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Germany's Leading Technical University Cancels All Elsevier Subscriptions (tum.de)
350 points by fpp on May 9, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 84 comments

Background and perspective:

Elsevier publishes 250,000 articles a year in 2,000 journals. Its archives contain seven million publications. Total yearly downloads amount to 240 million.

The company is currently being boycotted by academics who object to its business model, which includes "paywalls" and (in their opinion) excessively high subscription charges.

Some very large journals (those with more than 5000 articles) charge subscription prices as high as $14,000.

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elsevier

SV-POW has a number of posts on the subject of open access in general[0] and elsevier in particular[1].

[0] http://svpow.com/category/open-access/

[1] http://svpow.com/category/stinkin-mammals/stinkin-publishers...

it is not about only universities who may pay for subscription somehow; independent scientists must be able to have full access to scientific publications for free, long term. otherwise, paywalls and closed software will make a global human science impossible going forward to 21st century.

> The company is currently being boycotted by academics who object to its business model

The only way to win the war is through convincing the librarians and administrators who cut the checks for an institution's subscription. They're who drive prices.

Not necessarily. The academics are the ones who provide both the product and the labor.

But they are only going to cut checks for journals that the departments are asking for. The more demand for a particular journal, the harder it is for the library to not cut that check.

True, but its very rare that an institution subscribes on a journal-by-journal basis. The pricing structure makes this approach ridiculously expensive and impractical. The price of a dozen or two a la carte journals will usually cost as much as a package of all the journals in that subject area (including the ones you want specifically). Some journals, like the journal Nature, are only available when you buy a massively expensive package. Individual journal subscriptions also often come in packages grouped by years; you have to buy a different set if you want a set of volumes from 1890-1940, 1940-1990 or a package that sunsets all volumes over 10 years prior.

This isn't as much a problem when you back subscription packages. The downside of purchasing this way is that when your subscription lapses, you lose all the access you had (since you don't 'own' it). Were you to go the a la carte method, you 'own' them but have to pay a $100+ 'hosting fee', per journal on a yearly basis.

The ridiculous prices to subscribe to a la carte journals is one of the primary problems, and the biggest gun that he publishers have to our head.

I think it's also worthwhile to recognize that librarians have been trying to sound the alarm on this problem for at least a decade. In 2001, Kenneth Frazier, Director of Libraries at UW-Madison, wrote an article in D-Lib Magazine where he named such journal packages the "Big Deal" and urged library administrators not to buy them.


Its worth pointing out that Elsevier also controls the whole line of Lexis Nexis products. Academic publishing, especially journal subscriptions and research databases, is one of those most entrenched industries there can be. It might not be as fashionable as hating on Elsevier but Gale, ProQuest, ACS, CSA and company make a hell of a lot of money through exclusive contracts with smaller publishers. Any new entrances to the industry are locked out from all valuable content or choked before they can even get going.

This is all at the expense of libraries and universities, and by proxy, your tax dollars and tuition. The industry is in need of massive disruption, has been for a decade now, but wrestling their IP seems an impossible feat.

Great point. I had a friend who worked as a salesmen at Thomson West when they still owned Thomson Learning which published all their academic materials. To say the industry is entrenched is an understatement. My friend told me once a publisher was in with a university, there was virtually no way other publishers could get in there. Even the professors had little or no say who they could buy their books from.

It's a few steps removed from organized crime.

That's weird to hear. Lots of professors use their own textbooks in their undergrad and (especially) graduate classes (e.g., Yaser Abu-Mostafa uses his own textbook for http://www.work.caltech.edu/telecourse.html).

Also, there are certain canonical texts that are used almost universally across all universities during a certain time frame (say, the CLR algorithms book, or the Cover and Thomas information theory book).

I thought PLOS (http://www.plosone.org) was created to be a disruptive agent

I'm unfamiliar, are they a business or just a platform? As much as I'd prefer it all be open, the only way to send a message is to work in their sphere. Contracts between publishers and libraries exist in the conference rooms, decided by committees. No librarian or administrator will be convinced without face time a salesman who can convince them to dump their past decades of loyalty. How can a librarian, one trained in maintaining and preserving access to materials, trust that a new and free platform will be around for years? The publishing houses have been around for centuries, literally.

