I have recently received two FoI replies, one which I think illustrates the best of the system (Oxford University, my alma mater) and one that doesn’t (University of Cambridge, my current home).
To start with the Cambridge one. I requested information from The Cambridge Crystallographic Data Centre (http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/contracts_for_and_number_of_sour ) because the CCDC was listed as a department of the University. I should point out that I had already asked this of the CCDC and was refused – so I hoped that it might come under the legal constraint of FoI. I sent the request off through WhatDoTheyKnow and waited.
To keep you in suspense I’ll comment that WDTK now has 14% of all FoI requests. I think this is excellent. It’s great to have the answers clearly outlined. Here’s their graph (http://www.mysociety.org/2011/07/01/whatdotheyknow%e2%80%99s-share-of-central-government-foi-requests-%e2%80%93-q2-2011/ ):
Note, in passing, that 7000 requests/quarter = 600 request a week == ca 100 requests per day over the whole country. That seems like a healthy number for a government that is rightly promoting openness. No evidence of serious spamming.
Anyway, back to Cambridge. Here’s their reply, which arrived ONE HOUR before the 20 working data deadline:
Contrary to your assertion that the Cambridge Crystallographic Data Centre (CC DC) is ‘one of the listed departments of the University’ the CC DC is a separate legal entity with the status of Non-University Institution solely for the purposes of supervising students on MPhil and PhD research degree programmes. The CCDC operates as a not-for-profit company limited by guarantee under English law and is a registered charity with the Charity Commission. This is set out on the CCDC website at: http://www.ccdc.cam.ac.uklabout ccdc/company information/legal status/ The CCDC is also registered separately from the University with the Information Commissioner (under register entry number Z6351501).
The requested information is therefore not held.
It is always possible that it took 19.75 days to work this out, or that the FoI officer was snowed under with other work. But It’s also possible that there is a policy of delaying answers until just before the deadline. I would suggest that the FoI office knew this information on or shortly after receipt of my request. They could then have informed me.
The WDTK site says:
The Freedom of Information Act says:
A public authority must comply with section 1(1) promptly and in any event not later than the twentieth working day following the date of receipt.
The nerdy detail of exactly how weekends are counted, and what happens if the request arrives out of office hours, is just that – detail. What matters here is that the law says authorities must respond promptly.
The word “promptly” is emphasized for good reason. It’s mean to show that the respondent should try to be helpful, not grudging. I’ll leave you to decide which.
By contrast The OUP response was helpful, though also left until the eleventieth-eleventh hour. (They disagree with WDTK about when the clock starts ticking, but I could wait.) I asked them about pricing of individual journal articles (“Pay Per View”, PPV) and you may find this interesting – I did:
Before you read it, try guessing how many people pay to read a PerPerView article.
Thank you for your request.
Q1 (a) Who sets the pricing policy for online purchases? (b) Has this ever been reviewed
by advisory or governing bodies?
A1(a): What you have called “online purchases”, we call “pay per view” (“PPV”). PPV
pricing is set by the relevant division (for example Global Academic Division, which
includes journals), and is reviewed ad hoc at that divisional level. The pricing has been
based on market levels (which means, for example, that our pricing for articles from
humanities journals is generally lower than that for articles from scientific or medical
journals) and also takes into account the risk that too low pricing could undermine
subscriptions. As conditions change, we may change our approach to PPV pricing. This
can happen at the list or journal level.
A1 (b): No. Reviews of PPV pricing have not taken place at a higher than divisional level.
PMR: As I thought – prices are set by the office, not by reviewed by the University
Q2(a) Is the policy uniform over all closed access articles, and if not (b) what are the
A2(b): The main criterion is whether the article is from a humanities or scientific/
medical journal. As mentioned above, articles from humanities journals are generally
cheaper than those from scientific or medical journals, though there are exceptions.
PMR: Useful to know there is a differential
Q3 (a) Is any third party (e.g. a rights collection agency) involved? If so, (b) who, and (c)
what proportion of the revenue do they take?
A3(b): There are two types of third party involved in supplying PPV – (i) the third party
that hosts our journals (HighWire), and (ii) third parties to whom we have licensed the
right to sell our articles e.g. the British Library, Infotrieve and Reprints Desk. We do not
offer PPV through any rights collection agencies.
PMR: Good. I do not find rights collection agents to have a sense of anything other than maximising income.
A3(c): For the first type of third party in A2(b) above, which represents around two-
thirds of our PPV sales, we will not disclose the percentage of the revenue from PPV
taken by HighWire, because we believe that this information is exempt from disclosure
under Section 43(2) of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
PMR: “FOIA 43(2) Information is exempt information if its disclosure under this Act would, or would be likely to, prejudice the commercial interests of any person (including the public authority holding it).” High-Wire (from Stanford Univ library) “As the leading ePublishing platform, HighWire Press partners with independent scholarly publishers, societies, associations, and university presses to facilitate the digital dissemination of 1552 journals, reference works, books, and proceedings.” I have no information as to whether it attempts to oversee PPV prices
HighWire supplies journal content from a number of academic publishers. Disclosure of the information
requested would be likely to prejudice its commercial interests by weakening its
bargaining position in relation to other publishers, who do not have the same terms as
OUP for PPV. This in turn might cause it to offer a less favourable deal to OUP.
The exemption in Section 43(2) is a qualified exemption, which requires the public
authority to weigh up the public interest in favour of disclosure, which is presumed
from the FOIA, against the public interest in maintaining the exemption.
The University accepts that there is a public interest in the disclosure of financial
information about OUP, given that it is one of the world’s leading publishers and a
department of a public authority. This interest is met through the publication of
abstracts of accounts in both the University’s Financial Statements and the Annual
Report of the Delegates of the University Press1. However, we consider that there is
little, if any, public interest in the disclosure of the percentage of PPV revenue received
by HighWire, given that this represents an insignificant percentage of OUP’s overall
finances. Furthermore, OUP receives no public money; it aims to be a self-financing
department of the University.
The limited public interest in disclosure is outweighed by the public interest in
maintaining the exemption. As already indicated, OUP is a department of the University
of Oxford, and makes a significant contribution towards the University’s objectives of
promoting excellence in teaching and research. Any harm caused to its commercial
interests would undermine its ability to contribute to these goals.
For the second type of third party mentioned in A2(b) above, the proportion of the
revenue they take depends on what price they sell at, which is information we do not
hold. We sell to them at a fixed price and they can charge what they like.
PMR: A comprehensive and useful reply.
Q4. How many online purchases were made last year over all OUP journal articles?
Please give both (a) purchase numbers and (b) total number of purchasable articles.
A4(a): In 2010, 37,157 PPV articles were purchased.
A4(b): We do not hold this information.
Q5. What is the revenue from online purchases as a fraction of subscription (e.g.
academic library) income?
A5. PPV represents around 1.5% of total journal subscription income.
PMR: Very interesting. I don’t know how many articles OUP publishes a year. About 270 journals, let’s guess ca 150 articles per year average (so journals are large, others small). That’s almost 1 PPV per article. Of course some articles are older. So the average per year per article might be 0.5 PPV per article per year.
This is higher than I would have thought. I remember many years ago the figure that the average paper was read by 1.5 people. If people actually pay 32$ or whatever that is a commitment. Of course it’s a lot less than the pageviews for Open Access journals. (Of course! I forgot that some of the journals are OA – but not many and it doesn’t affect the order of magnitude.