Thursday, 12 October 2017

'It's owned by Elsevier': Why this is relevant when choosing referencing software

Satire on corporate monopolies in 19th-century America, targeting a railway owner who once famously said "I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half."

At my University we are currently discussing how to provide support for software that can help students and staff manage their references and sources.  There are of course many different options available on the market - some free, and some not.  During discussions I have made no secret of my preference for Zotero - which I believe offers the most intuitive and comprehensive functionality.  To this end, I have done some showcases of Zotero for various academics - which appear to illicit one of three responses from them:

  1. Oh, brave new world that has such software in it!  I had no idea - and I want it now!
  2. We already use it.  Have been for years.  So why are you telling us about it now?
  3. But don't we already have Mendeley in our official software catalogue?

I fully expected the first response - but was surprised at the number of people who came back with the second and third.  It is really rather nice to be able to tell academics who fight tirelessly each year to teach academic referencing, that there is a piece of software that can do it all for them.  More difficult were the responses about Mendeley.

The reason for this - in case you didn't already know - is that Mendeley offers much of the same functionality as Zotero, and with an interface that certainly looks more polished and attractive.  Why - the question is asked - don't we just use that instead?  Now, my own personal preference would still be for Zotero outside of any other argument: It has more functionality, and more consistent compatibility with journals across multiple disciplines.  However, because I am something of a drama queen I tended to respond to the Mendeley question simply with the bald statement:

Mendeley is owned by Elsevier.

Boom!  Done!  QED!

Except... Dammit!  My knockout argument has, more often than not, provoked little more than a bemused stare!

It seems that despite the huge increase of awareness about Open Access publishing, the controversies surrounding the for-profit model of academic publishing (and Elsevier in particular) are largely unknown to many.  So here is a brief - and wholly unsatisfactory - summary of two main issues.

1) An exploitative and non-competitive business

Let's think for a moment about how publishing normally works.  You want to publish a book, so you pay an author to write it for you.  You then pay reviewers to check it, and editors to edit it.  These costs are all offset by the price of the book when you sell it.

Now let's think about for-profit academic publishing.

The government funds research, so in effect the tax-payer pays for an author to write a paper.  That paper goes through a peer review process, so other tax-payer-funded academics check the integrity of the work.  This publicly-funded project then gets send to a company like Elsevier totally free of charge, who add it to a journal and then sell it BACK to the same publicly-funded institution at an outrageous cost.   All of which explains why, according to Stephen Buryani, Elsevier are able to post profit margins of up to 42% : Higher than companies like Google, Apple or Amazon.  Those profit margins get higher still for those journals where academics are actually charged to submit papers: So authors actually pay to have their works published.  Buryani cites a German Bank report that "referred to [this] as a “bizarre” “triple-pay” system, in which “the state funds most research, pays the salaries of most of those checking the quality of research, and then buys most of the published product”".

Since this 'bizarre' system has become so dominant in the world of academic publishing (the control Elsevier has over academic publishing has been reported to "exceed or come close to 40% of total supply"), companies like Elsevier can hold both academics and academic libraries to ransom, leading to a significant impact on University library budgets.  According to a Research Libraries UK report, "between 2001 and 2009, mean expenditure on books went up by 0.17%, which is a substantial real-terms cut, while mean expenditure on journals went up by 82%".

2) Unethical practices

The good news here is that since 2008 Elsevier has (as a consequence of public pressure) ended its ties to the arms trade.  The bad news is that, in spite of its massive profits the company is still regularly caught out acting like Del-Boy Trotter selling hair-dryers from the back of his Robin Reliant.  In particular, this can be seen in the way Elsevier have responded to the increasing popularity of 'open access' (i.e. completely free and publicly available) academic publishing.  This response often involves taking that completely free and publicly available content and selling it back to academics for a profit.  There are other examples though - like the aggressive takeover of open access sources, followed by the removal of papers that compete with those they sell for profit.

Now, it could be argued that Elsevier is perfectly entitled to any legal course of action that is most likely to increase its profit-margins.  It is, after all, a business, and there are plenty of eloquent voices ever-ready to challenge the company if it does ever stray too far from the law.

But in spite of this, and in spite of Elsevier's market dominance there are still some moments where we can exercise choice: We can choose to continue supporting the company and their practices, or we can choose not to.

Which brings me back to Zotero.  Zotero and Mendeley are similar in so many ways - which means we have a choice.  One is an open source, non-profit piece of software funded by donations, library services and charitable foundations.  The other is owned by a company entirely funded by the exploitation of publicly funded academic research.

Which would you choose?

If you want to learn more about academic publishing issues, I would strongly recommend you read through some of the amazing work by Professor Martin Eve - who has made more sense of this for me than anyone.

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