Somebody needs to come along and start by making the little, obvious things right. Their next goal is to avoid acquisition long enough to make a difference. Every so often a promising business comes along, only to be bought out by the big guys and slowly dismantled (see SerialsSolutions).

Also, science and math journals are only an aspect of journal publishing, albeit the most pricey of subjects of which to build a collection. These subjects have always been the first to lean towards open access but they stand in distinction from the rest of a library's collection.

PLoS is a non-profit publisher. All of their journals are open-access and are paid for by publication fees. They have only been around for a few years, but in that time, their top-line journals (PLoS Biology, Comp Bio, Medicine, Genetics, etc...) have become top-tier class journals (one notch below Science, Nature and Cell, depending on who you talk to).

They are no lightweight in the biomedical research journal landscape.

The publishing houses have been around for centuries, literally.

One of the interesting things about scientific publishing is that the current arrangement is a recent phenomenon. Many journals started out as independent or university-affiliated publications which charged to cover costs; then were gradually spun off or bought out by for-profit institutions through the 60s and 70s. The accretion of publishers into a small number of companies, each with a virtual monopoly on critical journals in the field, resulted in the insane balance of power we currently experience. Inelastic demand for information (it's extremely difficult to do research without access to the major journals in your field) means Elsevier et al can jack up prices almost arbitrarily.

PLoS is free to access, but not free to publish, it's quite well established, and financially doing fine. There is no reason to assume they will just shut down any time sooner than the ancient paywall-powered publishing houses. And, believe it or not, the people behind PLoS actually care about open science, so it's not likely they will sell off either.

Besides, it's not just PLoS , there's Frontiers (frontiersin.org) and many other open access publishers. In fact many paywall-journals allow authors to make their papers open access by paying an additional fee.

Yes. I think some of the other publishers are more egregious than Elsevier. Everything is bundled together as you say and access is monopolised that way.

But things have to start somewhere. Maybe it's only with Elsevier and maybe it with Maths faculty and only with the journals they publish in. But the whole system is so despicable in light of today's technology and publishing costs that once it's brought to light how much better things could be, I think change will come fairly quick.

Didn't at least one library try threatening a publisher that the univerity's faculty would no longer publish in that publisher's journals if fees were not made reasonable?

Is that a viable strategy?

Good. Very good.

Something needs to be done about scientific publishing and the excessively high tolls on knowledge. The publishing industry may claim that it performs some vital role, but I find it extremely unlikely that this is the optimal way of reviewing and disseminating knowledge.

I think we are morally obliged to do a lot better.

To me the paywalls around scientific publishing is a lot more than a question of principles -- it may end up impacting my life. Five months ago I was diagnosed with kidney failure. If left untreated, this will kill me. What I do the next months may have a big impact on my quality of life.

When your doctor tells you that you have a condition that will kill you, I would assume that most of you would try to educate yourselves on the topic. This includes reading recent papers.

Well, good luck with that. For absolutely every aspect that I have looked into I keep bumping my head into paywalls. Some articles are only available if I pay a lot of money -- and I have no way of knowing up front if the article will be worth it. Kidney disease is a narrow enough subject for publications to be very expensive.

I am continually asked what the hell I need access to these articles for since I am not a doctor. Imagine that: people acquiring knowledge because they need it and not because the publishing industry needs the money...

I think it is time academia started taking knowledge seriously.

Hi, I read your comment and the first thing I want to say is that I am sorry for your condition. I would like to ask you if you are willing to tell your story on a site on open access that we have set up to show that the need for open access is not only for academics. The site is whoneedsaccess.org. We have another site called @ccess at access.okfn.org with info and blogs. Please read the info on the site and if you want to tell your story you can contact me at tomolijhoek@malariastichting.nl thnx

Thanks for your concern! I'd be happy to help any way I can.

You may try to contact the authors in the papers directly. In addition to getting the paper you might even get to discuss the issues directly with the authors.

At this stage I am mostly trying to get an overview and trying to find out what I need to know. This means reading a few books to give me the background knowledge I know and it means surveying what is being published to identify topics I need to explore. This usually means _skimming_ a lot of material to determine if it is worth my time right now. If I need to contact the author, that slows the process down a lot.

