The Cost of Knowledge; Tim Gowers' amazing analysis of Elsevier's income

An amazing post came out yesterday from an amazing person. Tim Gowers is a Fields Medallist (the mathematics equivalent of the Nobel Prize).  But Tim is also a star in the world of Open. 5 years ago he launched the Polymath project – a completely Open, meritocratic , collaborative project in citizen mathematics. They solved a complex and difficult mathematical problem is an astonishingly short time. It’s rightly regarded as an exemplar of what the future can be in the century of the Digital Enlightement.
But Tim has also fought the political battle for Openness and freedom of access to scholarship. Two years ago Tim was incensed by the outrageous cost of Elsevier journals and called for a boycott (“The Cost of Knowledge”). This was instantly successful, getting thousands of signatures in weeks. (I have signed it).
Now he’s taken this further in a large project and huge blog post. The prices of scholarly journals are closely guarded secrets. Universities use public money to buy subscriptions and the Elsevier requires the prices to be confidential. They even require the confidentiality clause to be confidential. (PMR: Why do Universities meekly sign this). But there is a way forward. Universities are public institutions and as such bound by the Freedom Of Information Acts.
So Tim has made requests to all Russell Group Universities asking for details of the contract and prices with Elsevier.
I know how much effort this is because I’ve done a similar thing (asking for restrictive clauses in publisher contracts). Some universities give positive helpful replies (Cambridge was one – – this shows the process). But some Universities try to avoid giving useful answers. In that case we may have to go back and re-ask the question differently or even write to the Information Commissioner. It’s a LOT of work.
So Tim has published a huge amount of information and comment.

  • read it
  • read Michelle Brook’s great summary (first).
  • give it to your students to read. Students, Give it to your lecturers and professors to read.
  • write to your MP. (I have)

Here’s part of Michelle’s summary:

Cambridge spent £1,161,571 in 2012.

Scale that up and you find that the UK is paying over   150 MILLION pounds to Elsevier every year.

And , although they are smaller, there are hundreds of other publishers out there.

The world pays 15 BILLION dollars to scholarly publishers each year. And a significant amount of that is used to stop YOU reading it (

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *