From paywall builders to data tracking moguls or.. How the big publishers have put on a new super vilain costume.

Elsevier is a felon, that is a given. This company epitomizes all the crimes, misdemeanors and petty theft that can be accomplished by a publisher. Its wikipedia page is so full of affairs, scandals and raunchy stories that it would be enough to read it to give a talk to an academic congress. And yet Elsevier still find new ways to extract value from academic communities, which both produces new profits and new critiques. This post is the story of the publisher becoming a data company.1

An endless list of academic misdemeanors

In 1880, It all begin with a “borrowing” as we say in academic life, which may also be named an hommage, a plagiarism or a steal, depending on the point of view. When the company was founded, it took over a logo from an ancestral famous printing Dutch family, whose name was Elzevier (yes, with a Z).

Elsevier logo 2019.svg
Elzevier/Elsevier logo

As a Dutch publisher, they first put out journals in the language of the country, but the need to go into exile in England in 1940, and no doubt a rather specific vision of scholarly communication, led the company to launch English-language journals in the post-war period. Along with Pergamon, Elsevier is certainly the inventor of the concept of the ‘international journal’ and created a global market for scientific writings, with customers all over the world and, what is more, a profitable market. This led to cycles of development and acquisitions, which continue to this day. But as we know in the world of superheroes, “with great power comes great responsibilities”.

And indeed they are responible. The list of “problems” attributed to Elsevier can be categorised into three different groups: firstly, a propensity to act in a “sloppy and dirty” manner, for example in copyediting failures, by selling closed articles for which authors have already paid an APC, or by not acting in front of legitimate requests for retracting articles, as in the very recent following example.

Secondly, its constant pursuit of profit leads it to bend academic rules. Above and beyond offering researchers Amazon vouchers to write reviews on products, one of the most famous examples is the publication of journals in Australia that were de facto advocacy media for Merck pharmaceutical products, through a subsidiary that is cited by Sergio Sismondo as an example of ghost management2.

Third, its concern for protecting its intellectual property leads it to numerous actions opposing open access, unlimited text and data mining, or even metadata sharing. Elsevier thus funds numerous lobbying actions, and one aiming at the US Congress led to the “Cost of Knowledge” petition in 2010. This petition called for a boycott to write, review or make editorial work for the company. It was signed by tens of thousands of academics and led to some mocking of Elsevier logo.

Michael Eisen, CC BY 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

To sum it up, If the kids of Bruno Latour had been STS PhD students in 2010, they would probably have authored a paper entitled “Portrait of a publisher as a wild capitalist”. But that wouldn’t have predicted what happened next.

From academic publisher to data company: a very public transition

In fact, Elsevier continued to thrive as a publisher despite the tens of thousands of petitionners. But the company has changed its core business and has significantly expanded its range of services until it no longer appears as a publisher. Take two exemplary acquisitions: in 2013, Elsevier purchased Mendeley, a library management service, and for some, it was as if the Empire had bought the rebels.

Elsevier had two objectives: on the one hand, to extend its information retrieval ecosystem, and on the other, to collect data on Mendeley users, potentially authors and reviewers. These same objectives were reflected in the acquisition two years later of SSRN, a preprint platform then specialising in the social sciences.

“Elsevier is now getting closer and closer to researchers with business models that don’t involve libraries,” says Joe Esposito, a publishing consultant in New York City. “The positioning is well thought out: lock up revenues to the legacy publishing business, move into areas where piracy is not much of an issue, create deeper relationships with researchers and become more and more essential to researchers even as librarians become less so.”3.

The series of purchases aim to control the bricks directly used by researchers whose research projects, results, research data, texts read, cited, reviewed, tweeted, etc were linked and. Elsevier being able to identify them. But as the 2019 comprehensive diagram below shows, they are not the only target of the “new Elsevier”.

