August 15, 2020

Interview: New eLife Editor Michael Eisen Comments on U. of California/Elsevier Situation

From UC Berkeley News:

Michael Eisen, a professor of molecular and cell biology and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, has done his part to disrupt the stodgy business, which he thinks not only takes advantage of authors and universities, but distorts the process of science. As a founder 19 years ago of the first open access journal, PLOS (Public Library of Science), he sought to establish a new business model where scientists pay to publish, while anyone can view the results for free. Other journals slowly moved in that direction, but even today, only about 20 percent of all published research is open access, and almost none of the papers appearing in high profile publications like Nature, Science and PNAS(Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) can be read by the public without charge.

Appointed last month the editor-in-chief of the open access journal eLife — Berkeley Nobel Laureate Randy Schekman is stepping down as founding editor — Eisen has a new platform to shake up the field of science publishing and help make it serve scientists and the public.

The interview consists of six questions and responses. Here’s one of them.

UC Berkeley News: What was your reaction when UC ended negotiations over a contract with Elsevier?

Michael Eisen: I think I wrote on Twitter, “Good. 25 years too late. But good.”

It has been clear forever that this (paying for subscriptions) was a problem, but universities just keep going back to the well and making one more deal with the publishers. There was a lot to like in the way UC handled this — in particular, pushing for universal access to UC-published papers. Not just for UC, but to make sure that everybody can read UC papers for free.

You can understand why Elsevier is wary of such deals, because they have the potential to have a broad economic impact on its business. Nobody is going to cancel their Elsevier contract because they can get free access to just UC papers. But if it is UC and the University of Michigan and big universities in Europe and Asia and South America, then subscriptions have less economic value. It is good UC is pushing things in the right direction.

Here is what would have to happen for the Elsevier thing to really matter: UC would have to stick to its guns and not cave — just agree to a lower price with Elsevier. The second thing is that other universities have to follow. UC is big, but it is not big enough. The simple loss of papers and subscriptions from UC isn’t going to be enough to drive Elsevier to change unless it thinks this is a harbinger of other things. A lot of people are looking at what is happening with UC now, and they’ll either be emboldened to take on Elsevier, or they will realize that resistance is futile, depending on what happens next with UC.

Read the Complete Interview with Michael Eisen

Gary Price About Gary Price

Gary Price ( is a librarian, writer, consultant, and frequent conference speaker based in the Washington D.C. metro area. Before launching INFOdocket, Price and Shirl Kennedy were the founders and senior editors at ResourceShelf and DocuTicker for 10 years. From 2006-2009 he was Director of Online Information Services at, and is currently a contributing editor at Search Engine Land.