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Riled up by Elsevier’s take-downs? Time to embrace open access

The publishing giant Elsevier owns much of the world’s academic knowledge, in the form of article copyright. In the past few weeks it has stepped up enforcement of its property rights, issuing “take-down…

Researchers burned by copyright ‘take-downs’ do have other options. marfis75

The publishing giant Elsevier owns much of the world’s academic knowledge, in the form of article copyright. In the past few weeks it has stepped up enforcement of its property rights, issuing “take-down notices” to, where many researchers post PDFs of their articles.

The articles in question were published in Elsevier-owned journals, and are legally available only by subscription, often at exorbitant prices.

Before publication, journals owned by Elsevier send academics' manuscripts to other scholars for review. Following the review process, Elsevier reformats the manuscripts into PDFs in the style of the journals, whereupon authors are required to sign away the copyright.

So Elsevier is certainly within its legal rights to not allow posting of these final article PDFs to third-party sites, whether it’s or an author’s personal webpage.

Keep putting them up?

Some scholars (such as Mike Taylor) have suggested that scientists should actively rebel by illegally posting final article PDFs to our personal websites. They make the point that Elsevier likely won’t serve take-down notices to large numbers of individual scholars, because doing so would generate too much ill will in the research community.

Nevertheless, I don’t think encouraging illegal posting is the best response to the situation.

I say this in spite of my disgust with our system of signing away our rights to publishers. Universities lose billions of dollars by having to pay subscriptions to get back what we gave away.

The entrenched hierarchy of subscription journals also hinders innovation. I have a partial boycott policy with regards to Elsevier and am exercised enough to contribute to several open access related initiatives, as well as lectures, blog posts, and a sarcastic video.

But posting the publisher-owned PDFs of scholarly articles increases the availability only of the specific articles posted, rather than contributing to the uptake of a more comprehensive solution.

We will never see university administrators and research funders encouraging people to do something illegal, and if the administrators and funders do not encourage a thing, many academics will not do it. We have to promote action that official policymakers can get behind.

Illegal action can be useful in another way: attracting attention and exposing injustice, but we may be past the need for that. After decades of sleepwalking into this situation, the majority of researchers are finally now, I believe, aware that the continuing restrictions on dissemination of scholarly knowledge are fundamentally unnecessary.

Preprints: a legal solution

Here are two simple solutions for scholars and other researchers: patronise open access journals, or post preprints rather than final PDFs.

The solution that all levels of the sector can support, from individual researchers to government ministers, is the posting of preprints to websites such as university web repositories. A preprint is the article as formatted by the author, before it is turned into the publisher-owned PDF that appears in the journal.


If posting preprints is linked by universities and funders to their promotions and research evaluation processes, the majority of researchers begin posting their preprints quite quickly! This has already happened in Belgium at the University of Liege, and in Australia at the Queensland University of Technology.

Wherever such a mandate is adopted, it brings increased citations for that institution’s researchers (it helps that the preprint repositories are fully indexed by Google Scholar). It also moves scholarship towards a preprint-centered culture, which:

  • accelerates progress (because we don’t have to wait for the publishers for research to become available)
  • facilitates innovation (such as open peer review, since many manuscripts are then already available openly on websites)
  • leads to library savings (eventually, thanks to cancellation of journal subscriptions).

Unfortunately, most universities adopting open access “mandates” have not linked their policy to research assessment and promotion processes. Without that link, such measures largely fail to induce researchers to change their habits.

Aesthetics aren’t everything

Several of my colleagues have objected to the preprint-posting solution. They tell me they simply don’t like reading preprints as they frequently contain ugly double-spaced text and relegate the figures to the end of the document.

Certainly the publisher-created PDF is a more aesthetic experience, with the figures embedded nicely into two-column pages of text. But are these niceties worth the price of denying the knowledge in these papers to all the researchers, policymakers, businesses, and citizens around the world who don’t have access to the journals?

And do we really need publishers' formatting service when areas of physics and social science have done without it for decades, communicating mainly by preprints posted on sites like


It is true, however, that in certain fields we can have our figure-formatted flan and let everybody eat it too. In some of the sciences, in some countries, there is enough money in the sector to pay for gold open access publication, where the publishers are paid per article to produce an attractive PDF that anyone can immediately read and use without restriction.

But in much of the arts and the humanities, funding is too scarce to support paying a fee to publish each article.

Fortunately, many hundreds of open access journals are published entirely by academics and libraries who have set aside the resources and time to make it happen, such as the Online Journal of Analytic Combinatorics edited by my friend Mark Wilson and the International Journal of Innovation in Science and Mathematics Education at the University of Sydney.

As the open-source software tools that support such efforts improve, this solution will become more widespread. But starting such journals, and making them viable, takes time. As the cognitive scientist and open access promoter Stevan Harnad is fond of pointing out, posting preprints can be done today.

Almost a year ago, many people were inspired to act by the tragic death of a “hacktivist” who worked for, among other things, open access to research publications. That activist was Aaron Swartz and soon after his suicide some called, like today, for researchers to post publisher-owned article PDFs to the web. This #PDFtribute captured the well-meaning efforts of many scholars. But being illegal, this initiative cannot be scaled up by institutions.

Let’s get behind solutions that the whole community – individual scholars, university leadership, and governments – can turn into everyday practice.

A version of this article appeared on the University of Sydney Open Access blog.

