Elsevier withdraws support from Research Works Act, bill collapses

Science publishing giant Elsevier has pulled its support from the Research Works Act, a bill that would have restricted the ability of scientists doing government-funded work to place their papers with open access journals. The action follows a scholarly and scientific boycott of Elsevier, and has led to the collapse of the bill.

I believed from the start that Elsevier would be vulnerable to a boycott threat. The Research Works Act was a desperate bid to eliminate competition arising from the scientists and scholars who supply Elsevier with an endless stream of free work that Elsevier then charges high fees to access, generally charging the institutions whose scientists produced the work to begin with. The question isn't whether Elsevier deserves to make money, or makes too much money: the question (for institutions, scholars and scientists) is whether paying Elsevier is the best way to do science and scholarship. Elsevier isn't a charity, and there's no reason to expect institutions to pay for its journals if they can get better science and scholarship for less through the open access movement.

The increasing trend to open access is fueled by this dynamic, and it's only going to get more pronounced as time goes by. Elsevier is vulnerable, and their overreaching legal proposal just accelerated the pace at which scholars and scientists turned to open access.

While we continue to oppose government mandates in this area, Elsevier is withdrawing support for the Research Work Act itself. We hope this will address some of the concerns expressed and help create a less heated and more productive climate for our ongoing discussions with research funders.

Cooperation and collaboration are critical because different kinds of journals in different fields have different economics and models. Inflexible mandates that do not take those differences into account and do not involve the publisher in decision making can undermine the peer-reviewed journals that serve an essential purpose in the research community. Therefore, while withdrawing support for the Research Works Act, we will continue to join with those many other nonprofit and commercial publishers and scholarly societies that oppose repeated efforts to extend mandates through legislation.



  1. Now, I thought that government-made works were automatically public domain. So I don’t even know how this wasn’t a non-starter.

    1. Works made by government employees are in the public domain.  But works by those funded by the government are not.  If your research is funded by the government your research papers can be copyrighted. It’d be nice if all government funded research had to be in open access journals, and maybe some day it will be, but right now the big publishers are basically in charge (at least in my area, psychiatry).

      1.  NIH-funded work does, via PubMed Central: http://publicaccess.nih.gov/ In regards to the “gold open access” mention below, I think that Elsevier offers to release to PubMed Central immediately for a fee, but they are still required to release to PMC after the 12-month period free of charge to the author.

  2. Ya know.. all these grassroots actions actually having sway on legislation is starting to give me faith in democracy again.

  3. A few fairly important points that are sort of brushed aside in this post and others in the past:

    1. “Open access” is not “free access.” Someone, at some point, funds the dissemination of scientific reports. Most often, when someone is talking about an open access, they are referring to the “gold open access” model in which the author pays a publishing fee and the final report is free for the public at large to access. My work is in health sciences, and I am unaware of any ranked and indexed academic journals that are both free to publish and free to access.

    2. All Elsevier journals, every single one of them, offer a “gold open access” option, and have for at least the past 18 months. All authors have the option of paying a publishing fee so that their article will be open access. Very few authors take that option.

    3. Conducting a study and writing the first draft of a manuscript represents only a portion of the effort involved in disseminating the findings of that research. Cory, as a published author, I wouldn’t think you’d be so quick to dismiss the work of professional editors.

    4. Elsevier is not the only for-profit academic publisher. They’re just the largest, and thus the easiest bogeyman. But Sage, Lippincott, etc. follow the same business model, as have many others for decades. The issue, ultimately, is the commodification of knowledge. Elsevier certainly didn’t invent that, and they’re far from the monolithic corporate greedbag that you portray (PatientINFORM, Research 4 Life, OpenCourseWare, etc.).

    1. @tdberg: I looked around for like five minutes, and I haven’t found anything about Elsevier offering gold open-access in its journals — this is the first I’ve heard of it, and I’ve been following this stuff pretty closely? …

      Can you provide links documenting this?

  4. Here’s the thing that baffles me: Elsevier withdrew their support, so the bill collapsed. This was a bill before Congress.

    Aren’t congresspeople supposed to at least *pretend* these things are being done for the good of the country, not as the result of blatant bribery? I can’t believe they didn’t at least say “we’re going to think about it more” and let it drop silently, rather than pretty much come out and say “The paymasters said to stop this one.”

  5. I know you are just trolling, but how is a protest organized by content creators (read: scientists) thug like? Isn’t this a good example of the market at work? Elsevier’s business model relies on content creators. Those creators didn’t like Elsevier’s business practices, and so threatened to take their work elsewhere. Elsevier responded by changing their practices. It should be every Republican’s wet dream: the market solving it’s own problems without government intervention. Why is it that so many people are pro market and anti government when that position supports corporate interests over individuals, but as soon as the free market does something for individuals (i.e., open-access), those same people are screaming for government intervention?

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