Publishing

Elsevier’s New Patent for Online Peer Review Throws a Scare Into Open-Source Advocates

September 01, 2016

Patents on software can be controversial. And often, so is the company Elsevier, the giant journal publisher. So when word hit the internet starting on Tuesday night that Elsevier had just been awarded a patent for an "online peer-review system and method," reaction from people aligned with the publishing and open-source worlds came swiftly on Twitter and in other online venues, much of it reflecting suspicion about the company’s motives.

"Elsevier reveals its final form: Patent trolling to destroy scientific peer review," said one tweet.

Elsevier itself then turned to Twitter in an effort to allay the fears. But its assurances have not quelled the anxieties, particularly those of advocates for more open-source options in scholarly publishing.

The concern revolves around the patent Elsevier received for its five-year-old "article-transfer service," a propriety online system the company uses to manage journal-article submissions and the ensuing peer reviews.

The service also includes a feature that allows articles rejected by one of the company’s 2,500 journals to be automatically referred to another relevant Elsevier journal for consideration, with the authors’ consent. The patent describes the driver of the referral system as a "journal-recommendation tool."

The concept of referring rejected articles to sister journals, known as "waterfall," is also used by other publishers, such as Springer.

In defense of the patent, Elsevier suggested that it was not aimed at inhibiting other publishers. "There is no need for concern regarding the patent. It’s simply meant to protect our own proprietary waterfall system from being copied," wrote Tom Reller, Elsevier’s vice president for corporate relations.

Asked by The Chronicle if Elsevier considered its patent broad enough in scope to cover the systems of other publishers, or whether Elsevier planned to use the patent to go after other publishers with similar systems, Mr. Reller referred to the statement on Twitter, emphasizing the second sentence.

‘Unbelievably Harmful’

But Ben Werdmüller, whose tweet calling the patent "unbelievably harmful" seemed to have kick-started the reaction on Twitter (and drawn Mr. Reller’s reply), said he worried that Elsevier’s actions could "inhibit innovation inside academic publishing."

The patent 'could be interpreted to be wide enough to prevent people from creating systems that work in a similar way.'
The patent "could be interpreted to be wide enough to prevent people from creating systems that work in a similar way," said Mr. Werdmüller, in an interview with The Chronicle. Typically the breadth of a patent is tested only after its owner tries to enforce it.

Given what he called Elsevier’s "protective business model," Mr. Werdmüller said he feared that the company would use the patent to prevent open-source or open-access journals from using similar methods. And that in turn, he said, "could erode the effectiveness of open-access journals."

Mr. Werdmüller, a self-described web technologist based in Silicon Valley, is the founder of two companies that make social-networking platforms. He doesn’t work in academic publishing but said he follows the field.

“There is no need for concern regarding the patent.”
Elsevier may consider the patent a way to protect its investment in the system it created. But Mr. Werdmüller argued that the use of automated and online systems to advance publishing and peer review is important, and that platforms that provide such services "need to be available for everyone to innovate on and iterate on."

He said he was also happy that his tweet had helped stir the internet wave. "I didn’t intend to start a movement," he said. "But it’s good to see people care about it."

Goldie Blumenstyk writes about the intersection of business and higher education. Check out www.goldieblumenstyk.com for information on her new book about the higher-education crisis; follow her on Twitter @GoldieStandard; or email her at goldie@chronicle.com.