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Are personalization and privacy mutually exclusive?

How we work to improve your research experience while maintaining your privacy

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Balancing act: as websites aim to provide a more personalized experience, they should also offer users choice about how their personal data is used. (http://www.istock.com/1Raymond)

Editor’s note: This month, we are exploring the theme of “data and efficiency in science and medicine.” At Elsevier, we use technology to make your research more efficient – which requires a delicate balancing act. IJsbrand Jan Aalbersberg, SVP of Research Integrity at Elsevier, explains.


Websites can track and store your activity and link it to you through other data collected, such as from registration forms you have filled out. If you are not OK with that, you should be able to choose to switch off related settings. Then you would probably get only limited personalization – like no prefill support, search history or localized recommendations. However, you may think the tracking is fine because you find the added value they offer worthwhile.

When it comes to websites companies need to find a balance between collecting enough data to create an effective, personalized experience and prioritizing customer privacy. Though this holds for all companies that operate websites, it is especially important for technology and information analytics providers like Elsevier.

For example, let’s take a look at Elsevier’s Research Products group, which develops applications such as ScienceDirect, Mendeley, SSRN, Scopus and more. By collecting activity data when you use one of these products, we can help you making your research process more efficient. When we know what articles you read and download, we can recommend the most relevant funding opportunities, potential collaborators, job opportunities and conferences. When we know which preprints or articles you have marked, cited or highlighted, we can send you notifications if those articles get amended, updated, published or corrected.

However, because we value data privacy when we optimize workflow efficiency, we want to ensure that our users can trust that their personal data is used minimally, stored securely, and deleted when no longer necessary. In this context, we also have to ensure that we will comply with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), a new legislation from the European Union (EU) that will strengthen and unify data protection for all individuals in the EU.

How do we tackle this at Elsevier? We ensure that any personal data we store also remains secure in our possession. To that end, access to relevant data is limited to only those who need it, passwords are always stored in an encrypted format, and all our products are being migrated to secure transmission through HTTPS. Security controls are reviewed and tested on a regular basis to reflect the latest external threats.

We train our staff on the key concepts of data privacy. For example, on the definition of personal data, which is information that could be linked to or reveal the identity of an individual (possibly in combination with other information). This includes any data that is associated to personal data, such as activity that can be linked to an account.

We aim to follow the principles of data minimization and “privacy-by-design.” When we need to collect personal data, we ask ourselves: Do we really need to store it? Our product managers and technology staff are jointly responsible for ensuring that any data we cannot put to use or are not legally obligated to keep is not kept. They are also responsible for properly deleting personal data that was once deemed necessary but not anymore.

For the personal data we do track and store, we offer users control over how it may be used: for instance a user might want Elsevier to retain usage data to offer access to search history but not to send article recommendations.

The key factor in determining whether to collect and use personal data is whether we can use that data to create value for you. For example, when we know which articles you’ve read, we make recommendations of where you should publish. By knowing which journals you’ve published with, we advise you of funding opportunities for your next research project.

Ultimately, we want to provide our users with data-derived added value. We can and do build products that save time and money and deliver better outcomes through a personalized, connected experience all while we treat your privacy with diligent respect.

Read more about Elsevier’s privacy principles.

Data and efficiency in science and health

Empowering Unfamiliar Knowledge – Data and efficiency in science and healthAs an information analytics provider, Elsevier uses technology to personalize your research experience, all the while balancing this goal with your right to privacy. Here, data efficiency takes the form of a delicate balancing act. Ultimately, progress in technology comes down to giving our users a choice.

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