Taxi Ken and I discuss the UK's negotiations with Elsevier

When I go the airport by taxi [1] I try to get the same taxi driver, Ken [2]. Ken is a shining example of why every citizen of the world needs access to the whole scholarly literature – open and for free.
You often hear publishers (and some academics) say “ordinary people wouldn’t understand the science”.  This is appallingly arrogant , and blatantly untrue.   In the taxi we are discussing whether people listen more to scientists from Cambridge than less-well-known universities:
PMR: Doctors in a Western Australian hospital struggled for many years to convince the medical profession of the true cause of stomach ulcers
KEN: You mean Campylobacter.

This is the point. Ken has no University education. But he knows the cause of ulcers and he knows the precise scientific name [3] (Read the story of Barry_Marshall and Robin Warren; everyone should be able to follow it. They published their results [4] in The Lancet a well-known medical journal.)
Oh, dear, Ken. I’m sorry you can’t read this unless classic paper unless you fork out 36 USD – and you would then have just 24 hours to read it. And you can’t show it to your mates – that’s copyright violation. Oh, and all the money goes to Elsevier – none to the authors.
Taxi drivers are an underclass. Only academics in Cambridge are allowed to read about Helicobacter. What? It was published in 1983? Yes,  that’s far too recent to make it Open and Free for taxi-drivers. One of the most important papers in science? won a Nobel prize? You expect taxi-driver tax-payers to be allowed to read work they fund??  Sorry.  Just keep driving taxis.
It’s a moral imperative to publish science for everyone. Not just academics but also taxi drivers. Next time you are in a taxi, don’t sit back but ask your driver: “are you interested in science?”. Not everyone is, but everyone who is interested in science can be a scientist. It’s a matter of attitude and philosophy, not a white coat.
PMR: So we had a meeting last week to discuss negotiations with Elsevier.
KEN: Elsevier , the publisher?… (Ken is interested in politics , and science/Cambridge. He knows about Elsevier.)
PMR Yes…
And I continue to set the scene:
A week ago a small selected group of concerned Cambridge academics (including PMR), and library staff, met with Jisc (who are advising HEFCE – who fund English universities), to find out about Jisc’s negotiations with Elsevier about university subscriptions.  Almost 40M GBP  year  of taxpayer and student money for academics to read journals. Until now I didn’t even realise there was a negotiation – it has been kept very quiet indeed. The deal has to be concluded by 24:00 2016-12-31 ; if not the subscriptions are cancelled and even Cambridge academics won’t be able to read The Lancet.  (The journal which Ken still can’t anyway read, thus bringing Cambridge academics and taxi-drivers even closer together).
The meeting opened my eyes to the massive and visceral resistance that Elsevier was putting up against any normal “negotiations”. (I’ve negotiated with equipment suppliers before – one deal was >2M GBP in today’s money.) What came over to me very clearly was that this is not about price. It’s a battle for control. Who makes the decisions about the dissemination of scholarly knowledge, whether or not paid for by the taxpayers and student fees?
Elsevier (along with Digital Science from Nature/Springer, etc.) are rapidly taking over our academic infrastructure. Last week Elsevier they bought SSRN, the social sciences repository. They now control preprints in significant part of academia. They are selling the Universities PURE – a system of repositories that are under Elsevier control and where I fear the we are the product as well as the customers. What does Open matter if the gateway is controlled by a publisher who Openwashes the language to legitimize its control?
It’s not because Elsevier are the biggest, it’s because they are the most ruthless, arrogant, publisher. I have been dealing with them for ca 8 years. They treat me as a nobody – a nuisance. I’m far from the only one. It’s critical that we wrest back control. After all it’s us who are paying the money. And it’s every taxi driver in the world who ultimately suffers.
The UK is not the first country to negotiate with Elsevier. Last year (2015) the Dutch did. They announced that unless they got a set of nonnegotiable demands they would walk away from Elsevier and cancel subscriptions.
What actually happened?
I don’t know. The Dutch agreed something with Elsevier. What? Don’t know , because Elsevier requires secrecy and the Dutch agreed. You can read reports before the deal and after the deal. Maybe, Ken, you can make more of them than me.
The worst possible thing would be an announcement on 2017-01-01:
“The UK and Elsevier have concluded a 40 M agreement about purchase of Elsevier publications and services. The details are commercially sensitive but [some important person] says: ‘This is a good deal for the UK …'”
The thinking world will say: “The Dutch stuck their heels in a bit but finally Elsevier won. The same has happened in UK”.
The unthinking will say: “I didn’t even realise that UK and Elsevier were negotiating. Ah well, I don’t read the scientific literature because I can’t afford it.”
KEN: had already said – his words – “The theft of Knowledge“.
This has to be fought in public, starting now. Elsevier are effectively a monopoly. The people of Europe – 250,000 – fought software patents and won. The people of many countries took on Microsoft and won. The people of UK, and later Europe, should take on Elsevier and win. It won’t be easy but it has to be done.
And if the taxi drivers take to the streets it can happen.
And in case you are wondering why we are paying 40 Million GBP for electronic content – which Elsevier neither authors nor referees , here is Bjoern Brembs  with the breakdown of costs.  Bjoern – a neuroscientist – asks  Why haven’t we already canceled all subscriptions?
The question in the title is serious: of the ~US$10 billion we collectively pay publishers annually world-wide to hide publicly funded research behind paywalls, we already know that only between 200-800 million go towards actual costs. The rest goes towards profits (~3-4 billion) and paywalls/other inefficiencies (~5 billion).
So the UK will be paying 20M GBP to Elsevier for gross inefficiencies (which from my own experience I can confirm) and technology to stop Ken, and Chris Hartgerink (“Elsevier stopped me doing my research”) , reading science.
And we should pay them just 3M GBP at the most.
Or, much better, do it ourselves. We’d do it cheaper, better, faster. Bjoern, a senior scientist, says so and I agree.

[1] Don’t worry – It is the cheapest overall cost (over car parking or hotels).
[2] not his real name but he is happy for me to publish our discussion. He cares.
[3] it’s been renamed to Helicobacter in the intervening period.
[4] Marshall BJ, Warren JR (June 1983). “Unidentified curved bacilli on gastric epithelium in active chronic gastritis”. Lancet 321 (8336): 1273–5. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(83)92719-8. PMID 6134060. [from Wikipedia].
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One Response to Taxi Ken and I discuss the UK's negotiations with Elsevier

  1. LibMoose says:

    ‘The worst possible thing would be an announcement on 2017-01-01:
    “The UK and Elsevier have concluded a 40 M agreement about purchase of Elsevier publications and services. The details are commercially sensitive but [some important person] says: ‘This is a good deal for the UK …'”‘
    Well that’s what has just happened, only in November rather than January.

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