Chen, G., Posada, A., & Chan, L. 2019. Vertical Integration in Academic Publishing : Implications for Knowledge Inequality. In Chan, L., & Mounier, P. (Eds.), Connecting the Knowledge Commons — From Projects to Sustainable Infrastructure : The 22nd International Conference on Electronic Publishing – Revised Selected Papers. Marseille : OpenEdition Press.

In fact, Elsevier’s other target market is higher education and research institutions, and even governmental institutions. The enclosure of the Elsevier ecosystem has, for example, guaranteed the company a position as a subcontractor in the construction of the first European open access monitor, which has been deemed scandalous by open access activists4. When a consortium of Dutch universities signed a transforment agreement with the publisher in 2019, this included the joint development of projects involving all kinds of data, being a Faustus pact with Lucifer where open science becomes sustaining Elsevier data infrastructure in exchange for open access papers5

In a decade, Elsevier had become a data company, selling them to numerous clients, both academic and non-academic and defining itself in corporate documents as “a global leader in information and analytics, (which) helps researchers and healthcare professionals advance science and improve health outcomes for the benefit of society.”, while making videos on the perfect world of information it designs with a product called PURE.

Naming a new supervilain : surveillance publishing

As of 2019, this transformation of Elsevier and, to a lesser degree, other big publishers was a wake-up call for various institutions and authors. They started to formalise the list of new dangers that the construction of data tracking and information aggregation systems constituted, some of them specific to the academic world and others similar to those created by GAFAM-like companies. For example, a commission of the DFG published a briefing paper where they acted as alarm raisers for the following concerns6:

  1. entail a violation of academic freedom and the freedom of research and teaching;
  2. constitute a violation of the right to the protection of personal data;
  3. pose a potential threat to scientists, as the data could also become accessible to foreign governments and authoritarian regimes;
  4. constitute an encroachment of competition law, as new participants barely have a chance to enter the market;
  5. favour a reduction in the value of public research investment, since data on research activity can be collected by commercial research competitors or made available to them in return for payment in connection with industrial espionage.

These fears may seem hypothetical, but the fact, for example, that Elsevier’s parent company, RELX, has signed a huge contract to supply personal data to the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency has givn some weight to their warnings. But what data are we talking about? Two facetious colleagues used the provisions of the GDPR to ask Elsevier for their data and documented their findings on the traces of their stay in the Elsevier Hotel. It contains a number of directly personal data (phone numbers, bank details, addresses), but above all a great deal of usage data on the opening of e-mails sent by the company, the most basic operations on Mendeley and Science Direct or, more amusingly or worryingly, the trace of persons consents and non-consents:

Eiko I. Fried, Robin Niels Kok, Welcome to Hotel Elsevier: you can check-out any time you like … not, 2022

A new petition, twelve years after The Cost of knowledge, calls to “Stop Tracking Science“, which actually means stop tracking academics. In the new configuration, libraries are still a passage point between the big publishers and the researchers though not exclusive anymore. But the data that goes for these exchanges is now considered in a differnt manner : “they are even attempting to persuade libraries to install trackers inside university networks: the research behavior of all of us is being recorded in real time.” While identification has for long been presented as a necessary security to provide access to closed texts, it is now a source of concern, in a very similar manner as cell phone or internet tracking. To describe this phenomenon, several labels have been proposed, such as”platformization of science”7 or “surveillance publishing”8 The big publishers are trying through various legal actions to present Sci-hub and Libgen not only as intellectual property offenders, but also as dangerous hackers for the security of research institutions., while it is the same accusation that is directed towards them. So, in the end, for you, which ones are the supervilains threatening academic communities?

