Elsevier’s Research Takedown Notices Fan Out To Startups, Harvard, Individual Academics

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A familiar story is starting to play out in the Ivory Tower.

A powerful incumbent with a very lucrative business model gets reactive when the content it holds the rights for becomes too freely distributed on the web.

First, it was the music industry. Now it’s happening in academia, one of the very last bastions to be affected by the free, unfettered flow of information on the web.

Reed Elsevier, which owns many of the most prestigious research journals in the world, has been sending mass research takedown notices to everyone from startups like Academia.edu to individual researchers and universities. They brought in about $1.65 billion in scientific and medical research revenue in the first half of this year, through journals like the Lancet and Cell.

For years, they’ve operated a business model where academics provide their research for free and give journals publishing rights to the final versions of their articles in exchange for distribution in prestigious journals. Sometimes academics have quietly published their research on their own personal web sites or new emerging, social networking platforms like ResearchGate or Academia.edu. They’ve done this without feeling too much blowback from the publisher.

But now Reed Elsevier is cracking down on this, saying that final articles need to be “readily discoverable and citable via the journal itself.” They’ve been asking researchers to take down their work.

“We used to get one or two DMCA take-down notices a week. Then in the last few weeks Elsevier started sending DMCA take-downs in batches of a thousand,” said Academia.edu CEO Richard Price. “We are not sure what started this, but it seems that Academia.edu is not alone.”

Rafael Maia, a Ph.D student in biology at the University of Akron who researches bird plumage, is one academic who got a takedown notice.

“I don’t understand the difference between sending an e-mail or putting my work online for a person to find it,” Maia said. “The purpose of research is to be read and interpreted. Anything that stifles that is really problematic.”

It’s a touchy issue. Technically, authors do give away publishing rights for the recognition that being published in a prestigious journal provides. These journals can be key to achieving tenure or building up a strong academic reputation.

“We can’t allow published journal articles to be freely accessible on a large scale — especially not through other for-profit companies, who want to benefit from our and other publishers’ efforts. What library will continue to subscribe if a growing proportion of articles is available for free elsewhere?” said Tom Reller, who is Reed Elsevier’s head of global corporate relations, in a statement.

He said the amount of research that was being published in violation of these agreements had reached a scale where they had to respond.

“The number has reached a threshold to where we felt it was important to address by reminding various platforms of the variety of permitted ways authors can share the results of their research,” he added.

But many academics feel that Reed Elsevier’s traditional business model is fundamentally unfair. Universities are effectively double-charged for their work — once because research institutions bear the cost of producing the research and twice because libraries and academics have to pay for expensive subscriptions to see published work. That feeling of unfairness has prompted boycotts like “The Cost of Knowledge,” where more than 14,000 academics have pledged not to publish, do peer review or editorial work for these journals.

A new generation of “open access” journals has also gained prominence. They allow readers to freely access scholarly work online and authors either pay for publication or they are subsidized by other research institutions. But these journals are still a far ways away from having the reputations that older, more traditional journals have built up over the last several decades.

Even Reed Elsevier has adapted to this by starting a series of open access series journals. Reller also says that academics are still able to publish other non-final versions of their work if they follow certain guidelines.

Then, powerful universities like Harvard have also developed programs that allow academics to freely and legally publish alternative versions of their research. Peter Suber, who is a director of the Harvard Office for Scholarly Communication, said Harvard had also received a few dozen takedown notices in the last few weeks.

“If these takedowns anger you, then don’t give your rights to Elsevier. Steer your papers to another publisher,” said Suber, who stressed he was speaking from a personal perspective and not on behalf of the university.