I’ve just got back from talking to Roxanne Missingham, the University Librarian here at ANU, about Elsevier, and I want to quickly report on what I learnt.
I don’t yet have any of the juicy numbers revealing what libraries are paying for their Elsevier subscriptions (as Timothy Gowers has been doing in the UK; if you haven’t read his post do that first!). Nevertheless there are some interesting details.
Essentially all the Australian universities, excepting a few tiny private institutes, subscribe to the Freedom collection (this is the same bundle that nearly everyone is forced into subscribing to). The contracts are negotiated by CAUL (the Council of Australian University Librarians).
My librarian was very frank about Article Processing Charges (APCs) constituting double-dipping, whatever it is that Elsevier and the other publishers say. The pricing of journal bundles is so opaque, and to the extent we understand it primarily based on the historical contingencies of print subscription levels more than a decade ago, that in practice the fraction of articles in a subscription bundle for which APCs have been paid has no meaningful effect on the prices libraries pay for their bundles.
I think this point needs wider dissemination amongst mathematicians — whatever our complaints about APCs inhibiting access to journals for mathematicians without substantial funding, we are just plain and simple being ripped off. Gold open access hybrid journals are a scam.
Now, on to some details about contracts. First, my librarian confirmed the impression from Gowers’ investigations in the UK — bundle pricing is based largely on historical spending on print subscriptions, with annual price increases. Adding some interesting context on the numbers we’re now seeing out of the UK, she told me that the UK is widely perceived as having received a (relatively) great deal from Elsevier, in terms of annual price increases. If the UK numbers scared you, be aware that here in Australia we may well have it worse. A curious anecdote about historical pricing of subscriptions is that one division of CSIRO happened to have cancelled most of their print journals the year before they took out an electronic subscription with a commercial publisher, and as a result got an excellent deal. The Australian universities have apparently mostly signed confidentiality agreements regarding their journal subscription costs (as we expect, by now), but my understanding of the conversation was that the ANU in particular had not.
Finally, my librarian pointed out that doing what I hope to do next, namely use the FOI act to obtain detailed information on Elsevier subscription costs, may be counterproductive, as the most likely result of unusual discrepancies in pricing being revealed is some libraries simply having budgets cut, rather than actually giving the negotiators any more power in the future. I got the impression she’d talked to other Australian librarians about this, and there was some amount of nervousness.
I’ve been told I should go talk to Andrew Wells, the librarian at UNSW, and after posting this I’m going to get in touch with him!