Terra Sigillata

My apologies to readers who have been looking for novel content the last few days. I am swamped with all variety of personal and professional issues but when I finally had a moment to write about something of value, I needed a copy of a short review article from a European cancer journal published by Elsevier to which my institution does not subscribe. I patiently went through their process to register for their site, told them who I was, where I worked, what subdiscipline, etc.

So, I logged in clicked on the PDF link for this two-page article and was told it would be $31.50, thank-you-very-much.

A 13-year-old article. By a deceased scientist. Two pages.

As institutions continue to cut budgets for their medical and scientific libraries, the costs of journal subscriptions are falling to individual scientists, many of whom get journals through membership in their scientific societies (membership fees that are now only rarely covered by departments). And don’t even get me started on my domestic and international colleagues who are at institutions with little or no journal access.

So, big publishing houses: how ’bout helping a brother out?

Five bucks, maybe?

Free for articles more than 10 years old?

And if someone can’t get my 13-year-old work for free, rest assured that I will not be submitting my work to your journals.

Oh, but thanks for the impetus to write a post.



  1. #1 Greg Laden
    June 18, 2009

    Unbelievable. Except I believe it because this is how the system works, and it totally sucks.

  2. #2 nemski
    June 18, 2009

    Alternate question: Why do I have to pay for articles when research is funded by my state or federal governments?

  3. #3 Bob O'H
    June 18, 2009

    I thought we all knew that Elsevier are evil.

  4. #4 Andy
    June 18, 2009

    The thing I find tougher to believe is that someone, somewhere must be regularly paying $31.50 for some articles. Because they seriously can’t be making that much off of 10 year old articles from journals like Cretaceous Research.

  5. #5 D. C. Sessions
    June 18, 2009

    The way my Congresscritters explain it:

    If Elsevier didn’t have absolute control over those old papers, scientific research would dry up overnight.

  6. #6 Jim
    June 18, 2009

    For a journal of old there were expenses in turning text into camera ready copy then taking that and generating plates and making a tangible object. Now, a PDF is submitted and the journal is essentially a server. A PDF for a paper is roughly the same size as a music file. If Apple can make a business out of a 99 cent download why can’t the obsolete journal publishers do it? The answer is Greed and Stupidity. Ok, two answers. Moving to open journals and public access archives are the only leverage the community has over the publishers.

  7. #7 Eric Lund
    June 18, 2009

    They’re charging $15.75 per page to ship a bunch of electrons in your general direction?! Highway robbery.

    DCS: You need to get some new Congresscritters. Most politicians aren’t that dumb.

  8. #8 Janne
    June 18, 2009

    The major problem isn’t the $31.50 (overpriced as it is). It’s that ordering a paper makes life complicated for several people – I need to get an OK from my department, relay this to the secretary who spends a while shuffling silly small sums of money between accounts so she can use the department credit card to pay. Then, when it shows up a week or two later I have as likely as not found another paper with the info I needed and forgotten why I wanted this thing in the first place.

    As a result, I very rarely ever buy papers any more. If you’ve published a paper that ends up behind a paywall like this then tough luck, but there’s not going to be any citations on it from me.

    And yes, Elsevier can’t kick the bucket fast enough.

  9. #9 Catharine
    June 18, 2009

    OA is the ONLY way to go.

  10. #10 Sigmund
    June 18, 2009

    Whats the problem?
    They own the copyright and can charge whatever they want for it. The fact that the article is 13 years old or that the author is deceased makes not the slightest difference (does anyone think the major publishing houses give away for free the novels of in demand authors when they are a decade an a half old or whose authors have died?)

  11. #11 DLC
    June 18, 2009

    Often your local library can get scans or photocopies of articles via interlibrary loan at little or no cost to you.