Yes, there is a tradition in academic publishing of sending several unbound copies of the printed article to the original author, which they will then send to people who write to them requesting them; these copies are called "offprints". Your mileage requesting copies of articles from surviving authors might vary, but mine has generally been very good.

Were the papers you were trying to read in Elsevier journals? They do offer an option for people with medical conditions to get free access to papers they would like to see - don't know if that helps you, but perhaps good to know.

I don't remember anymore. What I do remember is that the publication seemed narrow in scope, was published monthly and cost several thousand USD per year.

I also tried the old trick of searching for "unlikely phrases" in the abstract to look for accidental publication online, but didn't find anything.

People take it for granted that all academics have access to these paywalls. My institute recently cancelled subscriptions to major Nature journals due to financial constrains, forcing us to end up with personal subscriptions.

People also take for granted that only people at universities (or affiliated with certain classes of institutions) have any use for these publications.

> Low Bandwith Version of this site due to large amount of requests:

> Aufgrund unzumutbarer Kosten und Bezugsbedingungen hat das Direktorium des Zentrums Mathematik beschlossen, alle abonnierten Elsevier-Zeitschriften ab 2013 abzubestellen.

> Because of unsustainable subscription prices and conditions, the board of directors of the mathematics department has voted to cancel all of its subscriptions to Elsevier journals by 2013.

> @http://news.ycombinator.com/ visitors: You just DDOS-ed our web server ;-)

Somewhat odd that "Germany's leading Technical University" isn't able to handle a few Hackernews visitors showing up

Well ... actually we can. The web server configuration has been changed to handle this amount of requests and it is working pretty good right now. :) We did not really anticipate that much traffic, as it is far more than what we usually see. So the web server was not configured for such a situation and ran out of workers to handle the requests.

Creating a static site at first was just a much faster and safer solution, especially as the original site did not contain anything apart from the two lines of text.

I too thought there were only a few (thousand) HNers, but yesterday I learned how wrong I was.

Yesterday I submitted a link (an StackOverflow question: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=3943556) that got 107 up-votes on HN, but the number of unique visitors went from below 5000 to 25000 (in other words, 20000 unique (based on IP) visitors clicked on my link).

I studied medicine at the TUM and its sister university, the LMU (The schools teach their med students together for the first two years). Their site would reliably go down every third Friday evening, when the anatomy exam results were posted - meaning they couldn't even handle the minor and expected spike of 600 students downloading a smallish PDF.

I remember Reading HN now had a million accounts (btw can anyone confirm?)

if that's true then top story at the beginning of the US day could generate a lot of requests, and if the university has a plain cms that is updated once a week by the departmental secretary then it's pretty unlikely they have seen much traffic, ever.

To be honest I would be interested if pg could publish what kind of click through rate the various links generate - could even be a counter next to the story.

This was at the top of HN for a day or so: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=3852341

22,638 visits on Apr 17, 10,247 on Apr 18 (according to Google Analytics).

This one http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=3894302 got 17,740 and 6,864 on Apr 26 and 27, respectively, from being close to the top.


Our numbers are 5k, 10k and again around 10k, so this would confirm what you're saying :)

Last time when we were at the bottom of HN we got thousands of visits in very short time. I could imagine being at the top is very heavy on bandwidth.

I've had a Site survive the HN frontpage and a slashdotting on super-cheap shared hosting. But that was a few KB of text and two very small Images.

It's usually less of a bandwidth issue and more of a configuration problem - e.g. default Apache tries to spin up some 50 processes to handle requests, which can drive a small server into swap space.

In this case the 50 worker processes started by apache were just not enough to handle all requests. Each page hit creates about 30 requests for html,js,css,png and gif files, so each hit keeps quite a few workers busy. ;)

I've had a couple of blog posts hit the front page for a few hours and they only got about 10,000 hits for the whole day. Not insignificant traffic, but it shouldn't be enough to take down a university website.

German universities are financed by the states. You probably won't find many good operations people or programmers working for that little money.

The title on HN is incorrect. Only the mathematics department is canceling their subscriptions, not the whole university.

