Thursday, September 6, 2012

Interacting with a big academic publisher

Publishing in academia is an odd activity. Unless you are writing a book, you receive no royalties. The only "royalty" is the joy you experience having produced (hopefully) original research that will interest those who work in your academic discipline. The fact that many academic journal publishers persist in asking large fees for work that is essentially done for free is an ongoing point of contention in many circles. Nevertheless, many of us have accepted this problem in exchange for getting one's work published in a prestigious journal. And face it, most of the most prestigious peer-reviewed journals are owned by big academic publishers.

Since so much effort and personal branding is placed in one's work in academia, it stands to reason that you might be interested in how popular your work is. So, several weeks ago, I decided to find out  how much some of my recent work had been downloaded. I figured that Elsevier, the publishing company who owns Journal of Phonetics, might have an answer for me. I contacted them through the contact information on the Elsevier website. Here is my first email (on 8/16/12):

To whom it may concern,  
I have a couple publications now with Elsevier. On my personal website, it is possible for me to tally the number of people that download particular articles of mine (as well as the location of their ISP). I imagine that Elsevier keeps a similar background service running on their journal websites to determine popularity of different articles. Would it be possible for Elsevier to share any of this information with the authors? I understand if the ISP location is considered private. I am specifically interested in the number of downloads.  
Cordially, Christian DiCanio

I thought this question simple enough. A day later, I received a reply.

Dear Dr DiCanio, 
Thank you for your e-mail. We wish to advise that the statistics on ScienceDirect are recorded on the account level for the institutions to see their usage of the material on our platform, but, unfortunately, they are not recorded for specific articles, and it is not possible for us to provide authors with the download statistics of their articles. I hope this is of assistance to you. 
Meanwhile, the following Elsevier Customer Support solution may be of interest: Please ensure that the reference number remains in the subject line when responding to this email. 
Why not also visit our self-help site at Here you can find FAQs, online tutorials and instructions relating to manuscript submissions and articles in production. You will also find 24/7 support contact details, including live chat, should you require further assistance. 
Kind regards, Miss Jane Doe, EP Customer Support 

This had me a bit confused. On most journal websites, there is a box called "Most Downloaded Articles". Unless this information here is a lie, the journal must keep a record of how many people download certain articles. In fact, any good business would want to know which of their products are selling well. As for the "customer support solution", it simply brought me to a general help page. So, I replied to the customer support specialist.

Dear Miss Jane Doe, 
I apologize, but I do not believe you that Elsevier does not record the usage of specific articles. For most journals, there is a section called "Most downloaded articles." If you do not believe me, click here: Unless each journal is specifically inventing these values, the data must be recorded. It would be bad business of you not to record which of your products gets the most hits or sales. I can not imagine that it is asking too much of you to offer one of your authors access to a service that you already possess. 
Cordially, Christian DiCanio

They didn't shut me up with their first reply, so I got another response a day later:

Dear Dr DiCanio, 
Thank you for your e-mail. I have sent this to the ScienceDirect team for further advise. I will contact you as soon as I have received a response from them. Your patience in this matter is highly appreciated. (etc.) 
Kind regards, Miss Jane Doe

A few days later, I received another email telling me "With regard to your below query, I am still waiting for a response. I have now made a follow up. Your patience in this matter is highly appreciated." I felt  a bit elated. Could it be that I was causing a stir at Elsevier and that they might change their policy to actually provide a service to the authors? I looked every day at the Elsevier website, curious as to whether "New Products" might include this type of service. After several days, I received the following email:

Dear Dr DiCanio, 
Further to my below e-mail, I have received a response from ScienceDirect team and they ask you to contact them via the "Contact Us button" found via the following link: I hope this helps.
Kind regards, Miss Jane Doe

Ack! They essentially just want me to resend my original message with hopes that I might get tired of this issue and stop sending them emails asking them to do something about it. Well, I did resend my message, but stated more succinctly. I received the following reply a few days later:

Dear Christian, 
Thank you for contacting Elsevier's e-Helpdesk. I apologize for the inconvenience this may cause you, but it is not ScienceDirect policy to provide that data. 
Please visit the following site to read more: Please feel free to contact us with any further issues. 
Sincerely, Joe Schmo

So, apparently there is some policy about not providing this information that is used as a justification (er, excuse) to avoid doing anything about it. I was rather more brusque in my reply to "Joe Schmo".

Dear Joe Schmo, 
I understand that it is not ScienceDirect's policy to provide this data. I am actually asking why this is the policy and why Elsevier could not just decide to offer such a service to authors. It is rather absurd to say that this simply is not part of your policies. If I were a novelist and I wrote a prolific novel which sold millions of copies, I could certainly find out how many copies were sold. Indeed, I would be able to find out this information while also earning a royalty for my work. When I publish with Elsevier, I earn no such royalties. Yet, apparently it is problematic to ask for information that you already collect. 
There is a deeper, more important goal here. Sometimes academics want to get a sense of whether their work is particularly popular or relevant within a particular journal. If it is not, they may choose to change where they submit their work. Such information is useful. 
Cordially, Christian DiCanio 

Well, perhaps my tone was less than cordial. I had received rather lame responses though. I think I had all but given up on Elsevier to actually address my question. Yet, out of the blue tonight, I received the following short email:

Hi Mr. DiCanio, 
Please find the attached full text download of your articles published in Journal of Phonetics. And if you have any more concerns, please let us know, thanks! 
Best regards, Jim Schmo

An attached spreadsheet contained precisely the information I had been requesting, with the number of downloads listed for every month the articles had been in press. Of course Elsevier had this information. It just took some persistence to actually get it.

While I was happy to find this out, it actually appears to be just a quick band-aid. I don't imagine that Elsevier will change their policy and offer such a service to their authors. Though, perhaps they will think about doing this if enough people request it. I would be persistent if I were you.