Elsevier journals — some facts

Update: figures now in from Imperial. See below.

Further update: figures in from Nottingham too.

Further update: figures now in from Oxford.

Final update: figures in from LSE.

A little over two years ago, the Cost of Knowledge boycott of Elsevier journals began. Initially, it seemed to be highly successful, with the number of signatories rapidly reaching 10,000 and including some very high-profile researchers, and Elsevier making a number of concessions, such as dropping support for the Research Works Act and making papers over four years old from several mathematics journals freely available online. It has also contributed to an increased awareness of the issues related to high journal prices and the locking up of articles behind paywalls.

However, it is possible to take a more pessimistic view. There were rumblings from the editorial boards of some Elsevier journals, but in the end, while a few individual members of those boards resigned, no board took the more radical step of resigning en masse and setting up with a different publisher under a new name (as some journals have done in the past), which would have forced Elsevier to sit up and take more serious notice. Instead, they waited for things to settle down, and now, two years later, the main problems, bundling and exorbitant prices, continue unabated: in 2013, Elsevier’s profit margin was up to 39%. (The profit is a little over £800 million on a little over £2 billion.) As for the boycott, the number of signatories appears to have reached a plateau of about 14,500.

Is there anything more that can be done? One answer that is often given is that the open access movement is now unstoppable, and that it is only a matter of time before the current system will have changed significantly. However, the pace of change is slow, and the alternative system that is most strongly promoted — open access articles paid for by article processing charges — is one that mathematicians tend to find unpalatable. (And not only mathematicians: they are extremely unpopular in the humanities.) I don’t want to rehearse the arguments for and against APCs in this post, except to say that there is no sign that they will help to bring down costs any time soon and no convincing market mechanism by which one might expect them to.

I have come to the conclusion that if it is not possible to bring about a rapid change to the current system, then the next best thing to do, which has the advantage of being a lot easier, is to obtain as much information as possible about it. Part of the problem with trying to explain what is wrong with the system is that there are many highly relevant factual questions to which we do not yet have reliable answers. Amongst them are the following.

1. How willing would researchers be to do without the services provided by Elsevier?

2. How easy is it on average to find on the web copies of Elsevier articles that can be read legally and free of charge?

3. To what extent are libraries actually suffering as a result of high journal prices?

4. What effect are Elsevier’s Gold Open Access articles having on their subscription prices?

5. How much are our universities paying for Elsevier journals?

The main purpose of this post is to report on efforts that I and others have made to start obtaining answers to these questions. I shall pay particular attention to the last one, since it is about that that I have most to say. I will try to keep the post as factual as possible and give my opinions about some of the facts in a separate post.

How willing would researchers be to do without the services provided by Elsevier?

I have two small pieces of evidence. The first is an interesting comment that was made on a Google Plus post of mine by Benoît Kloeckner, who wrote the following.

In France, when the national consortium “Couperin” was dealing with Springer for the 2012-2014 contract, we issued a petition asserting that some terms (notably interdiction to unsubscribe from a number of journals) were unacceptable and that we, mathematicians, would agree not to get access to Springer journals. This was done to give negotiators more strength, but had little effect despite a significant number of signatures.

This points to a problem that I will discuss in more detail in my next post: that different subjects have different needs. Part of the reason mathematicians find the current system so objectionable is that we have already got to the stage where we don’t really need journals for anything other than the very crude measure of quality that it gives us, since a fairly high, and ever increasing, proportion of the articles that interest us are freely available in preprint form. But in some subjects, such as biology or medicine, this is much less true, and as a result people rely far more on journal articles.

I tried to take the temperature in the mathematics faculty in Cambridge by asking my colleagues to complete a very brief questionnaire: there were two questions, with multiple-choice answers. The questions were as follows.

1. How easily could you do without access to Elsevier journals via ScienceDirect and print copies?

2. For those who negotiate on our behalf to be in a strong bargaining position, they have to be able to risk our losing access to Elsevier products (other than those that are freely available) for a significant length of time. How willing would you be for them to take that risk?

In case the results were interestingly different, I got people in DAMTP (the department of applied mathematics and theoretical physics) to answer one copy of the questionnaire and people in DPMMS (the department of pure mathematics and mathematical statistics) to answer another. The results were as follows. There were 96 responses from DAMTP and 80 from DPMMS. I give the DAMTP figure first and then the DPMMS figure, both as percentages.

1. How easily could you do without access to Elsevier journals via ScienceDirect and print copies?

(i) It would be no problem at all. [27.1, 23.8]

(ii) It would be OK, but a minor inconvenience. [26.0, 38.8]

(iii) It would be OK most of the time, but occasionally very inconvenient. [24.0, 32.5]

(iv) It would be a significant inconvenience. [14.6, 5.0]

(v) It would have a strongly negative impact on my research. [8.3, 0.0]

2. For those who negotiate on our behalf to be in a strong bargaining position, they have to be able to risk our losing access to Elsevier products (other than those that are freely available) for a significant length of time. How willing would you be for them to take that risk?

(i) Very willing [46.9, 55.7]

(ii) Willing [31.3, 39.2]

(iii) Unwilling [14.6, 3.8]

(iv) Very unwilling [7.3, 1.3]

Thus, if the responses were representative, then in both departments, most people would not suffer too much inconvenience if they had to do without Elsevier’s products and services, and a large majority were willing to risk doing without them if that would strengthen the bargaining position of those who negotiate with Elsevier.

Another question I might have asked is how much the answers would have changed if the departments were to subscribe to just a few important journals. That is an important question, since it might be that the University of Cambridge should follow the examples of Harvard, MIT, Cornell and others (that link is from 2004 so the situation may have changed), stop paying for a Big Deal contract and switch to paying for individual journals at list prices instead.

It is very easy to find websites where surveys like the one I conducted can be set up for no charge. (But be a little careful: I accidentally chose one called Surveymonkey that allowed only 100 responses, as a result of which I had to ask people to do it again.) I would be extremely interested if other people could do similar surveys in their own departments, both in mathematics and in other subjects.

How easy is it on average to find copies of Elsevier articles freely available in preprint form?

My impression has for some time been that in mathematics a significant proportion of articles are available on the arXiv or on authors’ home pages, to the point where I almost never need to look at the journal version. There also appears to be a distinct positive correlation between the quality of a journal and the proportion of its articles freely available. And there seem to be national differences in the extent to which people make their papers available. But until recently it was a rather long and tedious process to obtain any hard figures about this.

Recently, however, Scott Morrison has set up a website called The Mathematics Literature Project, to which you can contribute if you have the time. Although one still has to input the information manually, Scott has written software that automates the process to some extent and makes it much quicker. The project is still in its infancy, but it already demonstrates that a large proportion of articles in various different journals, not all of them Elsevier journals, are indeed freely available in preprint form. And there is some evidence for the correlation with quality: for example, Discrete Mathematics is a less good journal than the Journal of Combinatorial Theory A and B, and a lot fewer of its articles can be found. (For JCTA the proportion is over 80%, whereas for Discrete Mathematics it is more like 30%.)

Thus, there is plenty of evidence that mathematicians at least do not really need their universities to pay large sums of money to Elsevier. Unfortunately, because of bundling, that fact on its own has had almost no effect on prices.

To what extent are libraries actually suffering as a result of high journal prices?

I’m tempted just to suggest that you go and talk to a librarian. You won’t be left in much doubt about the answer, at least qualitatively speaking. In brief, libraries suffer because bundling means that they have very little control over their budgets. If Elsevier raises its prices, then libraries simply have to pay them or else lose the entire bundle, so effectively they are forced to make cuts elsewhere. And this happens. For example, Phil Sykes, former chair of Research Libraries UK, shared a document with me that includes many interesting figures, one of which is that between 2001 and 2009, mean expenditure on books went up by 0.17%, which is a substantial real-terms cut, while mean expenditure on journals went up by 82%. Apparently, the expenditure on books as a proportion of total expenditure went down from 11% to just over 7% between 1999 and 2009.

But this distortion is not confined to books. Journals that belong to a large bundle are artificially protected, at the expense of other, potentially more useful, journals that do not belong to the bundle. If you think that this is just a theoretical possibility, then take a look at the example of the Université de Paris Descartes. This is the top university in Paris for medicine, the university you try to get into if you are French and want to be a doctor.

It would seem a safe bet that a top medical university would subscribe to at least some journals from the Nature publishing group, such as Nature Medicine, which describes itself as the premier journal for medical research, or Nature, which likes to think of itself as the premier journal full stop. But no: subscriptions to all Nature journals as well as many others were cancelled this year. In the long list of cancelled subscriptions, you won’t find any mention of Elsevier journals, because they are bundled together.

From time to time, a library decides that enough is enough. A couple of years ago, the mathematics department of the Technisches Universität München decided to cancel all its subscriptions to Elsevier journals. And very recently the entire Universität Konstanz, also in Germany, decided to cancel its license negotiations and replace its license by “alternative procurement channels”. Given the evidence that we are becoming less reliant on journal subscriptions, it would seem rational for other libraries to consider whether to take similar measures.

What effect are Elsevier’s Gold Open Access articles having on subscription prices?

Recall that Gold Open Access refers to the practice where a publisher makes an article freely available online in return for an article processing charge (APC), which is typically paid by an author’s institution or by a grant-awarding body. Elsevier now has various journals that are funded that way, as well as “hybrid” journals — that is, journals to which libraries still subscribe but which allow authors to make their articles open access in return for an APC. The proportion of Elsevier articles for which APCs have been paid is currently very small, but it is likely to increase, since various funding bodies are starting to insist that the academics they fund should make their articles open access, and often (but not always) the assumption is that this should be done via an APC.

A few months ago, it occurred to me to wonder what would happen if the proportion of Gold Open Access articles did indeed increase. Would Elsevier continue to rake in its subscription revenue and receive the APCs on top? This would seem particularly unjust in the case of hybrid journals, since libraries with Big Deal contracts cannot cancel their subscriptions to them, and in any case if several of the articles are not open access they may well not want to. So there would seem to be a danger that Elsevier is receiving substantial article processing charges that are not needed to cover the cost of processing (the additional cost of making an article open access is at least an order of magnitude less than the APCs), or to compensate Elsevier for loss of subscription revenue.

I then discovered that, not surprisingly, many other people had been concerned about this point. There is even a technical term for the practice of effectively charging twice for the same article: it is called double dipping. I found a page on Elsevier’s website where they stated that they had a no-double-dipping policy. However, that mentioned only the list prices of journals, so it did not address my concern at all, given that most libraries have Big Deal contracts. I decided to write to Elsevier to ask about this, and the result was that they updated the relevant page.

I think one can summarize what they say on the page now as follows: they set their prices based on the number of non-open-access articles included in the Freedom Collection; this has gone up, so they feel no compunction about charging more for the Freedom Collection. So they are at least implying that if enough open-access articles were published that the total volume of non-open-access articles went down, they would lower their prices.

That leaves me with two concerns. The first is that if their Big Deal contracts are confidential, then we have no way of knowing whether they are sticking to their official policy. The second is that what matters should not be the number of open access articles as a proportion of the whole, but the proportion of open access articles amongst the articles that people actually want to read. If, for example, half the articles in journals such as Cell and The Lancet became open access but Elsevier launched a handful of joke journals that published a comparable volume of articles, then the value of the non-open-access component to libraries would have gone down substantially, but according to Elsevier’s stated policy their charges would not be decreased.

On top of all that is a remarkable scandal that has attracted a great deal of attention recently, which is that Elsevier has been double dipping in the most direct way possible: charging people to download articles for which APCs have been paid. Mike Taylor spotted this about two years ago. Elsevier’s response, coordinated by Alicia Wise, was less than swift, not surprisingly given their strong incentive to drag their feet about it. Peter Murray-Rust has been vigorously campaigning about this issue. If you’re interested, you can check out the March 2014 archive of his blog and work backwards.

How much are our universities paying for Elsevier journals?

Now we come to the big question. One of the most annoying aspects of the current situation in academic publishing is that the big publishers don’t want us to know what our universities are paying for their journals, so they insist on confidentiality clauses. As a result, we can’t tell whether we are getting good value for money, though there is plenty of indirect evidence, and even some direct evidence, that we are not.

Some information already available

There have been a few attempts in the past to use freedom-of-information legislation to get round these confidentiality clauses, some successful and others not. Also, some information has been made available by other means. Here are the cases I know about, but this list is very likely to be incomplete. (If I am notified of further useful information, I will be happy to add it to the list with appropriate acknowledgement.)

1. In 2009 public-record requests were made by Paul Courant, Ted Bergstrom and Preston McAfee to a large number of US universities asking for details of their Big Deal contracts with publishers. They had considerable success with this, obtaining information from 36 institutions. Elsevier made strenuous efforts to prevent the disclosures, contesting the request to Washington State University, but a judge ruled against them. See this page for further details. Together with Michael Williams they wrote an analysis of what they discovered, which will soon become available in preprint form. has now been published. It includes the following figures for what a number of universities spent on Elsevier contracts. The first figure in each row is the cost in dollars of the Elsevier Freedom Package and the figure in brackets is the enrolment. (The latter is not by any means a perfect measure of the size of a university, but it gives at least some idea.)

University Cost in dollars Enrolment
Arizona Universities* 2,724,888 123,473
Auburn 1,252,544 22,654
Clemson 1,296,044 16,582
Colorado State 1,319,633 24,409
Cornell 1,969,908 20,340
Georgia State 934,764 25,135
Louisiana State 1,198,237 28,467
New York U. 1,878,962 40,291
U of Alabama 1,018,614 22,971
U of California** 8,760,968 218,320
U of Colorado 1,725,023 28,333
U of Denver 467,406 10,036
U of Georgia 1,854,419 33,079
U of Idaho 750,808 10,008
Illinois Universities*** 2,319,383 72,751
U of Iowa 1,420,484 27,361
U of Maryland 1,760,173 31,573
U of Michigan 2,164,830 39,447
U of Tennessee 579,815 27,635
U of Texas, Arlington 620,042 20,136
U of Texas, Austin 1,539,380 46,537
U of Wisconsin 1,215,516 35,295
U of Wyoming 497,014 10,478

*A consortium of three universities in Arizona
**A joint license for ten University of California campuses
***A joint license for three University of Illinois campuses

If you like this kind of thing, then take a look at the appendix to their paper, from which the above table comes, and which is not behind a paywall. In case you have access to PNAS, the article is here.