The market for the distribution of peer-reviewed academic journals fascinates me. It is ripe for disruption.

More often than not, the content that gets published is created by the same institutions that are forced to pay for Elsevier's services. Elsevier acts as the middleman. Institutions pay academics to produce journal articles. After production and peer-review, ownership of the scholarly work is transferred over to a publisher. The institution must then pay to reacquire the same content they helped produce. In the past this made sense as distribution involved printing and mailing thousands of pages worth of journal articles. Nowadays everything is digital, which negates the publisher's purpose.

There is a burgeoning movement toward open access journals. More info on the subject available here – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serials_crisis

Is really ripe for disruption? I would think that if it was very ripe that the arXiv would serve a broader purpose than it currently does.

The problem is a social one -- academics want to post their work to well respected journals, because the respect is the currency that their future career advancement runs on.

A market is ripe for disruption when every stakeholder except the entrenched competition wants the product to be different AND that difference is readily available through low-cost solutions.

Typically the new, low-cost solutions that haven't already been tried, are only recently available through new technology.

Given the maturity of the market and the social nature of the business, (even considering how squeaky clean arXiv's brand is versus Paypal's) I think the same people who aren't very excited about putting arXiv papers on their CV are those who would never dream of taking their money out of a big, traditional bank.

Even though all of their money is digital, etc.

The link is working again now, but has been replaced with a low bandwidth version. (The original version just contained additional images.) The amount of request generated by this site was unfortunately a bit too much for the web server.

(I'm one of the server admins ... and have been in fear of a real DDOS attack during the last couple of minutes. ;) )

If it isn't asking too much, would you mind telling HN about it? what kind of traffic you saw, what hardware/software platform you have in place?

The link got about 13000 hits so far, thereof about 5000 hits with a referrer value containing "ycombinator". But as only 3481 hits occured during the 3 days before it was posted on HN, I guess that actually about 9000 hits are due to HN.

I think the hardware platform is not really interesting, as the DDOS was only caused by the worker pool of Apache2 being too small. Each hit of the site creates about 30 additional request for css,js,png and gif files. So 9000 hits in 3h mean something like 270.000 requests in 3h. Apparently this was too much for 50 workers.

That looks as if the majority of the hits went directly over to the google cache links mentioned here (otherwise most likely this would be > 50k hits at least).

When the link was hitting the HN front page your site was already blocked - when the first person mentioned that the site was not reachable this HN post had about 60 points - anyway guess its the req/sec that killed you (and no cache - guess you don't have that much static content).

Have you seen many facebook referrers from people who repost HN front page stories to Facebook?

From the 23000 hits so far only about 300 came from faceboook ... not really that much.

I'm pretty sure that the amount of req/sec caused the problems. After a configuration change between 150 and 200 apache2 workers were constantly occupied and neither network ,cpu or ram were even closely used to their capacity. (Before the change we had a hard limit of 50 workers.)

so if my math is right approx 25 req/sec put paid to it. interesting. Perhaps I should re-think inlining js and css on landing pages.

It's great to see mathematicians taking up, Tim Gowers's rallying cry and have the courage to step away from Elsevier. The academic publishing industry for periodicals is going the way of the journal industry.

Apps like Scholastica (http://scholasticahq.com/) allow anyone to start their own peer reviewed journal and manage its content. Very soon, they'll even be able to publish open access (http://blog.scholasticahq.com/post/21917547765/open-access-p...). Full disclosure: I'm working on this application.

This concerns only the math faculty, not the entire university.

And for those not familiar with the German university system, each department of a university is a lot more autonomous than departments in the US. They sometimes have different admissions, different libraries, different policies, etc.

Another point worth noting is that many (should be all) papers are readily available (legally) as preprint PDFs (which is usually almost the same as the final version), if the creator bothers to place a preprint online, and most academics would be happy to email you a copy of their work should you ask anyway. So it's not like publishers are forcing someone in a walled garden, it's just that academics still prefer to be in there. So, these attacks on Elsevier are shooting the messenger, but it seems it's the only way to get to the sender here.

