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Why is Google cool, but Elsevier is not?

Zhigang Suo's picture

Elsevier-bashing has become a sport among researchers.  The company is singled out, among publishers of research journals, perhaps because it is the largest.  We might as well use Elsevier as a representative of the publishers, and hard-working people at Elsevier should not be offended. 

A common point of contention is that Elsevier makes too much money.  This is odd, given that many other companies make far more money, and that money symbolizes success in many cultures.  So making money, by itself,  should not be the reason that upsets researchers.

Google, for example, makes a lot more money, but is perceived by many a cool company.  Many young people would be thrilled to be hired by Google.  Both Google and Elsevier are in the business of connecting people and information.  Why do people view the two companies so differently?

  • Google is perceived to make money by creating new business models that more effectively connect people and information.  Thus, the business interest of Google is perceived to be aligned with that of users.
  • Elsevier is perceived to make money by clinging to old business models that less effectively connect people and information.  Thus, the business interest of Elsevier is perceived to be not aligned with that of users.

I use the word "perceived" deliberately.  After all, being "cool" is about perception.  But the perception is important, especially for companies in the business serving directly to end users.  Google relies on users in their algorithm of search, and in their ability to sell ads.  Elsevier relies on users to write papers and read them.

In reality, both companies invest heavily in developing technologies.  One might even say ScienceDirect is a direct competitor of Google Scholar.  In many ways, ScienceDirect is a superior tool to connect information and people.  Of course, both companies are in the business to make money.  In final analysis, we'll have to assume that whatever companies do, they do so out of enlightened self-interest.

How much of Elsevier-bashing is based on reality, and how much is on perception?  I don't really know.  A more interesting question is, what can Elsevier do to change this perception and still ensure its financial well being?  Or, how can Elsevier be as cool as Google, or at least as cool as The New York Times?  The New York Times has long made most of its content free online.  It is a bold act, and it hurts financially, at least for now.  Any upcoming bold act from Elsevier?

A larger question, for Google, Elsevier and researchers, is this:  What will be the future of papers, journals, and communities?

I'd love to hear from you on these questions.


ericmock's picture

You bring up a good point but I think there is a clear distinction between Elsevier (as a representative of the publishers) and Google.  Part of it is obviously perception and part of it is reality.
I would probably be considered an Elsevier-basher but in fact I have nothing against the company or it's employees (although I must say some of Dean's comments annoyed me).  I think any company should be envious of Elsevier's business.  It is very good, and if I had any money to invest I would certainly consider buying their stock.  I also think that part of the reason Elsevier is singled out among all the publishers is, in addition to it being the biggest, that it is a public company.  Now that Springer and Kluwer are held by a private investment company, they do not have to expose their business to the public.
Thus, Elsevier is basically between a rock (the researcher community) and a hard place (its shareholders) and has to make contradictory statements to keep each side happy.  The problem is that at this time scholarly publishing is essentially incompatible with a for-profit business and Elsevier is in the difficult position of trying to reconcile the incompatibility.  Making their shareholders happy basically amounts to them admitting they're ripping off the research community (i.e. they're making a whole lot of profit compared to the money invested and spent, they have a good ROI and operating margins).  They obviously cannot use the same pitch to the research community.
On the other hand, the research community would like publishers to run an extremely tight and efficient business with no profit so that research gets disseminated as inexpensively as possible.  Thus, Elsevier is forced to tell us that they are providing a service at a reasonable cost.  But if we look at their financial statements, and what non-profits charge, we realize that there are inefficiencies (i.e. profits and, maybe, excessive spending) in their business.
Turning to Google, I think part of why they are so well liked is because they're new and their rise is a great story.  (Elsevier's rise may also be a great story but it's long forgotten.)  Plus, I think everyone sees the benefit of their business model.  They are basically the new-age middle-man without the stigma.  Plus, most of Google's users are not being charged for anything, making it appear to the vast majority of people that they're not out to make a profit.  On the other hand, I think the people paying Google (advertisers) are not so fond of them.  Google's operating margins are also ridiculously high (higher than Elsevier's, ~40%) and I am sure people paying Google are thinking that in a truly competitive advertising market they might be paying 35% less.  Why there isn't more of an uproar with Google's advertisers is the clever business model Google has.  The more Google helps your business the more you pay (i.e. advertisers basically pay them on commission).  Thus, you can't be too upset if Google is taking a small junk of all the new revenue advertising with them is generating.  Google took a big risk because a lot of people thought their scheme would not work.  However, it did and they're being rewarded handsomely.  However, they do run the risk of having public perception change if the services they provide start to seem expensive and there are no competitors to turn to.  Plus, Google always has Microsoft to make them look good.
More later on changing the publishing business model into something like Googles.  (Any takers on investing in my business plan?)

Zhigang Suo's picture

Dear Eric:  Thank you very much for these comments.  I'm now eagerly waiting for you to layout your business plan, and will consider investing in your business.  (In fact, I'll have to pass the tips on to my wife, as she is doing all the spending and investing and bookkeeping in my family!  She is an accountant.)

