Elsevier, founded in the Netherlands in 1880, is the world’s largest scientific, technical, and medical (STM) publisher with over 2,500 journals, $3.32 billion in revenues, and 28.2% share of the global STM publishing market. However, as public anger forces Elsevier to change its business model, its century-old operating model is threatened.
How academic publishing works
Four parties are involved in the academic publishing process: 1) publishers, e.g., Elsevier employees that manage journals’ publication process; 2) editors, prominent university professors that manage journals’ editorial process; 3) authors, researchers who publish on Elsevier journals; and 4) readers, researchers who read Elsevier journals to follow the latest development. There is often a large overlap among readers, authors, and editors.
The process starts with an author submitting a manuscript to an editor, who decides whether to accept the submission. Such a decision-making process, a.k.a. peer review, requires significant expertise and time. If the editor accepts the manuscript, the publisher will process, enhance, and publish the manuscript in the journal, which are passed on to readers, most often electronically.
Successful publishers create value for both readers and authors. Readers are given the latest information timely and reliably. In addition, readers trust that papers in Elsevier’s journals are not only relevant, but also credible and highly informative.
To authors, publishing in an Elsevier journal is a stamp of approval on authors’ research findings. More importantly, authors can have the confidence that their findings will be widely disseminated, so more peers can learn and build on their study.
Elsevier captures value by charging for the publishing process. Traditionally, the readers, often libraries at universities and research institutes, pay a fixed fee to gain access to a large bundle of Elsevier journals for all of their members. Sometimes, small institutes choose to purchase a select pool of journals.
Elsevier delivers these values by selecting, processing, enriching, publishing, and promoting the most relevant and impact research findings.
In order to select the right content, Elsevier organizes peer review processes for each individual journals. Since successful journals receive a great number of submissions, editors recruit reviewers to help with the peer review process, and Elsevier provides useful tools to facilitate the process.
While basic content processing (e.g., formatting and editing) is not difficult, Elsevier also enrich the content by providing illustration (often for medical journals), language polishing (often for international submissions), and standardization (conversion to EPUB 3.0 format to allow universal access). In addition, Elsevier constantly strives to make papers more dynamic by adding charts, data-sets, sources, related articles (screenshot of Elsevier’s Article of the Future format below).
Then Elsevier publishes the content on sciencedirect.com, which was launched in 1997 and now hosts 2,500 journals, 26,000 book titles, with 13 million articles. Elsevier offers physical distribution in developing worlds, but it contributes to less than 5% of revenues. Lastly, Elsevier commits to preserve its publications for perpetuity, saving copies in national libraries in case of its bankruptcy. Rumor goes that Elsevier also stores print copies of all of its publications in a cave in case an electromagnetic pulse attack destroys the internet.
Lastly, Elsevier promotes its content through indexing, search engine optimization, social media, and an effective sales force that promotes its journals.
Time for change?
However, the century-old business model is called into question as scholars are increasingly dissatisfied with rising costs of academic publications. In January 2012, mathematician Timothy Gowers called for a boycott on submitting to or reviewing for Elsevier.
Critics find Elsevier’s 36% operating margin unappetizing in the academic world. The open access movement argues that scientific research, often sponsored by federal grants, should be made freely available to everyone. Elsevier adapted by changing its business model from reader-pay to author-pay. After the submissions are accepted and authors pay for the publishing process (often using part of their research grants), their papers are freely accessible by all. To date, Elsevier has launched 100 open-access journals and offered open-access option to 1,600 of its journals.
However, the change in Elsevier’s business model has a profound impact on its operating model. Under the reader-pay model, Elsevier maximizes its revenues by building the most reputable journals with the highest-quality content. That often means rejecting majority of submissions. Under the author-pay model, Elsevier can maximize its revenues by publishing as many submissions as possible. Does that mean Elsevier should accept all papers going forward, regardless of its quality?
Elsevier annual reports
Select Committee on Science and Technology Tenth Report
UPDATED — 82 Things Publishers Do (2014 Edition)
30 ways academic book publishers add value to the process of research communication.
Elsevier – Designing the Article of the Future
The Cost of Knowledge
Open Access movement