Gowers's Weblog: Elsevier’s recent update to its letter to the mathematical community

abernard102@gmail.com 2012-05-08


“Elsevier has recently put out a new statement giving details of some changes it has made. In their own words, ‘In February, we informed you of a series of important changes that we are making to how the Elsevier mathematics program will be run. In this letter, we would like to update you on where we currently stand, and inform you of some new initiatives we have undertaken based upon the feedback we have received from the community.’ I have known for some time that they were going to make an announcement of this kind, and that it would involve something called ‘more flexible subject collections’. During that time I have become clearer in my mind what it is that I don’t like about bundling. So before Elsevier’s announcement, I had in mind some tests that I would apply, to see whether having these new collections would mitigate the problems with bundling. (Spoiler: they don’t.) Imagine you’re in charge of a university library and you have a limited budget. How do you spend that budget? In a system without any form of bundling, if you had an extra chunk of money, you would look around for the best additional utility you could buy with that money — where utility would be something like the number of new journal pages you could buy, multiplied by the average benefit that each journal page contributes to your university. In addition, the following would apply. (i) If a journal’s quality goes down or its price goes up, then you have the option of subscribing to a different one that is better value for money. (ii) If your budget goes down, you can decide which journals you value least (weighted by price) and cancel subscriptions to those. (iii) If somebody wants to set up a new journal that’s better than existing journals in some way (for example it might be cheaper, or of a higher standard, or both), then they have a chance of persuading you to subscribe to their new journal, which you can pay for by cancelling subscriptions to less good journals. Compare that with the system we have at the moment. What we actually have is this. (i) If a (bundled) journal’s quality goes down, you can’t cancel your subscription to it. Your only option is to cancel the entire bundling agreement, which is a very drastic step to take. (ii) If your budget goes down, then your options are to cancel a bundling agreement or to cancel subscriptions to journals that are not part of bundling agreements. The latter is much easier, so smaller independent journals are far more vulnerable. (iii) If somebody wants to set up a new journal that’s better in some way than an existing journal, they will have great difficulty getting libraries to subscribe to it, because they cannot save money by cancelling subscriptions to bundled journals. Somebody from Elsevier — I think it was Alicia Wise — defended bundling on the grounds that it protects more obscure journals that might otherwise struggle to find enough subscriptions. It’s possible that that’s the case, but it also protects bad journals, and that is a far stronger effect. If Elsevier were truly interested in protecting good journals in obscure subjects, then it could do what some academic publishers do with books, and use profits from some journals to subsidize others. To summarize, bundling makes proper competition between journals impossible. That is what I object to about it, and I judge any move made by Elsevier by whether it makes things better in this respect. With that in mind, let’s look at some more of the Elsevier letter. ‘We already indicated that our target is for all of our core mathematics titles to be priced at or below US$11 per article (equivalent to 50-60 cents per normal typeset page), placing us below most University presses, some societies and all other commercial competitors. That will lead to a number of our titles seeing further and significant price reductions from their next volumes. Further to this, and in response to feedback from the community for more flexibility around the packages and collections that we offer to libraries, we will take the added step of defining a smaller subject collection (around 15-20 journals) with our key core mathematics titles...” To clarify what this means, let me briefly explain what the current system is, as I understand it. Elsevier has something called its “Freedom Collection” (I cannot help being reminded of the famousFreedom Fries that were popular in the US soon after the invasion of Iraq), which works roughly as follows: a library buys a number of journals at more or less the list prices — the ones it really wants — and then Elsevier offers all the rest, at a very heavy discount. The result of this is that the average price the library pays for its journals is much smaller than the list price. A typical sort of amount for a major library to pay to Elsevier in total is a bit over £1,000,000 per year, of which almost all goes on the ‘core collection’ and only a tiny fraction on the rest. This page has a more detailed description of how it works, and includes the information that if you terminate your bundling contract, then you no longer




08/16/2012, 06:08

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Date tagged:

05/08/2012, 08:08

Date published:

05/04/2012, 09:31