Show me the data!

[Rather than summarise what's already been said about Elsevier and their for-excessive-profit practices in recent weeks, I'll just lazily assume you've read it all... right then. Here's what I have to add.]

This post is a real-world anecdote of the problems that Elsevier’s journal bundling & excessive profiteering*** causes. Just one of many reasons which persuaded me to sign my name along with 5,000+ other academics over at The Cost of Knowledge, to register my disapproval of what Elsevier (and other publishers) are doing with scholarly works.

Recently, I discovered to my dismay that my institutional library (University of Bath) had cut it’s subscription (and therefore easy access) to an important journal in my field. Literally, one week I had free access to the journal content, and then the next week I found I didn’t!

The journal is Biology Letters, a general biology journal by Royal Society Publishing [RSP from now on]. **


Intellectual property owned by Royal Society Publishing (taken from Wikipedia)

Interestingly RSP take a relatively enlightened stance on Open Access, and have made some interesting statements in the past, such as this gem [from a statement published way back in 2008]:

“…some companies do appear to be making excessive profits from the publication of researchers’ papers”

I think RSP, is a non-profit organisation (source) and hence it doesn’t surprise me that they have such prescient criticism of Elsevier & co to offer. They aren’t in the business of excessive profiteering like some.

So… RSP’s Biology Letters has been cut from our subscriptions budget. Why? – was the very first question I emailed the subject librarian at my institution. To their credit, I got some wonderfully informative replies from our librarian staff – I have no doubt they’ve done their best, given the limited powers they have. Like all institutions, we don’t have an unlimited budget. Something had to be cut, and unfortunately it was our subscription to Biology Letters. Which by the way, would only have cost us £852 for an institutional online-only subscription.

Why was this journal, of which I read/used at least 15 separate articles of in 2011 alone, cut from our subscriptions instead of a journal like… Elsevier’s ‘International Journal of Coal Geology‘?*

I think this is a fair question to ask. Biology Letters has a higher impact factor, not that the journal Impact Factor is a particularly brilliant metric of quality and would cost a lot less (£1107 [Biol. Lett. print version+online] vs 2540 Euros; the current institutional subscription price for the print version ‘International Journal of Coal Geology’). Most damningly of all, I suspect no-one at my institution ever reads this Elsevier journal, feel free to correct me on this – I’m sure I could find plenty of other Elsevier journals that satisfy this last property.

But the answer to this question is of course not relevant to any of 3 rational above points (unfortunately) – Biology Letters can be cut because it’s vulnerable, as it’s not part of a MegaBundle sold by a large for-profit publisher. The International Journal of Coal Geology cannot be cut because access to it comes as part of a ‘Big Deal’ bundle, in which there are some *vital* journals to which we *must* have access to (and the corporation selling access, knows and exploits this). So despite the fact that no one needs it here, that it’s ~2x more expensive, and it has a lower Impact Factor – I have access to this, and many countless other bundled journals I DON’T need, and I DON’T have access to vital articles from another journal I *do* need for my research.

Welcome to the crazy world of academic publishing! Much of it simply doesn’t make sense in the Digital Age. Of current explanations, I’d say Mike Taylor’s parable explains this most clearly.

I can’t claim to have explained all of the problems and intricacies here – but rest assured it clearly doesn’t make sense to me. Journal mega-bundling is plainly inefficient, and we can’t let this practice continue.

Stop feeding the beast! The Cost of Knowledge

* Through-out this post I use the example of the International Journal of Coal Geology, not out of disrespect for the editorial board, or the scholarly quality of the work presented there-in – I’m sure it’s great if you’re into Coal Geology. I only use it because a) it’s an Elsevier journal to which Elsevier very arguably adds very little value to, and b) I sincerely believe virtually no researchers at my institution make use of this journal.

** Just for the record, I don’t blame RSP or my librarians for this subscription cut happening. It’s out of their control. RSP do a great job IMO, as do my librarians.

*** I just read that one UK institution pays over £1,000,000 (yes, more than a million) every year for Elsevier’s ‘Big Deal’ bundle (source). I think this is a disgraceful ransom.