Elsevier chats: Double dipping and other bad manners

Gino Ussi, Managing Director of Research Solution Sales, talks about open access and pricing at Elsevier

By Chrysanne Lowe - December 11, 2019 7 mins
Gino Ussi 2019
Gino Ussi, Managing Director of Research Solution Sales at Elsevier, talks with a colleague in his office in Amsterdam.

In the third of our Elsevier Chats series, Chrysanne Lowe, VP Strategic Communications & Brand, interviews Gino Ussi, Managing Director of Research Solution Sales at Elsevier, on the topic of double dipping.

Gino, a cardinal rule of party chip etiquette is No Double Dipping; but Elsevier is being accused of this sin. What’s going on?

So, let me first say that in the heat of negotiations, and sometimes amplified by media, there’s a tendency to attack the character of your opponent. But let me say emphatically that Elsevier does not double dip.

Ok, ok. We should step back a moment. What is double dipping in the context of our industry?

So in this context, double dipping is when an article is published open access – that is, an author’s fee has been paid for it to be read for free around the world – but the publisher then charges other users to read that article through a subscription. Now, if that were truly the case, the publisher would be paid twice for the same article.

Bad manners indeed!

Yes, but at Elsevier, we do not double dip. We have two models of compensation for an article: through an open access fee or through a subscription – but we are never paid for the same article twice.

But how do you ensure that? How is that managed?

This is managed through our business accounting. Fully gold open access journals, for example, have no subscription price, and therefore no pricing for those journals is included in any licensing contract. Customers are never charged a subscription fee for gold open access journals.

Ok, that makes sense. But what about hybrid journals that publish both gold open access as well as subscription articles?

Yes, I see how this could be confusing. We manage this by maintaining separate accounting streams. If an author selects to publish open access, the article publishing fee is collected and that article is published as open. Done. Those revenues are kept separate from the revenues of the subscription articles. So when pricing for each subscription journal is determined, revenue from the open access articles does not play into that evaluation. We maintain separate accounting and evaluation processes.

And while I’m at it, how do mirror journals play into this?

To aid clarity, we’ve been piloting mirror journals, where one title has two entities: a subscription journal and a fully gold open access journal. This makes it even more transparent that each model of publication has it’s own revenue stream. We’re testing this to see if it helps encourage open access publishing while maintaining transparency and clarity of which model the articles fall under, based on what the author chooses.

So why then are some saying that Elsevier double dips?

I think this comes from an assumption that open access articles directly replace the number of subscription articles being published. If that were the case, subscription prices should fall and you’d see a shift in the volume of articles from subscriptions to open access.

Elsevier has reported that its volume of gold open access articles is growing rapidly. So why aren’t we seeing a fall in subscription pricing?  

Well that is the thing: while our gold open access article publishing increased 26 percent in 2018, by 7,000 articles to 34,000, our subscription article publishing also grew substantially, by 8 percent:  33,000 more articles to 436,000  .

So overall volume in both subscription content and open access content grew?

Yes. This illustrates that even though the volume of articles published gold open access continues to grow, the volume of that growth is eclipsed by the number of new articles published under the subscription model. Last year, 85 percent of authors still chose to publish their article under a subscription model. Because the volume of subscription articles are growing, our open access articles aren’t replacing those articles, and so in aggregate, our subscription prices are not falling. I might mention that on a title-by-title level, some journals are seeing their subscription prices fall.

Some people use the term “double dipping” to express resentment that Elsevier is conducting business under two models – open access as well as subscription content – and that achieving  revenue from both business models is in itself “double dipping.”

Ah, I see what you’re saying, but I’d question that definition. Offering two distinct models of publication does reflect the desire of authors to make different choices about how they wish to publish, but we never charge twice for the same thing. We are in a transition period: a mixed business model world. I’m hard pressed to define offering options as double dipping.

But some institutions that once paid only for subscriptions are now also paying to publish, which is an additional cost.  

These institutions, and mind you not every institution can do this yet, are taking a bold stance to not wait for individual authors choose to publish open access article by article. While we all agree on the beauty of the vision of freely-accessible, immediately-available research content, researchers themselves have yet to universally adopt this vision. So we are seeing elite institutions choosing to take the great step and expense upon themselves to proactively transition their author base to OA publishing. It’s admirable but by no means simple.

For those institutions with high research output, this transition is particularly challenging because they rely on subscription content but also will shoulder a high volume of article publication costs?

True, and we understand this causes challenges for institutions who want to both subscribe and support open access publication for their authors. That is why we are working very closely with our customers to understand their specific needs and context and find innovative solutions to support their objectives in a way that reflects fair value for both sides. For example, with California Digital Library, while we have been clear that we cannot shoulder all of the costs of a transition, we are certainly willing to help that transition for them, as we have done successfully in agreements with several other countries this year.

And Elsevier has concluded successful open access publishing and subscription agreements with other clients?

Yes, in Norway, Hungary, Poland and recently in Sweden, France and an institution in the United States. Each one is different because each customer’s circumstances are different, but we’re working with them to meet their objectives. I should emphasize that we are saddened by the impasse in California and remain ready to collaborate with CDL. The University of California is one of the most important research institutions in the world, and last year we were seeing over a million downloads a month from them on our servers.

That’s a pretty big exchange.

Yes, there is a great value exchange between us. So, despite the setback these recent months, we want to get back to providing that value to the hundreds of thousands of researchers and students that rely on instant access to Elsevier journals to support their great work. Supporting the enterprise of research and health is why I and my 7,000 colleagues come to work every day.

EC: These are not simplistic challenges. Thanks for sharing your thinking on this, Gino.

You’re very welcome.


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Elsevier Chats

Throughout Elsevier, we share the research community’s belief in what science can achieve. This is a series of informal chats with people at Elsevier, sharing their work-in-progress thinking on the pressing topics of today and the future.

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Written by

Chrysanne Lowe

Written by

Chrysanne Lowe

Chrysanne Lowe is VP of Strategic Communications and Brand at Elsevier. She has spent her career managing and communicating change in the industry. She played a hands-on role in the transformation of traditional third-party-print sales to direct institutional digital licensing for Academic Press in the 1990s. At Elsevier, she’s served on senior leadership teams in the Sales, Marketing and Product organizations. Today she is the steward of the Elsevier brand in corporate communications.

Chrysanne graduated cum laude in Communications from University of California, San Diego, and has spoken at numerous industry trade conferences on the topics of brand and industry transformation, including the Integrated Marketing Forum (IMF), The Conference Board Brand Conference, AcademyHealth, Medical Library Association, and the American Library Association; and contributed on gender and workplace to Leanin.org and Linkedin.

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