Should Wikipedia work with Elsevier?

This story has erupted in the last 2 days - if it had been earlier I would have covered it at my talk to Wikipedia Science].

TL;DR. Elsevier has granted accounts to 45 top editors at Wikipedia so they can read closed access publications as part of their editing. I strongly oppose this and say why. BTW I consider myself a committed Wikipedian.]

Glyn Moody in Ars Technica has headlined:

WikiGate” raises questions about Wikipedia’s commitment to open access

Glyn mailed me for my opinion and the piece, which is accurate, also highlights Michael Eisen's opposition to the new move. I'll cut and paste large chunks and then add additional comment.

Scientific publisher Elsevier has donated 45 free ScienceDirect accounts to "top Wikipedia editors" to aid them in their work. Michael Eisen, one of the founders of the open access movement, which seeks to make research publications freely available online, tweeted that he was "shocked to see @wikipedia working hand-in-hand with Elsevier to populate encylopedia w/links people cannot access," and dubbed it "WikiGate." Over the last few days, a row has broken out between Eisen and other academics over whether a free and open service such as Wikipedia should be partnering with a closed, non-free company such as Elsevier.

Eisen's fear is that the free accounts to ScienceDirect will encourage Wikipedia editors to add references to articles that are behind Elsevier's paywall. When members of the public seek to follow such links, they will be unable to see the article in question unless they have a suitable subscription to Elsevier's journals, or they make a one-time payment, usually tens of pounds for limited access.

Eisen went on to tweet: "@Wikipedia is providing free advertising for Elsevier and getting nothing in return," and that, rather than making it easy to access materials behind paywalls, "it SHOULD be difficult for @wikipedia editors to use #paywalled sources as, in long run, it will encourage openness." He called on Wikipedia's co-founder, Jimmy Wales, to "reconsider accommodating Elsevier's cynical use of @Wikipedia to advertise paywalled journals." His own suggestion was that Wikipedia should provide citations, but not active links to paywalled articles.

Agreed. It is not only providing free advertising, but worse, it implicitly legitimizes Elsevier's control of the scientific literature. Rather than making it MORE accessibile to the citizens of the world, it makes it LESS.

Eisen is not alone in considering the Elsevier donation a poisoned chalice. Peter Murray-Rust is Reader Emeritus in Molecular Informatics at the University Of Cambridge, and another leading campaigner for open access. In an email to Ars, he called the free Elsevier accounts "crumbs from the rich man's table. It encourages a priesthood. Only the best editors can have this. It's patronising, ineffectual. And I wouldn't go near it."

This arbitrary distinction between the 45 top editors and everyone else is seriously divisive. Even if this was a useful approach (it isn't) why should Elsevier decide who can, and who can't, be a top Wikipedia editor? Wikipedia has rightful concerns about who and how editors are "appointed" - it's meritocratic and, though imperfect, any other solution (cf. Churchil on democracy) is worse.

You may think I am overreacting - that Elsevier will behave decently and collaboratively. I've spent 6 years trying to "negotiate" with Elsevier about Content Mining - and it's one smokescreen after another. They want to develop and retain control over scholarship.

And I have additional knowledge. I've been campaigning for reform in Europe (including UK) and everywhere the publishers are fighting us. Elsevier wants me and collaborators to "licence" the right to mine - these licences are desiged to make Elsevier the central control. I would strongly urge any Wikipedian to read the small print and then run a mile.

This isn't the first time that Wikipedia has worked closely with a publisher in this way. The Wikipedia Library "helps editors access reliable sources to improve Wikipedia." It says that it supports "the broader move towards open access," but it also arranges Access Partnerships with publishers: "You would provide a set number of qualified and prolific Wikipedia editors free access to your resources for typically 1 year." As Wikipedia Library writes: "We also love to collaborate on social media, press releases, and blog posts highlighting our partnerships."

It is that cosy relationship with publishers and their paywalled articles that Eisen is concerned about, especially the latest one with Elsevier, whom he described in a tweet as "#openaccess's biggest enemy." Eisen wrote: "it is a corruption of @Wikipedia's principles to get in bed with Elsevier, and it will ultimately corrupt @Wikipedia." But in a reply to Wikipedia Library on Twitter, Eisen also emphasised: "don't get me wrong, i love @wikipedia and i totally understand everything you are doing."

Murray-Rust was one of the keynote speakers at the recent Wikipedia Science Conference, held in London, which was "prompted by the growing interest in Wikipedia, Wikidata, Commons, and other Wikimedia projects as platforms for opening up the scientific process." The central question raised by WikiGate is whether the Wikipedia Library project's arrangements with publishers like Elsevier that might encourage Wikipedia editors to include more links to paywalled articles really help to bring that about.

