Elsevier: now the world’s largest open access publisher

Elsevier: the world’s largest open access publisher as of May 2016

** draft ** by Heather Morrison


Elsevier is now the world’s largest open access publisher as measured by the number of fully open access journals published. Elsevier has 511 fully open access journals. De Gruyter is second with 435, Hindawi third with 405. These figures are based on data from the publishers’ own websites. 315 of the 511 journals (63%) have an APC of 0 and indicate “fee not payable by author”. Sampling of the open access journals indicates that a very large percentage (90%) of the fully open access journals are sponsored by actively involved societies and institutions with most owning copyright. I argue that society copyright ownership is not a bad thing; the alternative may not be vision of pure OA but rather Elsevier copyright.

In addition, 2,149 Elsevier journals have hybrid options at 2,149 journals. There is a marked difference in pricing patterns between hybrid and open access journals. Fully open access journals are clustered at the low end of the $0 – $5,000 USD price range while hybrids’ pricing is skewed toward the higher end.

A sampling of 50 journals from the full list of Elsevier journals found that 70% feature a “supports open access” button on the about the journal page; 38% have indications of society involvement, but clear indication of society copyright ownership is much less common. There is very limited historical information provided about Elsevier journals on the freely available website, making it difficult to assess past society or institutional involvement for a large percentage of journals.

Finally, an analysis is presented of the potential for Elsevier to achieve a full flip to open access APC while retaining current revenue. Reasonably realistic estimates range from a low of $5,000 USD to a high of over $11,000 USD to cover the 2015 Elsevier annual revenue of $3 billion USD from STM and enjoy the current 37% profit rate. These rates are not realistic. Libraries and those wishing to further the transition to open access should anticipate that Elsevier will seek to continue to receive subscriptions revenue, even with broad-based support for APCs, for a long time to come.

For full details see the draft in PDF:

Elsevier and open access publishing May 2016

Data from the study of 50 Elsevier journals can be downloaded from the dataverse.

8 thoughts on “Elsevier: now the world’s largest open access publisher

  1. Surprising…. And how about the licenses used by these Elsevier journals? Are they truly OA: CC, BOAI-compliant? or is it just another custom license that tries to fake OA? … And is this the same license for all journals, or a mix?

  2. Elsevier explains their open access license options here, and notes that there are variations by journal: https://www.elsevier.com/about/company-information/policies/open-access-licenses

    The basic model is copyright transfer with Creative Commons licenses defining user rights and often with additional rights granted back to the user. Which CC licenses are offered and which additional rights are granted (or not) varies by the journal.

    I recommend that authors and libraries take full advantage of user rights to archive works whether they are published open or toll access. Elsevier does note on their website that CC licenses are non-revocable once granted. This is accurate, but there is nothing in the CC licenses per se requiring the copyright owner to make a CC licensed version of a work openly accessible on a perpetual basis. If libraries and archives are doing this work, I recommend retaining proof of evidence of CC licensing at the time of capture of articles. Web-based information can easily disappear.

    This approach is not BOAI-compliant, but OA purists might wish to note that I do not support a rigid adherence to the technical definition of BOAI. The vision statement -OA as the potential for an unprecedented public good – is what I retain. It appears that a large number of societies are signing up for open access with traditional publishers. I think we should be asking ourselves whether a purist approach to OA is a factor driving this development. I can think of publishing services that might be far more attractive to society and institutional publishers, and much less expensive for funders to support, that may be missing out on OA growth by failing to provide approaches to licensing that people want.

  3. Thanks Heather, very interesting study. Elsevier has increased their portfolio of OA journals very quickly. In August 2013 they had 46 OA journals which increased to 72 by December that year. Many at that time had very few or no articles.

    Just an FYI. When I looked at their OA journals a few years ago, the ones with low APC’s ~ 500 USD were medical journals that published case reports which are short standardized descriptions of interesting or rare patient cases which is why I assume they could keep the APC so low.

    I look forward to reading your draft manuscript.

  4. But, according to DOAJ, Elsevier is not the largest OA, only the 5th (153 journals) while Hindawi is first (537). Also, a search in Ulrich’s (Status:(“Active”) Serial Type:(“Journal”) Content Type:(“Academic / Scholarly”) Key Feature:(+”Open Access”) [+edition type: primary] retrieves 7,263 journals, of which also Hindawi is first (576 journals) and Elsevier does no even appear.

    • This is covered in the draft, Miguel. Neither Hindawi nor Elsevier’s own lists of journals match the numbers in DOAJ. Hindawi has 405 journals listed on their website. According to DOAJ, they have retained some of the “extra” Hindawi journals as they are developing a means of tracking journal continuations. For example, Hindawi in the past had a large series of journals (over 100) that started with the title “ISRN”; some time ago (before March 2014) these were collapsed into one title. This in itself is sufficient to explain most if not all of the difference in titles. The 511 titles for Elsevier is from the Elsevier APC price list, limited to journals Elsevier designates as “open access”, i.e. does not include hybrids. In recent years there has been a great deal of change (and growth) in open access. Since my research involves tracking OA APCs I am very aware that the differences in titles lists between DOAJ and publishers’ own websites are very common. This likely is due to the DOAJ criteria (new journals will not yet meet the DOAJ criteria for content), queuing and time needed for vetting at DOAJ. It is also possible that there are delays in journals’ own reporting to DOAJ.

  5. I see… Yes, DOAJ takes time to update records and sometimes publishers do not do their work. But I assume that Elsevier should be interested in having its records updated in DOAJ. Let’s see what happens in the mid-term future. Thanks for your answer, your research is very interesting.

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