One little tweet…

So I thought I had best write up a post about what happened in the latter half of the first week of December 2013.

The story begins back in late 2010 when I published a paper in the journal “Infection, Genetics and Evolution” on “Resolving the question of trypanosome monophyly: A comparative genomics approach using whole genome data sets with low taxon sampling” – ScienceDirect. This was a small chapter of my PhD thesis and was drafted around the time I was in completion mode. As many will know, it’s quite a stressful and manic period of time. I, therefore, and also being quite new to the world of publishing, was not completely confident nor knowledgeable. I left the decision of journal choice to the corresponding author. There were reasons for choosing this journal but they’re lost to time. Then not much happened, there have been about seven citations of the article according to Google Scholar. Not bad for my second paper, but it wasn’t my primary area of research.

In 2011, charged with updating the website for my new post-doctoral position at The Natural History Museum, London. I and with agreement from my PI, uploaded all papers that we had published (both together and separately), making them available to everyone. For example, the general public (who had in part funded many of our research projects) and other scientists at institutions without access to certain journals due to extremely large access fees. At the same time I decided it would be prudent to update my Academia.edu profile and whilst I was at it, my ResearchGate.net and Mendeley profiles. Why not? I had all the PDFs neatly organised and ready for upload. They were uploaded and then I thought no more of it, more pressing post-doc duties were incoming.

Over this time, Open Access and the free accessible nature of scientific research had become more pressing. I noticed it was starting to be discussed in University and Academic institutions, open access publishing funds were set up and institutions started inviting speakers on the subject – I remember Stephen Curry coming to give a very engaging departmental talk on Open Access publication options and trying to impress the importance of this. It was also becoming a larger talking point of several academics that I follow on Twitter, most noticeably Jonathon Eisen – who along with his brother were instrumental in setting up PLoS. None of this really matters, other than to say I had become interested in the topic, agreed with the importance of making research accessible (or what is the point!) but had not become heavily involved or really done any huge in-depth background reading. Anyway.

In the very early morning on 6th December – 19 minutes past midnight I received this email:academia_edu_takedown

It was late and I decided to wait till the morning to read it further and to deal with it. Reading the message, it was very clear Academia.edu had received the take-down and had to comply with Elsevier’s strict policy on the posting of published journal articles (here) but they definitely did not agree with Elsevier’s position, the wording is exquisite and included a link to a petition website http://thecostofknowledge.com/ protesting Elsevier’s business practises. Immediately signed.

When I got in to work that Friday morning I did a quick twitter search – I forget what I searched for exactly – to see if anyone else was tweeting about take-down notices. I noticed this tweet from Rafael Maia who also received the same message for one of his papers!

Embellishing slightly, I also made a tweet about the situation:

Okay, “lots” might have been an over statement but, there were certainly lots more tweets to come and as you will see from an interview below lots more take-down requests! It got picked up pretty rapidly by @RossMounce who asked to see what the take-down notice looked like, image above. Then @MikeTaylor who writes a cool blog about his research on Sauropods but is heavily interested in the open access “debate” and also blogs about it quite often, very quickly wrote up a nice blog post, here. That and a reformatted tweet:

is when it all suddenly kicked off and it seemed like hundreds of people were suddenly aware and re-tweeting and talking about Elsevier and myself. My inbox didn’t stop receiving notifications all day, and continues to today. From here it gets a little difficult to track and see how many people actually did retweet my original message and the many subsequent ones but you can follow the conversations from the above linked tweets if you wish.

I was then approached by Jennifer Howard a journalist from Chronicle.com – an American news website discussing Higher Education issues – who asked if she could write up an article on the matter as it interested her and we had a small chat over email. Later that day this article was published. The most interesting thing, I think, to come from this was a late addition – I didn’t see it until this morning – from the CEO of Academi.edu Richard Price:

Richard Price, the founder and chief executive officer of Academia.edu, said in an email that “Elsevier has started to send academics on Academia.edu takedown notices in batches of a thousand at a time.” The email Mr. Leonard received “is the notification that we sent to our users,” Mr. Price said, adding that his company usually receives one or two individual notices from publishers a week, “but not at scale like this.” (Academia.edu has close to six million registered users; it said it had received about 2,800 takedown notices from Elsevier so far.)

The tweets, Mike’s blog and the Chronicle article got picked up by some other websites, TechDirt.com, SlashDot.com and CNET.com each with their own little spin and generating many re-tweets and comments. Thoroughly interesting.

Richard Price: CEO Academia.edu contacted me late Friday but by that point I had returned home for a much needed pint and didn’t check my work email until this morning. We might have a chat later, depending on schedules. But so far he seems very supportive of academics and the open access nature of publications. Not least the slogan in his email signature:

The goal of Academia.edu is to get every science PDF ever written on the internet, accessible for free.

So where do I – we – go from here?

It is interesting to note that on Academi.edu I have another published journal article from an Elsevier journal. So far there has not been a take-down for this article. Nor have I been contacted by ResearchGate or Mendeley, where exactly the same PDF versions of the paper that Elsevier decided was breaching their rules. I plan to leave them there until / if I am contacted.