Elsevier and other mainstream publishers have no intention of major collaboration, nor of releasing the bulk of their material to the world. Witness the 35-year old paper, which is hidden behind a paywall, that predicted that Ebola could break out in Liberia. It's still behind an Elsevier paywall.

[These problems aren't confined to Elsevier, many of the major publishers do similar things to restrict the flow of knowledge.  When it appeared that ContentMining might become a reality, Wiley recently added "Captcha's" to its site to prevent ContentMining . But Elsevier is the largest and most unyielding publisher, often taking the lead in devising restrictions,  and so it gets most coverage.]

Wikimedian Martin Poulter, who is the organiser of the Wikipedia Science Conference, has no doubts. In an email, he told Ars: "Personally, I think the Wikipedia Library project (which gives Wikipedia editors free access to pay-walled or restricted resources like Science Direct) is wonderful. As a university staff member, I don't use it myself, but I'm glad Wikipedians outside the ivory towers get to use academic sources. Wikipedia aims to be an open-access summary of reliable knowledge—not a summary of open-access knowledge. The best scholarly sources are often not open-access: Wikipedia has to operate in this real world, not the world we ideally want."

The debate will continue publicly in Wikip/media. That's good.

The STM publishers, Rightslink, and similar organisations are working to lobby politicians, librarians, to prevent the liberation of knowledge. That must be fought every day


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6 Responses to Should Wikipedia work with Elsevier?

  1. WikiLibrary says:

    Hi Peter,

    We have replied in full elsewhere and on our explainer page (

    I want to add that the 'top 45 editors' are not elite in any way. Any editor with a 6 month old account and 500 edits can apply. The ones who did simply got there first.

    Over 40 publishers have donated nearly 5000 accounts, and these have resulted in thousands of citations being added to Wikipedia. You can fairly bemoan that these are paywalled links--and I understand the criticism well--but you can't leave out that those thousands of citations are provided only alongside Wikipedia's fully open access summaries of those paywalled sources. Without those donations, the summaries wouldn't exist either. That's not a perfect world, nor the one we're aiming towards, but it's better than the alternative.

    Our 500 million monthly readers (and our 5 billion yearly pageviews of medical articles) attest to the pragmatic necessity of summarizing the best available research today, regardless of its accessibility. Whether that's an out of print monograph, or a PLOS article, or a ScienceDirect title.

    We are genuinely working hard to promote open access--it's one of our 5 mission goals for The Wikipedia Library. We work with Open Access Button and SPARC and many other advocates in the OA world.

    I hope this debate merely raises awareness about the critical state of OA publishing rather than driving a wedge between allies in the open access and open knowledge movement.

    Jake Orlowitz, The Wikipedia Library (

    • pm286 says:

      Many thanks,
      This is very useful.
      I respect your views and experience; we hold different positions but will continue to work together. I am completely committed to the success of Wikip/media.

  2. Henry Rzepa says:

    The UK funding council EPSRC has recently introduced a policy that all research funded by it and published in a paywalled journal (e.g. Elsevier) must within three months of that publication ALSO be deposited in an open access institutional repository, and there assigned a second persistent identifier (DOI, Handle, etc).

    Of course this is not retrospective, and it only covers EPSRC funded science. So it is only a tiny tiny contribution to openness.

    If these 45 Wikipedia editors are going to get access behind paywalls to check citations, then in theory they could also check the OA version which MUST also appear within three months without the concession granted to them by the publisher.

    BUT: Paywalled publishers are not going to cross reference the OA version, are they? (why would they?). These second versions will have to be independently discovered somehow.

    And the version in the institutional repository is not quite the "version of record" hosted behind the publisher's paywall, it is the "author's version of the accepted ms" (which may or may not have been updated for any errors corrected during the proofing stage).

    Chances are that this UK specific effort to emancipate scientific papers will take a long time to accumulate any significant mass. And will any other countries follow suit?

    • pm286 says:

      One thing that is starting to happen is independent indexing of OA material, including pointers to visitble but not libre. So that will start to enhance the discovery process. And if, as I hope, we have annotation tools such as which are independent of the publisher site, we may be able to grow a critical mass.

  3. Gregory Kohs says:

    Isn't there a certain irony that there is a complaint of the monoculture of research that Elsevier fosters, while Wikipedia itself fosters a monoculture of knowledge -- driving out other less-popular but more-authoritative sources from online search results? Indeed, considering how the Wikimedia Foundation financially supported the autocratic Kazakhstan government in its efforts to replace the free Kazakh-language Wikipedia with a state-approved version, and how the WMF paid a personal editor to spruce up articles to promote the head of the Belfer Center (from money donated by the Belfer Center's wife), we shouldn't sit by idly, watching Jimmy Wales and his cronies at the WMF undermine centuries of scholarship, even if some aspects of that tradition are "closed".

  4. Pingback: Should Wikipedia work with Elsevier? – ContentMine

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