  1. this post is based on a communication given at the 2022 EASST Conference in Madrid at the same date []
  2. Sismondo S (2007) Ghost Management: How Much of the Medical Literature Is Shaped Behind the Scenes by the Pharmaceutical Industry? PLoS Med 4(9): e286 []
  3. Van Noorden, R. Social-sciences preprint server snapped up by publishing giant Elsevier. Nature (2016). []
  4. see for example Jonathan Tennant, & Björn Brembs. (2018, October 26). RELX referral to EU competition authority. Zenodo []
  5. This deal has been the object of a very long post. See also SPARC analysis []
  6. Data tracking in research: aggregation and use or sale of usage data by academic publishers. A briefing paper of the Committee on Scientific Library Services and Information Systems of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation) 28 October 2021 []
  7. Kunz, Raffaela: Threats to Academic Freedom under the Guise of Open Access: The Power of Publishers, Data Tracking in Science, and the Responsibilities of Public Actors, VerfBlog, 2022/3/18 []
  8. Pooley, J., (2022) Surveillance Publishing, The Journal of Electronic Publishing 25(1) []

Faustus pact with Lucifer or… How Open Science becomes sustaining Elsevier data infrastructure in exchange for open access papers


“On these conditions following:
First, that Faustus may be a spirit in form and substance.
Secondly, that Mephistophilis shall be his servant and at his command.
Thirdly, that Mephistophilis shall do for him, and bring him whatsoever.
Fourthly, that he shall be in his chamber or house invisible.
Lastly, that he shall appear to the said John Faustus at all times,
in what form or shape soever he please.

I, John Faustus of Wittenberg, Doctor, by these presents do give both body and soul to Lucifer, Prince of the East, and his minister Mephistophilis, and furthermore grant unto them, that twenty-four years being expired the articles above written inviolate, full power to fetch or carry the said John Faustus body and soul, flesh, blood, or goods,
into their habitation, wheresoever. By me, John Faustus.

Faustus
CCBY Bart Everson

The legend of Faust has known many versions, but that of Christopher Marlowe, highlighted above, is no exception to the common rule: it is the absolute thirst for knowledge that drives the scientist to conclude this pact, while the evil or deceptive nature of Lucifer does not play a major part in its making1. So to call this reference to the signing of an agreement between scholarly institutions, by definition producers of knowledge, and a publishing house, however powerful it may be, normally only responsible for disseminating it, may seem counter-intuitive. Yet, as we shall see, it is the one that is required, as the relationship between the two parties may be potentially inverted. With this new agreement, Elsevier will try to become the knowledge-producing entity, the one that will give these institutions and their authors what information they think they absolutely need.

From subscription to a Read & Publish pilot
to a full Publish & Read agreement

The relationship between the Dutch universities, represented here by SURFmarket B.V., and the publisher Elsevier is very old and has mainly consisted of the supply of journals in the form of paper subscriptions, then by electronic access from the end of the 20th century until 2015. In March 2016, if a new contract is signed, it contains not only subscription services but also provisions for the open access publication of a limited number of articles, originally 3600 over 3 years. This agreement was not necessarily as successful as expected, as for example 1300 articles were not “consumed” at the end of this first agreement. Nevertheless, from amendment to amendment – 7 in total, the contract was extended in terms of the journals concerned (Cell Press) and temporally until 20 April 2020.

In contemporary classifications, this agreement could therefore be considered as a Read & Publish, with a subscription fee, open access publications being produced without additional payment. The first parts of the new contract show a reversal of this logic by displaying a unified cost for all the services provided by Elsevier: reading is no longer separated from the publication in the pricing, even though the provisions of the former are much more complex and pages long than those of the latter

Indeed, as is often the case in subscription contracts, numerous provisions govern the rights to access and read content, but also the duties of the publisher in terms of document supply and the scope of services. But, as we saw in the case of the Springer/DEAL agreement, the provisions of publication services can be relatively complex. This is not the case here: no financial exchange linked to each publication, no limit on the number of articles, no separation between publication in hybrid and full open access journals, so only two pages define the conditions of publication. Beyond the description of the workflow, one article should be highlighted:

Both parties are committed to reach 100% Open Access during the term of this Agreement, In line with this joint ambition, Elsevier offers Corresponding Authors the possibility to publish Gold Open Access in the widest possible range of Elsevier journals under the Terms of this Schedule 4. As per the effective date of this Agreement 95% of the journal articles by the Corresponding Authors are eligible to be published Open Access. For the remainder of the journal articles, Elsevier will continue to strive for sustainable immediate open access options across its journal portfolio to support the 100% Open Access goal.

