The Elsevier you know is not the only Elsevier

By Jan Velterop

Elzevir logo Library of Congress

Elzevir logo Library of Congress

When I was recently talking to my friend Abel Packer about 350 years of science publishing, the name Elsevier cropped up. Not surprising, of course. But Abel mentioned that a lot of people seem to think that the Elsevier of today was the same as the old, venerable and respected publisher who published the works of great scientists and thinkers like Gallileo, Snellius, Stevin, Grotius, Pascal, Erasmus, and many others.

Not so. The old, venerable, respected publishers were members of the Elsevier family (alternative spellings: Elzevier, Elzevir – it was still an age of non-standardised spelling) who started publishing in the 1580’s and ceased trading in the late 18th century, sometime between the start of the French Revolution and Napoleon’s ascendancy to power. Those circumstances had probably nothing to do with it, but anyway, they stopped their business.

In 1565 the Lodewijk (Louis) Elsevier name can be found on the payroll of the great printer-publisher Plantin in Antwerp. The family clearly had some roots in the printing world. It is said that the family came from Leuven, in what is now Belgium, and fled North, to Leiden in Holland, because of the relative religious freedom there. Some sources say they were protestants, but the fact is that many Jews made the same journey in that period. Particularly from Antwerp. And they could easily have moved from Leuven to Antwerp before moving further North.

The name Elsevier doesn’t mean anything in Dutch or Flemish. That points to foreign roots, and it may find its origin in the sephardic jewish community in North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula, driven North by successive pogroms. The fact that they were printers and publishers gives us some clues. ‘Hal Safir’ (הל ספר) in old Hebrew apparently means ‘the book’. That makes the name’s etymology credible. From the hebrew ‘Hal Safir’ to the more Arabic sounding ‘El Safir’ of North Africa, to ‘Elsevier’ in Western Europe, is a believable etymological sequence. And aren’t the Jews known as the “people of the book’?

An alternative etymology of the name is that it originates from Helsche Vier (the Four from Hell). I find that less plausible, although Helschevier may have been one of the spelling variants of Elsevier. Neighbors may have called them the Four from Hell (in Flemish Helschevier and Elsevier sound pretty much the same), but we don’t know if their behavior, or indeed their number, would have justified that moniker.

Anyway, etymology aside, the current publishing company of that name has no connection whatsoever with the original Elseviers. In 1880, about a century after the Elseviers ceased publishing, a man from Rotterdam by the name of Robbers (no, I know what you’re thinking, but in Dutch ‘Robbers’ just means ‘Son of Robbert’; nothing to do with robbing) and some partners started a publishing company and took the old, respected name – and logo – of the Elseviers. There was no brand or trademark protection in those days, and anyway, Elsevier hadn’t been on the publishing market for a hundred years.

It remained a small company until the second world war, when it still had no more than 10 employees. After the war, it started publishing scientific journals in earnest, but what amounted to the company’s breakthrough came in 1970, when it acquired North Holland, a scientific publisher, and materially increased its size. Subsequent acquisitions, such as Excerpta Medica and Pergamon Press boosted Elsevier’s size to become the largest scientific publisher. It merged in 1993 with the British company Reed to form Reed-Elsevier. The concern recently changed its name from Reed-Elsevier to RELX Group.

Elsevier is probably the most profitable scientific publisher in the world, and in an age of changes to scientific communication made possible by the internet and leading to a clamor for more democratized access to scientific findings, the company faces a growing amount of criticism. It is one of the slowest of the large scientific publishers to respond to the call for open access. And its net profits of nearly 40% are seen as a sign that publishing within a subscription business model has just too many characteristics in common with a monopoly.

Just to clarify my position: I am an open access advocate and I think the time is ripe for some drastic changes in scientific communication.


350 years of scientific publication: from the “Journal des Sçavans” and Philosophical Transactions to SciELO. SciELO in Perspective. [viewed 06 April 2015]. Available from:

Blaise Pascal. Wikipedia. [viewed 06 April 2015]. Available from:

Desiderius Erasmus. Wikipedia. [viewed 06 April 2015]. Available from:

FREDRIKSSON, E. H. The Dutch Publishing Scene: Elsevier and North-Holland. In: FREDRIKSSON, E. H. (ed.) A century of science publishing: a collection of essays. Amsterdam: IOS Press, 2001.

Galileo Galilei. Wikipedia. [viewed 06 April 2015]. Available from:

GOLDSMID, E., and WILLEMS, A. A Complete Catalogue of All the Publications of the Elzevier Presses at Leyden, Amsterdam, the Hague, and Utrecht: With Introduction, Notes, and an Appendix Containing a List of All Works, Whether Forgeries Or Anonymous Publications, Generally Attributed to These Presses, Edmund Goldsmid – Privately Printed, 1885 – Digitised by Google Books in 2007.

Hugo Grotius. Wikipedia. [viewed 06 April 2015]. Available from:

Jan Velterop. Wikipedia. [viewed 06 April 2015]. Available from:

MONBIOT, G. Academic publishers make Murdoch look like a socialist. TheGuardian, 2011. Available from:

Plantin Press. Wikipedia. [viewed 06 April 2015]. Available from:

Read the Budapest Open Access Initiative. Budapest Open Access Initiative. 2002. Available from:

Simon Stevin. Wikipedia. [viewed 06 April 2015]. Available from:

Willebrord Snellius. Wikipedia. [viewed 06 April 2015]. Available from:


About Jan Velterop

Jan Velterop (1949), marine geophysicist who became a science publisher in the mid-1970s. He started his publishing career at Elsevier in Amsterdam. in 1990 he became director of a Dutch newspaper, but returned to international science publishing in 1993 at Academic Press in London, where he developed the first country-wide deal that gave electronic access to all AP journals to all institutes of higher education in the United Kingdom (later known as the BigDeal). He next joined Nature as director, but moved quickly on to help get BioMed Central off the ground. He participated in the Budapest Open Access Initiative. In 2005 he joined Springer, based in the UK as Director of Open Access. In 2008 he left to help further develop semantic approaches to accelerate scientific discovery. He is an active advocate of BOAI-compliant open access and of the use of microattribution, the hallmark of so-called “nanopublications”. He published several articles on both topics.


Como citar este post [ISO 690/2010]:

VELTEROP, J. The Elsevier you know is not the only Elsevier [online]. SciELO in Perspective, 2015 [viewed ]. Available from:


2 Thoughts on “The Elsevier you know is not the only Elsevier

  1. Pingback: The Elsevier you know is not the only Elsevier | SciELO in Perspective | Nader Ale Ebrahim

  2. The classical Hebrew words for “the book” are “ha sefer” הספר
    (no “L” between the definite article and the noun). However, many Middle Eastern, North African and Iberian Jews spoke and wrote Arabic (indeed, had names written in Arabic and Judeo-Arabic), or wrote Arabic using Hebrew characters (Judeo-Arabic), with importation of some Hebrew words. In the early Middle Ages, speakers of Judeo-Arabic far outnumbered the speakers of Yiddish. Hebrew words were imported into Judeo-Arabic, also importing the Arabic definite article, so the Hebrew words would have migrated through Arabic to become El (or Al) Zevir. The Arabic word for “the book” is different: “Al Kitab”, which incidentally shares the same three letter root (K-T-B) as the Hebrew verb “to write”.

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