Elseviergate: Checking whether paid OpenAccess is behind paywalls? Elsevier says it's more efficient than libraries

The recent (wonderful) collection of Wellcome-sponsored articles (thanks Robert Kiley) has highlighted the huge percentage of “hybrid” articles – where both the author and the subscribing library pay the publishers. Publishers claim they give the money back to libraries.
Do you trust major publishers to get it right?
Michelle Brook has made a magnificent effort to collate all this information. In her blog post “the-sheer-scale-of-hybrid-journal-publishing” she gives tables:

Top 5 publishers by total cost to Wellcome Trust


No. of articles

Maximum Cost

Average Cost

Total Cost (nearest £1000)

Elsevier (inc. Cell Press)















Oxford University Press





Nature Publishing Group (not inc. Frontiers)






I have been concerned that the quality of Open Access provided by publishers is often unacceptable. I started at the top of the list – Elsevier – and found 4 articles behind paywalls. (There may be more – I haven’t done all 418 – volunteers would be welcome). That’s totally unacceptable to me and most people.
It’s not totally unacceptable to Elsevier. It’s “bumpy road on the shared journey”. I call this “mumble”. Elsevier’s Directorate of Access and Policy (was Universal Access)  produces a great deal of mumble.
I doubt Elsevier has apologised to any authors
I doubt Elsevier has refunded them any money
I doubt Elsevier has communicated with the funder (Wellcome Trust).
The more I ask, the more I get mumble. I have lost all trust in Elsevier to produce accurate OpenAccess or give clear accurate information.
So we have to resort to other methods:

  • write to your parliamentary representative (I have)
  • Blog and tweet problems (I have)
  • Inform funders (I have communicated with Robert Kiley of Wellcome Trust)
  • Report Elsevier to trading standards (I can’t unless I have an author who has paid money)


  • Ask Universities to provide information on exactly what they paid Elsevier for APCs and for what.

So I tweeted this idea. It’s something that University libraries could and should do. I could and maybe will find out through FOI though I’d rather they did it voluntarily. One or two Universities seemed to catch on so I tweeted:
This statement staggered me.
If I were a librarian I would be outraged.
Elsevier says it is better than them at knowing what APCs have been paid and whether the article is paywalled. My simple research over the last week has shown vast errors in Elsevier’s system and arrogant complacency.
But I try to be a fair person and I try to avoid mumble so here is a simple clear question to the DoAP.
Please give me a machine-readable list of all articles Elsevier published in 2012-2013  for which there was an APC.
Elsevier should have done this publicly already.
Only a machine readable list (like the one that Wellcome Trust have provided) will do. The following are NOT acceptable:

  • “search for ‘open access’ in our ScienceDirect API.” (PMR I don’t trust Elsevier’s system to be 100% correct).
  • “Wait until we have fixed it in ‘summer 2014′”. They’ve taken a MILLION POUNDS. They should have a record. Maybe the UK tax office would like to know their income?
  • Mumble

But Elsevier says it’s more efficient than Libraries.
Libraries can you counter this by providing lists of APCs you paid to Elsevier? And we’ll see if any are behind paywalls.

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3 Responses to Elseviergate: Checking whether paid OpenAccess is behind paywalls? Elsevier says it's more efficient than libraries

  1. Theo says:

    Last year we published our entire Wellcome Trust APC spend from 2007-2012 here:
    I heartily encourage all other University Libraries to do the same for any Open Access cost data they have.
    We will also be releasing our RCUK APC spend when we have aggregated all the data.

  2. Rupert Gatti says:

    Thanks for all your efforts Peter.
    May I highlight yet another problem, extending beyond the serious issue you have highlighted of some apc articles sitting behind paywalls. I think there is another serious question for Elsevier to answer concerning the licencing of re-use for the articles they have published.
    The ‘OA product’ being sold by Elsevier to academic authors is an OA publication under an author selected CC licence. There are two components to this product: a. that the article is ‘free to read’ and b. that the article can be re-used according to the CC licence selected (and paid for) by the author. Part (b), the re-use licence, is an important issue for Open Access – and funder mandates clearly stipulate that ‘free to read’ is NOT sufficient (they could, after all, have mandated just ‘free to read’ – but they didn’t).
    You have identified significant problems with their delivery of the first “free to read” component of their product. The Wellcome data reveals that there is a near universal problem with the ‘reuse’ component.
    Thanks to your and Mike Taylor’s efforts, Elsevier has been aware that there were severe problems with the re-use component of the product they were providing (and selling) for over two years. Specifically that the licence statements on some articles was incorrect – claiming ‘all rights reserved’ and, secondly, that there was no way for a reader to determine the CC licence or re-use rights associated with these published papers. What the Wellcome data shows is that these problems exist almost universally – in fact there hasn’t yet been identified a single paper published by Elsevier on the Wellcome list which does NOT have this problem.
    So it appears that, for the past two years Elsevier has actively marketed and sold millions of dollars of this ‘OA product’ to thousands of academic authors (and not just Wellcome funded authors) in the full knowledge that there was a serious problem with their product and that they were not actually able to supply the ‘OA product’ being advertised and purchased.
    Might that be an additional issue to add to the list of concerns when people communicate with MPs, funders, trading standards etc. ?

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