One related thing I have found, which interests me a lot because of its relevance to this post, is a judgment from Greg Abbott, the Attorney General of Texas, that the University of Texas should release details of its contracts with publishers. The part that interests me starts near the bottom of page 3, where there is a detailed discussion of what constitutes a trade secret. Roughly speaking, information is a trade secret of one company if disclosing it to other companies would cause substantial competitive harm to the first company. The Attorney General concludes in robust terms that the Big Deal contracts do not meet the definition of a trade secret, which I agree with because the different publishing companies are not competing to sell the same product.

2. There is a fascinating blog post by David Colquhoun written in December 2011, which I would certainly have referred to before if I had been aware of it, in which he discusses in detail the situation at his institution, which is University College London. In it, he says, “I’ve found some interesting numbers, with help from librarians, and through access to The Journal Usage Statistics Portal (JUSP).” The word “interesting” is an understatement. The first number is that UCL then paid Elsevier €1.25 million for electronic only access to Elsevier journals. But as interesting as that headline figure is his analysis of the usage of Elsevier (and other) journals. As one might expect, but it is very good to see this confirmed, there are a few journals that are used a lot, but the usage tails off extremely rapidly.

3. In this country, there have been Freedom of Information requests to De Montfort University in 2010 (successful), Swansea University in 2014 (unsuccessful), and the University of Edinburgh in 2014 (successful). I recommend at this point that you read the refusal letter by Swansea. For reasons that I’ll come to, it is fairly clear that the letter was basically written by Elsevier, so it gives us some insight into their official reasons for wanting to keep their contracts secret. As I’ll discuss later, their arguments are very weak.

There was also a successful request to Swansea in 2013, but this one asked for the amount spent on all journal subscriptions, rather than just Elsevier subscriptions. It reveals that the amount went up from £1,514,890.88 in 2007/8 to £1,861,823.92 in 2011/12. (From the wording, it seems that these figures include VAT, but I’m not quite sure.) That’s a whopping 23% increase in four years. Of course, that may be because Swansea University decided to increase significantly the number of journals it subscribed to, but that explanation seems a trifle unlikely in the current economic climate. Whatever the explanation, the amount of money is very high.

The successful request to Edinburgh was made on January 16th by Sean Williams. The response was delayed, but on April 8th they finally responded, giving full details for two years and the totals for three. This reveals that Edinburgh spends around £845,000 plus VAT per year.

4. Recently there was a long negotiation between Elsevier and Couperin, a large consortium representing French academic insitutions. (Actually, I say long, but Elsevier apparently has an annoying habit of not beginning the process of negotiation in earnest until close to the end of the existing contract, so that the other side must either make decisions very quickly or risk large numbers of academics temporarily losing access to Elsevier journals.) The result was what one might call a Huge Deal, one that gave complete access to ScienceDirect to all academic institutions, from the very largest to the very smallest. Couperin professed to be pleased with the deal. I do not yet know whether that satisfaction is shared by the universities that are actually paying for it. If you want to know how much France is paying for access to ScienceDirect, then I recommend typing “Elsevier Couperin” into Google. After at most a couple of minutes of digging, you will find a document that tells you. Three important aspects of this deal are (i) that it lasts for five years, (ii) that the total amount paid to Elsevier is initially lower than before but goes up each year and ends up higher and (iii) that the access is now spread to many more institutions. What I do not know is what the effect of this is on the large universities that were paying for Elsevier journals before. Does the fact that many more institutions are involved mean that prices have gone down substantially? Or are most of the institutions that have newly been granted access paying very little for it and therefore not saving much money for the others? It would be good to have some insight into these questions. The bottom line though, is that Elsevier’s profits in France are protected by the deal.

5. Brazil too has a national agreement with Elsevier, and refuses to sign a confidentiality clause. Somewhere I did once find, or get referred to, a page with details about the deal, but have not managed to find it again. My memory of it was that it was rather hard to understand.

Update 25/4/2014: many thanks to Rafael Pezzi, whose comment below I reproduce here, for more information about the situation in Brazil.

From the Brazilian open science mailing list:

Brazil has an nation wide agreement providing journal access to 423 academic and research institutions. It is called Portal de Periódicos, provided by CAPES. According to its 2013 financial report [1], last year CAPES spent US$ 93,872,151.11 (with US$ 31,644,204.12 paid to Elsevier).

Some institutions that are not covered by the agreement, as they do not meet the eligibility criteria, had to pay in separate in order to get access to this portal, spending additional US$ 11,560,438.93.


[1] http://www.capes.gov.br/images/stories/download/Contas_Publicas/Relatorio-de-Gestao-2013.pdf

6. A comment by Anonymous below points me to a blog post that says that at the end of 2011 Purdue agreed a $2.9 million deal with Elsevier and describes the general situation facing libraries when they negotiate these deals. It also links to a post about Pittsburgh (with less precise figures).

My attempts to use the Freedom of Information Act

In early January, I decided to try to find out more about what UK universities are paying by making a request under the Freedom of Information Act. As in France, the negotiations are carried out by a consortium: the British one is called JISC collections. (It’s surprisingly hard to find out what JISC stands for: the answer is Joint Information Systems Committee.) Initially (to be precise, on the 8th of January), I wrote to Lorraine Estelle, who is the head of JISC collections. I made a FOI request, and the information I asked to be told was how much JISC had agreed to pay Elsevier in the most recent round of negotiations, and how that payment was shared between the institutions represented by JISC.

She suggested that we should speak on the phone, which we did. I learned some important things from the phone call, which I will come to later, but I did not get the information I had actually asked for. She explained why on the phone, and some time later, when I found that I couldn’t quite remember her explanation, I asked for a clarification in writing. She provided me with the following.

Your question: As I understood it, you didn’t actually have the data that I was asking for. Is that correct? And do you mean that you negotiated a total — which, presumably, you would know — but do not know how it was split between the various universities?

Answer: We do have the data and we do know the split – but because we do not actually aggregate the subscriptions ourselves for the Elsevier deal, I have to get the total sum and the split from Elsevier.

I interpret that as meaning that for legal purposes she did not have the information in a form that might have obliged her to disclose it under the Freedom of Information Act.

And thus, I was passed on to Alicia Wise. As many people who have had dealings with Alicia Wise have found, including Peter Murray-Rust in his attempts to stop Elsevier charging for access to open access articles, this is not a good situation to be in.

Obviously she didn’t say, “Of course, I’d be happy to provide you with that information.” But I’d have been satisfied with a clear statement from her that she was not prepared to provide it, and I couldn’t get that either. Here is a sample of our correspondence. (Incidentally, owing first to some misunderstanding and then, apparently, to Alicia Wise wanting to check that Lorraine Estelle had not given me any confidential information, which she hadn’t, the correspondence didn’t even begin until about a fortnight after Lorraine Estelle had passed on my request.)

Her first email message, sent on February 5th, explained that Elsevier makes “an array of pricing information publicly available” and provided some links. These were to list prices of journals, which, because of bundling, give no indication of what universities actually pay. She also proposed that we should meet, or perhaps talk on the phone. I wrote back on the 7th suggesting that a phone conversation would be more convenient. I got no response for four days, so on the 11th I sent my reply again, which prompted a suggestion of several possible dates for a meeting. She said,

Sorry, should have sent you a receipt acknowledgment. We’ve worked out internally that Chris Greenwell and I should, together, be able to answer questions that arise (although I am also contemplating inviting someone from our pricing team along in case you have very very detailed questions!)

At this point I had a little worry, so I put it to her.

But before we actually arrange anything, and in particular before we decide whether it is better to meet physically or by phone, perhaps it is worth clarifying what could come out of such a meeting. The main question I asked in my FOI request was the following: “there is one particular thing I would like to know, and that is details of the most recent round of negotiations between JISC and Elsevier. I would like to know what annual payment was agreed, and how that payment was shared between the higher education institutions represented.”

If you are prepared to answer that question in full (I’m talking actual amounts of money rather than the general principles underlying the negotiations), and without binding me to any confidentiality agreement, then we have something serious to talk about. If not, then I’m not sure there is any point in having a discussion. However, in the second case, it would still be useful to know your reasons for not being prepared to divulge the information.

She responded as follows.

Thanks for this. I continue to think a call or meeting would be helpful as my immediate question is what hypothesis do you have, or are you testing, that require data at this level of granularity? The data you request are commercially sensitive. I am wondering if publicly available data – for example the attached which is from publications by the Society of College, University, and National Libraries (http://www.sconul.ac.uk/) – might serve your purpose? If we could understand better what you are after and why, we might be better able to come up with data that helps you. (And, yes, we would have even greater flexibility if you were prepared to consider treating some information in confidence but I appreciate you might be unwilling to do so.)

To which I said this.

Thanks for sending those slides, though of course you must have known perfectly well that they would not be of any help to me.

I can’t see what is unclear about what I am after. As I said, I would like to know what the UK universities represented by JISC are paying annually for Elsevier journals (a combination of Core Collections and access to Science Direct). My main reason for wanting to know that is that I think it is in the public interest for people to know how much universities are spending.

However, there are more specific reasons that I am interested in the data. One is that because the cost to universities of their Core Collections is based on historic spend on print journals, there is the potential for very similar universities to pay very different amounts for a similar service from Elsevier. I have been told that this is the case — for example, Cambridge suffers because historically college libraries have subscribed to journals — but would like to have the data so that I can confirm this.

If you won’t give me this information on the grounds of commercial sensitivity, then just let me know, and it will save us all time.

That was on February 12th. Her next reply came on March 7th, and said this.

Thanks for this. I did intend for the slides to be useful to you, but now that you have explained more clearly what you are after can see this was not the case. They have, however, helped to move our conversation on. We are focused on delivering value for money to all our customers, including Cambridge. The most direct way to find out the information you are looking for with respect to Cambridge might be a conversation with the library there?

So after all that, I still didn’t have a straight answer. However, by then I had long since lost patience: on February 19th, I submitted Freedom of Information requests to all 24 Russell Group universities, with the exceptions of Cardiff, where my email kept bouncing back, and Exeter, which I missed out accidentally. (Later I sent requests to them too.) My request was as follows.

Dear [Head of university library],

I would like to make a request under the Freedom of Information Act. I am interested to know what [name of university] currently spends annually for access to Elsevier journals. I understand that this is typically split into three parts, a subscription price for core content, which is based on historic spend, a content fee for accessing those journals via ScienceDirect, and a further fee for accessing unsubscribed titles from the Freedom Collection, also via ScienceDirect. I would like to know the total fee, and how it is split up into those three components.

Many thanks in advance for any help you can give me on this.

Yours sincerely,

Timothy Gowers

Some results

When I sent these requests, I had very little idea what my chances were of finding anything out at all. Lorraine Estelle had told me that JISC Collections are firmly against confidentiality clauses, but that Elsevier had insisted. But also, and crucially, there was a clause about FOI requests that made it not completely certain that they would fail. Unfortunately, this clause cannot be made public. (Yes, you read that correctly: the confidentiality clause is itself confidential.) However, as we shall see, the responses by some of the universities give some indication of what is probably in it.

In the end, the result was that, to my surprise and delight, a substantial majority of universities decided to give me the information I wanted, though many of them gave me just the total and not the breakdown into its three components. Here are the figures from the 18 universities that were brave and public spirited enough to give me them, together with Edinburgh, which, for reasons I don’t understand, refused to give any figures to me but provided them to Sean Williams. The figures exclude VAT, which adds a not exactly negligible 20% to the cost, but at least that goes back to the taxpayer rather than swelling even further the coffers of Elsevier. The price is rounded to the nearest pound. I obtained the enrolment figures from this page.

Update 25/4/2014: Richard van Noorden has kindly pointed me to a document from which I can obtain staff numbers. So I’ve now added a third column to the table, which gives the number of full-time academic staff followed by the number of part-time academic staff. (These figures are for the academic year 2012/3. Again, they may not be a perfect measure of how much people are using Elsevier journals, but they are probably better than student numbers.)

Update 28/4/2014 Imperial College London has responded to my request for a review of their initial decision by providing me with their total figure (but not the breakdown).

Update 30/4/2014 The University of Nottingham has done the same. The breakdown is not provided because they “consider the likelihood and scale of prejudice here [to both Elsevier's and the University's commercial interests] to be very high and therefore the test favours application of the exemption.” It is clear that there is some kind of game going on here, since everybody knows that the breakdown is basically that almost the entire amount is the subscription fee, with the content fee and Freedom Collection fee being a tiny proportion of the whole. (See below for an explanation of what I am talking about here.) So there is no imaginable effect that publishing the exact numbers could possibly have. However, equally, it is not all that important to know them.

Update 16/5/2014 Queen Mary University of London has supplied their total figure to Edward Hughes, who is there.

Update 23/5/2014 I now have the figures from Oxford.

Update 31/5/2014 Figures from LSE added.

University Cost Enrolment Academic Staff
Birmingham £764,553 31,070 2355 + 440
Bristol £808,840 19,220 2090 + 525
Cambridge £1,161,571 19,945 4205 + 710
Cardiff £720,533 30,000 2130 + 825
*Durham £461,020 16,570 1250 + 305
**Edinburgh £845,000 31,323 2945 + 540
*Exeter £234,126 18,720 1270 + 290
Glasgow £686,104 26,395 2000 + 650
Imperial College London £1,340,213 16,000 3295 + 535
King’s College London £655,054 26,460 2920 + 1190
Leeds £847,429 32,510 2470 + 655
Liverpool £659,796 21,875 1835 + 530
§London School of Economics £146,117 9,805 755 + 825
Manchester £1,257,407 40,860 3810 + 745
Newcastle £974,930 21,055 2010 + 495
Nottingham £903,076 35,630 2805 + 585
Oxford £990,775 25,595 5190 + 775
* ***Queen Mary U of London £454,422 14,860 1495 + 565
Queen’s U Belfast £584,020 22,990 1375 + 170
Sheffield £562,277 25,965 2300 + 460
Southampton £766,616 24,135 2065 + 655
University College London £1,381,380 25,525 4315 + 1185
Warwick £631,851 27,440 1535 + 305
*York £400,445 17,405 1205 + 285

*Joined the Russell Group two years ago.
**Information obtained by Sean Williams.
***Information obtained by Edward Hughes.
§LSE subscribes to a package of subject collections rather than to the full Freedom Collection.