As in a large number of technologies, lack of success is not necessarily an obstacle. Whereas in spite of more than four years of possible publication under the previous agreement, only a fraction of Dutch authors had chosen this route, Dutch universities this time aim for 100% open access, and Elsevier promises them that almost all the journals it distributes will meet this end. While at the same time, authorizing authors to not chose Open Access (p. 45), pushing further away this objective of 100% OA for corresponding authors papers.

The whole scheme is close to the one signed by Elsevier and Bibsam, the Swedish consortia, after they spent almost 2 years with no deal. But the Swedes claimed they are actually paying less than before in total costs in a recently published article2 while signing an agreement where Swedish authors are almost mandated to go for an OA publication.

More services means more costs

On this OA publication part, the Dutch contract is therefore not just a continuation of the previous one since new journals are involved and technical provisions are made to publish “by default” in open access in CC-BY. Moreover, the volume of publishable articles – even if it was previously never fully consumed – is now unlimited. This expansion of the service is accompanied by a sharp increase in costs. If we take the amounts listed in the various amendments to the 2016-2020 contract and report the new amounts, we obtain the following graph, quite different from the Swedish one3 :

Over a “long period” (9 years), we therefore observe a 40% increase in costs, meaning an inflation of more than 4,3% every year. Far from the assertion of “cost neutrality” as in the OA2020 text of 2015 and the initial hypotheses of the Coalition S, the simply potential transformation of all Dutch publications into open access articles is therefore extremely costly in this case and renews the observations of serial crisis already made by SPARC 25 years ago. If the amount paid is constant between 2021 and 2024, there is no guarantee that it will not sharply rise again after the end of the current contract. Financial information was not surprisingly completly absent of the press release, Dutch institutions touting the new agreement objectives as if they were already realised:

NWO President Stan Gielen said: “Enabling Open Access to research results has been a core mission for NWO since 2003. This agreement is a giant step in our collective ambition to provide 100 percent Open Access for all publicly funded research in the Netherlands.”
NFU / CEO of Amsterdam UMC Hans Romijn, said: “This is definitely a game changing agreement in open access publishing in medicine from both national and international perspectives, considering the large impact and the volume of Elsevier journals. This will certainly contribute considerably to the advancement of research, and, most importantly, better treatments for our patients.”

The same assertions have been made over the last 10 years about the agreements signed by different consortia, highlighting the open access part of such deals. They are however very different from the “revolutionary idea” proposed by Elsevier in Automn 2019 about data. In fact, it was so revolutionary that it leaked out :

https://twitter.com/sarahderijcke/status/1190610725250764800

As Sarah de Rijcke, a distinguished science and technology studies scholar, underlines it, Elsevier then tried to directly exchange open publications for data, continuing Big Publishers strategy in investing scholarly infrastructures in order to maintain their profits while adopting open access for publications4. That led to a public discussion of ongoing negociations and a VSNU communication that denied “selling” metadata and research data to Elsevier. In December 2019, a press release reaffirmed that data remained the propriety of universities and that some principles were taken to avoid vendor lock-in. Let us now see how it has been dealt in the final agreement.

Elsevier as a data company
and how you will be willing to pay for it

Apart from the introduction pages, one has to reach page 102 to deal with data and “Open Science Services for Research Intelligence and Scholarly communication” that are part of the agreement. The first and second page of this section describe the collaborative principles that were quoted in the December 2019 press release, which look very consensual.

