|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
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
"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
"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
"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 firstname.lastname@example.org.