Will Elsevier have a Snowden Event?

January 13, 2014

So, I’ve been thinking a lot about this interesting situation with Elsevier, which David Tempest’s remarks at the Oxford Evolution or Revolution debate highlighted: they can’t afford (literally or figuratively) to tell us how much they charge different institutions for the same stuff.

And I had this thought, which Mike tweeted:

When simply telling the truth can blow up your business model, you need a new business model.

Mash that up with “information wants to be free” and “if all else fails, someone will show up to liberate it”, and you get this:

When a single person of good conscience can blow up your business model simply by telling the truth, you need a new business model.

If we’ve learned anything in the past few years, it is that humans are the weak link in any campaign of secrecy.

We know that all of the big barrier-based publishers have these bundling deals with libraries, and that no-one on either side is allowed to say what the terms of those deals are. But there must be a lot of people with access to that information. And at least some of them must know how much libraries are getting screwed, precisely because they have access to that information. Seems unlikely that information will stay secret forever.

So, should we be expecting a Snowden-type leak from one or another barrier-based publisher? It doesn’t have to be Elsevier, but I think if it happens they’re the most likely target, because they are so single-minded about cultivating the ill-will of the people they allegedly serve (most recently with this and this). Sometimes I wonder if the other barrier-based publishers are getting too much of a free pass precisely because Elsevier is so good at tossing grenades and then jumping on them.

Corollary: barrier-based publishers, what are you doing to prepare for such a leak? “More secrecy” and “harsher penalties” will probably not work out well in the long run. But do feel free to keep scoring own goals if you must.

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6 Responses to “Will Elsevier have a Snowden Event?”


  1. Public institutions in many countries are subject to Freedom of Information laws that give the public the right to get answers they seek about expenditures, confidentiality agreements notwithstanding.

    So it’s possible to find out now how much many institutions are paying for Elsevier, though each institution usually needs to be queried separately. For instance, here’s the answer De Montfort University gave in 2010 when Julian Todd asked this:

    https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/elsevier_costs

    Ted Bergstrom and colleagues also sent out multiple Freedom of Information Act requests in 2009 about US state university contracts with Elsevier and other publishers. Elsevier tried to block at least one of the responses in court, but the judge ruled against them. They don’t appear to have published the full contracts online, though, and it’s not clear to me that they’ve been continuing these requests since 2009. They do offer to help others to compose the most effective form of the request:

    http://www.econ.ucsb.edu/~tedb/Journals/BundleContracts.html

  2. gowers Says:

    It’s great that de Montfort provided information, but a close reading suggests to me that it is not the information we really want. My understanding is that an Elsevier bundle splits into a “core collection” (the journals that the university subscribed to in 1995 before the Freedom Collection began), plus electronic access to everything else thrown in at a very small extra cost (percentagewise anyway). It looks to me as though the costs being quoted by de Montfort are those extra costs, when the bulk of their costs would be for their core collection. I’m not certain that this is the right interpretation though — I hope someone can provide clarification on this point.


  3. Private, secret pricing is remarkably tenacious.

    My company, LibraryThing, tried “open pricing” a few years back. We came out with a new product and published a detailed, stepped price list. We hated the ickiness of secret pricing, the delays involved in getting people a price, and we wanted to promote the sort of openness and transparency the library market needs.

    After some initial praise from openness advocates, it backfired. Librarians expected pricing ambiguity, and didn’t realize how it hurt them. Told they were getting friend-prices, or whatever, they felt un-friended. Clarity also made it easier complain about fairness—everyone had some reason why, although the schedule said X, and the town next door paid X, THEIR library should get 50% off. It cut against the standard model of using the pricing question as a sales opportunity, where “let me get you a price” means “let me give you a price and a pitch.” And, with competitors still price-dark, they could adjust their prices according to ours, but never the reverse. It made the librarians mad, the salespeople sad and our competitors happy.

    So, Elsevier may have a Snowden moment, but I doubt it’ll end the practice—anymore than Snowden has ended official secrets…

  4. Nick Gardner Says:

    I doubt this because I think for most people who currently work with Elsevier, this is not likely to be a moral issue, whereas in Snowden’s case, it may have felt more cut and dry for him. Also, it stands to reason that individuals like Snowden are only a small portion of the overall industry he represents – otherwise we wouldn’t be in our current mess.

  5. Nick Gardner Says:

    Morality is strongly personal, and when business standards and ethics don’t immediately trouble a person’s morality, as long as they are getting paid, they are not likely to raise an issue. Even if a few people believe this is an ethical and moral issue, if other people do not perceive it as such (especially AND particularly the prime actors – i.e. publishers and their customers), it won’t matter. You need to have an overwhelming number of people convinced at these publishers that they are doing something wrong OR convince an overwhelming number of customers not to play ball with them.

    You and I are not Elsevier’s customers. The people who approve spending for subscriptions are. And as long as they write the checks, Elsevier won’t bother to change its business practices on its own.

    Good luck.

  6. Matt Wedel Says:

    Thanks, all, for your thoughts. librarythingtim, that is depressing but it all makes sense.

    Nick, you may well be right. But part of my motivation in writing posts like this is to help people who work for Elsevier see that there is a moral issue (in addition to a financial issue, and a just-not-being-stupid issue).


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