May 1, 2014

Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University speaks out on Elsevier and Open Access


An Elsevier ice sculpture. No comment. No, really, no comment. Image via Flickr.

An Elsevier ice sculpture. Never has a blowtorch seemed more like an appropriate party accessory. Image via Flickr.

One of the most significant indications that academic publishing is a broken system is the fact that, periodically, major institutions and academics—secure and well-funded and with nothing in particular to gain from it—corroborate that it is really and truly a broken system. Not only in the context of deliberate, principled stands like British mathematician Timothy Gowers’ Cost of Knowledge boycott, but also casually, as a fact of academic life.

The latest example of this came in remarks by the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge Leszek Borysiewicz in a Q&A at the Cambridge Students Union on Monday. Prompted by a question that came in on Twitter from Open Access advocate Michelle Brook about journal prices, Borysiewicz gave a long and revealing response about the state of Open Access and academic publishing at the moment.

There are eye-opening sentences in Borysiewicz’s response, which bioscientist Richard Taylor (who posed the question of Brook’s behalf) has transcribed and posted on his website, and there are less flashy but equally crucial insights. Borysiewicz is candid about his feelings on Elsevier:

Yes, we spend money with Elsevier. Do I regret spending money with Elsevier? By and large, yes, I do because I think they’re rich enough already.

Rich, and fast:

[T]he publishers are faster off the mark than governments are. Elsevier is already looking at ways in which it can control open data as a private company rather than the public bodies concerned.

This highlights one of the most disturbing paradoxes in the development of Open Access: despite its vast expansion in recent years, publishers like Elsevier have been quick to reposition themselves in it, so that they remain both powerful and immensely profitable—as University of Ottawa professor Heather Morrison points out on the blog The Imaginary Journal of Poetic Economics, Elsevier’s Scientific, Technical, and Medical publishing profits rose to 39% last year.

This is because, as Borysiewicz outlines, academics in certain fields and at certain institutions still find themselves beholden to the prestige journals that remain controlled by commercial publishers:

[T]he way the current system is structured and the way careers progress by publication, we spend more, frankly, because we actually have more of the highest quality staff who publish in the highest quality journals, and that is a circular argument as that’s why they’re deemed to be the finest quality individuals concerned.

So the promise of the Open Access movement still hasn’t made a difference at the top. Borysiewicz is clearly frustrated by this, and he’s not alone in seeing an impasse. Last week, Gowers put up on his website a long, and still-expanding, post about why the aims of the Cost of Knowledge boycott have been only partly achieved, and what to do about it. There was an initial failure on the part of journal editorial boards, he argues:

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.

But since the editorial balance of power hasn’t shifted, Gowers turned to gathering information, since “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.” To figure out how much universities pay for Elsevier journals, he embarked on a (truly valiant) series of Freedom of Information requests, and what he turns up — along with, eventually, some numbers — is another circular situation; universities are reluctant to disclose the cost and structure of their payments to Elsevier because they’re concerned that it  might affect their negotiations with Elsevier in the future.

This is a kind of echo effect where the sphere of assumed influence is even larger than actual influence, enforced not only by Elsevier’s confidentiality clauses but also each university’s calculations about the strength of their negotiating position. Along with Borysiewicz’s remarks, it demonstrates quite starkly how the current academic publishing system has trapped even powerful players, like Cambridge, and how, despite Elsevier’s protestations to the contrary, this has nothing to do with competitiveness or a market regulating itself — it’s just good old-fashioned, rapacious, ever-evolving monopolistic behavior.


Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.