The CONTROL of knowledge: Ours or Elsevier’s; It’s High Noon for Universities

This is an account of my last few days, continuing to struggle against Elsevier for the right for academics to use their knowledge in the way that they wish. (Of course it’s not just Elsevier, it’s a large percentage of STM publishers). But Elsevier continues to be at the top of my list. I am going to upset a number of people. But I also hope that some others will see the seriousness of the situation and act.

Very simply, academics, we are in the middle of a titanic struggle for our digital future. There is massive power in the knowledge we create and we don’t recognise it. We are giving it away and asking the publishers to control us with it. The current issue is information mining (“text-mining”).

In previous posts I have recounted how over two-and-a-half years I have tried to get permission from Elsevier to text-mine the journals that Cambridge subscribes to. The subscriptions cost a LOT of money. UCL pays well over a million to Elsevier and I have no doubt that Cambridge does as well. So you might think that having paid for access – note that we don’t OWN the journal, we RENT them. If we stop subscribing we lose the right to back issues.

What? We don’t own the contents of our scientific libraries?

No – we own them as much as we own apps on mobiles or ebooks. We RENT them.

How did this happen? Did universities ask the publishers to change the system? No – the publishers thought it was a good idea (for them) and the universities meekly accepted it. Any shouts of protest? I didn’t hear them. It’s great for the publishers – if you cancel the journal you lose the back numbers.

I remember a meeting run by Cambridge University Library (CUL) about 8 years ago. There were librarians en masse – I think from outside Cambridge as well. I can’t remember the exact title – but something about the challenge from the publishers. There were no publishers there. The whole discussion was about cost. No one was worried that publishers were controlling scholarship.

Except me. I got up and said the issue was who controlled scholarship – us or the publishers. I think one or two people understood what I said – but most were only concerned with cost.

Don’t get me wrong. Cost matters. But if control the market you lose control of the cost. And that’s exactly what has happened. Now I am sure Librarians try hard to reduce costs by bargaining with publishers. But they are trained as librarians , not as salespeople. And the publishers have trampled over the librarians. If you doubt me look at the monster profit margins and the annual rise in costs to libraries. This is because there are 200 universities in the UK and most of them have little experience in the tough world of commerce. Because the publishers salesforce is clever and they know how to negotiate. Yes, there are some apparent victories for libraries but they are sporadic and do not dent the inexorable increase.

But libraries are fixed on costs and fail to protect our other interests. RENTing journals??? Why didn’t we raise a firestorm. But hardly a mention.

And worse. Libraries have acquiesced to contracts which forbid academics to use 21st Century tools on the scholarly literature. Daniel Lowe in our Centre has extracted 1 million chemical reactions from the patent literature. 1 year’s worth takes a day on an average desktop. It’s a huge enhancement to our scientific literature. It would save chemists repeating reactions that had already been done. Allow them to predict the best solvents. Find the right temperature.

So I asked Elsevier if I could extract reactions from the journals they publisher. (I shall NEVER use the term “*ls*v*er Content” – it’s OUR content – we did the reactions – we published them). It has taken me two and a half years and I still haven’t got a satisfactory answer.

Now Elsevier and other publishers are saying “All you have to do is ask “. Well I’ve asked. I’m portrayed as a grumpy old man and trouble. So be it. But I am fighting for academic rights and I urge those of you who care to fight with me.

The problem is that universities (presumably through their libraries) have meekly signed appalling restrictions in the contracts. If I had known at the time that this was being done I would have gone ballistic. I’d have done what I could to alert universities to the critical danger. But I didn’t know. Massive rights have been signed over. I don’t know for how many years but far too long. If you want to do anything with the literature you need the publishers’ permission.

So now the gory and unedifying details. I’ve blogged about the Oxford meeting and Elsevier’s offer to re-open my concern on textmining (after the facile assertion from Wiley that “all I had to do was ask”).

I reiterate that what I want is control of the information. I want to publish it when and where I want and in whatever quantity. If I decide I want a million molecules from Elsevier I want to be able to do it in a day. I don’t want to have to go through groundhog day for a fifth time. Or go down the same rathole. And get stuck in the same tarpit. Because, readers, that is what I was offered, and because I have seen it all too often I know the symptoms.

Publishers start off by offering to help.

PMR: I don’t want help. I am a world expert in textmining. I have written he software. I can crawl sites responsibly.

Publishers then offer to meet.

PMR: I don’t want to meet the publishers. I want to run my software.

Publishers want to know “what I want to do with textmining”

PMR: Publishers know nothing about my science and don’t need to

This is the opening of the rathole. Step into it and you are lost. The tarpit. Go no further.

I asked Elsevier a very simple question:

“Can I textmine your journals in the way I want to without being sued or cut off?” YES or no.

I have repeated this questions several times. Elsevier have repeatedly failed to answer. They suggested that we get together and meet the Cambridge Librarians. Now I have much respect for the Cambridge Libraries – we have a JISC project on Open Bibliography – but I don’t need their help in parsing chemistry.

But no, Elsevier kept trying to fix up a meeting with the library and them. I know the symptoms and I know the dangers. I have told Elsevier I will publish all their correspondence and recaord all telcons (and I advise you to do the same). So the story starts…

From Alicia Wise, Department of “Universal Access”

Dear Anne, Patricia, [CUL library top management] and Peter [PMR]

We are keen to arrange a teleconference with you all to discuss ways to enable text mining for academics at Cambridge University.  I met Peter for the first time on Wednesday, and he clearly feels very frustrated with Elsevier as he has sought in various ways to obtain text mining services for the last couple of years.  We clearly need to focus on his specific project, but I am hopeful that in parallel we can explore whether there is a broader text mining requirement at Cambridge (I strongly suspect there is) and the best way to empower the library to support this.  By working together we are most likely to find solutions that will scale.