The universities for which I still do not have the information are Imperial College London, London School of Economics and Political Science, Nottingham, and Oxford. , and Queen Mary University of London. I still have hopes of finding out the figures for Imperial, Nottingham and Oxford, and will provide them if I do.

A striking aspect of these amounts is just how much they vary. How does it come about, for example, that University College London pays over twice as much as King’s College London, and almost six times as much as Exeter? In order to explain this, I need to say something about the system as it is at the moment. It is here that I am indebted to Lorraine Estelle.

The present system (as it is in the UK, but my guess is that these remarks apply more generally) would be inexplicable were it not for the fact that it grew out of an older system that existed before the internet. Given that fact, though, it makes a lot more sense. (I don’t mean that it is fair — just that its existence is comprehensible.) If you were an Elsevier executive managing the transition from a world of print journals to a world where most people want to read articles online, what service would you offer and what would you do about prices? Since it costs almost nothing to make articles that are already online available to more people, and since it is convenient for a university to have access to everything, the obvious service to offer is complete access to all Elsevier journals. But what should you charge for this service?

Up to now, different universities have spent significantly different amounts on Elsevier journals, so if you start all over again and work out a price for the complete package, either some universities will have to pay much more than they did before, which they would probably be unwilling to do, or some universities will end up paying much less than they did before and profits will suffer quite badly. So you try to devise a system that will give universities the new service at prices that are based on the old service. That way, no university ends up paying significantly more or less than it did before. But because this is unfair — after all, now different universities will be paying very different amounts for the same service — you feel that you can’t let the universities know what other universities are paying.

The current system in the UK is very much as the above thought experiment would lead one to expect. So it is easy to see why Elsevier wants confidentiality clauses. It also explains the rather strange structure of the deals that universities have with Elsevier. Typically they have a certain “core content” (roughly, the journals they subscribed to before the transition), for which they pay something close to list prices and receive print copies. They then pay a small extra fee for permanent electronic access to that core content, and another small extra fee for electronic access to all other Elsevier journals, but this time only while the university continues to have a contract with Elsevier. Of course, in such a situation a university would like to cut down its core content to zero, but that is not allowed: there are strict controls on what they are allowed to cancel. The buzz phrase here is “historic spend”, which roughly means what universities spent on print subscriptions before the transition to electronic access. The system ensures that what universities pay now closely matches their historic spend.

Here is how Lorraine Estelle explains it.

Prior to the move to online journal, each institution subscribed to titles on a title by title basis.
When NESLI was set up, our negotiations were confined to the “e-fee” or “top-up fee”.
This was the fee that institutions needed to pay in order to have access to all a publisher’s content in electronic format. Their “subscribed titles” plus all other titles from that publisher. (This is the deal that has become known as “The Big Deal’ and adopted by all major publishers).
The “e-fee” or “top-up fee” was (and usually is still) contingent of the institutions maintaining the level of spend for the “subscribed titles”.

This article provides the background to NESLI http://www.uksg.org/serials/nesli back in 1998

As institutions have moved to e-only – we negotiate with most publishers on the total cost across the consortium. However, in most (but not all) deals the division of spend across the UK library consortium is uneven – and still depends on the level of historic spend on subscribed titles. So an institution that used to subscribe to many titles, will still pay more than one that used to subscribe to fewer.

We negotiate the total increase – known as the price cap, the cancellation allowance (which means institutions can cancel a percentage of historically subscribed titles and still retain e-access), and the licence terms and conditions. This is not unique and it is the model employed by most academic library consortia across the world.

The deal is negotiated by Jisc Collections – but we do have support and input from the institutions. Oversight of our negotiations is provided by our Electronic Information Resources working group http://www.jisc-collections.ac.uk/About-JISC-Collections/Advisory-Groups/Electronic-Resources-Information-Group/ It is very rare for an institution to negotiate its own deal, because it would be difficult for them to get the same terms on an individual basis. The few exceptions are where an institution has a special relationship with a publisher – University of Oxford for OUP titles, for example.

All this is important, because it shows that a certain picture of how Elsevier operates, one that I used to believe in, is an oversimplification. In that picture, Elsevier insists on confidentiality clauses in order to be able to screw each university for whatever it can get. However, such a description is misleading on two counts. First, Elsevier negotiates with JISC rather than directly with universities, and secondly, the amount that universities pay is based on historic spend rather than on what Elsevier manages to wring out of them.

I say “an oversimplification” rather than “wrong” because if Elsevier did operate in the way I had previously imagined, the results would probably be rather similar. What is the maximum that Elsevier would be likely to persuade a university to pay? It would be very hard to persuade a university to agree to a huge leap in prices, so in each year one would expect the maximum to be whatever the university paid in the previous year plus a small real-terms increase. And all the evidence suggests that that is more or less exactly what Elsevier has managed to achieve.

Another factor that is perhaps worth briefly discussing is the fact that Durham, Exeter, Queen Mary University of London and York joined the Russell Group only two years ago. This probably helps to explain why (apart from QMUL, which refused to provide me with its figures) these universities are paying significantly less than most of the others. Whether Elsevier had an explicit policy of charging less to supposedly less prestigious universities (though the list of universities not in the Russell Group contains several that appear to me to be at least as prestigious as several that are in the Russell Group), or whether there is merely a strong correlation between membership of the Russell Group and historic spend on Elsevier journals, I don’t know. I think the former may be the case, since I have heard librarians talking about a “banding system” (I don’t know any details about how it works), and also because Bergstrom et al mention in their paper that in the US there is a classification of universities into different types according to how research intensive they are, with prices depending to a considerable extent on this classification.

A further factor that may possibly explain some of the data is that some institutions have recently merged with others. For example, The University of Manchester, one of the universities that pays most, merged in 2004 with UMIST (University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology), and UCL merged in 2012 with The School of Pharmacy, University of London. The latter fact may help to explain why they are paying so much more now than what David Colquhoun said they were paying in 2011.

Although the differences between the amounts that different universities pay are eye-catching, it is important to be clear that they are a symptom of what is wrong with the system, and not the problem itself. The problem is quite simply that Elsevier has a monopoly over a product for which the demand is still very inelastic (the lack of elasticity being largely the fault of the academic community), with the result that the prices are unreasonably high for the service that Elsevier provides. (It bears repeating that the refereeing process and editorial selection are not paid for by Elsevier — those services are provided free of charge by academics.) If Elsevier were to equalize the prices (or equalize some suitable quantity such as price divided by size of university, or price per use) while keeping the aggregate the same, this would not solve the underlying problem.

How the costs break down

As I have explained above, the price that a typical university pays to Elsevier in its Big Deal is divided into three components. One is a “subscription fee”, which is to pay for a certain collection of journals at something comparable to their list prices. Another is a “content fee”, which is to pay for electronic access in perpetuity to those titles (via ScienceDirect). The third is a “Freedom Collection fee”, which is to pay for electronic access to the rest of Elsevier’s journals, but this access, unlike the access covered by the content fee, is lost if you cancel the Big Deal.

I have got breakdowns from seven universities, but rather than give them here, I would rather simply make a few general points about them.

1. The content fee (that is, the fee for electronic access to the subscribed titles) is, in all the cases I know about, very close to 5.8824% of the subscription fee. Since 1/17=0.05882352941, I think that is saying that the content fee is exactly one seventeenth of the subscription fee, with the tiny differences coming from rounding errors. Of course, the precise details here are unimportant: what matters is that it is a very small amount compared with the subscription fee itself.

2. The Freedom Collection fees do not have an obvious relationship with the subscription fee, but, amusingly, with the seven examples I have, the more you pay for the latter, the less you pay for the former. That actually makes some kind of sense, since the more you are paying the content fee, the bigger the chunk of the Freedom Collection you are already subscribing to. I haven’t managed to reverse-engineer any kind of simple quantitative relationship between the two prices, however.

3. The inverse relationship in point 2 might seem to make things fairer, and to a very small extent it does, but we are talking about fees of between £10,000 and £25,000 here, so even for a university with a small subscription fee the price of the Freedom Collection fee is well under a tenth of its subscription fee. In fact, it doesn’t even make up for the discrepancy in the content fees, because the price is not high enough to do so. Of course, it is grotesquely misleading to say that the Freedom Collection costs so little, because the price you pay for it is conditional on not cancelling the subscriptions that keep the subscription fee extremely high. Indeed, the entire “breakdown” is misleading for that reason: the effective cost of the Freedom Collection is far higher than its nominal cost.

The moral of all this is that the figures giving the total cost are what matter. What universities actually need is electronic access to Elsevier’s journals. In order to get that access, Elsevier insists that they nominally pay for something else, namely subscriptions that they are not allowed to cancel (even when they are duplicates, as has happened in Cambridge because of college libraries, and probably in Manchester and UCL as a result of mergers). But that is of no practical importance. It’s a bit like those advertisements that say “FREE OFFER!” and then in very small print they add “when you spend over £X,” which of course means that the so-called free offer is not free at all.

The universities that refused to give me information

While I was still not at all sure that I would get any information about prices, I comforted myself with the thought that an institution that refuses a FOI request has to give reasons, and those reasons might well be informative. For example, they might reveal that the main reason for confidentiality is to protect Elsevier’s profits, which would conflict with Elsevier’s official reasons.

Or would it? If you’ve read this far, then your reward is the following rather wonderful video (which has done the rounds for a while, so you may have seen it) of David Tempest, from Elsevier, explaining why confidentiality clauses are necessary. Many thanks to Mike Taylor for obtaining it. A transcript can be found on his blog.

The person who asked the question is Stephen Curry, from Imperial College London. I’m sorry to say that, as mentioned above, Imperial is one of the universities I have not managed to get figures from. I’m glad to say that at last he can know what his university library is spending on his behalf.

David Tempest’s lapse aside, Elsevier usually does not admit that the confidentiality clauses are there to protect its profits. But the refusal letters I received tell a different story. A good example is the first response I had from any university (other than an acknowledgement), which was a refusal from Queen’s University Belfast. I will quote it in full.

Dear Mr Gowers

Freedom of Information Request – Elsevier Journals

My letter, dated 21 February 2014, in relation to the above refers. [sic]

Having reviewed your request and consulted with appropriate colleagues, I would respond as set out below:

I would like to make a request under the Freedom of Information Act. I am interested to know what Queen’s University Belfast currently spends annually for access to Elsevier journals. I understand that this is typically split into three parts, a subscription price for core content, which is based on historic spend, a content fee for accessing those journals via ScienceDirect, and a further fee for accessing unsubscribed titles from the Freedom Collection, also via ScienceDirect. I would like to know the total fee, and how it is split up into those three components.

I can confirm that whilst the University does hold this information, it is not being provided to you as it is considered exempt under Section 43(2) of the Act.

Section 43(2) of the Act provides that information is exempt if its disclosure under the Act would be likely to prejudice the commercial interests of any person, including the public authority itself.

Commercial interests relate to the ability to successfully participate in a commercial activity. This could be the ability to buy or sell goods or services or the disclosure of financial and planning information to market competitors. It is, therefore, necessary to decide whether release of this information will have an impact on the commercial activity of Elsevier or the University.

In making this determination, the University has consulted with Elsevier regarding the disclosure of the requested information and whether such disclosure would be likely to prejudice Elsevier’s commercial interests.

In written representations to the University, Elsevier has indicated that the disclosure of the amount of money spent annually on access to Elsevier journals would reveal pricing information, specifically the licensing fees that have been negotiated with the University in circumstances that may include a level of discount.

The disclosure of this information would be likely to have a detrimental effect on Elsevier’s future negotiating position with that of the University and, indeed, the wider HE sector – which represents a large percentage of their market.

The University accepts this argument and also considers that disclosure of information that would reveal pricing would also be likely to prejudice the commercial interests of the University itself, insofar as it could have a detrimental impact on the future negotiation of tailored solutions for licensing of Elsevier’s products and discounts from list prices.  

Section 43(2) is a qualified exemption and the University must, therefore, consider where the balance of the public interest lies.

The University accepts the need for transparency and accountability for decision making. The requirement, however, for transparency and accountability needs to be weighed against the harm to the commercial interests of third parties or the University itself through disclosure. The University has, therefore, weighed the prejudice caused by disclosure of the requested information against the likely benefit to the wider public.

In considering arguments in favour of disclosing the information, the University has taken into account the wider interest of the general public in having access to information on how public funds are spent. In this instance, there is a public interest in demonstrating that the University has negotiated a competitive rate in relation to the procurement of Elsevier’s products and services.

The University considers, however, that this public interest is already met by the significant amount of pricing information that Elsevier currently makes publicly available – such information is available at:

http:\www.elsevier.com/librarians/journal-pricing and

In relation to those factors favouring non-disclosure, the University has a duty to protect commercially sensitive information that is held about any third party. In this instance, disclosure of the amount of money spent by the University on Elsevier products would reveal pricing information that was acknowledged by both the University and Elsevier at the time the contract was entered into as being commercially confidential. Disclosure of this information would be likely to prejudice not only the commercial interests of Elsevier but also the interests of the University itself, along with the relationship that the University has with its supplier.

It is reasonable, therefore, in all the circumstances of this case that the exemption should be maintained and the requested information not disclosed.

If you are dissatisfied with the response provided, please put your complaint in writing to me at the above address. If this fails to resolve the matter, you have the right to apply to the Information Commissioner.

Yours sincerely

Amanda Aicken
Information Compliance Unit

I responded as follows.

Dear Amanda Aicken,

Thank you for your response to my Freedom of Information Request (reference FOI/14/42). You invited me to write to you if I was dissatisfied with it. I have a number of reasons for dissatisfaction, so I am taking you up on your invitation.

My main objection is that I disagree with several of your reasons for declining my request. I will present them as a numbered list.

1. You say that the disclosure of the information I ask for would be likely to have a detrimental effect on Elsevier’s future negotiating position with that of the university. You also say that it would be likely to prejudice the commercial interests of the university itself. I do not find these two statements easy to reconcile. Could you please explain how it is possible for both parties to lose out?

2. You agree with me that there is a public interest in demonstrating that the university has negotiated a competitive rate in relation to the procurement of Elsevier’s products and services. You go on to say that this public interest is already met by the information that Elsevier has made publicly available online. However, this is manifestly untrue. The only figures provided by Elsevier are for the list prices of their journals. But since universities pay for Elsevier’s Freedom Collection with a Big Deal, the list prices do not give me any way of verifying that the university has negotiated a competitive rate. Indeed, they do not even allow me to work out the order of magnitude of how much Queen’s University is paying to Elsevier. Please would you either retract your statement that this public interest has already been met by Elsevier, or else explain to me how to use the list prices to estimate the total amount paid by Queen’s University?