  1. interoperability and vendor neutrality
  2. transparency, inclusion and collaboration
  3. access to research data and metadata
  4. data portability

If we add to this the common governance structure specified in the last pages and the fact that each party retains its data at the end of the agreement, this part of the agreement can be considered as a true joint collaboration. Nevertheless, Mephistopheles drapes itself in detail, and a full reading of the articles on page 104 underlines how Elsevier now considers itself a data company. Firstly, by default, everything belongs to Elseiver, except what is directly “provided” by the institutions. Secondly, under no circumstances can intellectual property resulting from the development of services be shared. Thirdly, if a common intellectual property were to be created, a new agreement would be needed in which Elsevier would have ownership and the institutions a free but non-exclusive right of use. Fourthly, all existing openly licensed data provided by the institutions are directly reusable by Elsevier. Fifthly, even in the absence of such data, Elsevier may develop equivalent or similar services with other partners. Finally, sixthly, if sensitive data or data belonging to third parties were to be at included in the services, the responsibility would of course only be that of the signatory institutions.

The contrast is therefore striking: on the one hand, Elsevier is (finally) ready to release the publications of all its journals under Publish & Read agreements in return for a fee; on the other hand, the publisher locks all the data and does not wish to share them under any circumstances, thus underlining how much they are now considered to be the real valuable object of the academic world5.

But what pilot services are implemented in the agreement? For the time being, and contrary to the subscription and open access publication services, none are specified. These are simply examples that are given in a table on page 103, reproduced in the FAQ and below:

USE CASE DESCRIPTION
Aggregation and deduplication service based on CRIS systems Improves findability and visibility of NL research outputs by aggregating and deduplicating separate CRIS systems into a Pure Community module available to all institutions which can serve as a building block to a NL open knowledge base.
2. NL Research data Link research data from member institutes affiliated researchers in subject or domain specific repositories into Dutch knowledge base
3. Funding information Link NL research outputs to grants and funders (EC, ERC, NWO, RVO, ZonMw), to allow for improved tracking / assessment of impact of funded research.
4. Health Data Management Link NL health ‘data silos’ in a secure HDM platform
5. OA compliance as a service A proposed service to better use knowledge base OA publication reminders, meet funder requirements, collect assets + reporting
6. Fair recognition and reward A proposed service to integrate a wider array of metrics and success stories for a better, wider recognition of academics. Inclusion of teaching, society outreach, management, etc.

This list contains extremely different objects: some of them look like pure IT services that could be provided by companies operating outside of the academic world, with the building of shared data infrastructures. Others are based on the crossing and enrichment of very specific data of the academic world, and therefore likely to feed even more the Elsevier databases, for example to build its own Open Science Monitor for diverse institutions. Finally, the last item on the list is quite staggering since it is no more or less the project of delegating to Elsevier a service for the individual evaluation of researchers, including of course open science dimensions.

Whether these pilots come true or not, this last part of the agreement underlines the extent to which it embodies a dystopian vision of Open Science, portrayed by Philip Mirowski as an extension of platform capitalism6. It strengthens Elsevier’s position as owner of scholarly infrastructure, provides the company with potential models for new services and organizes digital labor to enrich the data it already owns. All that while continuing to pay huge sums for access to its publications and in exchange of the “liberation” of some thousands open access articles which will of course drive web traffic to its servers. Maybe the new services will never see the light of day and this agreement will just be another Publish & Read. But if not, Faustus will have not only increased its dependence on the publisher, but will have empower it to the point it becomes the real information provider in their relationship, as publications would be reduced to “raw data”.


  1. this post was cowritten by Quentin Dufour []
  2. Olsson, L., Lindelöw, C. H., Österlund, L., & Jakobsson, F. (2020). Cancelling with the world’s largest scholarly publisher: lessons from the Swedish experience of having no access to Elsevier. Insights, 33(1), 13. DOI: http://doi.org/10.1629/uksg.507 []
  3. EDIT: part of the rise could also be attributed to the inclusion of new Dutch institutions in the agreement []
  4. see this wondeful conference paper Posada, Alejandro, and George Chen. “Inequality in knowledge production: The integration of academic infrastructure by big publishers.” 2018 []
  5. On a side note: It remains unclear whether article metadata will be released on a CC0 license in Crossref, continuing or not the anti-open citations Elsevierpolicy []
  6. Mirowski, Philip. “The future (s) of open science.Social studies of science 48.2 (2018): 171-203. []
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