My colleague, Jason Roof, has kindly agreed to set up this teleconference for us. 

With very kind wishes, and looking forward to speaking with you soon –


This is the entrance to the rathole. “We clearly need to focus on his specific project”.

PMR: No we don’t. I don’t want Elsevier to have anything to do with my project. They are only relevant because they are actively preventing me doing my research. And “his specific project”. That’s because they are terrified of what I want. I want my rights. I want any subscriber to have access to the literature for whatever purpose. By agreeing to a single project I would fall right down the rathole. I would be bound to go back to Elsevier for every project I wanted to do. My project controlled by Elsevier. Groundhog day for ever.

I didn’t ask for a telcon. I asked for the Elsevier robots to be turned off. A telcon is a waste of my time.

But it might not be a waste of YOUR time. So I told Elsevier I would record the telcon and publish it. So that you would know first hand what a telcon with Elsevier is like. What a rathole looks like

Jason Roof sent out at 0900 times for yesterday. I said I could make it at 1700. I heard nothing from him and the telcon wasn’t run at 1700. I wasted my time. Elsevier said I had to wait till everyone had CONFIRMED. Are you getting the picture? Anyway a few more mails with Elsevier, more fluff about telcons and more avoidance of my question.

So I told them I wasn’t spending any more time on this fruitless process.

You may think I’ve rushed to judgment. After all we have only been communicating for 3 days.

No – we’ve been failing to communicate for 30 months. Every time it starts like this. I waste time, and after a few months I get a different contact in Elsevier. There is no point in going down the rathole.

So what would have happened if I had continued? Would I have got my wish?

Well unbeknownst to me UBC have been negotiating with Elsevier on textmining. Heather Piwowar – who has done great science and who is very well known for her championing of Open data and new metrics wants to text mine Elsevier Content content in Elsevier Journals. Elsevier truned up in force to help – lots of them. And involved the UBC library.

Here’s Heather’s account. It’s very well written. It’s almost like sitting in on the telcon

Is it what we want? Have we reached Nirvana? Or is it a rathole? Heather’s very positive. Am I just a grumpy old man who can’t change his views? YOU decide. I’ll comment tomorrow. But read it first

10 thoughts on “The CONTROL of knowledge: Ours or Elsevier’s; It’s High Noon for Universities

  1. Laura James

    I guess that librarians trained as sales people wouldn’t've helped much, but librarians trained in purchasing and negotiation might have been useful. Business types who are used to acquiring supplies for businesses tend to be smart, organised, dedicated and paranoid – they know that the other guy is trying to exploit them and fight it every step of the way. Libraries and universities tend not to hire such people (or to hide them away in admin monoliths) so the front line tackling major publishers is, as a rule, people who haven’t had the experience or training to stand up to the other party, leading to bad results. A little more diverisity in teams and hiring could help libraries build teams which can operate effectively in an environment where not everyone else is friendly…

    Good luck with the battle!

    1. pm286 Post author

      I completely agree. My (partial) solution would be to have one purchasing office for the UK and staff it with a huge rotweiler puchasing officer. S/he would spot all the baloney that the librarians fall for year-by-year. It wouldn’t change the basic brokenness of the system but it would either save a lot of money or make the whole lot available to all universities.

  2. Neil Stewart

    It’s not true in all cases that university libraries simply “rent” access to journal content. In some cases, libraries (and in particular the big research libraries such as Cambridge) gain perpetual access rights to back-runs of material, so that if the subscription ends for whatever reason access to the archive remains.

    This of course makes the case for Elsevier and others controlling the right to text- and data- mine even more tenuous- if the archive is owned in perpetuity, surely it’s the right of its owner (i.e. the university and its members) to do with it whatever they might wish?

    1. pm286 Post author

      Does that mean that READERS have access to backruns or only that a dark archive is maintained.

  3. Alicia Wise

    Hi Peter,

    As I indicated to you when we met in Oxford, we (at Elsevier) have no problem in principle with you text mining for research purposes. There are some practical matters to resolve through discussion. With regret I have formed the view that you are not – at this time – really seeking practical solutions. If this changes please do let me know as we remain willing to work with you and other colleagues at Cambridge – and elsewhere – who need and want to text mine.

    While I am here, I would like to stress the real value of librarians in these discussions. Your library colleagues at Cambridge have – both directly and through JISC Collections – relationships and existing agreements with a wide array of publishers. They are constructive partners for us all in facilitating text mining and scaling up as we move forward.

    With kind wishes,


    (Alicia Wise, Director of Universal Access, Elsevier, @wisealic)

    1. Jason Hoyt

      I am sure that Elsevier’s regret as expressed by Ms. Wise is genuine. As genuine as the rationale they have for trying to side rail initiatives that would make depositing author manuscripts into institutional repositories easier than ever. Projects such as the JISC funded DURA project that make repository deposits a one click step for researchers. They continue to make threats to interested librarians who are simply trying to fulfill their university obligations. Elsevier does not hold “discussions” with librarians, but rather ultimatums at the expense of the advance of science. Enough, Ms. Wise.

    2. Mike Taylor


      I don’t understand “the real value of librarians in these discussions”. Peter wants to do some science on some data. What does that have to do with librarians?

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