Speaking on the 28th of April 2014 the Vice Chancellor of Cambridge University, Leszek Borysiewicz, commented on the amount the university is paying to publisher Elsevier. He said:
Yes we spend money with Elsevier. Do I regret spending money with Elsevier? By and large yes I do because I think they’re rich enough already.
just wait until we get into open data debates … Elsevier is already looking at ways in which it can control open data as a private company rather than the public bodies concerned.
The comments were made at a question and answer session organised by the Cambridge University Students’ Union which I attended.
Open-access activist Michelle Brook replied to one of my live tweets from the event to say she didn’t know he was speaking but had a question:
— Michelle Brook (@MLBrook) April 28, 2014
— Michelle Brook (@MLBrook) April 28, 2014
As free public access to the university’s outputs is something I care about too I put the question to the Vice Chancellor as follows:
Richard Taylor : Do you have any views on the amount that the university is spending with academic publishers; and in particular have you been following the FOI requests showing Cambridge is spending five times more than Exeter with Elsevier . Where do you see the future of academic publishing, and who funds it, and where are you leading the university on that?
The Vice Chancellor responded:
V/C Borysiewicz : The first debate that we actually have is where we’re going to go with open access in relationship to publication. We have some serious difficulties with some of open access. The idea is it’s very different in terms of different specialties. In biological sciences, my area, you could go gold open access tomorrow to make everything available. The question mark I would give you is the president of my college, Wolfson, he’s written the standard tomes on national socialism in Germany in three volumes. He did all that work off research council grants the same as I did. Why can’t I actually access his books free of charge in the same way as he can access my papers free of charge, so in the arts and humanities people still want to publish books and they’re not available. Books are a big issue in this regard.
I have a problem with some of open access because in essence it lines the pockets of publishers rather than solving a problem of availability of issues, it depends how you constract the various contracts that are actually there.
Elsevier at the moment have a large number of journals that are high priority journals for individual academic staff; so if I looked at Macmillan in view of publishing in Science or in Nature or any of these Nature journals I’ve also got to think of where your career prospects are going to be if I say no you can’t publish there you’ve got to go to PLOS ONE or whatever is a free online open journal that doesn’t actually accumulate paid charges as Elsevier.
And I know disadvantaging the individual academic by not having publication in what is deemed to be the top publications available? So it’s a balance in the argument that we have.
Yes we spend money with Elsevier. Do I regret spending money with Elsevier? By and large yes I do because I think they’re rich enough already. And I have a particular problem that many academics in reality already provide all of the information already and all they do is peer review it and charge you back for publishing it. But the way the current system is structured and the way careers progress by publication we spend more frankly because we actually have more of the highest quality staff who publish in the highest quality journals and that is a circular argument as that’s why they’re deemed to be the finest quality individuals concerned. So in a perfect world yes we’d spend less with publishers but I can’t penalise individuals’ careers by not spending that money with publishers at the moment.
But we do scrutinise through the library committee all of our commitments to publishers and how we actually operate in open access terms in the future. At the moment we are raising green open access as the direction going forward and if you think the genie is out of that bottle just wait until we get into open data debates within this university which is throwing all of your data open to public scrutiny almost as soon as you’ve collected it and that’s going to cause even more in the way of debates and the publishers are faster off the mark than governments are. Elsevier is already looking at ways in which it can control open data as a private company rather than the public bodies concerned.
Get involved in the debate as this develops.
That’s where we are as a university.
- I think far too much weight is put on the career prospects of academics when it comes to deciding where we allow them to publish publicly funded science. These are publicly funded employees, the prime consideration ought be getting value for public money. There’s a need to be careful that we don’t make UK universities unattractive to those who can choose where in the world they work, but I think our university sector is big enough and strong enough to take a bold decision. If the leaders of our universities are too scared of the reaction from academics concerned about their how their career progress will be assessed to take the lead then our elected representatives should step in and simply demand free public access to publicly funded research as a condition of public funding.
- The Vice Chancellor suggested that paying for expensive high quality journals enables staff to publish in those journals and so get considered high quality researchers. This isn’t a viewpoint I’ve come across before, and it’s quite astonishing, it shows that rich universities (in rich countries) are able to buy prestige and effectively shows up the problems with the current academic publishing system.