Old school vs. new school as academic publishers brawl over Web

A startup hip to the ways of the Web and a publishing rival from pre-Net days are trying to teach each other a lesson. It's a tussle involving research papers and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

Academia.edu has a very different approach to publishing research journals than rival Elsevier.
Academia.edu has a very different approach to publishing research journals than rival Elsevier. Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

The competition for prominence in academic publishing heated up this week as a traditional company, Elsevier, tangled with a Digital Era rival, Academia.edu.

Academia.edu publishes research papers for free online after researchers upload them. On Friday, the company took down some papers after receiving Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedown notices from Elsevier, which often charges for access to the articles.

"Academia.edu is committed to enabling the transition to a world where there is open access to academic literature. Elsevier takes a different view, and is currently upping the ante in its opposition to academics sharing their own papers online," Academia.edu told one researcher, Guy Leonard, whose paper came down and who wasn't alone in dealing with a takedown.

Elsevier responded in a statement that there are benefits to using its services as well as ways authors can share, even if not necessarily as liberally as Academia.edu and some of those paper authors would like:

Why do we send takedown notices? One key reason is to ensure that the final published version of an article is readily discoverable and citable via the journal itself in order to maximize the usage metrics and credit for our authors, and to protect the quality and integrity of the scientific record. The formal publications on our platforms also give researchers better tools and links, for example to data....

Academia.edu made final versions of articles publicly available. We've reached out to them to ensure they were aware of our policies and to explore user-friendly options for alignment, but unfortunately they were unwilling to engage with us.

On the contrary, Academia.edu is being adversarial, pointing researchers in its notice to a survey complaining of Elsevier's publishing practices that more than 14,000 people so far have signed.

Elsevier offers some open access options for research paper publishing. One is green open access, which lets authors post a draft (not final) version of their papers on their own Web sites for free; the other is gold open access, in which a journal openly publishes the paper for a fee of between $500 and $5,000.

In an era when publishing is as simple as producing a PDF and uploading it to a site, some researchers bridle at the restrictions. "It's another horrible example of how organizations that call themselves 'publishers' do the exact opposite of publishing," University of Briston paleontologist Mike Taylor said in a blog post.

Publishers are free to do what they want with "preprint" versions of their articles -- the versions that haven't gone through the traditional publishing process. Many such preprints are at Academia.edu and Cornell University's Arxiv, which has been running since the 1990s.

Academia is building a business with Facebook-age social connection tools for researchers ; later, it plans to sell analytics services to companies that want to track research trends.

Research journals typically use "peer review," in which researchers' papers must pass the scrutiny of colleagues in the field before being published. Academia.edu Chief Executive Richard Price downplayed the benefits of peer review earlier this year, arguing that people should focus on a researcher's influence and reputation. However, in October announced it had acquired online peer review site Plasmyd .

Elsevier is interested in tracking author influence, too, testing use of the Altmetric system, which measures things like references on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Reddit, and news sites.

Researcher Guy Leonard posted this copy of a notice from Academia.edu saying it had removed some of his papers from its site after publisher Elsevier issued DMCA takedown notices.
Researcher Guy Leonard posted this copy of a notice from Academia.edu saying it had removed some of his papers from its site after publisher Elsevier issued DMCA takedown notices. Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET
About the author

Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and covers browsers, Web development, digital photography and new technology. In the past he has been CNET's beat reporter for Google, Yahoo, Linux, open-source software, servers and supercomputers. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces.

 

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