Cambridge Univeristy VC Says Elsevier Are Rich Enough Already

Monday, April 28th, 2014. 10:47pm

Cambridge University Vice Chancellor Leszek Borysiewicz at Q&A Session on 28 April 2014

Cambridge University Vice Chancellor Leszek Borysiewicz at Q&A Session on 28 April 2014

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:

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.

My views

  • 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.

See also

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13 comments/updates on “Cambridge Univeristy VC Says Elsevier Are Rich Enough Already

  1. Richard Taylor Article author

    The source of the figures on how much Cambridge and Exeter spend with Elsevier is an article on Timothy Gowers’s blog:

    unfortunately he didn’t make his requests via so we have to trust they’re being reported accurately. The current annual spending with Elsevier which he reports is:
    Exeter University £234,126
    Cambridge University £1,161,571

    1. Timothy Gowers

      I didn’t make the requests via because I wanted to publish the answers all at once rather than in dribs and drabs (because I was worried that if I did the latter, then Elsevier might take some form of action as soon as one university gave me some figures that would deter other universities from doing so). I would be happy to transfer all the correspondence to retrospectively if that was possible. If not, maybe I should put it all into a file and make that file available to anyone who is interested. I should add that I have no interest whatever in not reporting the figures accurately — that would defeat the entire point of the exercise — so the only thing that could conceivably have gone wrong is if I miscopied a figure accidentally.

  2. Ganesh Sittampalam

    Isn’t his point about high-quality journals and high-quality researchers an obvious one? Like any other selective system some will end up at the top of the pile and everyone will want to publish there.

  3. MarkH

    Anybody who knew about the confidentiality clauses imposed by publishers (not only Elsevier) already knew that this was a completely opaque market. Nobody knew what anybody else was paying, until now. Tim Gowers explains really well how this came about.

    The scandal doesn’t end there. So-called ‘hybrid’ journals are becoming increasingly widespread – where the author pays a per-article fee for open access. The problem is that we pay twice: once to publish and then again to actually read the journal!

    Cambridge has released its pay-to-publish spending figures from the pot of money from RCUK specifically for this purpose:

    Last year we spent £463,385 on publishing 265 articles – surely a small proportion of the total Cambridge research output. So it’s encouraging to see the VC advocating ‘green’ open access, with no APC charges. I don’t think any other institution has released these figures, so I don’t know how we compare.

  4. Richard Taylor Article author

    Cambridge academic, postdoc materials scientist Philip Howie has defended the current arrangements on the grounds that free public access to his research would make it harder for him to progress in his academic career:

    Philip Howie has made the published outputs of his research available via publisher Taylor & Francis who charge £28 for access to his article:

    The publication states the work was funded by a £106,931 grant of UK public money via the EPSRC research council.

    1. Richard Taylor Article author

      One problem is who takes the decision on where work is published. It may be difficult for people involved in a piece of work to make the argument it ought be published in an accessible manner if those ultimately taking the decision are in a position of power over them. I wouldn’t assume all authors on a paper agreed to the mechanism of publication, but Philip Howie, above has made his views clear.
      I’ve written about some of my own experiences at:

    2. Ganesh Sittampalam

      Characterising his response as saying that “free public access to his research would make it harder for him to progress in his academic career” is a misrepresentation – he didn’t say that and I would guess what he was actually saying was that “not publishing in the most prestigious venues would make it harder to progress”, which is the usual argument against just taking unilateral action.

  5. Michelle Brook

    I found a comment in Tim’s blog really rather interesting/concerning. He quoted the response from Queen Mary University of London justifying why they would not release their data:

    “revealing this information to the world at large may damage the relationship that QML has with Elsevier including the prospect of legal action that may be taken against QML. This could result in QML being unable to offer Elsevier products which would have the knock-on effect of impacting our resources, our research and even student recruitment. Since these would imperil QML’s finances, in financially tough times and while receiving less and less from the public purse, this cannot be said to be in the public interest.” (reference:

    Given this response from QMUL, it is likely to imagine many other universities felt similar, so those that have released this data should be congratulated.