3. Your letter implies that there are direct negotiations between Elsevier and Queen’s University of Belfast. However, this is also not true. The negotiations are mediated through JISC. Therefore, there is no obvious mechanism whereby disclosing the prices would cause any commercial harm to the university.

4. It has not escaped my notice that the letter you sent is remarkably similar to a letter sent by the University of Swansea to somebody else who made a similar request. It is clear that you used that letter as a template, or else that you and the University of Swansea used the same template, perhaps provided by Elsevier. This suggests to me that you have not considered the balance of arguments for and against disclosure with sufficient independence.

In summary, the main two points that I cannot accept are that the financial interests of Queen’s University are likely to be prejudiced by the disclosure of this information, and that there is sufficient information in the public domain to enable me to determine whether the university has negotiated a competitive rate. If you are going to refuse to disclose the information, then I would like it to be for reasons that are not obviously false.

Yours sincerely,

Timothy Gowers

The Swansea letter I referred to is this one, which I have already mentioned. It was the formulaic nature of the response, with ghastly Orwellian phrases such as “tailored solutions” and misleading references to “a level of discount” that appeared not just in these two letters but in many other refusal letters that I was to receive, that got me annoyed enough to express my dissatisfaction, which in the case of Queen’s University Belfast and a handful of other universities eventually resulted in success. The response I received to my letter above was as follows. It did not really address my arguments, but since it gave me the information that was not a big concern.

Dear Mr Gowers,

Freedom of Information Request — Elsevier Journals — Internal Review

Your email to Mrs Amanda Aicken, dated 5 March 2014, requesting an internal review of the University’s response to your Freedom of Information request on the above, refers.

On 21 February 2014, you submitted a request for information in relation to the University’s annual expenditure on access to Elsevier Journals. You requested details of the total fee and how this is split up into three components: a subscription price for core content; a contnet fee for accessing those journals via ScienceDirect; and a further fee for accessing unsubscribed titles from the Freedom Collection.

On 4 March 2014, the University responded to your request, confirming that whilst this information was held, it was not being provided to you as it was considered commercially sensitive information and, therefore, was exempt under Section 43(2) of the Act. The University had made this determination following consultation with Elsevier, which had indicated that the disclosure of the requested information would prejudice its commercial interests by revealing pricing information. In particular, Elsevier argued that disclosure of the information would reveal the licensing fees that had been negotiated with the University in circumstances that may have included a level of discount.

I understand that you, subsequently, lodged a complaint in respect of the University’s response to your request and this complaint has been handled as an internal review of the decision not to provide the requested information.

You have expressed dissatisfaction with the response on the grounds that you ‘cannot accept (are) that the financial interests of Queen’s University are likely to be prejudiced by the disclosure of this information, and that there is sufficient information in the public domain to enable me to determine whether the University has negotiated a competitive rate’.

I have now completed my review and my findings are detailed below.

I have reconsidered the nature of the requested information and the application of the exemption to withhold this information. In doing so, I have taken into account written advice from relevant senior staff in the University’s McClay Library and advice received from JISC regarding the detail of the contract with Elsevier. I have also noted your comments regarding the need for transparency and the public interest in demonstrating that the University has negotiated a competitive rate in relation to the procurement of Elsevier’s products and services.

At the time of your request, the University was clearly of the view that disclosure of the requested information would be likely to have a detrimental effect on Elsevier’s future negotiating position with that of the University and, indeed, the wider HE sector. An additional, albeit secondary argument, was the possibility that disclosure would prejudice the interests of the University itslef with respect to the relationship that the University has with Elsevier as a supplier. I am persuaded that that [sic] this was not, in the circumstances, an unreasonable view.

I do, however, believe that on balance, the public interest in disclosure was greater than that in maintaining the commercial interests exemption. I also understand that subsequent to your original request, several institutions have disclosed information, either in relation to the total annual expenditure on access to Elsevier Journals, or on the detailed breakdown of expenditure as requested.

In light of the above, it is my view that the information should now be disclosed. I am, therefore, providing the requested information in relation to 2014 — this is provided in the table below.

I have had several correspondences like this. I would like to pick out a couple of excerpts from other refusal letters that are not essentially contained in the Belfast letter. I had this rather chilling paragraph from Queen Mary University of London.

However, in addition to the reasons outlined above already, revealing this information to the world at large may damage the relationship that QML has with Elsevier including the prospect of legal action that may be taken against QML. This could result in QML being unable to offer Elsevier products which would have the knock-on effect of impacting our resources, our research and even student recruitment. Since these would imperil QML’s finances, in financially tough times and while receiving less and less from the public purse, this cannot be said to be in the public interest.

It would be interesting to know what Elsevier said to them to provoke that. Because of this paragraph, I felt sorry for QMUL and decided not to request a review of their decision (16/5/2014 — they have now provided the total figure to Edward Hughes, perhaps reasoning that there was safety in numbers).

However, the following paragraph from Oxford had the opposite effect on me.

Maintaining confidentiality with regard to the information requested enables the University and Elsevier to arrive at a fair and competitive negotiated and customised price. Full pricing transparency would mean that the best pricing model publishers could offer would be list price, which would be likely to result in increased costs to the University. Disclosure of pricing terms would inhibit publishers’ ability to develop flexible, tailored solutions suitable for a particular customer’s needs.

Part of my response to that was that the statement beginning “Full pricing transparency” was manifestly false: publishers could offer any model they like. Also, that “tailored solutions” phrase is a red rag to a bull: knowing about how the system works, and how little it is “tailored for a particular customer’s needs”, I cannot read it without getting annoyed. I have requested a review from Oxford but not yet heard back (though they should, legally, have responded by now). and they have now given me their total figure.

Incidentally, although I wrote initially to librarians, they were legally obliged to pass my requests on to their Freedom of Information offices, so the letters I got back were (mostly) from bureaucrats. So when I got refusals, this did not necessarily reflect the wishes of the librarians, who stand to gain from the prices being known.

Why pick on Elsevier?

When it comes to high prices and confidentiality contracts, Elsevier are not the only offenders, though there is some anecdotal evidence that they are the leaders, in the sense that other publishers use Elsevier as a benchmark to see what they can get away with. So why submit Freedom of Information requests for Elsevier contracts without doing the same for Springer, Wiley, Taylor-Francis, etc.?

There is no good reason. My answer to this inevitable question is that I do not regard the work of finding out about journal prices as finished. I will report on this blog if and when I or other people find out about other publishers and other universities.

Quick preview

There is a great deal more that could be said about journal prices and what should be done about them. However, this post has passed the 10,000-word mark, so I shall leave further discussion for a second post. Among the questions I intend to address are the following, many of which concern other big publishers just as much as they concern Elsevier.

1. Is it fair to say that Elsevier is a monopoly?

2. Does Elsevier’s pricing policy violate competition law?

3. What would be a fair system for charging for electronic access to a large collection of journals?

4. Are the current prices really all that unreasonable, given the importance to science of journal articles?

5. Is it better for university libraries to form consortia or should they negotiate individually?

6. What would be the implications for Cambridge (and perhaps other universities too) of a switch to paying list prices for individual journals?

7. Different subjects have very different publishing cultures and very different needs. Are they better off campaigning together in a single open access movement or would it be better to have a fragmented movement, with different subjects campaigning separately for their different interests?

8. What more can be done to accelerate a move towards a cheaper journal system?

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158 Responses to “Elsevier journals — some facts”

  1. Joe Turner (@bucksci) Says:

    Have you (or will you) appeal to the Information Commissioner?

  2. ferniglab Says:

    Great post and thanks for digging out these data, most useful in discussions on campus on where we should spend out money.

  3. Mike Taylor Says:

    I’ve only read the opening of this very long blog-post, but I want to respond straight away to an early statement:

    “I don’t want to rehearse the arguments for and against APCs in this post, except to say that there is no sign that they will help to bring down costs any time soon and no convincing market mechanism by which one might expect them to.”

    While recognising that there are good reasons to have reservations about APCs. I think both halves of this statement are incorrect.

    First, on costs. We know that the average cost to the world of a subscription paper is about $5000 US. That comes from the STM Report for 2012, which reported subscription revenue of $9.1 billion on about 1.85 million published articles. By contrast, even the publisher-inflated Finch Report estimate of APCs put them in the range £1500-2000 ($2500-$3400), which is little more than half as much. But the more realistic average APC calculated by Solomon and Bjork (2012) across 100,000 articles was about $900 — less than a fifth of what we currently pay for subscriptions. (And that ignores the finding of multiple studies that over half of OA journals do not levy APCs at all.)

    Second, on mechanisms: we all know that there is no market in subscriptions, because each journals holds a monopoly on the articles that appear in it. If I want to read an article in Cretaceous Research but I don’t like Elsevier’s inflated price, I can’t get it from Wiley instead. By contrast, publishers offering services to authors have to compete on a paper-by-paper basis. If I don’t like Elsevier’s $3000 APC, I can choose instead to use PLOS ONE for $1350, or indeed PeerJ for $99. That’s a market; and markets drive prices down.

    In short, if we could flip today to an APC-dominated rather than subscription-dominated world, we as a community would save 82% of what we’re paying now; and we could expect that cost to continue to fall.

    Again, for avoidance of doubt, I am not saying that APCs are without problem — just that the purely financial case for them is very strong from the academy’s perspective.

    • gowers Says:

      I question what you say about mechanisms. If authors paid out of their own pocket, then what you write would make sense. But if APCs are being paid by university or other funds, then there is a conflict of interest between an author who wants to publish in an expensive but prestigious journal and a university that wants to save money. I suppose if you have two very comparable journals then there will be pressure on them to charge comparable fees, but again only if those paying the charges get to call the shots to some extent — and that is fairly problematic.

      Also, the “any time soon” qualification was important in the first half of what I said. I agree that if we could switch to an APC-only system tomorrow, then it would be a lot cheaper.

    • Mike Taylor Says:

      You’re right of course that the downward pressure on prices is greatly weakened when people are spending Other People’s Money. That’s why I’ve been advocating for RCUK’s APC funds to cover only a certain amount — £1000, say, in the short team — leaving researchers who want to be in more expensive journals to pay the difference — or half the difference, or some other formula. The important thing is for people making expensive choices to feel some of the pain of that expense.

    • Anonymous Says:

      I think you are severely overestimating the extent to which most mathematicians – especially early-career researchers – have any choice about publishing in prestigious journals. The only reduction of demand would come from the shrinking of the sector as a whole, as researchers would be forced to pay thousands of pounds out of pocket for any possibility of career advancement. Or simply to keep their existing jobs. Or, in the case of postdocs, to ever get a long-term job in the first place.

    • Mike Taylor Says:

      You may well be right — my own field is less dependent on (though not wholly free of) judging the quality of researchers’ work by what brand-name is attached to it.

      In any case, when that prestige is literally bought by paying a higher APC, I think we can legitimately expect that people will start to regard it with a bit more skepticism. “Oh this paper must be superb, he paid $6000 to have it published in the Awesome Journal Of Spiffy Maths”.

  4. Anonymous Says:

    For information on banding check out: https://www.jisc-collections.ac.uk/Help-and-information/JISC-Banding/

  5. Piero Giacomelli (@pierogiacomelli) Says:

    For what I see it is very easly to access sciencedirect outside university proxy and download illegal copy of papers

  6. John Says:

    Great article, a lot of work. I work in a Library, but directly with sub budgets, much this all rings true.

    To pick up on a couple of things:
    you mention banding – you can find out details here https://www.jisc-collections.ac.uk/Help-and-information/JISC-Banding/

    Jisc Collections (fun fact, Jisc no longer stands for anything, hence no longer all capitals) negotiates on Universities’ behalf but doesn’t act as a middleman, hence wont know exactly what is spent.

    In terms of the Russell Group spending more. I can’t say for sure, partly they are larger Universities compared to 1994 Group (which was made up of smaller Universities), would probably of had larger subscriptions, and larger budgets, and oxbridge and similar would often have many subs to the same journal for their various libraries (moving to online, was somewhat painful for them i understand).

    In terms of how the payment is broken down. We also pay a one-off fee for the backfiles to a journal or collection of journals, and then pay an ongoing (small) hosting fee per year.

    For the Core titles, we have a choice of print and online, or online only. (common with all publishers). The former has a higher cost, plus to cost of doing something with print journals, space and processing. But you do not pay VAT (and as you note the cost of core titles is the largest part). Online only isn’t 20% cheaper and hence costs more than the P&E price.

    As an aside APCs are proving a real nightmare, many many phone calls per APC.

  7. Richard Van Noorden Says:

    Adding a little more on banding: it appears that the institutions paying the most – UCL, Manchester, Cambridge in your list – are those in the top JISC band (see https://www.jisc-collections.ac.uk/Help-and-information/JISC-Banding/New-JISC-Bands-for-HE-HEIs-listed-by-band-1-10/ though the old banding, which was in operation until April 2014, is at http://www.jisc-collections.ac.uk/Help-and-information/JISC-Banding/HE-A-J-banding-list/).

    The banding is based on ” all relevant income: this is all the income each institution receives in relation to research, teaching and other knowledge-based activities such as consultancy”.

    It’s probably no accident that UCL, Manchester and Cambridge also have the most full-time academic staff; this seems a better measure than the size of student enrolment, re why these institutions are in the top bands and pay the most in subscription fees.

  8. Ernesto Priego Says:

    Thank you very much indeed for this.

    I look forward to your next entry. Number 7 is an important question, but I worry that a fragmented open access “movement” (for lack of better term at the moment) would allow for the more conservative forces in more conservative fields to keep arguing that, for instance, open access is something that scientists can do but humanists can’t. There might be different historical attitudes to ownership and authority in the humanities than in the sciences (perhaps) but some of us in the humanities and social sciences would very much prefer as much openness as possible. The drive for open access in the humanities has benefitted from the impulse and attitudes towards open access in STEM fields; fragmenting that front would, I fear, have negative consequences for the thrust we need at the moment…

  9. telescoper Says:

    Reblogged this on In the Dark and commented:
    Read this, and weep as you learn that Elsevier’s ruthless profiteering continues unabated…

  10. Pavel Zorin Says:

    I woudl like to state a complementary point of view on the problem of journal pricing and address Question 8 in your concluding remarks.

