Elsevier: empowering knowledge or “enemy of science”

How the world’s scientific community turned against the world’s largest academic publisher.

Elsevier, founded in the Netherlands in 1880, is the world’s largest scientific, technical, and medical (STM) publisher with over 2,500 journals, $3.32 billion in revenues, and 28.2% share of the global STM publishing market. However, as public anger forces Elsevier to change its business model, its century-old operating model is threatened.



How academic publishing works

Four parties are involved in the academic publishing process: 1) publishers, e.g., Elsevier employees that manage journals’ publication process; 2) editors, prominent university professors that manage journals’ editorial process; 3) authors, researchers who publish on Elsevier journals; and 4) readers, researchers who read Elsevier journals to follow the latest development. There is often a large overlap among readers, authors, and editors.

The process starts with an author submitting a manuscript to an editor, who decides whether to accept the submission. Such a decision-making process, a.k.a. peer review, requires significant expertise and time. If the editor accepts the manuscript, the publisher will process, enhance, and publish the manuscript in the journal, which are passed on to readers, most often electronically.


Business model

Successful publishers create value for both readers and authors. Readers are given the latest information timely and reliably. In addition, readers trust that papers in Elsevier’s journals are not only relevant, but also credible and highly informative.

To authors, publishing in an Elsevier journal is a stamp of approval on authors’ research findings. More importantly, authors can have the confidence that their findings will be widely disseminated, so more peers can learn and build on their study.

Elsevier captures value by charging for the publishing process. Traditionally, the readers, often libraries at universities and research institutes, pay a fixed fee to gain access to a large bundle of Elsevier journals for all of their members. Sometimes, small institutes choose to purchase a select pool of journals.


Operating model

Elsevier delivers these values by selecting, processing, enriching, publishing, and promoting the most relevant and impact research findings.

In order to select the right content, Elsevier organizes peer review processes for each individual journals. Since successful journals receive a great number of submissions, editors recruit reviewers to help with the peer review process, and Elsevier provides useful tools to facilitate the process.

While basic content processing (e.g., formatting and editing) is not difficult, Elsevier also enrich the content by providing illustration (often for medical journals), language polishing (often for international submissions), and standardization (conversion to EPUB 3.0 format to allow universal access). In addition, Elsevier constantly strives to make papers more dynamic by adding charts, data-sets, sources, related articles (screenshot of Elsevier’s Article of the Future format below).

Then Elsevier publishes the content on sciencedirect.com, which was launched in 1997 and now hosts 2,500 journals, 26,000 book titles, with 13 million articles. Elsevier offers physical distribution in developing worlds, but it contributes to less than 5% of revenues. Lastly, Elsevier commits to preserve its publications for perpetuity, saving copies in national libraries in case of its bankruptcy. Rumor goes that Elsevier also stores print copies of all of its publications in a cave in case an electromagnetic pulse attack destroys the internet.

Lastly, Elsevier promotes its content through indexing, search engine optimization, social media, and an effective sales force that promotes its journals.


Time for change?

However, the century-old business model is called into question as scholars are increasingly dissatisfied with rising costs of academic publications. In January 2012, mathematician Timothy Gowers called for a boycott on submitting to or reviewing for Elsevier.

Critics find Elsevier’s 36% operating margin unappetizing in the academic world. The open access movement argues that scientific research, often sponsored by federal grants, should be made freely available to everyone. Elsevier adapted by changing its business model from reader-pay to author-pay. After the submissions are accepted and authors pay for the publishing process (often using part of their research grants), their papers are freely accessible by all. To date, Elsevier has launched 100 open-access journals and offered open-access option to 1,600 of its journals.

However, the change in Elsevier’s business model has a profound impact on its operating model. Under the reader-pay model, Elsevier maximizes its revenues by building the most reputable journals with the highest-quality content. That often means rejecting majority of submissions. Under the author-pay model, Elsevier can maximize its revenues by publishing as many submissions as possible. Does that mean Elsevier should accept all papers going forward, regardless of its quality?





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Student comments on Elsevier: empowering knowledge or “enemy of science”

  1. That’s fascinating. How easily do you think mindsets will be able to change gears, especially in a world like academiae?

    1. Reputation is critical in the academic world, and it takes a long time to change people’s mindset. Customer discontent, or even animosity in some instances, dated back in early 2000s when Elsevier significantly raised its pricing. Since we are in an almost “monopoly” business, customers felt kidnapped and betrayed. Even though Elsevier reversed its pricing strategy later, the bad taste in our customers’ mouths did not go away, and the 2012 boycott was partly a consequence of that. It will take decades for Elsevier to rebuild its brand as a collaborative partner for researchers, and we are just in the very beginning of the journey.

  2. Really interesting Yifeng! I can totally see why so many in the academic community were opposed to Elsevier, but the new author-pay model does seem to provide incentive for publishing lower quality papers. I wonder if there is a way to maintain the reputation of prestigious journals without a reader-pay model.

  3. Great post… very close to an old academic’s heart. The position this organization occupies in the center of the academic community is unbelievable. At the same time the world is changing super fast… I can’t see the model lasting much longer.

  4. Great post, Yifeng! I would worry, though, that the author-pay model is unlikely to survive long, either: you can argue that an author (and his/her organization) have already put the effort into writing a paper, so why would they be required to pay for publishing? Especially with opportunities to post research results on the internet, which already happens (authors’ websites, institutions’ websites, etc.) and where even reputable but free places to publish exist (think arXiv for computer science). I would fear Elsevier might easily get disrupted if it does not reinvent itself again, maybe with some donations-based model? But if it does, it might not be able to afford e.g. content processing.

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