Beyond the Boycott: Q&A with Timothy Gowers

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By: 
Caralee Adams
SPARC

Next steps in the Open Access battle: Shining a light on journal pricing

In a recent blog post, Timothy Gowers discussed the state of Open Access two years after the Cost of Knowledge launched its boycott of Elsevier. The British mathematician and open access champion was initially buoyed by the response, but notes that the main problems, journal bundling and exorbitant prices, continue. As evidence, he points out that in 2013, Elsevier’s profit margin reached 39 percent.

If it is not possible to bring about rapid change to the current system, Gowers suggests the next best thing to do is to obtain as much information as possible about it. In his blog, Gowers chronicles his efforts to use freedom of information requests to uncover the price that institutions are paying annually for journal bundles – or, “Big Deals.” While Elsevier is not forthcoming and publishers insist on confidentiality clauses, he finds some universities are willing to share their total costs, which vary widely. Gowers maintains that without transparency, it can be difficult for customers to leverage the best deals.  

In a recent phone interview, we asked Gowers about his current take on the Open Access landscape and what can be done to make scholarly publishing more affordable.

SPARC: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the impact of the recent Elsevier boycott?

Gowers: The boycott on its own is not going to do anything. Not enough people are boycotting to give Elsevier any reason to change what it does. There are also many mechanisms built into the system that make it hard to change it – the biggest one is bundling. It’s going to take a big concerted action to get to any sort of change. The only obvious way I can see of getting concerted action is Open Access mandates. However, I’ve been a little disappointed that these have been giving too much weight to gold Open Access, which often means a hybrid model that puts even more money into publishers’ pockets.

SPARC: What needs to happen to turn the tide?

Gowers: I’m now trying to encourage libraries to say: “We don’t want the Big Deals anymore.” If enough libraries stopped subscribing to Big Deals, they would think much harder about each individual journal, and whether they were willing to pay individual list prices. If enough libraries were thinking about that, then these list prices would start to reflect the true market value of the journals: power to cancel subscriptions would be back in the hands of libraries, so publishers would have to think about lowering prices.

It would also encourage academics to think about whether they actually need a subscription. In some areas, such as mathematics, they don’t - because a large proportion of papers are available in pre-print form anyway. But at the moment that doesn’t make any difference to what universities pay, because math papers are bundled up with papers in other subjects such as biology.

SPARC: If academics were aware of the costs, do you think prices would come down?

Gowers: Academics would need incentives to cancel subscriptions -- the obvious one being the ability to use the money saved for other purposes, such as funding postdoctoral positions. But while we still have Big Deals, this cannot happen. It is a difficult situation, because librarians are anxious about annoying academics by taking any action that would risk loss of access to journals, but such loss of access is inevitable if Big Deals are cancelled. Therefore, for such action to take place, academics need to give librarians permission to take it. And for that to happen, academics need to be aware of the facts. Librarians are well aware of the cost to their own institutions, but unless academics also understand just how much is being spent on their behalf, they won’t be so keen on the loss of convenience that would result from reducing their subscriptions.

SPARC: As you tried to learn about journal costs, how did Elsevier and universities respond to your freedom of information requests?

Gowers: I initially tried to get information from Elsevier directly, with no success, which is not a surprise at all. They talked about not wanting to give a competitive advantage to other publishers, but I find those arguments very implausible. Elsevier has a monopoly over their own journals, and some of those journals are regarded as indispensable to academics. This is a genuine monopoly.

So then I turned to the universities themselves. My impression, by and large, is that librarians are very sympathetic that this information should be made more available. Librarians couldn't just hand over the information: they had to consult their universities' Freedom of Information offices. The reluctance then came from those offices. They gave reasons for refusing to disclose information, and it was clear from the similarity in wording that they had been fed those reasons by Elsevier. If a university refused to provide the information, I had the right to request a review of the decision. This would typically be carried out by an academic in the university, who probably had less reason to be cautious.