  12. #12 the olive ridley crawl
    June 18, 2009

    @sigmund: I don’t think Terra Sig was complaining about the legality, but about the sheer insanity and stupidity of the system. Laws can be written to confer ownership of anything, the United states congress can, tomorrow, if it chose, make Mars its 51st state. That doesn’t make it above reproach or criticism, or even right.

    Anyway, Elsevier = S(h)eer Evil!

  13. #13 Dr H
    June 18, 2009

    I’m a (non-science) academic with a body of published work. On my personal website I have my publications listed, and a small announcement saying I will send PDFs of my own articles to those who need them for serious scholarly purposes and are having difficulty finding them. Every month I get two or three enquiries, and e-mail the PDFs over in response. I suggest other academics do the same.

  14. #14 JYB
    June 18, 2009

    I’m not an academic, just a lowly 8th grade science teacher. However I try to stay up on science and general education research. I can’t profit from it in any way, I’m just trying to be a better teacher. It makes me so frustrated when I can’t do that because I don’t want to get nickel and dimed to death. It’s insane that teachers can’t get access to research that’s directly aimed at them. I used to blame many older teachers on their lack of growth (sometimes, it’s still their fault) but now I realize that it’s nearly impossible to get access to new research after you’ve left the credential program.

    Fortunately, 4 times out of 5 emailing the author directly has worked. I’ve even had some pretty good email conversations with some noted ed. researchers so I’m very appreciative of that.

  15. #15 Ulrich D.
    June 18, 2009

    Nice idea, Dr. H. If only the deceased scientist did that, Abel wouldn’t have his problem!

  16. #16 Pascale
    June 18, 2009

    I’m torn on this issue. I recognize the expenses involved in peer review and the publication process. I am always amazed at the amount of editing that goes into a pretty clean article written in standard English. Controlling copyright for 6 months allows journals to recoup these costs. And even with all electronic, OA journals there will be costs… or the product will, at times, be unreadable crap.
    Most journals that I encounter make their content free 6-12 months after publication. Elsevier should follow suit. It might help do some damage control for recent degrading stunts.

  17. #17 Jill
    June 18, 2009

    Just a bit of a reality check here. In publishing, there is a flat price for all articles transmitted in that way, whether two pages or fifty pages. While I might agree that the $31.50 is on the high side, it’s useful to remember that costs get covered by institutions through a variety of book-keeping practices. As to inter-library-loan, which clearly people still think is “free”, the last survey some years ago from the Association of Research Libraries indicated (I believe) that average cost of an ILL transaction ranges around $32.48. The only difference between Elsevier and your local research library is that the library is permitted to allocate subsidized costs of borrowing to other (perhaps hidden)university accounts. That $32 figure gets split between the lending and the borrowing institution, which is why it is rarely seen by the requesting party.

  18. #18 Abel Pharmboy
    June 18, 2009

    @Pascale: Yes, I’m totally down with the 12 month restriction; that’s the policy of my society journals and I recognize the economic realities of publishing. And I’ll even relinquish my position on older articles – I absolutely love that many journals are now making their offerings available back to the early 1900s.

    But $31.50? Why not five bucks? I’ll give up five bucks seven times long before I’ll give up $31.50.

    And many, many thanks to all of you who’ve offered, unsolicited, to share the article with me as a colleague.

    @Jill: Very interesting to see that $32.48 figure from ARL. btw, ILL is not free for us in our state univ system but you’re right, we don’t personally pay the full cost. Not sure how much Elsevier gets for our ILL, but I’ll pay them five bucks directly.

    Have I said that I think five bucks is a fair price?

  19. #19 D. C. Sessions
    June 18, 2009

    Once upon a time standards organizations contracted out publication of industry standards (often to Global Engineering) and got a (very) modest amount for each copy sold. Over the last 20-some years, some of them decided that the pennies they received per copy (out of tens-to-hundreds of dollars) didn’t justify the reduced availability to their industry. Others instead chose to go to paid distribution of electronic copies; there seems to be a healthy degree of experimentation going on.