On a more serious note, you and I should really spend some time to talk about how to integrate your ideas and iMechaica. 

Mogadalai Gururajan's picture

Dear Prof. Suo:

I think our perception of Elsevier (at least mine) is also coloured by some other factors, the most prominent of which is their arms dealing and their repsonse to the criticism regarding the same (as described here ). Of course, at present, I think Elsevier-Reed has decided to stop dealing with arms sales .

At the same time, our perceptions of Google is also coloured (again, at least mine) by the other goodies that one gets from Google--gmail, documents, maps, scholar, ... Everyday, for example, I start my day with the iGoogle page. 

Thus (similar what they say about British legal system), it is not enough to be good (just), but you should also be seen to be good (just). On that count, I guess Google beats Elsevier. 

Via John Baez :

" El Naschie is editor in chief of the journal Chaos, Solitons and Fractals.  This journal is published by Elsevier, one of the biggest players in the science publishing business.

But here’s where things get interesting: this journal also lists 322 papers with El Naschie as an author!"


" Together with the rate at which El Naschie is publishing these papers in his own journal, the bizarre blend of fashionable buzzwords in their titles instantly made me suspicious.  To see if my suspicions were correct, I examined some.  

Let’s look at just one: ‘Anomalies free E-infinity from von Neumann’s continuous geometry’.  

This paper consists of undisciplined numerology larded with impressive buzzwords.  It starts with a reference to von Neumann’s continuous geometries and the work of Alain Connes, but it makes no use of these ideas.  ‘E-infinity’ is apparently the name of Naschie’s ‘theory’, but he doesn’t describe this theory.  In short, the title and abstract have little to do with the actual content of the paper."


How common is that sort of thing in our field?

-- Biswajit 


Via Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber:

" Merck paid an undisclosed sum to Elsevier to produce several volumes of
a publication that had the look of a peer-reviewed medical journal, but
contained only reprinted or summarized articles—most of which presented
data favorable to Merck products—that appeared to act solely as
marketing tools with no disclosure of company sponsorship.

…The Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine, which was published by Exerpta [HF-sic] Medica, a division of scientific publishing juggernaut Elsevier".

-- Biswajit 

arash_yavari's picture

This may be interesting: "Dr. M.S. El Naschie has retired as Editor-in-Chief for Chaos, Solitons and Fractals". They don't accept any new submission at this time! See the following link:

Charles R. Steele's picture

 Missing from the discussion is the attitude of Google to make all readily accessable to as many as possible. In contrast the commercial publishers discovered forty years ago that a price increase causes some decrease in subscribers but a net increase in profits. So increasing profit prevails over increasing accessability.

Another point: I will be surprised if Google uses the high pressure, hard ball sales technique that librarians report from Elsevier.

Charles R. Steele

Zhigang Suo's picture

This apparent difference between Google and commercial publishers has the same origin:  Make as much money as you can.  For Google, the more people ues their free services, the more ads they can sell, and therefore the more money.  For commercial publishers,the approach to making more money is less subtle.  To me, the difference between them is really a difference in business models. 

We can define a ratio in this regard "Popularity on Investment". Just like molecular biology in comparision with Acoustics!. Or even Many Hollywood stars in comparison with others.
Google work has good POI in comparison with Elsevier. The reason is its Nature, It is a keyword based search motor, i don’t know the story of success of Google to Yahoo! and MSN but all search motors have much popularity in comparison with what they offer us. I have many problems with Keyword based search motors like Google, relevance is not so good. And google is not so intelligent. I know this is not possible with current technology.
try to find IMECHANICA with "mechanical engineers forum", it may not be too hard to find imechanica you can just use "Mechanics Forum" instead.
how about more professional topics that people dont know what keywords others use?
people use papers who have more familiar keywords!.
Have you heard about GOOGLE Spies!. Making a website popular in google without real reason!. Advertisers use this inefficiencies too much.
I can’t find what I need easily. I found too much unrelated to what I don’t want and a little related to what I want.
Another thing about Google is its investment on advertising, advertising is a money maker industry, there is no special way to check its performance, and people pay for it because they know it is important but they have not any way measure the success easily. (number of hits is not a good measure, have you recieved one of that SPAMS about how to become rich!!!)

The google nemesis book is completely unique and
insightful step-by-step method for aspiring affiliates to promote
products via Google Adwords. There is no other manual like this on the
marketplace and this information will prove to be invaluable for
affiliates of all skill levels.


Google: 10/10

Nature.Com, 9/10


Mit, Harvard, JHU, DUKE, caltech, stanford Webpages : 9/10

Toronto webpages: 8/10


Wikipedia : 8/10

Wikimedia CommonsOpenwetware: 7/10

WIkitionary, Wikinews, Wikiquote, Wikibooks, Wikisource, Wikiversity :


PlosOne: 7/10

Wikispecies, MetaWiki: 6/10!

Imechanica, 5/10

Scientific American: 5/10

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