    And thank you for asking this question for me – I’m really sorry I couldn’t be there myself. As you mention, I am an open access advocate, and I spend time working both professionally and personally on this cause – believing strongly that tax-payer funded work should be made openly available to the public. Furthermore, I believe that this should be done in a way that is efficient; both for academics involved and in terms of cost to the public purse.

    Academics are in a tight spot. Career wise, it is often the case that publishing in ‘high impact factor journals’ is beneficial for career progression. This is both for climbing the ladder within institutions and for gaining grants. However impact factors (which are the average number of citations to articles published within a journal in a given time period), were never designed to be measures of ‘research excellence of work published within a journal’, and there are an increasing number of concerns about

    (For more information read the Declaration of Research Assessment, signed by HEFCE and the Wellcome Trust as well as over 10,000 academics worldwide :

    It should be noted that HEFCE Research Excellence Framework guidelines do state explicitly that impact factor is not taken into account – although anecdotally Universities haven’t taken much notice of these guidelines. (ref:

    There are two ways of achieving ‘open access’, that is work that is made freely and openly available to the public. The first of these is through repositories (the so called green access route mentioned by the VC above) . The second of these is via journals, and in the UK any Research Council funded work must now be published in this fashion.

    In many (although not all causes) this work is made available on receipt of a fee, otherwise known as an ‘article processing charge’ (often upwards of a thousand pounds, in the case of many journals substantially more). Many journals operate on a fully open access business model, relying just on these APCs, but some of the ‘prestigious journals’ (largely defined by the impact factor) do not. They operate on what is termed a ‘hybrid publishing model’. An author may pay a fee to have the work made openly available at the point of publication, but not all work contained within a given journal issue will be openly available, meaning that in order to gain access to *all* the research contained, a subscription is also required.

    I’ve been exploring some of these costs of hybrid publication by looking at a recent Wellcome Trust data release of the APC’s they paid last year:

    This is just one research funder in the UK (although one of the major ones). The work showed that just last year, Wellcome Trust spent £1,036,000 on publishing with Elsevier – 95% of which was for articles in journals for which university libraries were spending these outrageously large subscriptions that Tim has uncovered!

    It surprises me that more academics are not concerned about these rather large sums of money being paid to private companies for knowledge that has been produced by public funds; especially given the continuing constriction of research budgets and increased marketisation of our universities.

    1. Richard Taylor Article author

      I’ve commented previously on the use of impact factors by those funding academic work. I think we need research councils with the capability to fund science on the basis of the excellence of proposals:

      Using impact factors, restricting those who can apply for funds to those who’ve served a certain number of years service as a post-doc, or to those anointed by a head of department are scandalous ways those responsible for spending public money use to avoid allocating funds and resources on merit.

  6. Richard Taylor Article author

    Another area where the university puts the interests of the careers of individual academics over the public interest, and the interests of wider humanity, is in the commercialisation of research. Commercialisation is, like publication, a route via which outputs from the university enter the rest of society. I’ve seen the university give far too much weight to supporting an individual’s academic career when deciding if an idea or technology ought be realised, exploited and applied, or if an individual ought be able to build a career around it within academia.

    I previously wrote:

    I think that Cambridge Enterprise needs to be very aware that academic researchers have a very unique perspective in seeing value in intellectual property and might want to see Cambridge Enterprise assign the rights back to individual researchers so they can continue to build their academic careers, perhaps in other institutions, on the back of work done at Cambridge. I think Cambridge Enterprise needs to be strong, to stand up to academics, and to protect the interests of the nation and the university in such negotiations and to understand the motivations of the academics.

  7. Mark C. Wilson

    “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.”

    In fact most journals do not peer review anything. At best they coordinate (in a very minimal way) prepublication review, which is done for free, by researchers. Most of the coordination is done by editors, most of whom are unpaid. So it is worse than the VC stated.

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