    In the countries I am familiar with, research libraries are funded from public sources. If the effective prices of the required publications rise, through bundling or any other mechanism, then this is also a problem for the funding agencies which face either rising costs or diminishing efficiency of the researchers when their access to literature becomes restricted. One course of action would be therefore to have our professional associations or associations of universities lobby for increased funding or legislation changes that would benefit the cause of providing better access to literature to all interested researchers in other ways. In summary, I think that, whatever is the issue, it should also be addressed at political level.

  11. aubreymcfato Says:

    Reblogged this on Questo blog non esiste and commented:
    Lunghissimo post da parte di Tim Gowers, che dichiara qui quanto spendono le università inglese per le riviste Elsevier. Una cosa da ripetere anche in Italia.

  12. E Says:

    Richard van Noorden makes a good point about using staff numbers instead of student enrolment. Also could you plot the data that you present in the table?

    • gowers Says:

      I would have liked to do that but couldn’t find data on staff numbers. If someone could provide me with a suitable link (even better would be numbers of staff doing subjects that have significant numbers of Elsevier journals, but that’s probably asking too much), I would be happy to add the numbers to the table.

  13. Zen Faulkes (@DoctorZen) Says:

    I plotted the data in your two tables that linked costs and university enrolment:

    US universities: https://twitter.com/DoctorZen/status/459337721761103872

    UK universities: https://twitter.com/DoctorZen/status/459341032132714496

    I’m interested that the slopes of the lines and the amount of scatter seem rather different in the two countries.

  14. Zen Faulkes (@DoctorZen) Says:

    Blog post with slightly better versions of both graphs tweeted above: http://neurodojo.blogspot.com/2014/04/cost-of-elsevier-journals-by-university.html

  15. Richard Van Noorden Says:

    Here is total income, 2011/12 (http://www.hesa.ac.uk/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1900&Itemid=239) , vs cost paid to Elsevier. Sorry, I can’t work out how to format replies.

    University Cost Total income (2011/12), thousands
    *Exeter £234,126 272824000
    *York £400,445 263212000
    *Durham £461,020 263970000
    Sheffield £562,277 450920000
    Queen’s U Belfast £584,020 286314000
    Warwick £631,851 440088000
    King’s College London £655,054 554220000
    Liverpool £659,796 433744000
    Glasgow £686,104 439839000
    Cardiff £720,533 425539000
    Birmingham £764,553 471997000
    Southampton £766,616 437873000
    Bristol £808,840 426741000
    **Edinburgh £845,000 700887000
    Leeds £847,429 537554000
    Newcastle £974,930 386293000
    Cambridge £1,161,571 1322128000
    Manchester £1,257,407 807311000
    UCL £1,381,380 871210000

    • Richard Van Noorden Says:

      [Total income is as stated, not in 'thousands'. I.e. Cambridge's was £1.3 billion]

    • gowers Says:

      I had a look at Cambridge’s income a few days ago and plan to discuss in my next post whether it is reasonable for a university to pay 0.1% of its income on Elsevier journals. The fact that it’s a fairly small proportion isn’t necessarily all that relevant: for example, a £20 cup of coffee would be a manageably small proportion of my daily salary, but still outrageously expensive. I think what matters is more like the proportion of what the university has left when certain obviously necessary things such as salaries (which are in the region of half Cambridge’s turnover), electricity bills, building maintenance, etc. etc., are paid for.

      Anyhow, thanks very much for providing this table, and thanks to you and to Zen Faulkes for your graphical representations. Here are two more of the latter, which I think are not yet linked to.



  16. Richard Van Noorden Says:

    HESA staff numbers are here: http://www.hesa.ac.uk/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1898

    HESA student numbers are here: http://www.hesa.ac.uk/content/view/1897/239/

    • gowers Says:

      Thanks very much for that. I’ve now added a column to the table giving numbers of academic staff. It would be great if you or Zen Faulkes could plot cost against staff numbers too: I get the impression that there will be a fair amount of scatter.

  17. Mike Taylor Says:

    That letter from Queen’s University Belfast is really something. From the craven substance — “We’d tell you the prices were it not for the very real danger that knowing this stuff would enable universities to negotiate better prices in the next round” — to the malformed URLs.

    Really, they might just as well have just said “We’d tell you but we’re Elsevier’s bitches” and left it at that.

    • Mike Taylor Says:

      I mean, seriously:

      The disclosure of this information would be likely to have a detrimental effect on Elsevier’s future negotiating position with that of the University.

      Isn’t that exactly the same as saying “a positive effect on the University future negotiating position with Elsevier”?

    • gowers Says:

      Indeed. It was this inconsistency (with their later claim that disclosing the information could prejudice the commercial interests of the university) that made me feel I had no option but to request a review.

      I’d like to stress that there’s nothing special about Belfast here. I had refusal letters from many universities, including several that eventually gave me the information, and they were all clearly modelled on the same document, giving almost exactly the same reasons, including the same buzz phrases such as “may include a level of discount” and “tailored solutions”. The template was, I presume, Elsevier’s response to being notified of the FOI requests.

      That’s funny about the malformed URLs — I hadn’t spotted that.

  18. Academics investigate Big Deals | Bibliographic Wilderness Says:

    […] Elsevier journals — some facts; from Gowers’ Weblog […]

  19. Anonymous Says:

    Here’s a blog post from 2011 about Purdue University in the U.S. spending $2.9 million for a one year contract with Elsevier.

    The article also includes references to what several other U.S. universities pay.


    This blog post (same source) has some numbers from the U. of Pittsburgh.

  20. Raymond johnson Says:

    Some might just consider this hearsay, but at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association earlier this month, William Pope (http://education.illinois.edu/people/billcope) said a University of Illinois librarian told him they paid Elsevier $4.5 million per year. I don’t know if that figure was for multiple universities in the University of Illinois system or solely for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

    • gowers Says:

      I wonder how it relates to the information from Bergstrom et al that three U of Illinois campuses were paying $2.3m in 2009. It seems hard to believe that the amount has doubled in five years, but maybe that is not comparing like with like.

  21. David Roberts Says:

    I asked Elsevier a little while back for a spreadsheet of the APCs for all their journals. It took a couple of weeks to get just the list for mathematics journals, which classification is a little inconsistent across their website. I haven’t heard back on the rest. It surprises me that this information isn’t at their fingertips.

  22. brembs Says:

    For German library budgets, this is all open knowledge:
    These data can be downloaded in spreadsheets and analyzed. Granted, not by publisher, but by library.
    For instance, when I last checked (http://blogarchive.brembs.net/comment-n900.html), german libraries spent in 2011

    170 million € on books
    130 million € on subscriptions

  23. The Cost of Academic Publishing - Boork - The Comics Grid blog Says:

    […] Tim Gowers has released data showing that 19 Russell Group Universities alone spend over £14.4 million (excluding VAT) on […]

  24. Nick T. Says:

    Can we find someone interested in getting his/her teeth into this as a research project in itself? I heard someone from the Harvard Business School talk at a conference recently (Ben Edelman), and this appears to be within their area of expertise.

  25. Uwe Stroinski Says:

    1. Is it fair to say that Elsevier is a monopoly?

    No. Elsevier is part of an oligopoly and they are aware of this. Compare e.g. the content of the video with the following quote taken from the Wikipedia entry:

    For example, an oligopoly considering a price reduction may wish to estimate the likelihood that competing firms would also lower their prices and possibly trigger a ruinous price war.

    Many other characteristics for oligopolies are satisfied: They are price setters, high entry barrier for competitors, perfect knowledge to sellers, imperfect knowledge to buyers aso.

    2. Does Elsevier’s pricing policy violate competition law?

    Elsevier’s pricing policy alone might be ok. However, if the lack of competition in the market segment is due to harmful behaviour of the oligopoly then it might be worthwhile to consult an expert (a lawyer).

    • Mike Taylor Says:

      Elsevier is not a monopoly for authors: there are other academic publishers that we can choose to publish with.

      But it is a monopoly for readers: any given article that they publish is available from them and no-one else. We can’t go to an alternative publisher to read the same article at a lower price. So there is no price competition.

      Since we all spend much more of our time reading papers than writing them, that means that in effect Elsevier is indeed a monopoly for us. As is every other publisher.

    • gowers Says:

      The big difference between the situation with the small number of major publishers and a traditional oligopoly is that the products they are selling are not interchangeable. So it’s not obvious that the conditions are there for a price war. If Elsevier lowered its prices, what need would Springer and Wiley have to lower theirs in response? They are selling different journals that are also (perceived to be) important to libraries. And even if Springer and Wiley did respond by lowering their prices, why would Elsevier need to lower theirs further? It’s not like tablet computers, where if you balk at the cost of an ipad you can go for another firm’s product instead, perhaps with slightly different functionality.

  26. edwardfhughes Says:

    Reblogged this on Edward F Hughes and commented:
    I’ll try chatting to the relevant people here at QMUL and see whether I can dig deeper into the legal implications threatened by Elsevier. I’ll let you know what I find.

  27. Rafael Pezzi Says:


    From the Brazilian open science mailing list:

    Brazil has an nation wide agreement providing journal access to 423 academic and research institutions. It is called Portal de Periódicos, provided by CAPES. According to its 2013 financial report [1], last year CAPES spent US$ 93,872,151.11 (with US$ 31,644,204.12 paid to Elsevier).

    Some institutions that are not covered by the agreement, as they do not meet the eligibility criteria, had to pay in separate in order to get access to this portal, spending additional US$ 11,560,438.93.


    [1] http://www.capes.gov.br/images/stories/download/Contas_Publicas/Relatorio-de-Gestao-2013.pdf

  28. Stevan Harnad Says:


    Tim Gowers is quite right that “ the pace of change is slow, and the alternative system that is most strongly promoted — open access articles paid for by article processing charges [“Gold OA”] — is one that mathematicians tend to find unpalatable. (And not only mathematicians: they are extremely unpopular in the humanities.)… there is no sign that they will help to bring down costs any time soon and no convincing market mechanism by which one might expect them to.”

    This is all true as long as the other form of OA (“Green OA” self-archiving by authors of published articles in OA repsositories, mandated by funders and institutions) has not prevailed.

    The current Finch/RCUK policy, preferring Gold OA, has had its predictable perverse effects:

    1. sustaining arbitrary, bloated Gold OA fees
    2. wasting scarce research funds
    3. double-paying publishers [subscriptions plus Gold]
    4. handing subscription publishers a hybrid-gold-mine
    5. enabling hybrid publishers to double-dip
    6. abrogating authors’ freedom of journal-choice [based on cost-recovery model, embargo or licence instead of on quality]
    7. imposing re-mix licenses that many authors don’t want and most users and fields don’t need
    8. inspiring subscription publishers to adopt and lengthen Green OA embargoes [to maxmize hybrid-gold revenues]
    9. handicapping Green OA mandates worldwide [by incentivizing embargoes]
    10. allowing journal-fleet publishers to confuse and exploit institutions and authors even more

    But the solution is also there (as already adopted by University of Liege and FRS-FNRS (the Belgian Francophone research funding council), EC Horizon2020 proposed and now adopted by HEFCE for REF2020.

    a. funders and institutions mandate immediate-deposit
    b. of the peer-reviewed final draft
    c. in the author’s institutional repository
    d. immediately upon acceptance for publication
    e. whether journal is subscription or Gold
    f. whether access to the deposit is immedate-OA or embargoed
    g. whether license is transfered, retained or CC-BY;
    h. institutions implement repository’s facilitated email eprint request Button;
    i. institutions designate immediate-deposit the mechanism for submitting publications for research performance assessment;
    j. institutions monitor and ensure immediate-deposit mandate compliance

    This policy restores author choice, moots publisher embargoes, makes Gold and CC-BY completely optional, provides the incentive for author compliance and the natural institutional mechanism for verifying it, consolidates funder and institutional mandates; hastens the natural death of OA embargoes, the onset of universal Green OA, and the resultant institutional subscription cancellations, journal downsizing and transition to Fair-Gold OA at an affordable, sustainable price, paid out of institutional subscription cancellation savings instead of over-priced, double-paid, double-dipped Fool’s-Gold. And of course Fair-Gold OA will license all the re-use rights users need and authors want to allow.

    In summary, plans by universities and research funders to pay the costs of Gold OA today are premature. Funds are short; 80% of journals (including virtually all the top journals) are still subscription-based, tying up the potential funds to pay for Gold OA; the asking price for Gold OA is still high; and there is concern that paying to publish may inflate acceptance rates and lower quality standards. What is needed now is for universities and funders to mandate Green OA self-archiving (of authors’ final peer-reviewed drafts, immediately upon acceptance for publication). That will provide immediate OA; and if and when universal Green OA should go on to make subscriptions unsustainable (because users are satisfied with just the Green OA versions) that will in turn induce journals to cut costs (print edition, online edition, access-provision, archiving), downsize to just providing the service of peer review, and convert to the Gold OA cost-recovery model; meanwhile, the subscription cancellations will have released the funds to pay these residual service costs. The natural way to charge for the service of peer review then will be on a “no-fault basis,” with the author’s institution or funder paying for each round of refereeing, regardless of outcome (acceptance, revision/re-refereeing, or rejection). This will minimize cost while protecting against inflated acceptance rates and decline in quality standards.

  29. Stevan Harnad Says:

    (References for preceding posting)

    Harnad, S. (2007) The Green Road to Open Access: A Leveraged Transition. In: Anna Gacs. The Culture of Periodicals from the Perspective of the Electronic Age. L’Harmattan. 99-106. http://eprints.ecs.soton.ac.uk/13309/

    ________ (2010) No-Fault Peer Review Charges: The Price of Selectivity Need Not Be Access Denied or Delayed. D-Lib Magazine 16 (7/8). http://eprints.ecs.soton.ac.uk/21348/

    ________ (2013) Harnad Comments on HEFCE/REF Open Access Mandate Proposal. Open access and submissions to the REF post-2014 http://eprints.soton.ac.uk/349893/

    ________ (2013) Finch Group reviews progress in implementing open access transition amid ongoing criticisms. LSE Impact of Social Sciences Blog November 18th 2013

    ________ (2013) “Nudging” researchers toward Gold Open Access will delay the shift to wider access of research. LSE Impact of Social Sciences Blog December 5th, 2013

  30. Iain McGinniss Says:

    I just wanted to thank you for the very important work you have done for this post. I always speculated that the universities were being gouged by Elsevier and others, but now we have hard numbers to go with that. I can only hope that this helps expedite the movement towards open access journals.