SPARC: You found many institutions paid different amounts for the journal bundles - what are the implications of this?

Gowers: You need to be careful about drawing any conclusions from these differences in price, because different universities are of different sizes and carry out different levels of research. Even so, there are differences that are quite hard to explain. The system is largely based on what universities spent on journals 20 years ago. That probably has some reasonable correlation with how much universities use journals, but it is not a fair system and gives universities no effective control over what they pay.

What I would like instead is a system that in some way reflects the use now, so that universities could save money by using Elsevier journals less. At the moment, because universities pay an annual fee, there is no reason for academics not to use ScienceDirect, so the usage doesn't actually reflect the extent to which we need the service. I would like to see some sort of market mechanism to determine that price.

SPARC: What is the takeaway that you hope readers derive from your blog post?

Gowers: The job of finding out everything that needs to be found out is far from over. I have Elsevier prices from one segment of British universities. There have been efforts elsewhere, so we should soon have a fuller picture. The more information we have about what it is costing now and what it could cost in the future, the easier it will be to work out whether we can switch to other ways of paying for (possibly fewer) journals.

Another message is that academics need to get organized. When the next round of Elsevier contracts are negotiated, if the university wants to pay less for less, some sort of information campaign will have to have taken place so that those doing the negotiations will know what academics are willing to risk losing.

The more general message, which many people have made and which is the focus of the recent San Francisco Declaration, is that we need to be paying less attention to which journals research appears in and more attention to the actual content of the articles when we judge each other.  

Journals have lost one of their main functions, namely dissemination. Indeed, they have not just lost it, but they have actually gone into reverse and stand in the way of dissemination rather than helping it. There is also vastly less need for their typesetting function. The main thing that is left is providing a certificate of quality and they do that in a very crude way. It’s just a yes or no question whether an article appears in such and such a journal or not. We could do without journals as they are now, put everything in repositories, and develop much cheaper assessment mechanisms.

SPARC: What about confidentiality agreements that universities are asked to sign with publishers?

Gowers: I encourage libraries not to sign them, although Elsevier and other publishers fight very hard for them. It will be interesting to see what happens now that some universities have publicly disclosed the information. I don’t know if the effect of what has happened recently will be that confidentiality agreements will stop being important. But as a matter of principle, it would be good to refuse to sign them. There are those who don’t; for example Brazil has a national negotiation and refuses to sign any confidentiality agreements.

To get information about pricing and fight confidentiality agreements, you need to find out the freedom of information legislation in your country. People have tried to find out about prices in New Zealand and Finland and not had all that much success with it. However, a few years ago others had quite a bit of success in the U.S. with the state universities.

SPARC: What kind of reaction have you had from this blog post and what’s next?

Gowers: A lot of people have been very interested by the information. My impression is that it is widely welcomed in the Open Access community and by librarians and those with a close interest in seeing the information released. I hope it will make a difference.

The next step for me is to try to encourage Cambridge not to sign up again for the Big Deal, and to work out how to get by without it. Of course, if just a few universities do this, then it won’t be enough to make Elsevier do anything about their prices. However, if a large fraction of universities no longer subscribe to the Big Deal, then it would start to have an effect on prices. It’s difficult to be the first, but if some high profile universities start the process, it improves the chances that a trickle will turn into a flood and things will finally change. 

I think change will continue to be slow for a while. But my guess is that at some point in the future the current system will collapse. I hope that by making this effort I can help this collapse to happen sooner. It seems extraordinary that we have the system we have when the Internet makes it so easy to communicate our work and we are paying such a lot for journals. This does not feel sustainable in the long term, even if for now there are a number of mechanisms in place to sustain it. Once those mechanisms are dealt with, the ensuing change is likely to be very rapid.

Related: March 2012 Interview-- A Look Inside the Boycott of Elsevier: A Q&A with Tim Gowers and Tyler Neylon 

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