Join the conversation

13 Comments sorted by

  1. Deborah Lupton

    Centenary Research Professor at University of Canberra

    Alex, you make some important points here, but haven't you confused preprints with postprints (or at least conflated them)? Usually the term 'preprint' refers to the author's version that is submitted for peer-review (so is at a reasonably early stage in its final version) while 'postprint' refers to the author's final version that has been revised based on the review comments and accepted for publication by the publisher. In the journals in which I publish, the journals usually allow authors to make the preprint open access at any time, but they mandate waiting 12-18 months following their publication of the final author's version in their journals to allow authors to make the postprint open access (and do not allow posting of the PDFS on OA repositories under any circumstances, unless an OA fee has been paid).

    1. Alex O. Holcombe

      Associate Professor, School of Psychology at University of Sydney

      In reply to Deborah Lupton

      Yes, I used "preprints" to stay clear of the publishers' restrictions. I believe Stevan Harnad and others have argued that we shouldn't accept restrictions on postprints from publishers, but I certainly did gloss over this complexity, thanks for pointing that out. If universities and funders mandated that postprints be deposited, the publishers would likely just have to accept that rather than lose their authors, I believe.

    2. Alex O. Holcombe

      Associate Professor, School of Psychology at University of Sydney

      In reply to Alex O. Holcombe

      And Elsevier itself does allow posting on institutional repositories the manuscript that INCLUDES changes made during the review process . But the fine print is that they do not allow it if you are required to do it (e.g. by a mandate)! This is part of the complexity that Elsevier creates in an effort to derail systematic solutions, and Harnad has argued that it is incoherent and we should ignore this clause:

  2. Koenraad Kuiper

    Professor Emeritus and Honorary Professor at University of Canterbury and University of Sydney

    There is another but related aspect to the problems outlined in the article. A colleague and I wished to produce a reader of classic papers for advanced students in a particular academic domain. Many of these papers were in obscure places and we thought such a reader would be a useful resource on the basis of which one might run a reading course in the area. We tested the cost of permissions and, for the first few papers, many of them decades old, the permissions costs ranged from near a thousand pounds to a few hundred pounds, making the project commercially unviable. The result was that the original publishers of the articles received no permissions fees and the students did not get to use a possibly useful book. In whose interests therefore is it to charge such permissions fees?

    1. Peter Wesley-Smith


      In reply to Koenraad Kuiper

      This is a widespread issue. Three instances in my own experience: (1) There's a review I've not seen of a book of mine, available at considerable expense and only, so far as I can determine, from SSRN, which refuses to allow me to see it gratis. I doubt anyone else would ever pay for it, and I won't do so, and thus it just sits there to no one's benefit. (2) I once contemplated doing a study of old Australian patriotic songs and I needed permission to copy hundreds of them. The principal publisher…

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  3. Jason Mazanov

    Senior Lecturer, School of Business, UNSW-Canberra at UNSW Australia

    As a relatively junior academic and somewhat less luminary than the author or other commenters, a key problem for me is that those in power at universities take a dim view of Open Access publication towards promotion. I have been advised by a range of more experienced academics to keep to the main publishers because they can guarantee a rigorous peer review process and that they have established journal rankings (either as Impact Factor, the outdated ARC exercise, or ABDC). Open Access has shot…

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    1. Gavin Moodie
      Gavin Moodie is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Adjunct professor at RMIT University

      In reply to Jason Mazanov

      It is worth separating decisions about publication and dissemination. Authors should publish in their journal of first choice - for whatever reason, but presumably often to maximise their career - and use open access to disseminate their research more widely than is normally achieved by the commercial publishers.

      That normally means lodging on an institutional repository, a subject repository such as arXiv or a scholarly networking site such as the version of the paper that was accepted for publication but without the publisher's formatting. I take a few extra minutes to locate tables where they are first mentioned in the text, set to single space and paginate sensibly.

  4. MItchell Lennard

    Researcher - Distributed Energy Systems

    I would suggest a more strait forward approach

    We recognise up front that in the digital age the Journal publishers are providing a management/collation service. The intellectual property going in, and the peer review value add is, on the whole, publicly funded.

    So Publishers should be able to charge a fee to cover the service they provide, and we should recognise that that service has a value as it supports the search methodologies that our IT tools are all designed to work with and it supports…

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  5. alfred venison

    records manager (public sector)

    nice article and thanks for the opportunity to sound off.

    one thing i miss with e-readers is knowing how close to the end i am just by the feel of it as the left hand side gets thicker and the right hand side gets thinner.

    i miss being able to see a two page spread - and the contextual information contained in layout - at a magnification i can read - and glean information from that layout about where the text is and where it might be going form here.

    with e-books i miss not being able to…

    Read more
    1. alfred venison

      records manager (public sector)

      In reply to alfred venison

      oh, crap! i think i'm on the wrong thread. sorry about that. sincerely vension

  6. alfred venison

    records manager (public sector)

    one thing i miss with e-readers is knowing how close to the end i am just by the feel of it as the left hand side gets thicker and the right hand side gets thinner.

    i miss being able to see a two page spread - and the contextual information contained in layout - at a magnification i can read - and glean information from that layout about where the text is and where it might be going form here.

    with e-books i miss not being able to easily ascertain how close or far i am from the next section…

    Read more
  7. Jessica Vitak

    logged in via Twitter

    I generally agree with what you've written about posting pre-print/post-print versions of papers instead of final, paginated versions (as its not worth the battle IMO). I'm an academic who recently received a takedown notice for content on my personal website (hosted by Wordpress). I've also written about my thoughts on Elsevier and OA here: