Just to get it out of committee, they would have needed several more. No one involved could possibly have thought they could sneak in RWA without anyone noticing. Yet, after an outcry from the scholarly community, they dropped the legislation just as suddenly as they introduced it. If Elsevier executives had a strategy, it is in tatters.

Elsevier’s RWA move and its subsequent retrenchment have more than a whiff of desperation. I forgive your snickering at this suggestion. After all, by its own accounting, Elsevier’s adjusted operating margin for 2010 was 35.7% and has been growing monotonously at least since 2006. These are not trend lines of a desperate company. (Create your own Elsevier reports here. Thanks to Nalini Joshi, @monsoon0, for tweeting the link and the graph!)

Paradoxically, its past success is a problem going forward. Elsevier’s stock-market shares are priced to reflect the company’s consistently high profitability. If it were to deteriorate, even by a fraction, share prices would tumble. To prevent that, Elsevier must raise revenue from a client base of universities that face at least several more years of extremely challenging budgets. For universities, the combination of price increases and budget cuts puts options on the table once thought unthinkable. Consider, for example, the University of California and the California State University systems. These systems have already cut to the bone, and they may face even more dire cuts, unless voters approve a package of tax increases. Because of their size, just these two university systems by themselves have a measurable impact on Elsevier’s bottom line. This is repeated across the country and the world.

Clearly, RWA was intended to make cancelling site licenses a less viable option for universities, now and in the future. When asked to deposit their publications in institutional repositories, it is an unfortunate fact that most scholars ignore their own institutions. They cannot ignore their funding agencies. Over time, funder-mandated repositories will become a fairly comprehensive compilation of the scholarly record. They may also erode the prestige factor of journals. After all, what is more prestigious? That two anonymous referees and an editor approved the paper or that the NIH funded it to the tune of a few million dollars? Advanced web-usage statistics of the open-access literature may further erode the value of impact factor and other conventional measures. Recently, I expressed some doubts that the open access movement could contribute to reining in journal prices. I may rethink some of this doubt, particularly with respect to funder-mandated open access.

Elsevier’s quick withdrawal from RWA is quite remarkable. Tim Gowers was uniquely effective, and deserves a lot of credit. When planning for RWA, Elsevier must have anticipated significant push back from the scholarly community. It has experience with boycotts and protests, as it has survived several. Clearly, the size and vehemence of the reaction was way beyond Elsevier's expectations. One can only speculate how many of its editors were willing to walk away over this issue.

Long ago, publishers figured out how to avoid becoming a low-profit commodity-service business: they put themselves at the hub of a system that establishes a scholarly pecking order. As beneficiaries of this system, current academic leaders and the tenured professoriate assign great value to it. Given the option, they would want everything the same, except cheaper, more open, without restrictive copyrights, and available for data mining. Of course, it is absurd to think that one could completely overhaul scholarly publishing by tweaking the system around the edges and without disrupting scholars themselves. Scholarly publishers survived the web revolution without disruption, because scholars did not want to be disrupted. That has changed.

Because of ongoing budget crises, desperate universities are cutting programs previously considered untouchable. To the dismay of scholars everywhere, radical options are on the table as a matter of routine. Yet, in this environment, publishers like Elsevier are chasing revenue increases. Desperation and anger are creating a unique moment. In Simulated Annealing terms (see a previous blog post): there is a lot of heat in the system, enabling big moves in search of a new global minimum.

Disruption: If not now, when?

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