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Elsevier Share Links: The Schrödinger’s cat of Open Access

21/09/2021

Many publishers rightly appear keen to proclaim publicly the many benefits of open access (OA), to state how eager they are to support openness, and to publicise their OA offerings to researchers to help make their articles open for greater access, visibility and readership (e.g. Wiley, T&F, and SN). They generally acknowledge that maximising sharing, availability, visibility, and barrier-free access are good for research. 

As part of its ‘sharing’ provision, Elsevier offers its published authors Share Links. It would appear, though, that the rhetoric surrounding these links does not match Elsevier’s own restrictions and dire warnings of the risks of sharing. (Readers may be interested that a similar problem of another major publisher’s permissions around sharing not matching rhetoric was described in the blog We encourage you to share your article widely – but not too much).

Share Links are customised links created for articles, available from the final publication stage, and in ‘the majority of Elsevier journals’. They provide 50 days’ payment-free, sign-in-free, access to read and download the article – after that, the article has a paywall barrier (temporary free access – a topic for another day). The Share Link points to a ‘Published Journal Article’ (PJA) (Elsevier’s term, synonymous with publisher’s ‘Version of Record’ (published PDF)). Share Links are used for articles published in subscription journals where the article is locked behind a paywall barrier for non-subscribers. Anyone with the link can freely access and download the full text of the article. It would appear that many authors are Tweeting their 50-day ‘free’ access links.

The Elsevier Share Link information proudly states (my emphasis):

“By sharing your article, you can make a bigger impact with your new publication. Now that your article is published, you can use your Share Link to share your research with friends, family, colleagues, and your wider network. There are many benefits to doing so.

  • Sharing the link via social media accounts and email helps you generate interest in your article.
  • Sharing your article makes it more visible, potentially increasing downloads and citations.

It continues:

“Share links can be shared with anyone through any communications channel potentially bringing your article to an audience of millions.

The Share Link web page trumpets the impact of the links, including the most popular link of 2017, where the paper has been viewed over 20,000 times.

Let me set aside, for now, the confusion for users caused by temporary free access (open – but only for a limited period) and the lack of information about the open/closed status of the paper in one example I looked at. I will focus on some discrepancies between what is advertised for Share Links and what is stated in Elsevier’s permissions and policies for authors.

Conundrum 1: Sharing is allowed with anyone / Sharing is restricted

Authors are encouraged to share the special Share Link “with anyone through any communications channel”, and told that it will help make a “bigger impact” – more visible, possibly increasing downloads, citations and so on. Yet, on reading the publisher’s information about article sharing, a very different view unfolds.

According to Elsevier’s article sharing policy regarding the Published Journal Article (i.e. the one available via the Share Link), authors are allowed to:

  •  share their Published Journal Article (PJA) privately with known students or colleagues for their personal use
  •  make some use for classroom teaching and internal training if their library is a subscriber to ScienceDirect

But:

  • “Otherwise sharing is by agreement only [the link here leads to a page about commercial platforms, technology and hosting options]
  • “the Published Journal Article cannot be shared publicly, for example on ResearchGate or Academia.edu, to ensure the sustainability of peer-reviewed research in journal publications.”

All of a sudden, there is no longer any mention of the permission to share it anywhere with anyone that the author was proudly told about their Share Link. No sign of the potential audience of millions”.

At this point, I got sucked into a seemingly endless vortex of linked policy and sharing pages, despite Elsevier’s statement that “we are committed to making it simple and seamless for researchers to share their research on platforms of their choice“. I challenge any author to read all the information provided to them about Elsevier’s open access and sharing instructions.

Strangely Share Links (nor Springer Nature’s similar SharedIt links) are not mentioned on the publisher-provided “How can I share it? website, which is supposed to make things easy (I personally beg to disagree with some of the principles that underpin this site). Using this website to check permissions for the publisher’s version of an article that is freely available via Share Link indicates the same article can only be shared via “Mendeley – group collaboration (private)“. Although, “additional full-text sharing options may exist – please check this directly with publisher Elsevier“, the link provided points to the Elsevier Sharing Policy page (see above), which, in direct contradiction to what Elsevier told the author about their Share Link, clearly states that the sharing permissions for this version are severely restricted.

