Is Elsevier going to take control of us and our data? The Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge thinks so and I'm terrified

I am gutted that I missed the Q+A session with Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz the Vice-chancellor of  Cambridge University. It doesn’t seem to have been advertised widely – only 17 people went – and it deserves to be repeated.
The indefatigable Richard Taylor – who reports everything in Cambridge – has reported it in detail. It was a really important meeting. I’ll highlight one statement, which chills me to the bone (note that this is RT’s transcript):

“the publishers are faster off the mark than governments are. Elsevier is already looking at ways in which it can control open data as a private company rather than the public bodies concerned.”

Now I know this already – I’ve spent 4 years finding out  in detail about Elsevier’s publishing practices. It’s good that the VC realises it as well. Open Access is a mess – the Universities have given part of their priceless wealth to the publishers and are desperately scrabbling to get some of it back. The very lack of will and success makes me despondent – LB says:

“And I know disadvantaging the individual academic by not having publication in what is deemed to be the top publications available? So it’s a balance in the argument that we have.”

in other words we have to concede control to the publishers to get the “value” of academics publishing where they want.
Scholarly publishing costs about 15,000,000,000 USD per year. Scholarly knowledge/data is worth at least ten times that (> 100,000,000,000 USD/year).  [I’ll justify the figure later]. And we are likely to hand it all over to Elsevier (or Macmillan Digital Science).
I’ve done what I can to highlight the concern. This was the reason for my promoting the phrase “Open Data” in 2006  – and in helping create the Panton Principles for Open Data in Science in 2008. The idea is to make everyone aware that Open Data is valuable and needs protecting.
Because if we don’t Elsevier and Figshare and the others will possess and control all our data. And then they will control us.
Isn’t this overly dramatic?
No. Elsevier has bought Mendeley – a social network for managing academic bibliography.  Scientists put their current reading into Mendeley and use it to look up others. Mendeley is a social network which knows who you are, and who you are working with.
Do you trust Mendeley? Do you trust Elsevier? Do you trust and large organisations without independent control (GCHQ, NSA, Google, Facebook)? If you do, stop reading and don’t worry.
In Mendeley, Elsevier has a window onto nearly everything that a scientist is interested in. Every time your read a new paper Mendeley knows what you are interested in.  Mendeley knows your working habits – what time are you spending on your research?
And this isn’t just passive information. Elsevier has Scopus – a database of citations. How does a paper get into this? – Scopus decides, not the scientific world. Scopus can decide what to highlight and what to hold back. Do you know how Journal Impact Factors are calculated? I don’t because it’s a trade secret.  Does Scopus’ Advisory Board guarantee transparency of  practice? Not that I can see. Since JIF’s now control much academic thinking and planning, those who control them are in a position to influence academic practice.
Does Mendeley have an advisory board? I couldn’t find one. And when I say “advisory board”, I mean a board which can uncover unacceptable practices. I have no evidence that anything wrong is being done, but I have no evidence that there are any checks against it. Elsevier has already created fake journals for Merck, so how can I be sure it will resist the pressure to use Mendeley for inappropriate purposes? Is Mendeley any different from Facebook as far as transparency is concerned?  Is there any guarantee that it is not snooping on academics and manipulating and selling opinion? “Dear VC – this is the latest Hot Topics from Mendeley; make your next round of hirings in these fields”.
I’m also concerned that Figshare will go the same way. I have have huge respect for Mark Hahnel who founded it.  But Figshare also  doesn’t appear to have an advisory board. Do I trust Macmillan? “we may anonymize your Personal Information so that you cannot be individually identified, and provide that information to our partners, investors, Content providers or other third parties.” Since information can be anonymised or useful but not both are you happy with that?
There aren’t any easy solutions.  If we do nothing, are we trusting our academic future to commercial publishers who control the information and knowledge flow. We have to take back our own property – the knowledge that *we* produce. Publishers should be the servants of knowledge – at present they are becoming the tyrants.

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