A blog on statistics, methods, philosophy of science, and open science. Understanding 20% of statistics will improve 80% of your inferences.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Negotiations between Elsevier and Dutch Universities break down: Time for change

Excellent news this morning: The negotiations between Dutch universities and Elsevier about new contracts for access to the scientific literature have broken down (report in Dutch by VSNU and De Volkskrant). This means universities are finally taking a stand: We want scientific knowledge to be freely available as open access to anyone who wants to read it, and we believe publishers are making more than enough money as it is. Moving towards fully open access should not cost Dutch tax payers anything extra.

There might be some small inconveniences along the way for us scientists. Just as we needed to mail authors of articles in the 70's and 80's, we might need to start e-mailing authors for their papers in 2015. Researchers who don't know what a #Icanhazpdf hashtag is might need some Twitter education. Sometimes, you might not get an article as quickly as you were used to. We might experience the consequences of not having access to literature ourselves.

I think that is good. One of my favorite quotes from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance reads as follows: "Stuckness shouldn't be avoided. It's the psychic predecessor of all real understanding." It's excellent that the Dutch universities and Elsevier are stuck. If this stuckness lasts, it's excellent that a researcher gets stuck when searching the literature. We need this to understand how untenable the status quo is.

There are very cheap and easy solutions. I've talked to some people very close to these negotiations, and there is a plan B. There is even a more interesting plan C, where the Dutch universities examine the possibility of making large deals with Plos One and The Peer J to pay a lump sum to provide all researchers opportunity to publish in these journals, paid by the government. If we would compare that to what we currently pay Elsevier alone, that would probably be a sweet deal.

The major thing standing in our way is our own ego. Elsevier has journals with a 'reputation', and many researchers are willing to screw over Dutch tax payers just to be able to publish in a journal like Nature or Science. Their work will be just as good when it is published in Peer J. However, these researchers are not making a rational choice, but an emotional choice, driven by self-interest. Short term self-interest will always trump long term public benefit. You can imagine the wide grins on Elsevier's faces whenever this topic comes up. They know scientists are often little ego-factories, and they are more than happy to cash in.

That's why I think it's good that we are stuck. Someone needs to put their foot down. Open Access publishing is the light bulb of the scientific world. Regulations were needed to make sure the public would switch from the low priced but energy inefficient light bulb to the energy saving light bulbs that were slightly more expensive to buy, but better for everyone in the long term. Researchers similarly need a push to move away from publishing options that thrive on short term benefit, but screw Dutch tax payers in the long term. I hope we stay stuck until we all reach some real understanding.


  1. "However, these researchers are not making a rational choice, but an emotional choice, driven by self-interest. Short term self-interest will always trump long term public benefit."

    I find this statement somewhat inaccurate to be honest. The reality is that publishing in these "respectable" places is a necessity when hoping to get tenure somewhere. It is a very rational choice. Things can only change by removing the incentives for publishing in such places.

    1. Hi David, I get your point, and you are completely right that we could call this rational, especially given the current reward structures. I tend to think the desire to get tenure is an emotional one (you will probably find it pleasurable) but it is not directly in the benefit of the general public. The general public benefits from openly accessible science, so that's our job (and if you happen to get tenure while doing your job, that's well deserved). But again, the consequences for reward structures are clear. If people are not competent enough to evaluate articles based on their merit, and need a label from a journal with a reputation, we have a problem.

    2. but we do have a problem. At least in Psychology the journal in which you publish is completely overweighted in comparison to the actual content of the work being published. Unfortunately for (too) many people in the field the journals in which you publish reflects how you rank among the pack. The established system of values is completely corrupted.

  2. I wonder what the german funding agency (DFG) is doing with respect to open access. They seem to be again in their 'we are catching with the rest of the academic world' mode - waiting until the rest of the world establishes OA as a standard and then they follow.

    Also, I note that Elsevier is based in NL. I guess they are paying most of their taxes in NL. If the tax amount is proportional to their ex-orbital profits then I can imagine they actually score a net-win for the dutch tax-payer.

    1. Excellent point Matus - Elsevier DOES pay taxes in The Netherlands. And yes, there are economic motives working against a strong push away from Elsevier in The Netherlands. Let's hope they don't play too much of a role. Unless Elsevier changes with the changes in the publishing landscape, the amount we can expect from taxes will decline over the years anyway.

    2. In what world do companies pay lots of taxes? I admit I don't know the case of Elsevier, but most companies are not known for being generous in paying taxes.

      Thanks for the post Daniel!

  3. They know scientists are often little ego-factories

    I prefer the term "esteem engines".