    Even to get where we are now, and even given the substantially different economics of the two publication domains, the change has been slow.

    Steps like Harvard and MIT are taking to tip the scales in favor of OA aren’t going to change things overnight, and of course the publishers are looking at major benefits from e.g. lobbying Congress to hand them goodies such as blocking OA mandates.

    If I had to guess, I’d say that it’ll be at least another decade and more likely two before Google will be allowed to offer downloadable copies of papers from the 1950s.

  20. #20 derek
    June 18, 2009

    That’s why they call it intellectual *property*. The idea of property is to be a) alienable from its original creator, and b) rentable by its new corporate owner to prospective users.

    I’m a big fan of copyright for creators, but I’m coming to wonder if it ought to be an *inalienable* right, one that the creator is legally incapable of signing away.

    Sure, it might be that corporations would never deal with a creator who could not sign a contract guaranteeing never to withdraw permission to publish on his behalf, thus losing the creator some income. But it’s not obvious to me that that’s an inevitable net loss, compared to the number of people who are permanently bilked of their work under the current “IP” concept.

  21. #21 Scott The Librarian
    June 18, 2009

    As the original post and many of the comments indicate, you are outraged about the costs of information, in this particular case a journal article. Welcome to my world!

    While I agree with the comments of those who assert the importance of intellectual property rights, I also submit that the current situation is out-of-balance in favor of the publishers in the scholarly information cycle, and that individual researchers and the general public are getting the raw end of the deal. Libraries barely even factor in this debate; though, if you are concerned about long-term access to information, you should be a strong advocate for healthy libraries.

    If you are truly interested in taking constructive action in this regard, find out if a “Scholarly Communication” committee is operating on your campus. Become involved in the process. Find out if your professional societies are talking about this issue; if not, bring it up at a meeting. Publishers may ignore issues when raised by librarians, but when faculty and administration also get behind efforts to change the current system, good things will start happening.

  22. #22 perceval
    June 18, 2009

    or you could cultivate a network of friends in places with good e-journal subscriptions 😉

  23. #23 Joe
    June 18, 2009

    I may be able to get it for you (free), but I need the citation. Your link only goes to the journal.

  24. #24 viking
    June 18, 2009

    I couldn’t agree more. I am living and working in a remote area, the dept. I work for has only a couple journal subscriptions, trying to keep up to date on research that has real implications for my job is absolutely impossible from a financial perspective.

  25. #25 JMG
    June 18, 2009

    Frustration and inefficiency.

    Brought to you by: Intellectual Property Rights(TM)

  26. #26 Martin
    June 19, 2009

    This is disruptiv to the science of systematic reviews: screening tens to hundreds of full publications is just impossible when you have to “pay by view” like this. Science is held hostage – libraries should thus be forced to buy expensive packages of online content.

  27. #27 Alexandra
    June 19, 2009

    well said! information should be free!

  28. #28 Heraclides
    June 20, 2009

    Sounds like a simple case of pricing themselves out of their own market.

    I’m an independent scientist, mostly working as a consultant. I’m forced to get most articles via the local university because of this sort of thing.

  29. #29 Björn Brembs
    June 25, 2009

    And you do realize Elsevier made a record profit last year? over 700m EUR. Slide 29 here
    From Reed Elsevier’s annual report…

  30. #30 Björn Brembs
    June 25, 2009

    Oh, and in case you’ve been too busy to see what other bruhahas Elsevier has been producing the last three months:

  31. #31 would rather not
    June 25, 2009

    What you may have forgotten or perhaps never knew is that your dead author (or his institution) had to pay page charges to get that article published in the first place. Then his institution had to pay very big bucks to subscribe to the journal. They are probably still paying to have access to information they paid for 15 years ago.

    The entire system is screwed and your academic and corporate librarians have know this and been complaining about it for decades. But as “not the end user” no publisher would listen. Glad to see the scientific folk finally getting to the party.

New comments have been disabled.