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The latest in the Elsevier and Open Science Monitor saga

For those of you who have been following, there has been a lot of controversy about the role of Elsevier in the European Commission’s Open Science Monitor. Recently, the European Commission responded, and I was interviewed for ResearchResearch about this.

 

My full, unedited comments are here for transparency :

 

So yeah, the EC have finally responded! You can see the letter here, which many are already annotating pointing out weakness, missing information, contradictions, where questions were not answered etc. This is such a welcome response from them though, and clearly indicates that the community had raised legitimate concerns about Elsevier and the procurement process. However, it should not have to take a letter with 1100 signatories to expose this sort of information, and it should have been readily available. I’m very happy that the EC decided to treat this seriously, especially after both Elsevier and the President of the Lisbon Counil offered absolutely pathetic responses (see the history here). So the EC’s response is a welcome, informed, professional response, unlike that of the previous two. I don’t know yet if we will approach the Ombudsman. Clearly there are still some questions that need answering, but we need time to digest this information properly and formulate a response.

 

Our complaint came in two main parts – about the procurement process, and the role of Elsevier and the inherent COIs. I’m pretty happy with their response to the first part, and we anticipated this. Like I said though, there should have been substantial more transparency in the first place. Some elements about the timing of the announcements, the precise role of Elsevier, the accountability of the EC, and a couple more bits, but nothing too major. However, the second part about the role of Elsevier and the overwhelming bias towards  services/metrics they own was not resolved in the slightest. The EC stated “The consortium  is  neither  fully  dependent  on  Elsevier,  nor  does  Elsevier  determine  which indicators  the  Monitor  bases  itself  on. ” Which, from what we can see, is nonsense. Virtually all indicators are owned by Elsevier, and there are something like 300 comments now on the indicators, many which call out this bias and the inherent COI for Elsevier. The actual role of Elsevier in defining these metrics (or not) is not in any public document, so we are basically being asked to trust that Elsevier did not play any role in defining metrics/services/tools that are pretty much only operated by Elsevier. Yeah, no, that’s not how you generate trust. Also, as of today, those 300 comments have not been addressed publicly, and we know that the Lisbon Council held an exclusive meeting about the Open Science Monitor, but no information at all about that has been disclosed either. There is far too much secrecy surrounding this, and it is too important a topic for that. Much of what the EC state in their report about this does not address this issue in the slightest either (see annotations, point 17). It also seems incredible to me that they state “there is no conflict of interests or distortion of fair competition. The Commission does not assess the potential benefits of a subcontractor to a consortium”, which seems to imply that the EC also does not assess the potential conflicts of interest or distortion of fair competition of subcontractors to a consortium. Which is bonkers, because if they don’t who is? And with such a blatant COI here, this seems far too casually dismissive. Oh yes, the fact that the data for the OSM will still not be open, made using open source software, or using open licenses and standards, is still pretty hypocritical too.

 

As well as this, it is still ridiculously ironic, and also generally offensive, that Elsevier have this role. Historically, they fought against openness, and the movement was virtually started to combat their practices. It just simply cannot be allowed that they maintain this position. Again, it’s like having McDonald’s advising and providing information on dietary habits and healthy eating.

 

Much of this is also part of the bigger problem that commercial organisations are gaining too much control over infrastructure that is critical to the future of open science, as well as bewilderingly having substantial political leverage, which clearly is not in the public interest. More on this here http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2018/10/03/knowledge-unlatched-failed-transparency-and-the-commercialisation-of-open-access-book-publishing/ and here https://elephantinthelab.org/google-and-research-data/ recently with Google and Knowledge Unlatched. Oh yes, there are also now to European Open Science Monitors: https://blogs.openaire.eu/?p=3779 Have fun with that one.

 

This complaint was something of a warm up, to test the PR machine of Elsevier and the EC. Elsevier failed miserably, and now we know their tactics – attempt to discredit their opposition, without providing any intellectual debate over issues raised. They exposed how badly they handle rigorous criticisms and community-driven initiatives like the complaint, which we can use as leverage now in the future. Which is great, because I can tell you for the FIRST TIME (#exclusive) that we have now prepared a full report to the EC Competition Authority detailing how Elsevier abuses its market position, and that indeed the entire scholarly publishing market is dysfunctional and requires intervention or regulation from the EC. I aim to share that report online in the next few days, travel pending.. This follows a report in 2002 from the UK showing that the market was not working too well, and would require action if it got worse. 16 years on, it clearly has in a number of ways, and we want to fix that. I can tell you more about that when it’s out though 🙂

 

So, ultimately, it’s a mixed bag. The EC should be applauded for crafting such a detailed response, also simply as a matter of respect. The Lisbon Council and Elsevier should be similarly ashamed of their behaviour regarding this matter, and be reprimanded for it. Some questions were answered, others were not, other statements are clearly a bit misleading or trying to avoid the real answer (i..e., being political). The crux of Elsevier’s involvement though still has not been addressed, so follow ups are needed. But it is a lot of effort to do these things, and I don’t know what they might achieve. So, we have to keep trying. No one wants Elsevier in this position, they have not earned it, it is corrupt, it is a cruel irony, and we need to keep standing against them.
/fin

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