How to negotiate with Elsevier

April 25, 2014

Eminent British mathematician Tim Gowers has written an epic post on his attempts to get universities to disclose how much they pay for their Elsevier subscriptions. There is a lot of fascinating anecdote in there, and a shedload of important data — it’s very well worth a read.

But here is the part that staggered me most. Gowers wrote to (among others) Queen’s University Belfast, requesting the subscription cost under Freedom of Information rules. The reply was from Amanda Aicken, Information Compliance Unit (and by the way was addressed to Mr. Gowers, but let it pass). It refused to disclose the price on the basis that:

The disclosure of this information would be likely to have a detrimental effect on Elsevier’s future negotiating position with […] the University.

Now that paragraph is exactly equivalent to:

The disclosure of this information would be likely to have a positive effect on the University’s future negotiating position with Elsevier.

Wouldn’t a decent university administrator think that’s a good thing?


9 Responses to “How to negotiate with Elsevier”

  1. Bill Says:

    I think the sentence was poorly worded, and was intended to say “if we do this, Elsevier will retaliate.”

  2. Samuel Says:

    The two statements are not equivalent – they could mean, for example, that they currently have a very large discount, which they fear losing, if, say Elsevier is pushed to make the prices the same across institutions.

    I haven’t a clue if that is true, by the way – just responding as a matter of logic.

  3. Mike Taylor Says:

    I don’t understand your point, Samuel. Whatever because of discounts or any other reason, surely when two parties are negotiating a price, what’s detrimental to one is advantageous to another?

  4. Samuel Says:

    > what’s detrimental to one is advantageous to another?

    Not necessarily – if the terms are more favorable than for the typical university, and both sides know it, they would both have an interest in keeping it secret.

    Elsevier because they would not want the typical university demanding similar concessions, the university because they might lose their special deal if Elsevier was forced to apply standardized pricing for everyone.

    Again, though, I’ll emphasize that I mention this purely from a theory of negotiations angle.

  5. Mike Taylor Says:

    But that’s not what the university says. It says it won’t disclose the price because that would be disadvantageous to Elsevier, not to the university.

  6. Vertebrat Says:

    This looks like an innocent mistake. Focusing on its literal meaning makes propaganda but not enlightenment. It’s as if you mentioned Brachiosaurus brancai and someone quoted that as evidence than you don’t really think it deserves its own genus.

    and by the way was addressed to Mr. Gowers

    People with a lot of titles generally don’t care about them, and may even find them embarrassing. For someone who knows who Tim Gowers is, “Mr.” is probably better than “Dr.” or “Sir”; for someone who doesn’t, it’s the safe default (of course).

  7. Mike Taylor Says:

    I think if you read the whole response (quoted in Gowers’ blog) you will conclude that this can’t be a mistake, but is part of a sequence of thoughts.

    On Dr. vs. Mr.: when writing to an academic, it’s best to fail safe. Why run the risk of irritating someone rather than the benign risk of complimenting them? And I have seen “Mr.” used as a calculated insult. (Not suggesting that was the case here, only that its use indicates a lack of professionalism.)

  8. Nima Says:

    “The disclosure of this information would be likely to have a detrimental effect on Elsevier’s future negotiating position with […] the University.”

    Wow that’s embarrassing. I agree, it doesn’t seem like a mistake. More like an unusually self-aware admission of heartfelt concern for the interests of, not her official employer, but Elsevier, whose financial interests run contrary to her employer’s.

    So that begs the question, does Amanda Aicken truly work for the university, or for Elsevier? Most likely we’re looking at a bought and paid for Elsevier stooge in the University’s employ, an “embedded operative” as we say in the US… A corporate Katherine Harris hiding her agenda behind respectable academic clothing. So much for serving two masters…

  9. Vertebrat Says:

    Oh, I see now. At best, she’s saying that it would hurt Elsevier’s negotiating position with other universities, and she doesn’t want to hurt her vendor, either because it wouldn’t be nice, or because they could retaliate. (The universities have a collective-action problem, so QUB’s interaction with Elsevier is not zero-sum.)

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