Of Elsevier and Embargoes

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June 22, 2017 by joshbolick

Early in June I had the pleasure of attending the excellent Kraemer Copyright Conference at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs, in the shadows of the Garden of the Gods and Pike’s Peak. It’s a great small conference for librarians (and others) interested in copyright. Primarily, I was there to present a poster, Exploiting Elsevier’s Creative Commons License Requirement to Subvert Embargo.

Kraemer Poster 2017 final jpg

The poster (CC-BY) explores an idea I’ve been chewing on for a number of months based on the current Elsevier Sharing Policy, which was announced (to great opposition from the open advocacy community, links in poster and supporting document in IR) in Spring 2015. The policy permits authors of articles published in Elsevier journals to immediately share an accepted manuscript version of their paper on their personal website or blog, and to share the same version in an institutional repository with embargoes of up to 48 months. Either or both of these copies are to bear a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives license, which clearly allows users to share the work, with attribution, as is, in noncommercial ways. What I propose in the poster is that an embargo of any length of an Elsevier paper subject to the policy can be avoided when an author elects to put the so-licensed work on their personal website or blog. At that point it can be posted to the repository, not through the license to do so granted by the sharing policy, but through the rights to share granted by the CC license. Simple. Neat.

In the few weeks since I presented it (2 solid cocktail reception hours of poster session with lots of wonderful and engaged colleagues), it has been accessed over 1000 times in my repository, downloaded over 400 times, fairly widely tweeted and retweeted, and generally well received. The feedback I got at the conference exceeded my best hopes. I’m currently working on a manuscript that goes into more detail than a poster can, and which explores a few questions that arise, like what counts as a personal website or blog and problems of scale. One of the issues that has come up is the fact that Elsevier could change the policy at any point. That’s quite right. In fact, they’re certain to change the policy at some point, for some reason, in their further efforts to “support green open access”.

At present, I’m aware of 2 acknowledgements of or reactions to the poster/idea from Elsevier personnel. First, from William Gunn, Director of Scholarly Communication, on Twitter:

So, business as usual. Though it doesn’t seem like the policy intends immediate open sharing without embargo in repositories because they made a 60 page title by title embargo list for IR sharing. On the question of what constitutes a personal website or blog, Gunn suggests authors may define it how they want.

I’m pretty hip to that idea, but the policy clearly intends to discourage sharing via commercial platforms like ResearchGate and Academia.edu, which for better or worse is where a lot of sharing happens. I would imagine that as far as representing themselves and their work on the Web, many authors consider RG and Academia.edu as their “personal website”. I’m not sure what to make of this, nor how much to worry about it. I’m pretty certain that faced with this confusion the average author either does whatever they were going to do anyway (like post the final pdf to RG, in violation of the sharing policy, which they’ve done in droves), or the more conscientious of them turn the confusion into inaction and non-sharing, which isn’t what a sharing policy is for (I think).

The second acknowledgement by Elsevier is from Gemma Hersh, VP of Policy and Communications, on the Global Open Access List (GOAL). In a recent unrelated (to the poster) discussion of Elsevier’s interpretation of CC-BY-NC-ND, list moderator and scholcomm/OA journalist Richard Poynder posted the abstract and link to the poster as potentially of interest. Hersh responded:

“The challenge with the proposal…is that it wouldn’t really work very well for very long; an embargo period is needed to enable the subscription model to continue to operate, in the absence of a separate business model.”

Hersh seems to be saying that applying the sharing policy will lead to Elsevier changing the sharing policy, which is an odd approach to policy making. Because to be clear: what I propose is working entirely, scrupulously, carefully, inside the confines of the sharing policy. Furthermore, it’s hard to accept that embargo-free open repository sharing of the accepted manuscript will lead to mass cancellations (if this is what Hersh is suggesting) when immediate sharing on personal websites does not, and when the final versions are circulating through various well known illegal and extralegal means. I’m unaware of libraries making content purchasing decisions based on accepted manuscripts’ haphazard availability on the Web.

What seems much more likely is that cancellations are (or will be) the result of annual price increases above inflation that correspond with flat or decreasing library budgets.

-Josh Bolick @joshbolick


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The opinions here emerge from work done by OA advocates at our university in the Midwest. The opinions are those of the authors themselves and not necessarily of our home institution.


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