  31. Anonymous Says:

    Perhaps aligning the interests of the shareholders and the customers of Elsevier would help. That is, if the various universities with multibillion dollar endowments banded together and bought up a sizable share of Elsevier, then the profits would go back into the academic system (in the short term), and also one would hope that the new owners of Elsevier would be more benevolent and lower the prices over the long run.

  32. This Week’s Finds em Relatividade 12 | True Singularity Says:

    […] ontem publicamos um guest post sobre publicações open acess, covnenientemente o Tim Gowers trás um update do boicote à Elsevier. Longo, porém […]

  33. Pierre Estienne Says:

    “1. Is it fair to say that Elsevier is a monopoly?

    2. Does Elsevier’s pricing policy violate competition law?

    Can’t wait to have your take on this. Amazing post, thank you!

  34. pcastrom1 Says:

    Thanks for this excellent post.

    Any approach to assessment of commercial relationships between Elsevier and the HEIs would benefit from a wider take on connected areas to journal subscriptions such as Current Research Information Systems (CRIS). In short, CRISs are the systems HEIs use for recording all the information related to their research activity in order to put together their reports for funders or the Government through the REF exercise. Atira, the Danish company which developed the (quite expensive) Pure CRIS run at many research-intensive UK HEIs, was not long ago purchased by Elsevier, with the rather unsettling result of delivering an internal, very relevant chunk of institutional research admin activity into the hands of their (very clever indeed) journal subs provider. You have now workshops being organised like this “Pure Seminar at the University of York” held earlier this month, https://www.regonline.com/builder/site/Default.aspx?EventID=1504334, a fact which did surely have an impact on some of the replies you collected for your FOI requests (for instance QUB do run Pure and its cost was certainly not negligible, even if much lower than the annual expense on journal access). I struggle however to figure out how to provide the appropriate data without turning it into an unpleasant exercise of finger-pointing, and I am very much looking forward to seeing the figures that will result from RCUK’s assessment on the impact of their Gold OA policy and block grant APC funding after its first year of application.

  35. joshgans Says:

    On an anti-trust claim or competition law violation. Alas there isn’t one. Basically, competition law prevents the use of market power to gain market power elsewhere it doesn’t stop you exercising market power where you have it. Elsevier has market power. Unless you can show it is using that to make some competitive market uncompetitive, there is no case.

  36. Anonymous Says:

    http://www.thelancetstudent.com/ http://www.journals.elsevier.com/womens-studies-international-forum/ http://tinyurl.com/kauqg8k
    ”gouging.. ”?

  37. Recently read (21-27 April): Predatory publishing, languages, quitting and persevering | Achilleas Kostoulas Says:

    […] on the topic of academic publishers, Sean Williams at Gower’s Weblog has written an interesting account of the financial operations of academic publishers. This (long-ish) post provides a number of […]

  38. dsannella Says:

    I think you’re exaggerating the point about universities’ FOI responses being modelled on a template that you suggest is supplied by Elsevier. It is completely standard for commercial non-disclosure agreements to include an exception for things like FOI requests, with the required action in that case being to notify the other party in order to allow a response to be agreed. So this is exactly as one would expect.

    • gowers Says:

      Maybe I exaggerated very slightly. I think what happened was that, as you say, Elsevier was notified and gave its response, and that the FOI offices then based their responses to me on what Elsevier had written to them. Maybe the word “template” is going too far, but there are a lot of close similarities in the wordings of the letters.

  39. Marcelo de Almeida Says:

    Reblogged this on Being simple.

  40. Progress, and yet | mliswilltravel Says:

    […] http://gowers.wordpress.com/2014/04/24/elsevier-journals-some-facts/ […]

  41. ScienceSeeker Editors’ Selections: April 20 – 26, 2014 | ScienceSeeker Blog Says:

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  42. David Colquhoun Says:

    It’s just brilliant that you’ve managed to extract as much information as you have. And it’s amazing that my 2011 figure of 1.25 million euro for UCL alone is already out of date.

    I think it would most certainly be worth appealing to the Information Commissioner to get the information that is still missing. If you win that (my guess is you’d have a good chance), it’s quite likely that Elsevier would appeal against your decision. Then it would go to an Information Tribunal. You’d probably have a good chance of winning that too. At least that was my experience in a different context (I was asking to see the contents of courses in various sorts of pseudo-science that were being offered by (mostly) bottom-rung universities. The Information Tribunal judged almost entirely for the Information Commissioner. The whole process took three years in my case (but it didn’t involve a huge amount of work).

    The rip-off of the scientific community by publishers is a far more serious case than mine. I judgment from the Information Commissioner in favour of openness would be of huge value to universities. I think the matter should be pursued (and while you are at it, why not include NPG, OUP and the BMJ group, and any other expensive traditional publishers. If the IC ruled in favour of openness, the whole profiteering cartel would dissolve.

    In the meantime, I hope the boycott of expensive journals will continue to flourish. Already more and more options are appearing which are open access for readers and which are cheap or even free for authors. These must be encouraged.

  43. David Colquhoun Says:

    Here are some links that are pertinent to my comment.

    Open access, peer review, grants and other academic conundrums http://www.dcscience.net/?p=4873

    And the Information Commissioner:

    Information tribunal rejects appeal by University of Central Lancashire. Freedom of Information wins! http://www.dcscience.net/?p=2485

  44. Open access, peer review, grants and other academic conundrums Says:

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  45. Open Access, Institutionalised?: Or, Another Reason Why International Relations Is Failing As An Intellectual Project | The Disorder Of Things Says:

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  46. Jane Burpee Says:

    Reblogged this on Scholarly Communication @ the University of Guelph and commented:
    This blog is worth a read!

  47. Brian Cody (@briancody) Says:

    Our team over at Scholastica really enjoyed this post, it’s really important for the public to see the numbers behind journal costs. We put together an infographic version of this post to help spread this great research: http://bit.ly/1kdXwGv

  48. Gil Kalai Says:

    Two questions:

    1) Did Elsevier made any substantial steps towards reducing prices and/or towards open access to older issues?

    2) Could there be any mechanism or process for negotiating/reaching some agreement with Elsevier (or other professional/commercial publishers for that matter)?

    • gowers Says:

      On reducing prices I think the answer is no: whatever they do it seems to be almost axiomatic that the total they get paid should not go down. (That isn’t quite true in France, where there was a small drop for the first year of the new contract, followed by price increases each year for the next four years, ending up higher than before.) For mathematicians they have given free access to issues over four years old. That is the one thing that I would regard as a genuinely good move on their part. But it applies only to mathematics — in fact, I think it may be just pure mathematics, but I’m not sure about that — and therefore it doesn’t help with costs. In fact, one might argue that it makes very little difference to anything, since most people who want to read old mathematics papers have institutional access anyway, whereas this is much less true in, say, medicine.

      I am not optimistic about your question 2. The problem is that I don’t think there is any deal that the publishers would accept that would introduce proper market mechanisms, since these would necessarily result in a big drop in the revenue that they would get from journals. So I don’t see any alternative to sticking with current mechanisms but being much tougher in the negotiations. By that I mean that as many universities as possible should make credible plans to manage without big deals and then instruct those negotiating on their behalf not to accept big deals without a big drop in prices.

      I’ve just checked, and there are 97 Elsevier journals with what they call open archives: that is, all issues before a certain time freely viewable on ScienceDirect. They are not all pure maths journals, or even maths journals at all. The list can be found here.

    • David Roberts Says:

      I think a lot of these other fields with open archives would barely–relatively speaking–use articles past 5 years ago (I know Palaeontology papers cite very old articles, but I don’t see any such journals in the list Tim links to), so the cost to Elsevier of giving away access is little.

    • Gil Kalai Says:

      The fact that many of Elseviers math journal become publicly open after 4 years is a remarkable success of the CoN movement. (I think things were much worse before.) This is quite important to mathematicians especially since old papers were often not arXived and we do use them. Are there still math journals were Elsevier does not give access after 4 years?

    • gowers Says:

      I think all the maths journals are archived. As you say, this has the useful consequence that some old papers (including one of mine, submitted to The European Journal of Combinatorics before that journal was bought by Elsevier) are now available online that are hard to find in any other way.

    • Gil Kalai Says:

      Dear Tim, now that the numbers are known, can we tell if in England or even just in Cambridge, following the time of the boycott the payments to Elsevier were lowered? I remember that Elsevier’s initial responses included, among other things, price reductions.

    • gowers Says:

      I think not. The big deals negotiated by JISC come up for renewal at the end of 2015, and I think they were for five years, which would mean they started at the beginning of 2011, about a year before the boycott started. The reductions you are talking about were to list prices (that is, the prices you pay if you subscribe to journals individually rather than going for a big bundle), and have therefore had no effect on Cambridge or any other university with a big deal.

    • Mike Taylor Says:

      “The reductions you are talking about were to list prices (that is, the prices you pay if you subscribe to journals individually rather than going for a big bundle), and have therefore had no effect on Cambridge or any other university with a big deal.”

      … which is the same thing as saying they have no effect, period.

    • Gil Kalai Says:

      “… which is the same thing as saying they have no effect, period.”

      That’s too bad. I hoped that the reduction in list prices will translates also to the big deals. (But probably universities did not try to renegotiate existing contracts.) I still see a hope that reduction of lists price will lead to reduction of prices in the next round of negotiations. (After all, the big deals are based on the historic lists of journals an institution acquired.) For that, it will be useful to have the numbers and the percentage reductions in individual journal costs, for for the journals representing the full “freedom” deal as well as the individual historic lists. I think that pushing for 15-20% cost reduction for big deals may be realistic. (Of course, one needs to take into account new journals but I am not sure if Elsevier is developing new Journals.) Did Elsevier reduced prices accross the board or mainly for mathematics?

      Regarding old arxives, opening journals 4 years after publication is very useful for the math community. What is the situation in this respect with Springer? (and other smaller publishers?) Especially if indeed the lost of revenues is small by such a move it may be a good idea to nudge Springer and other publishers to also open old papers, if they don’t do it already.

      (While at it, I think it would be very useful if the Theoretical CS conference will open their proceedings, if not all, then at least after a few years.)

    • Anonymous Says:

      Regarding old archives, a good case in point is the discontinued Springer journal K-theory. It looks like about a year ago the archives were taken down, due to some unspecified legal dispute. They are accessible via an independent separate service called Portico, which is requires payment and isn’t cheap. K-theory was an important journal, and a lot of researchers suddenly lost access to all of its back issues. That includes my university, which wasn’t subscribed to Portico. In this respect, Elsevier’s policies seem to be better than Springer’s, which is one reason I decided not to join the Elsevier boycott.

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    […] Tim Gowers, of “boycott Elsevier” fame, has arrived at the opinion that Gold OA is not part of the solution, writing recently: […]

  50. Twitter Open Access Report – 29 Apr 2014 | Says:

    […] subscriptions unsustainable is for funders and institutions to mandate Green OA self-archiving. Tim Gowers is quite right that “the pace of change is slow, and the alternative system that is most […]

  51. amusedScholar Says:

    Interesting data. I have two observations on your subscription cost at different schools. First, it seems that price per student is more indicative than price per faculty: if you plot the correlation, the former is clustered around 20 (notable exceptions being Cambridge, UCL and ICL), whereas the latter is all over the place from 150 to 450.

    Second, an interesting correlation plot is (subscription cost per faculty) vs. (number of students per faculty). There are four quadrants to that data:

    - tightfisted schools (lots of students, and negotiated good library deals)

    - mismanaged schools (pay a lot for journals, and maybe as a result have lots of students per faculty)

    - rich schools (pay a lot to publishing and employ lots of profs),

    - and finally very few ivory towers (good deal on publishing, employ lots of staff).

  52. Yisong Yue (@yisongyue) Says:

    I’m not sure if there are any lessons to be drawn from the computer science community (given that CS is a young field with minimal legacy baggage). But in CS, the vast majority of proceedings are either open access or the authors retain copyright privileges to publish on their own websites.

    For example:

    As a result, the CS community pays virtually nothing for access to scholarly work.

  53. Mark C. Wilson Says:

    @Gil Kalai

    It may be the case that Elsevier has made a concession by opening archives. However (1) this topic is not really relevant to the main idea of this post (2) it is a tiny concession making almost no difference to them (3) they surely don’t really morally own the archives, even if they do legally (4) trying to change the topic in this way seems very unhelpful.

    Can you name one positive thing that Elsevier (or other commercial publishers) have done for mathematics (or science) in the last 20 years that could not have been done far more cheaply and effectively by mathematicians/scientists/open source developers in their spare time?

    Perhaps you were just responding to a small part of the post, for the purposes of accuracy. My feeling is that this kind of pedantic behaviour by mathematicians is part of what leads us to be defeated easily by the likes of Elsevier.

    • Gil Kalai Says:

      Hi Mark, my intention was not to praise Elsevier but to praise the boycott (that I myself did not support) and Tim for this achievement of opening old archives.

      Overall, while agreeing that the costs of journals should be lowered, I think that it is the interest of scientists that there will be strong and effective professional (both commercial and non-commercial) scientific publishing.

      One positive thing that professional publisher do is, of course, sparing scientists from doing what they do. It is both absurd and harmful suggestion that we should spend our spare time on such things.

    • brembs Says:

      @Gil: That’s interesting! What precisely is it that publishers do that we (or our libraries) shouldn’t be doing?

    • gowers Says:

      Different people have different views about the value of the services provided by publishers. My own experience with Forum of Mathematics is that the publishers do provide useful administrative back-up, without which I would either do my job much worse or spend a lot more time on it.

      However, the thing that I feel very strongly about here is that there should be a proper market for this service. The way to achieve it, if one could turn the clock back and start all over again, would be for journal titles to be owned by academics rather than publishers (this is something that Marie Farge is also very strongly in favour of), and for publishers to reach an agreement with those academics to do certain administrative tasks for a certain fee. That way, if a publisher charged an unreasonable amount, the editors could choose to switch to another publisher when the current contract ended. With a system like that, market forces would (unless I’m overlooking something) lead to publishers being compensated for the value of the service they were providing to academics.