Conundrum 2: Authors can/can’t share via academic networks

Authors are explicitly told in the Share Link blurb that using the link, their article “can be shared with anyone through any communications channel”, including on academic networking sites (sometimes called academic social networking sites or scholarly collaboration networks) and which are commonly understood to include Academia.edu or ResearchGate. 

“You can post the Share Link on your personal website and academic networking sites

And

“Share links can be shared with anyone through any communications channel potentially bringing your article to an audience of millions”.

Excellent. But if they read the Elsevier sharing information for authors, they are told:

“The Published Journal Article cannot be shared publicly, for example on ResearchGate or Academia.edu, to ensure the sustainability of peer-reviewed research in journal publications”.

According to this, if they do share via academic networks, they are jeopardisingthe sustainability of peer-reviewed research journal publications”. But they’ve just been told they can share access to the article using such networks….and it’s the publisher’s version PDF Elsevier is encouraging people to access using Share Links.

Conundrum 3: The article must / doesn’t have an embargo

Elsevier trumpets to their authors that the early and widespread sharing of their newly-published article” has many benefits. To this end, the publisher encourages their authors to share the publisher’s full text version using the Share Link provided. Let me state this in simple terms: Elsevier is encouraging its authors to maximise immediate and barrier-free access, by anyone, via any communication channel, to the publisher’s version of record (Published Journal Article) of a published article.

However, should the author read the information for authors for the example I used, and the Elsevier self-archiving embargo policy for other Elsevier journals (via their Journal Embargo Finder), they are given clear instructions to the contrary:

“For subscription articles, an appropriate amount of time is needed for journals to deliver value to subscribing customers before a manuscript becomes available for free to the public. This is called an embargo period and it begins from the date the article is formally published online in its final and fully citable form. Find out more This journal has an embargo period of 12 months”. [Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology]

Now, the Share Link points to the publisher’s PDF, but the principle is surely the same for both Author’s Accepted Manuscript (AAM) and publisher’s version – either Elsevier believes an embargo period is needed to ensure value for subscribers, or it is not.

Similarly paradoxical information is provided in Elsevier’s instructions for sharing AAMs online which states:

Authors can share their accepted manuscript: Immediately…via their non-commercial personal homepage or blog”……..but not “via non-commercial hosting platforms such as their institutional repository”. 

Yes, astonishingly, this means an embargo is required for one freely available website but not another. This is completely absurd.

Clarity please: either Elsevier believes an embargo period is needed to ensure value for subscribers or not.

Is the cat alive or dead?

The contortions that this publisher is going through to promote immediate free access and prevent it – at the same time – is quite extraordinary. It is the Schrödinger’s Cat of open access. Immediate free access to the article is simultaneously:

  • allowed AND restricted
  • beneficial AND harmful
  • can be shared with “an audience of millions” AND must not be shared beyond a strictly limited group
  • does NOT harm the sustainability of the journal AND harms sustainability of the journal
  • affects the value to subscribing customers AND does NOT affect the value to subscribing customers

Trying to have it both ways, both restricted AND widely and immediately open, is just bewildering. The cynic might wonder if Share Links are offered in order to increase impact and early citation with the aim of boosting the impact factor of Elsevier journals. Once achieved, free access can be cut off, and a paywall erected – job done. Some might say that this amounts to providing limited open access for economic and marketing reasons rather than to promote the dissemination of research.

All these shenanigans only serve to pile on confusion. This is why the cOAlition S stance is clear and straightforward – authors should be able to own and use their own content freely as they choose for all the benefits extolled by Elsevier (and other publishers). See Plan S Rights Retention Strategy. Many researchers agree with this premise (see here and here). Authors – don’t stand for this double-speak. Your work, your rights: Use them; don’t lose them!



Sally Rumsey

Sally Rumsey is Jisc’s cOAlition S OA Expert. She was, until Dec 2019, Head of Scholarly Communications & RDM, Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford. From 2006 she managed the University’s repository service for research outputs, Oxford University Research Archive (ORA and ORA-Data), advised on scholarly communications, and drafted University policies and documents about open access. She liaised with Oxford researchers to define library support requirements for Open Scholarship. Sally is a member of the UKSCL (Scholarly Communications Licence) group and represented Oxford University on LERU (League of European Universities) OA Info-Group. Recent presentations include numerous about cOAlition S Rights Retention Strategy. She was previously e-Services Librarian and manager of the repository at the London School of Economics.