Elsevier was founded in 1880 and took the name from the Dutch publishing house Elzevir which has no connection with the present company. The Elzevir family operated as booksellers and publishers in the Netherlands; the founder, Lodewijk Elzevir (1542–1617), lived in Leiden and established the business in 1580.
The expansion of Elsevier in the scientific field after 1945 was funded with the profits of the newsweekly Elsevier, which published its first issue on 27 October 1945. The weekly was an instant success and earned lots of money. The weekly was a continuation, as is stated in its first issue, of the monthly Elsevier, which was founded in 1891 to promote the name of the publishing house and had to stop publication in December 1940 because of the Nazi occupation.
In 1947, Elsevier began publishing its first English-language journal, Biochimica et Biophysica Acta.
In 2013, Elsevier acquired Mendeley, a UK company making software for managing and sharing research papers. Mendeley, previously an open platform for sharing of research, was greatly criticized for the acquisition, which users saw as acceding to the "paywall" approach to research literature. Mendeley's previously open sharing system now allows exchange of paywalled resources only within private groups. The New Yorker described Elsevier's reasons for buying Mendeley as two-fold: to acquire its user data, and to "destroy or coöpt an open-science icon that threatens its business model".
In December 2013, Elsevier announced a collaboration with University College, London, the UCL Big Data Institute. Elsevier's investment is "substantial" and thought to be more than £10 million.
In 2017, Elsevier launched a rival service to Wikipedia titled 'ScienceDirect Topics' with a science definitions service "that provides encyclopedia-style entries on key scientific topics".