Either way as much as I can I will be avoiding Elsevier both for publication and peer review and hopefully impressing on my colleagues to do the same. They say all publicity is good publicity but I really don’t think Elsevier can push a positive spin on their previous conduct nor on their recent conduct. 2800 requests is 2800 pieces of research that have now become inaccessible to the public for no good reason. If one little (open, accessible, free) tweet can generate this amount of interest over a Friday and a weekend then just think how much interest and knowledge you can impart on the world by not publishing with Elsevier and making any articles that you have published with them available and free to access online. Hello Elsevier - leonard_et_al_2011 - *waves*!

Edit

There has been some suggestion on line – I won’t waste electrons with a link – by a few people that “we open access advocates” are “oddly surprised” by Elsevier’s decision on take-down notices. How sad that they feel they must defend Elsevier by belittling our intelligence. Perhaps it speaks volumes that these lazy attacks show there is little defence for their actions. The intention of my tweet, this blog, other mentioned tweets and blogs was to raise awareness of the practice of some established publishers’ attitudes to the changing perceptions and demands of science communication. We don’t want our science to be held in a box where only people with money, or whoever the publisher decides can access it. Science should not be a pyramid scheme for the monetarily privileged. The language employed by statements such as those directly from Elsevier on the matter – here – are nothing short of bullying. They wish to “explore user-friendly options for alignment” – alignment! Are you kidding me? It just leaves me with a feeling of utter disappointment. A little that lies in myself for not realising sooner that we should never have published with Elsevier and two that they took that option of publishing with them away from us for future articles. But thankfully it does not leave me with a feeling of despair because I know that there are plenty of other publishers and routes to publishing out there who do not and will not behave in this manner. Evolve or die.

I also somewhat disagree with Stephen Curry’s point that the company is “acting rationally”. No they are not, you may be right  in suggesting that they are acting in the “technically correct” manner, and we all know technically is the best kind of correct, but rationally? So far it’s negative press after negative press. Thankfully they have not behaved litigiously so far, but that’s just steps away.

Addendum

It completely skipped my memory that earlier this year Elsevier acquired Mendeley – here - this add another little layer of interest. The PDF is still on Mendeley, they can presumably send themselves a TDN but will they? And not just that, they currently have PJA PDFs of other papers I am author on from non-Elsevier journals, I would hope they apply the same level of scrutiny to themselves. Well I don’t but you see where I’m going with it. One rule for them, screw the others!

12 responses on “One little tweet…

  1. Philip Jones

    Hi Guy, you mention posting the PDF a few times, but can you be clear where the PDFs came from? Elsevier says it does not allow Elsevier supplied PDFs to be published on open websites. It’s policies regarding what it calls ‘pre-print’ articles is slightly more vague.

    1. admin Post author

      The PDF in question is what Elsevier calls a “Published Journal Article” – this is the final published PDF as if it were the article you could read in a magazine. If it were a magazine you would be free to photocopy it and send it to all your friends or directly rip it out of the journal and send it to your best friend. But just don’t do any of that with an electronic copy. No. That would be bad.

      Oddly enough I don’t have a copy of the article before it went to Elsevier for overly expensive editing and entirely free peer review – I’m working on it.

      1. Isobel

        Your anaology doesn’t work. What you have done is like making photocopies of the magazine article and postering them all over town.

        As it happens, the author is an Elsevier paper is free to distribute their ‘final published paper’ pdf on a one-to-one basis to their friends and other interested scholars. What they are not free to do under the terms of the licence to publish they signed with the publisher, is to stick that copy of the paper on a website. You are perfectly free to upload the content of the paper on websites with a notice of where the paper was offocially published, you just can’t use the final, Elsevier typeset version.

        I’m a librarian, I don’t like Elsevier and their policies on open acess (for example extending the embargo period if your institution has an OA mandate) however they are very clear as to what you can or can’t do with the text of the article and the various PDF versions. To save yourself getting into tangles like this and inadvertingly breaking contracts you have signed, check out the Sherpa Romeo database of publishers’ OA and author self-arching policies, http://www.sherpa.ac.uk/romeo

        1. admin Post author

          Yes, I stand corrected. The analogy isn’t very good and they never really are. Not least your rebuttal analogy. I’m proud of my work and I put it in places that other scholars and the public go to find my papers. It is not my problem that they may choose Academia.edu over Elsevier to do that.

          Technically, you know the line, I never signed anything. The paper was submitted by my co-author and everything was left up to them. I never received an email from Elsevier demanding I agree to any terms. Whether permission is implied by oral contract over this I don’t know.

          I understand your point, it is effectively a broken contract. But this entire embarrassment could have been avoided had they not demanded a take-down.

          Thank you for the link to Romeo – very interesting indeed.

  2. Philip Jones

    Thanks for clarifying. Yes you are right, “If it were a magazine you would be free to photocopy it and send it to all your friends or directly rip it out of the journal and send it to your best friend.” But as magazine editor, I’d be disappointed if someone, even the author, took a PDF of one our pages and posted it online in an open forum without requesting our permission. Mostly, I’d agree to it anyway, though if said forum was trying to disintermediate my business I’d add concern to my disappointment.
    I’m not passing judgement on the open access debate, or your antipathy to Elsevier, both of which merit further consideration separately to this sideline. Best, Philip