Information Today
Volume 19, Issue 2 — February 2002
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IT Interview •
Ghost in a Bottle
Elsevier Science chairman Derk Haank responds to the Public Library of Science initiative
by Dick Kaser

The ghost is out of the bottle. That's how Derk Haank describes the current situation in which the authors of scientific papers are taking an increasing interest in who publishes them.

When I met him in December in the lobby of the Lowndes Hotel near London's fashionable Knightsbridge district for this exclusive interview, the topic was left open to his discretion. Of the three possibilities I suggested—economic recession, the war on terrorism, or the Public Library of Science (PLoS), whatever is most likely to influence your business—is it any wonder Haank chose to talk about PLoS?

At the end of last year, PLoS had collected almost 29,000 names on a petition to boycott any publisher who did not make the published research papers freely and openly available 6 months after publication. In signing the petition, the authors were saying that they simply would not publish in, sit on editorial boards for, or purchase journals that did not comply with their demand for a free, openly accessible literature.

Elsevier Science is the publisher of 20 percent of the world's journal articles. As its chairman, Haank clearly needs to care about such things.

"The ghost is out of the bottle," he told me. "How will we get it back in?"

And then he surprised me by saying something else. At Elsevier, he said, "we are much closer to a PLoS initiative than anybody believes, because we are working toward the same end."

Elsevier and the Public Library of Science in the same camp? I'll let Haank explain it to you himself, in his own words.

Lamenting the Past
He began by looking back on the past—none too kindly, I might add, and with a good amount of contrition.

"When the industry developed as it developed and people could no longer subscribe to what they wanted, after a while they had to cancel valuable holdings. At first the librarian got cross with us," he said.

"It is clear that not only the librarians were unhappy with the end stage of the paper publishing game. We as publishers were equally unhappy. And researchers—the end-users—were equally unhappy because they did not get access to the material.

"It was increasingly difficult to lay your hands on a copy of a major journal. That's not right. As publishers we have been too slow to correct it.

"I mean, it is always difficult to correct these things that have been going on for many years. But for too long we said, 'Yeah, that high price increase minus attrition is a decent revenue increase.' We left it like that and we underestimated the long-term impact of lower circulation numbers ... and that's not right. I think we should have acted sooner."

Empathizing with PLoS
Haank said: "But some 4 years ago we reached the stage where I think the picture had become unacceptable. We have a system where a few big libraries fund the cost of the whole publishing process.... They pick up a high-ticket price for a single item. They buy it. And then afterwards you get a very inefficient way of distributing the information, through interlibrary loan, document delivery,legal and illegal photocopying, with lots of extra cost involved in the process. And the end result is unacceptable to the end-user, because he has to get on his bike to get to the library and wait for interlibrary loan to appear.

"The costs have increased and the end-user gets poor service, and that is the maindriver of initiatives like the Public Library of Science. It might sound strange from my mouth, but we have a lot of sympathy for it.

"I think that it is absolutely paramount that we get the distribution right again. The material has to be available for the people who need it. And when I talk about the people who need it, I am not talking about the general public, because we are talking here about scientific information, specialist information. People who want to use this and who need it are part of an institute. You don't do it as a self-proclaimed intellectual in your garden shed. You work within a university or in a pharmaceutical company. Either in a production environment or an academic environment, that's where you operate. And you expect the system to supply you with the information you need.

"The Public Library of Science is basically trying to achieve [the end result] that everyone gets access to the material. I think that is an admirable aspiration and that it is absolutely essential that we get there."

Same End, Different Means
"When confronted with this, we tried very hard to understand what is really driving them. What do they want to achieve? And then that's when we said, 'Yeah, it looks radically different, but the end result is the same.... It's very close to what we have been doing in the past 4 years.'

"What are we doing? We're migrating the old model to a new model. We are flipping the model from single subscriptions to journals to a license to the whole database. The end picture, in my opinion, is that our database will be accessible in the world to everyone who is vaguely interested....

"And we are very close, for at the moment two-thirds of our customer base has already made the migration.... In making the migration, on average, the customers have 75-percent more access to content than they had in the past. I think that is a remarkable number. Because in one go, we switched back on all the journals that had been canceled in the past. And the next step is, first of all we have to switch on the remaining third. This will take another year or a year and a half.