      Unfortunately, there is no obvious route from the current system to a system like that. I think it is more likely that we will stagger on with the current system and that at some point it will collapse, leaving something of a free-for-all. (Actually, I’m not totally against the latter, but I can see that some people are, and their reasons cannot be dismissed out of hand.)

    • Gil Kalai Says:

      “The way to achieve it, if one could turn the clock back and start all over again, would be for journal titles to be owned by academics rather than publishers (this is something that Marie Farge is also very strongly in favour of), and for publishers to reach an agreement with those academics to do certain administrative tasks for a certain fee.”

      I do not understand this proposal and I think that it is very problematic. First, who will actually own the journals? We have journals own by universities and by profesional societies but
      having an entity own by a dynamically changed group of people is problematic. Second, ownership a journal accounts of a good chunk of problems a publisher has. (And with this proposal also the additional interface of the woners and publishers.) It is not clear if a grou of academics is capable to deal with these problems. Perhaps the main problem is that I can see academics happy to own and run the first tier journals, maybe also the second tier journals. But there will be major problems keeping the third and forth tier journals alive. This will have major impact on the entire academic life which goes well beyond the issues of journals administration and pricing.

    • gowers Says:

      When I say “own the journal” the main thing I am talking about is the right to the title. So under this proposal, if the editors of Advances, say, decided that they no longer wanted to publish with Elsevier, they would have the right to switch to a different publisher and still call the journal “Advances in Mathematics”. (Also, they would have the right to take the journal’s archive and put it somewhere else.) I don’t see that this would create any extra administrative burden, but the existence of that right would provide some kind of ultimate threat that would serve as a check on the publishers.

    • Gil Kalai Says:

      Tim, I have a single experience which is with Israel J. of Mathematics which is not “owned by a publisher” and where there were two rounds of negotiations, to establish connection with a local publisher (when the original publisher went bankrupt) and a decade later to establish connection with a distributor. My rough estimate is that if the routine amount of work for the editor-in-chief is 100% (with administrative back-up) then without administrative backup it can be between 200-400%. Even in routine times there is some part of the editors work spent on various issues with the publisher.

      Without serious problems, the additional hassle for negotiations new terms with existing or new publishers will probably amount for extra 30-100% spread unevenly over time. If the ownership is fuzzy then issues like “what to do with the profits” can cause extra troubles. One advantage of letting the publishers run the journals and letting the universities or other academic bodies deal with them is that the works of scientists in scientific journals can then be limited to purely academic/scientific matters.

    • Mike Taylor Says:

      This seems dangerously close to saying that commercial publishers are valuable because they solve the difficult problem of what to do with profits.

    • Gil Kalai Says:

      ( :) !) Commercial publishers as well as university-owned publishers and professional societies publishers indeed have the (practical and legal) value that they can manage profits and losses.

      The value of revenue-based professional publishing is that it can support the product and mainly save time and efforts of scientists on management.

      The specific value of commercial publishing is that it (and in the near future only it) can accomodate the current volume of scientific journals which at present is important for keeping the current volume of scientific research.

    • gowers Says:

      Gil, I don’t really understand what you are saying. To contradict my position it is not enough to say that publishers are performing a useful service, such as management. If the main value of the commercial publishers is that they are providing a useful management service, then that is what they should be paid for. And if another publisher can offer the same service more cheaply, then it should be possible in principle for the journal to decide to switch publisher. As for profits, I would suggest that journals should be non-profit enterprises: that is, subscription prices should be set with a view to covering costs (and perhaps slightly more, so that the journal has some assets that it can use in case of future need). I don’t mean that this should necessarily be the model for every single journal — just that it would be a cheaper system.

      I agree that commercial publishers help to keep the current volume of scientific journals, which they do by protecting weaker journals by bundling them together with stronger journals. But for the papers that currently appear in weaker journals I would prefer to see them simply put online and for there to be some kind of simple ratification system — for instance, an epijournal with something like the ethos of PLOS one, in the sense that the main criterion to be ratified by the epijournal would be simply that a paper was a genuine piece of mathematics.

    • Gil Kalai Says:

      Dear Tim, I dont try to contradict yours and Marie Farge’s idea just to discuss it. Your suggestion is quite different from most current journals, although, as I said, it is somewhat similar to Isr. J Math. and perhaps few other journals that “live inside” individual math institutes. When we do have publisher (offering service) and subscription costs (or other forms of income), then probably the “journal” needs to be a legal entity with individuals that can make the negotiations and decisions, and this is a serious extra burdon. But it can work, and there are a few examples of similar nature.

      Getting a large chunk of research papers off the journal systems is a major change that probably should be discussed from a wider perspective.

  54. The Color Coded Tiers of Open Access | The Scinder Says:

    […] Tim Gower, a fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge, reports that UK university libraries pay anywhere from £234,126 (Exeter) to £1,381,380 (University College London) in subscription costs to…. The excessive cost increases in journal subscriptions have led to substantial actions by some […]

  55. Crust Says:

    Does anyone have any thoughts on the ethics and effectiveness of Henry Farrell’s suggestion to submit papers to Elsevier journals without the intention of publishing there? (The idea is roughly that the work of the referees would still be respected and used to improve the paper, and that after being accepted it would the be submitted elsewhere.)

    Also, what have people who are choosing not to resign from boards of Elsevier journals been saying? (Of course, it depends on the person. But I’m curious if it’s mostly a matter of simple reluctance to change or if it’s career concerns or it represents a different ideological view, etc.)

  56. Marcelo Träsel Says:

    It should be noted that in Brazil, besides the Portal Periódicos, there are incentives from Capes for the universities to publish open-access journals. In fact, open-access is an important factor for a journal to receive a good “Qualis” grade from Capes, i.e., for the journal to be considered relevant. At least in the humanities area, all of the journals edited in Brazil grant open-access to their articles.

  57. Fix Copyright! | C4C’s initial reaction to the European Commission Impact Assessment on Copyright Review – Part 2 Says:

    […] highlighted in an interesting blog post by OKFN’s open access working group, which refers to a blog post by Tim Gowers, who released data showing that 19 Russell Group Universities alone spend over […]

  58. Mark C. Wilson Says:


    There has been amazingly little movement as far as editorial resignations and liberating journals from commercial publishers goes. My only information is as follows. I corresponded with an Associate Editor of Discrete Mathematics, who told me:

    “Everyone on the editorial board resonates with many of the
    complaints raised by the boycott. But we all have decided to
    continue working on the journal and encouraging Elsevier to change
    many of its ways. I feel I am doing a service to the authors and to
    the mathematical community by this work.”

    My subsequent enquiries about how well this insider campaign is going have not been answered.

    This editor also said (a big surprise to me, who thought that $0 was the going rate):

    “Although I would like to more precise, I think all I
    can say is that Discrete Mathematics associate editors get a mid-four figure salary (in US$), enough not to feel taken advantage of, but less than it should be. I also know that the chief editor receives quite a bit more, as he should.”

    The editor also said (this part I think is very hard to believe – although I have not has access to Elsevier editorial tools, their superiority over open source alternatives like OJS surely can’t be worth the overall price we are paying):

    “If you have a colleague who is an Elsevier editor, take a look at
    their tools for managing a journal. Similar open source tools could
    be developed, but serious dedicated resources would be needed.
    Working at Bell Labs and on software for my widely used discrete math
    text have taught me not to underestimate the task of creating top
    notch tools. Besides tools, Elsevier provides large databases of
    potential referees, referee reviewing history, and on-line access to
    large libraries of papers. They make it very easy to manage the
    editorial process. Their tools have helped our efforts to improve
    the journal Discrete Mathematics.

    Having these tools available has made it possible to keep plugging
    away given the turmoil in the peer reviewing process. I have handled a nontrivial number of papers for which finding willing reviewers was a challenge. I’ve found that the Elsevier tools (together with Google Scholar) have made it possible for me to ultimately end up with two reports for even the most troublesome paper. “

    • Crust Says:

      Thanks for the fascinating response (and thanks also David Roberts et al above). I’m not sure if it’s encouraging or disenheartening that at least in the case you are aware of the editors despite staying on, are nonetheless pretty sympathetic to the criticisms of Elsevier. I hadn’t realized that editors, including associate editors, are frequently paid; that does provide a (I would guess significant) partial explanation.

    • Gil Kalai Says:

      In the two editorial boards of Elsevier’s journals (Adv Math and JCTA) that I belong to there were very thoughtful emails from the editors to members of the editorial boards describing the situation, their point of view, actions they have taken, and welcoming further comments/discussions. These letters were very thoughtful and responsible. The primary issue was the concern and responsibility of the editors to the fate of the journal and an assessment of what is involved in trying to break-up from Elsevier. Subsequently, there were long negotiations with Elsevier on various issues: prices, opening back issues, and better tools and conditions for editors, and other things, which apparently were successful. (Although as we can realize now, the individual prices have little effect so far on big deals.) I myself did not actively participate in any of the discussions (although I was partially aware of them in the JCTA case, where the possibility of editor’s resignation was clearly on the table). My only contribution sometime in the middle was this email: “Personally, I would be more interested in Elsevier giving free access to JCTA (and their journals) in third world countries. I also suggest to make it an editorial policy (and notify Elsevier) that a paper is accepted for publication only if it is arxived.” In any case, puting these demands in the middle of the negotiations was not useful. (Thinking more about them I withdraw my second suggestion, while I still like very much the first third-world suggestion.)

    • David Roberts Says:

      Gil, did you know about this programme


      which Elsevier often trumpet as a case of their corporate responsibility? I can’t find anything about the actual details of access to journals at a quick read, though.

      Is there any chance that us mere mortals get a look at those letters? All I know about the situation at _Advances_ is Hopkins’ rather abrupt dismissal of discussion of the Cost of Knowledge on the ALG-TOP mailing list https://lists.lehigh.edu/pipermail/algtop-l/2012q1/001355.html

      IMHO giving a editors a better deal is hardly a success from the point of view of saving libraries money etc.

  59. Gil Kalai Says:

    An interesting aspect of the discussion involves fairness.

    One consequence of the bundling, and separate negotiations reality is that different universities pay different prices for “the same service,” and specifically, that richer institutions pay more.

    It looks to me that a reality that richer institutions pay more (or if you wish, that poorer institutions get larger discounts) is fairly fair. Perhaps more fair than a reality that everybody pays the same.

    But some people have the instinct that “fairness” means that every institution pays the same amount for the same service.

    (Another (perhaps related) issue is that of secrecy. People have an instinct that secrecy is automatically bad and full information is necessarily good. I can understand this instinct but I think we should also look carefully at it as well.)

    • Mike Taylor Says:

      “People have an instinct that secrecy is automatically bad and full information is necessarily good. I can understand this instinct but I think we should also look carefully at it as well.”

      I’m not clear where you’re headed here. Are you saying that Elsevier’s secrecy clauses are good for the market? If you are, then I would be very interested to hear your reasoning.

    • Gil Kalai Says:

      Hi Mike, lets discuss the fairness issue of richer institutions paying more for the “same service.”

      (I don’t have much to say about secrecy except to note that it is also an interesting issue worth thinking about. But I did not think about it yet.)

    • Mike Taylor Says:

      I don’t have anything to say about the fairness issue, beyond agreeing that it’s interesting and not necessarily straightforward. Secrecy is the one that seems straightforward to me, which is why I couldn’t understand why you raised it as something needing to be looked at carefully.

      I suppose the proof of the pudding is this: had Tim not pierced the vale of secrecy we wouldn’t even be in a position to have the conversation about fairness.

    • Gil Kalai Says:

      Mike, well, If a supplier tells you: My price is X but if you convince me that you are in financial difficulties I will be ready to give you the product for Y<X conditioned on keeping this deal secret. This may be in the interest of both the supplier and the buyer, and It is not obvious that taking this possibility away will have good effect on the market or on the combined social welfare.

    • gowers Says:

      A more optimistic view would be that making the prices public would be a step towards a proper market that would make the cost of access to journals lower for everyone. It might be that the richer institutions would have more to gain from this outcome, but that is not necessarily a problem if nobody actually loses (other than the publishers, who are making massive profits under the current system).

    • Gil Kalai Says:

      Yes, I agree that this is a plausible developement. Also, if making the prices public will lead to a “combined negotiations” it may lead to some reduction accross the board while still keeping less rich institution institutions pay less.

  60. Mike Taylor Says:

    As noted in an email from Fabiana Kubke, quoted by Peter Murray-Rust on the OKFN Open Access listserv, there is interesting data on library expenditures in New Zealand and Australia at http://statistics.caul.edu.au/inst_data.php

    • David Roberts Says:

      Thanks for that Mike. I found some very interesting facts regarding my Adelaide’s expenditure on serials, namely it’s almost the same as the Australian National University, a far bigger university with a much stronger research standing. However these are blown out of the water by what Melbourne, which is comparable to ANU, spends. However, I can’t check what we get for that money, so it’s information with no context, to some extent (apart from the fact all three universities are in the the so-called Go8, our rough analogue of the Russell Group).

  61. Mike Taylor Says:

    Another update from the OKFN listserv, this time from Scott C. Edmonds:

    “If Tom is compiling the per country comparisons, I thought I would give an update on Hong Kong. As I mentioned previously, Hong Kong has “Code on Access to Information” legislation cunningly brought in by the British just before they left. The Universities grants agency (UGC) is bound by this, but unfortunately the individual universities are not. My first FOI request to the UGC confirmed that while they do cover journal subscription costs in HK through block grants, the individual institutions are given flexibility in their deployment, and so they do not possess information on how they are administered. On top of some other information I’m collecting I thought I’d try to ask the individual universities nicely, and so far Hong Kong University (the oldest and highest ranked institution here with ~27,000 students) were quick to respond and provide me with information on their library budgets (~200M HKD or £15M), and that 78.4% of their acquisition budget is spent on electronic journals. Asking for more detail on what the exact acquisition spending was, and if there are any figures on what proportion of these are split by the big publishers, they said they unfortunately find they cannot release these numbers.

    I’ll continue to try the other universities and investigate if there are any other ways to find out this information, but I’m not optimistic that this will be easy to determine here. I hope those of you in countries with more rigorous and widely covering FOI laws have more luck.”

