Elsevier Ethics?

August 8, 2012

Ah, pay to play. That’s the way to stimulate objective information, all right. A blog out of the Unilever Cambridge Centre for Molecular Information rails against such a move in the long-windedly titled post: "Elsevier Replies About Hybrid #openacess; I Am Appalled About their Practices. Breaking Licences and Having to Pay to Read ‘Open Access’."

As many of our readers know, scientific authors pay traditional publishers hefty "processing charges" to have their work made available to readers for free ("open access"). An outdated and, some say, unfair system, this way of doing business is at least transparent and well understood. Now, Elsevier’s Division of Universal Access has come up with the "hybrid open access."

Blogger Peter Murray-Rust, wondering exactly what sort of creature this hybrid could be, asked the Division’s director for clarification. Among his discoveries: obfuscation is alive and well. Also, Elsevier is clearly refusing commercial re-use and distribution of these works, violating, according to Murray-Rust, the authors’ Creative Commons CC-BY license. (There is some debate in the blog’s comments section about whether this is indeed a legal violation; clearly it is a moral one.)

Murray-Rust reproduces the director’s answers and comments on each—well worth checking out. He concludes with this analysis:

"Elsevier’s appalling practice speaks for itself. There are only the following explanations:

  • Elsevier break licences knowingly and deliberately charge for ‘open access’. (Readers will remember that Elsevier also created fake journals).
  • Elsevier are incompetent or uninterested in running Open Access properly.

"I predict that Universal Access will plead ‘this was an isolated mistake; forgive us and we’ll correct it’. Rubbish. It is not acceptable to charge people for things they have no right to charge for. It is unacceptable to break licences. Whatever the motives it shows that at best they don’t care. It’s morally the same as ‘sorry I knocked you down because my brakes didn’t work.’"

Elsevier certainly got this blogger’s hackles up, and for good reason. Creative Commons licenses exist to benefit society, and it is more than a little irritating for a publisher to play fast and loose with the rules.

Cynthia Murrell, August 9, 2012

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