Elsevier successfully patents a common peer review process

As reported yesterday on Mike Taylor’s Sauropod Vertebra blog, who in turn picked up the story from the sec.uno site, at the end of August the giant publisher Elsevier successfully patented what they see as a unique form of peer review: waterfall (or cascading as it’s long been known) peer review. This is described as “the transfer of submitted articles from one journal to another journal” owned by the same publisher.  And there’s nothing new about it, it’s been accepted practice for a number of publishers for years now.

If you want to look at the original U.S. patent, here’s a link to it.

I don’t often re-work the content of others’ blogs, but his is exceptional: the motivation for Elsevier’s actions seem dubious at best and it’s worth clicking through and reading those pieces in detail.  What is Elsevier thinking?

The timing of this one story is also interesting.  It’s as if the Gods of Publishing had actually read my last post about peer-reviewed versus non-peer-reviewed publishing, and decided to have some fun with us mere mortals…..

4 thoughts on “Elsevier successfully patents a common peer review process

  1. ScientistSeesSquirrel

    I’m not (obviously) a patent lawyer. But: if you look at the patent, it’s fairly clear that Elsevier is NOT patenting the idea of cascading peer review. You are quite right; that’s not new, and therefore it could not be patented. They ARE attempting to patent a hardware + software manuscript management system for accomplishing cascading peer review. A simple analogy: everyone seems to be panicking and deciding that Elsevier has patented the idea of trapping mice. They have not. They have instead patented what they think is a better mousetrap. We will see if the world beats a path to their door…

    1. jeffollerton Post author

      Hmmm, not sure I see it that way. The “better mousetrap” analogy implies that they have built a better piece of hardware/software and that’s not what they have done here. They seem to have graphically formalised a system that’s already in use (albeit with variations) in what they claim is a novel way. It seems to be more like placing an existing mousetrap in a new location to improve capture rates, if I can extend the analogy!

      1. ScientistSeesSquirrel

        Well, whether the management system they are using to accomplish cascading peer review is novel enough for patent protection is something a court may have to figure out. Since I don’t know the nuts and bolts of how other publishers do it (how many machines, how connected, what software and dataflow steps in what order) I would have no way to know how similar they _are_, let alone whether that degree of similarity is _too much_.

        But do you really read that patent as attempting to patent the *idea* of cascading peer review? Where in the patent document are you seeing that?

        I mean, I’m certainly open to arguments that Elsevier’s business model is not helpful to science. (But someone will call me a corporate shill on this, if they haven’t already). I just see a tendency to to people noticing “Elsevier did X”, thinking “Elsevier is evil”, and thus concluding “X must be evil, and is probably even-more-evil thing Y”. The author of the blog post you linked to, for example, admitted in the post that they had not read the patent!

      2. jeffollerton Post author

        Sure, I’m also not one of those that automatically thinks that everything these large publishers do is inherently evil, but in this case they do seem to be patenting something that’s commonplace. See the abstract of the patent for instance:

        “An online document management system is disclosed. In one embodiment, the online document management system
        comprises: one or more editorial computers operated by one or more administrators or editors, the editorial computers send invitations and manage peer review of document submissions; one or more system computers, the system
        computers maintain journals, records of submitted documents and user profiles, and issue notifications; and one or
        more user computers; the user computers submit documents or revisions to the document management system; wherein
        one or more of the editorial computers coordinate with one or more of the system computers to migrate one or more
        documents between journals maintained by the online document management system.”

        Where is the novelty in any of that? OK, you could argue that the novelty is buried in the detail of the patent (which I’ve skimmed but not read in detail) but surely the abstract should reflect that. Otherwise it’s a pretty crappy abstract (that, I note in passing, shouldn’t get through peer review….)

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