  62. Gerg Says:

    The Hungarian Consortium paid 4 million euros in 2013 to Elsevier for the SciencedDirect Freedom Collection,

  63. Somewhere else, part 132 | Freakonometrics Says:

    […] Universities are spending during one year on journal subscriptions to a single publisher (see also http://gowers.wordpress.com/2014/04/24/… for a long and detailed […]

  64. Ritrattazione alla napoletana, cont. – Ocasapiens - Blog - Repubblica.it Says:

    […] volte; : la pubblicazione che l’abbonamento. I commenti sono interessanti, in particolare quello di Stevan Harnad della McGill che paragona il “Gold Open Access” usato in Gran […]

  65. Ming the Merciless Says:

    I’m sorry but I didn’t read this all the way through, so it is possible this course of action has already been and gone, but just to say you’ll likely notice a large difference in the responses if you google for a freedom of information lawyer, call him up and ask if he wouldn’t mind firing off a request on his headed notepaper. They’ll normally do something like that without charge the first time. Have a go…I bet you 10p and you better pay up

  66. Test your intuition (22): Selling Two Items in a Bundle. | Combinatorics and more Says:

    […] there is a new post by Tim Gowers on the cost of Elseviers journals in England. Elsevier (and other publishers) are famous (or infamous) for their bundling policy. The movement […]

  67. April highlights from the world of scientific publishing | sharmanedit Says:

    […] whole system, at least as regards Elsevier (heard through @McDawg and others). He details this in a very long blog post, which was well summarised by Michelle Brook (@MLBrook) of the Open Knowledge Foundation. Gowers […]

  68. Gil Kalai Says:

    I have a couple more informative questions:

    1) Do we have some summary of the extent that Elsevier reduced individual journal prices? While of little rellevance to current “big deals” agreements, it may have some relevance to renewed agreements.

    2) In particuler, to what extent the individual price reductions extends to Journals in all areas of science (not just mathematics).

    3) Does Elsevier extended or plans to extent the opening of old archived to other areas of science.

    4) To what extent is the “academic spring” movement present in areas beside mathematics (and computer science).

    • David Roberts Says:


      See here for instance


      for some broad discussion of Elsevier maths journal pricing, and see


      for the data. I’m afraid I don’t know of any sources dealing with non-mathematics journals. The weasel sentence at the previous link

      “…we are pleased to announce that after reductions last year, our overall increase for many titles in Mathematical Sciences in 2014 is limited to 0.5%.” (emphasis mine)

      annoys me, since there are examples whose prices rose dramatically, and it doesn’t take into account the fact the price rose substantially the previous year, even for those journals with this trumpeted 0.5% increase

    • gowers Says:

      My impression is that Elsevier judged that it was principally the mathematicians who were making a fuss, so they identified measures they could take that would appease mathematicians while having no effect on their profits. In particular, I do not think that list prices were reduced or archives made available to any great extent in other subjects (though in some fields it seems that any paper over about six months old is not worth reading, so it is hard to judge how important the latter point is). I think the reductions in list prices apply to sufficiently few journals that they will have no effect on future big deal prices, by which I mean that if a university tries to calculate how much it would cost to cancel a big deal and subscribe to individual journals at list prices, the effect on the calculation of the list price reductions so far will be negligible.

  69. Les revues Elsevier – quelques faits | Bibliothèques [reloaded] Says:

    […] texte ci-dessous est la traduction d’un extraordinaire billet de Tim Gowers, médaille Phields et initiateur du Cost of Knowledge. En dépit de son immense intérêt, la […]

  70. Open Science Sum-Up April | Offene Wissenschaft Says:

    […] Aufmerksamkeit hat es in den letzten Tagen rund um Elsevier und deren Preisgestaltung gegeben. Timothy Gowers hat mittels Freedom-Of-Information-Act Anfragen Zahlen zu den Ausgaben britischer Bibliotheken für […]

  71. Gil Kalai Says:

    Here are a few additional and a bit scattered and not necessary coherent thoughts:

    1) I don’t know if the prediction that in the long-term scientific publishing will have a revolution that will make commercial publishers (and perhaps also libraries) absolete is correct and in what time-scale one can expect (or fear) such a change. (This depends among other things on how commercial publishers will act.) My personal view is that I would like to see, along various other avenues, also commercial publishing as part of the scientific publishing scene, but with lower costs.

    2) When it comes to the long-term development, a crucial issue is if a convenient, friendly and general system can be developed which will allow easy editing and managing of journals that will allow free (or almost free) journals. (We can compare it to the effect TEX had for typing papers.)

    3) One thing to keep in mind is that some scientists, especially in some areas of science, would not like their papers to be publicly open before they are published. (E.g. because of scientific competition, but there are some other reasons.) So it will be good that such a system will not depend entirely on earlier archive postings and will also have its own way to store papers that will become open only after acceptance.

    4) Generally speaking, it is important to understand how people in other academic areas regards these matters and also how the university administrations relate and deal with them.

    5) For the short-term, it is disappointing how small Elsevier’s list-price reductions are. Perhaps an ambitious but realistic goal would be to seek for 10-15% reduction in Elsevier’s nominal bundling costs in the next round of contracts in the next few years (also from other big-bundle publishers). Having the U.K. costs now (and, perhaps, from now on) in the open may enable to monitor how things go.

    6) For the middle-term – the next 3-10 years and maybe more, the only viable alternative to the dominance of Elsevier (and the other dominant players) that I see would be that a professional for-profit (but for-less-profit) commercial publisher, or some other big company that will have interest in getting to the scientific publishing, possibly with an entirely new business model, that (with scientists help) can bite Elsevier’s (and the others) business. Due to bundling, one need to take a pretty large initial bite to be effective. The first option is that this bite will be taken by a traditional publisher.

    7) There is also a second option: there are certainly several huge companies (much larger than Elsevier and Springer combined) that are already doing some “publishing 2.0″ or are doing things that can come quite close to it. For example, Amazon, is already carrying a platform for independent publishing and it can be of mutual interest to have scientific publishing on a platform of this kind. And there are other relevant huge companies that do or can do similar things. Using such companies as a platform for the new era of scientific publishing is something to consider. (But, of course, these companies just like Elsevier are trying to maximize their revenues.)

    8) Personally, as I said, I would like to see a reasonable partnership of the academic community with the existing conventional current publishers. Elsevier was somewhat responsive, especially opening archives was very useful, but so far they were not responsive in a way that genuinely effected their revenues and eased the costs universities have.

    • gowers Says:

      In response to your point 7, I think that Google might be more promising than Amazon, and might take an attitude similar to the one it takes to Google books — that is, not charging for access, but benefiting indirectly from the fact that it increases our use of Google in general. The question of who actually owned the articles would be important — one wouldn’t want Google to be able to cut off availability — but that problem could at least partly be solved if submissions to “Google journals” were via repositories.

    • Gil Kalai Says:

      Tim, I am neither familiar with Google’s nor with Amazon’s models. Unless or until we find a way to have (in large volumes) almost free systems for publishing, a medium size journal needs to generate revenues of a few hundred of thousands of dollars per year just to remain even. Getting these (or others) huge companies as partners for scientific publishing may lead to them being satisfied with smaller profits compared to current publishing houses or even supply some services or infrastructure or starting-up efforts for free (in return for the attention and prestige they may gain) but I doubt if they will be ready to actually pay for running the journals.So I expect that new journals will still need to produce revenues.In any case, the best way to know may be to ask.

    • Mark C. Wilson Says:

      Point 2: Open Journal Systems, while not perfect, does a fine job for traditional journals. It is customizable and the developers are supporting it. See https://pkp.sfu.ca/ojs/. Is this the kind of thing you were looking for? I use it for OJAC which admittedly is a low-turnover journal, but I can’t see any problems on the software side with scaling up substantially.

      There are some costs other than simple web hosting and maintenance, but they are small (I am not counting referee and editor time, as is usual). For $1000/year, all problems of this sort go away.

      For point 6: something like PeerJ https://peerj.com/ seems long overdue in mathematics. Why don’t we start one? What I like about Tim and Gil is that they at least discuss this issues, which is rare among the editorial class. Most people wanting change are lower in the hierarchy. We really need some leadership from the old guys!

  72. Les revues Elsevier – quelques faits / Etienne Cavalié | VEILLE Says:

    […] billet de blogue est une traduction d’un billet de Tim Gowers (Gowers’s Weblog : Mathematics related discussions ), initiateur du Cost of Knowledge (http://thecostofknowledge.com/). Il  regorge de statistique […]

  73. edwardfhughes Says:

    I’ve heard back from QMUL about their Elsevier spend. The total for 2013/14 was £545,306.93. Apparently they hold no further breakdown of the figures. The full response is reproduced on my blog here: http://edwardfhughes.wordpress.com/2014/05/16/elsevier-journals-the-qmul-figure/

  74. Yvonne Says:

    I was just about to ask if you had seen this!

  75. To Open Access, then Beyond | biomolbioandco Says:

    […] the last years. Much has been written and discussed on the topic (a small selection: here here and here) and I am not going to repeat it here. In a nutshell, what emerged is a disproportioned (?) cost […]

  76. Elsevier in Australia | Secret Blogging Seminar Says:

    […] their Elsevier subscriptions (as Timothy Gowers has been doing in the UK; if you haven’t read his post do that first!). Nevertheless there are some interesting […]

  77. Scott Morrison Says:

    I just talked to the university librarian at the Australian National University about Elsevier subscriptions. I’ve written up my observations at http://sbseminar.wordpress.com/2014/05/21/elsevier-in-australia/

  78. Jozef Skokan Says:

    LSE Mathematics Department has written to the Director of the LSE
    Library asking to provide you with the requested information. Hopefully, they’ll respond to you (and us) soon.

  79. Elsevier as a Symbol of the Greater Whole : Stephen E. Arnold @ Beyond Search Says:

    […] Elsevier has recently been reviled in the academic library world for its high profit margins, political wrangling, and skyrocketing invoices. But Elsevier is really just a part of a greater issue, the crisis in academic publishing. Gowers’s Weblog dives in to the nitty gritty of the issue with his post, “Elsevier Journals – Some Facts.” […]

  80. Open access update May 2014 | Australian Open Access Support Group Says:

    […] sent out a series of FoI requests to find out what UK libraries are spending on Elsevier. His comprehensive blog on his findings notes “A striking aspect of these amounts is just how much they vary.” This […]

  81. Wissenschaftsverlage: Zwischensieg gegen Bibliotheken | Steiger Legal Says:

    […] Schweiz als attraktiver Standort für Wissen soll gepflegt und gefördert werden, nicht aber die Geschäftsmodelle von Wissenschaftsverlagen zur Profitmaximierung auf Kosten der Öffentlichkeit. Bibliotheken als bewährte öffentliche […]

  82. Elsevier, Springer und Thieme verklagen ETH-Bibliothek und bekommen Recht | wisspub.net Says:

    […] Cambridge hat der Mathmatiker Timothy Gowers kürzlich bei seinen Kollegen eine Umfrage durchgeführt und festgestellt, dass eine überwiegende Mehrheit bereit wäre auf Elsevier Journals […]

  83. Open Access Blog-Open Access and Digital Scholarship at Imperial College London. Open Access Sector News, April-May 2014 Says:

    […] late April, the well-known mathematician Tim Gowers published the responses to an FOI request to the Russell Group universities. In the request, he asked how much each university “currently […]

  84. Nick T. Says:

    The Dutch press are reporting that, when negotiations take place this autumn between Dutch universities and large scientific publishers over new contracts, the aim will be to make the Netherlands a testbed for open access. According to reports, there was a private meeting yesterday about this in The Hague between education ministry officials, academics and publishers (including Elsevier).


    • gowers Says:

      I’d be very curious to know the details of what it is to be “a testbed for open access”. The key detail for me is whether universities can expect to save any money, or whether it will be more like the UK model, where we are paying even more than before (i.e., subscriptions and APCs) to cover “transitional costs” to an OA model that may well never come.

  85. May highlights in scientific publishing | sharmanedit Says:

    […] Australian universities. This may lead to FOI requests there. In the mean time, Gowers has posted updates on four more UK universities. (via […]

  86. Around the Web: Your university is definitely paying too much for journals [Confessions of a Science Librarian] | Gaia Gazette Says:

    […] Elsevier journals — some facts (Timothy Gowers post that started it all) […]

  87. Fossili – Ocasapiens - Blog - Repubblica.it Says:

    […] Niente di nuovo, per le stesse riviste certe università pagano il doppio di altre, come scriveva Tim Gowers in […]

  88. Mihai Tibar Says:

    I would like to bring to your attention, moreover to that of the whole community, our very recent experience with “golden open access”.
    In March this year there was a resignation of the quasi-totality of the Board of Central European J of Maths in protest against the sudden transformation (decided by the publisher De Gruyter) of this general journal into an “open access” one based on author charging fees, without any consultation with the EiC or with the Board.
    See details in wikipedia
    and at the beginning of my webpage

  89. Adquisición de recursos. ¿Para quién es rentable? | Diario de una documentalista Says:

    […] Library Spend on Journal Big Deals. Research Libraries UK (RLUK) […]

  90. Scott Morrison Says:

    The Australian National University spent US$1,229,662.21 in 2013 on Elsevier subscriptions.

    • David Roberts Says:

      Cool. How did you winkle this out of your librarian? Mine seems to have an almost Stockholm syndrome response to questions about the cost if subscriptions (“we actually get a really good deal” etc)

    • Scott Morrison Says:

      I’m not entirely sure! I talked to her about a month ago, and asked some questions. She was sympathetic to my request, but wasn’t sure exactly what the confidentiality setup was, and was also a little hesitant (worried, I think, that too much attention on large subscription costs could result in pressure on university library budgets that would in the end result in staff cuts rather than a better bargaining position). However a few weeks later she sent an email with that number, along with a link to .

    • David Roberts Says:

      A link to…?

  91. Scott Morrison Says:

    WordPress ate my link. http://dx.doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1403006111

  92. Lachlan Coin Says:

    Hi everyone, we have just started academickarma.org, which is a universal peer review platform, where researchers can create a public peer review profile listing the publishers they are happy to review for, and those they do not want to review for. Researchers can also get a ‘peer review address’ @academickarma.org, and either have peer review requests sent to directly, or auto-forward them to this address. If a review request comes from a journal you have publicly stated (on your profile) that you don’t want to review for them, Academic Karma rejects the request on your behalf.

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