Open Access News

News from the open access movement

Monday, September 10, 2007

Elsevier provides free online access to 100+ oncology journals

Milt Freudenheim, A Medical Publisher’s Unusual Prescription: Online Ads, New York Times, September 10, 2007.  Excerpt:

By some measures, the medical publishing world has met the advent of the Internet with a shrug, sticking to its time-honored revenue model of charging high subscription fees for specialized journals that often attract few, if any, advertisements.

Over the weekend, went live.

But now Reed Elsevier, which publishes more than 400 medical and scientific journals, is trying an experiment that stands this model on its head. Over the weekend it introduced a Web portal,, that gives doctors free access to the latest articles from 100 of its own pricey medical journals and that plans to sell advertisements against the content.

The new site asks oncologists to register their personal information. In exchange, it gives them immediate access to the latest cancer-related articles from Elsevier journals like The Lancet and Surgical Oncology. Prices for journals can run from hundreds to thousands of dollars a year.

Elsevier hopes to sign up 150,000 professional users within the next 12 months and to attract advertising and sponsorships, especially from pharmaceutical companies with cancer drugs to sell. The publisher also hopes to cash in on the site’s list of registered professionals, which it can sell to advertisers....

“It’s a calculated risk, a bold step into the unknown,” said Dan Penny, a senior analyst in London at Outsell, a market research firm.

Monique Fayad, an Elsevier senior vice president, said the total online advertising market was growing “in double digits” and added, “We expect it will be a $1 billion opportunity within the next two years.”

In just the last two years, the number of visits by physicians to online medical journals increased 27 percent, while readers of the printed versions declined 14 percent, according to Manhattan Research, a health care market research firm....

Although Elsevier’s medical and scientific journal business is profitable, revenue is flat and online readership is growing faster than print subscriptions....

The new Elsevier site’s target users include doctors like Dr. Peter Yi, a cancer specialist in Princeton, N.J. Like the vast majority of oncologists, Dr. Yi already logs in regularly. He searches the Internet for updates as he treats patients....Looking at OncologySTAT for the first time, Dr. Yi said he liked the features it offers, like chemotherapy regimens, conference reports, drug interactions and the ability to search by cancer type. “Having it all under one roof makes it easier,” he said.

But Dr. Leonard B. Saltz, a colon cancer expert at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer, said, “Another Web site was not what we desperately need.” He added, “I know the literature of my area often before it is published.” Beyond that, he uses the government site, PubMed, and the Google Scholar search engine to drill into research issues.

Doctors like Dr. Saltz who work at the big teaching centers have free access to most, if not all, of the journals. But oncologists away from those centers, like Dr. Yi in Princeton, see 85 percent of all cancer patients and rely on the Internet as their link to the knowledge base.

Getting the relevant answers promptly may be more important to doctors than not having to pay for them, said Elizabeth W. Boehm, a principal analyst at Forrester Research....


  • This reminds me of Elsevier's decision (June 2004) to permit postprint archiving.  (See my two-part coverage of that decision:  one, two.)  It helps researchers; coming from Elsevier, it may be unexpected and surprising; but it makes sense for the company.  Why does it make sense for Elsevier?  Two big reasons:  first, because it tests the waters for going beyond the subscription model, which is unsustainable, and second, because it will increase the audience and impact for articles published by the OncologySTAT journals, which in turn should raise their impact factors and increase submissions.  Even if OncologySTAT reduces profit margins for participating journals, Elsevier will have reasons to continue the program, and it's well-situated to do so.
  • You needn't see this as open access to see it as beneficial for researchers, physicians, and patients.  (And I still believe it's important to praise forward steps even if they stop short of full OA.)  OncologySTAT removes the price barrier for readers, which will help accelerate research, share knowledge, and improve patient care in oncology.  On the other side, the registration requirement means that access is closed to (most) machines for harvesting, indexing, and mining.  And all the content is under copyright by Elsevier or its licensors with no waivers:  "You may not copy, display, distribute, modify, publish, reproduce, store, transmit, create derivative works from, or sell or license all or any part of the Content, products or services obtained from this Site in any medium to anyone, except as otherwise expressly permitted under applicable law or as described in these Terms and Conditions or relevant license or subscriber agreement.  You may print or download Content from the Site for your own personal, non-commercial use, provided that you keep intact all copyright and other proprietary notices. You may not engage in systematic retrieval of Content from the Site...."
  • Despite its limitations, this kind of experiment is even more helpful than hybrid OA journals (which Elsevier is also trying) because every article in the participating journals is free to read, not just a small subset, and there are no author-side publication fees.  Some hybrid OA journals remove more permission barriers than OncologySTAT, but many do not and Elsevier's are in the latter category. 
  • Expect to see this model spread in medicine (to other publishers and other medical specializations), but not much beyond medicine.  Insofar as it depends on advertising, it's limited to fields where advertising can be lucrative. 
  • Advertising doesn't prevent OA and can even support it.  But some OA medical journals try to avoid it for other reasons.  See for example, James Maskalyk's editorial in the inaugural issue of Open Medicine:  "Too much of the revenue that sustains medical journals comes from pharmaceutical advertising that attempts to influence physicians into making decisions based on brand recognition rather than on discerning scholarship."  Or see the analysis by Fugh-Berman et al. (2006), which concludes, "Advertisements and other financial arrangements with pharmaceutical companies compromise the objectivity of journals."  The PLoS Medicine position is simply that "PLoS Medicine does not accept advertisements for pharmaceutical products or medical devices." 
  • Non-oncologists may register for OncologySTAT.  Indeed, anyone may register.  The registration form asks for your profession, but includes the category "consumer/other".  The form offers a link to the Registered User Agreement, for those who want to read the fine print before binding themselves.  But when I clicked on it before registering, I just got another copy of the registration form without the user agreement.  I saw another link after I registered and this time it worked. 
  • The NYTimes story doesn't seem to be aware that there are already full OA medical journals.  Why not?
  • When Elsevier launched its hybrid OA journals in May 2006, I wrote two comments, which apply to the OncologySTAT launch as well: 
    1. "When Elsevier went green and permitted postprint archiving, I noted that it was perfectly consistent for the company to be friendly to OA archiving but unfriendly to OA journals.  But what is it now?  It might still oppose full OA journals, at least in its own case, but will it still argue that OA journals are unsustainable, second-rate, a threat to peer review and the publishing industry?" ...
    2. "In October 2003 the French financial analysis firm, BNP Paribas, said there was a 50% chance that in 10 years the major commercial publishers would convert to OA and continue to dominate scholarly publishing as they do today, "retaining their market share but with less pricing power."   We're not seeing that yet, but we may be seeing intelligent probes by one such company to learn where the paths are in this still largely unmapped landscape."

Update.  Also see Elsevier's press release (September 7, 2007).