"Once we make that migration, I fail to see where our model differs from the PLoS end result. Because the end result is that all libraries ... have access to the whole database or the relevant parts. All the people at that institute have free access to all relevant material, which is the same as a Public Library of Science initiative. The only thing different at the end of the day is the financing: Who's going to finance it? And the fact that in our case users have immediate access, and not after a 6- or 12-month delay as in PLoS."

No Publisher an Island
I had to interrupt at this point. I know you own a lot of journals, I said. But PLoS talks about making all the medical and life sciences literature freely available. Elsevier Science can certainly control what youdo with your part of it, but will that really create the whole system that PLoS is talking about?

"You are right, we are big in a very fragmented market," said Haank. "There are more than 10,000 journals and we have something like 1,500 of them, and we publish something like 20 percent of all articles.... You can say that we only have 20 percent, how about the rest?

"I think if the 20 percent develops a certain behavior, this becomes acceptable as a standard ... like we did in the paper environment. Let's face it, that is why we got all the blame. But now, maybe, we will get some of the credit for changing and improving the system.

"What I see happening is that our competitors are roughly evolving towards the same model. It's logical, not only because we do it, but because it is playing to the real impact of electronic publishing. The real impact of electronic publishing is not that the costs come down. If anything, the costs go up ... dramatically.

"What does come down is the marginal cost of delivering the last copy. That's virtually nil. And that means, that indeed, if we can fund the whole system from the current spending of the library, we can then switch them on to a lot more content and solve this big issue and the problem that people have access to too few articles.

"The average librarian can see what we're moving toward—and they say, 'I like what I see.' But they have mobilized their constituency. And so 'the ghost is out of the bottle' as we say in Dutch. How do we get it back in?"

Giving Up the Ghost
"When this whole initiative came along we had a lengthy debate within a lot of our editorial boards. We said, 'Look, there is this movement that sounds very sympathetic, this is our reaction, this is where we are moving toward. Maybe we have not always communicated the story in full, and maybe we are realizing the story as we move on, but this is the way that we want to move. Do you think this is sound practice?'

"I must admit, I was very encouraged by the buy-in of all of these editorial board members who said: 'Yeah, this is right. If you indeed can transform a system where only a few libraries pay for a few journals to where all libraries pay something for access to everything—because that's basically what the vision is—that's probably easier to realize than starting with a whole new system that's untried and untested.'

"The only thing we can say is that the Public Library of Science initiative helped, because it makes people aware of what they want to achieve. And that can explain that what I want to achieve is not a mile different than what they want to achieve.

"I think we have a unique opportunity to not only create something completely new that's a lot better than anything we had in the past, but also to correct some of the main problems that we had with the old paper publishing system.

"But it's up to us to prove that we can create a system more quickly than they can, because we are building on the existing foundation of money flows, and that we can run it in the long term more efficiently than they can do it. So it's efficiency that we bring to the party, but it's also neutrality. Of all of the complaints you might have ever heardabout commercial publishers or society publishers, [one] is not that they do a lousy job on being neutral. Nobody would ever say that we are biased. And that is a very, very important thing.

"But I think if we can migrate [them to an electronic system] and run it efficiently, and keep running it in a neutral way, I think the need for these new initiatives will go away. In a way the whole new initiative is still a rambling-on effect from the '90s when the librarian moved the world academic community [to say], 'Oh, but we can do it ourselves, can't we?' I'm not sure. I mean ... I'm not sure....

"To give them the credit, initiatives like the PLoS in the public debate has certainly sped up our thinking and also the willingness of others to cooperate in the industry. So if they really would be in it to say, 'We do this because we want a better end product'—end product being people having a lot more access for free—then they will get it.

"If their real [objective] is that no matter who does it, we don't want commercial publishers involved, then it becomes almost religious thinking. Yeah, then they won't succeed. Then they won't be happy with my model.

"But if they give us time, within 2, 3 years, I think, we will be very close to their goal."

[Editor's Note: For more on PLoS, see Robin Peek's Focus on Publishing column on page 28.]

Dick Kaser is vice president of content at Information Today, Inc. His e-mail address is

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