I've seen the occasional clueless student tell me they didn't think it was legal for them to upload their own papers (they might have signed some contracts with illegal clauses to that effect for all I know). Counting on the authors to unbreak academic publishing works if you already know what you want and can deal with a bit of hassle searching and e-mailing, but it doesn't work at all for skimming or looking at complete proceedings.

I suspect the publishers are fighting a bit harder against competing archives. For example, because they are sometimes involved in organising conferences, they can entrench themselves by offering an archive to the participants (giving a small sponsorship in exchange for the understanding the organisers won't offer the same archive), locking out the rest.

These things are super expensive. The value they provide is a network effect --> prestige from history + high quality peers reviewing the work that's published

The elite universities can "make this" themselves -- they did something like this in philosophy (led out of Michigan) when I was in grad school:


The reality is these days that most/all papers are shared online in these PDF exchanges long before 'real' publication. And as a result the journal articles hardly matter as much.

I would guess this is most true for stuff with less lab work and more "pencil" work like math or logic or philosophy.

Related article published about a month ago in the Guardian about frustrations with journal publishing models: http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2012/apr/09/frustrated-blo...

atm, we seem to be crushing their webserver. If you're feeling kind, don't click.

The page copy is just two sentences, one in German, one in English - essentially:

"due to unsustainable pricing, the math department has canceled Elsevier subs"

their admins seemed to have blocked access now:

"...Because of unsustainable subscription prices and conditions, the board of directors of the mathematics department has voted to cancel all of its subscriptions to Elsevier journals by 2013..."



>@http://news.ycombinator.com/ visitors: You just DDOS-ed our web server ;-)

sorry for that - hopefully such an unusual event also provides positive feedback to your directors for their decision.

Just the mathematics department, no?

Fucking A. Twas about time. Also read Scott Aaronson's thoughts on this issue in general.




I think this is a great step. Publications are an outdated business model and they can't and shouldn't survive at their current (in my opinion egregious) costs.

I got my Ph.D. from this university. I am proud of you, TUM!

I wonder what happens to access to archives of electronic journals when subscriptions are cancelled -- with paper journals, at least they're still in the library.

Go, TUM!

The first time I've actually felt proud of my alma mater :)

The HN link is giving a 403 -- anyone have an alternative link?

See http://coralcdn.org/ - they provided a caching mechanism that I've been using for what seems like a decade or so - you add .nyud.net to the domain part of the URL and you get their cached copy. Hence, this provides a short term mirror of the OP's link:


There really isn't anything to see except:

"Because of unsustainable subscription prices and conditions, the board of directors of the mathematics department has voted to cancel all of its subscriptions to Elsevier journals by 2013."

Just the Mathematics department, not the whole university.

Mathematics Departments are going to be the heros in lowering the costs to access scholarly journals, in all disciplines.

It has to start somewhere.

Low cost, online education, which is a popular topic here on HN, is a neat idea. But to really make it worthwhile, the student needs full access to all academic journals.

For that to happen, the paywalls have to come down.

I agree, besides maths and physics have arxiv. The difficult part is forcing the life sciences people out of their antiquated ways of thinking.

So what's the endgame here? Drive Elsevier out of business? Watch as its hundreds of journals (some great, some not so great) vanish? What happens to the zillions of papers in existence in those journals, currently available from their website with a few clicks? (What does happen to the copyright holdings of an entity that goes out of business?)

The journals would not vanish if the publisher went bankrupt. Their back issues would become accessible through Portico (http://www.portico.org/digital-preservation/), which exists precisely for that purpose.

The endgame is ensuring that everyone has access to scientific research. Whether or not the publishers continue to be in business is not relevant, as long as we are able to wrest away the literature which they are holding hostage.

If Reed Elsevier went out of business (very unlikely because it doesn't just do academic publishing, it also does publishing in other small but lucrative niches), it would make room for some great open-access journals. The same people and institutions who write the current journals would still be involved, their libraries would work more efficiently at a fraction of the cost, and there would be at least one universally available public library indexing and archiving the open-access work.

The digital library wouldn't vanish even if Elsevier filed for bankruptcy. But even imagining some James Bond villain destroying all copies, the journals would be digitised again from library copies, possibly something like the Google Books initiative. The libraries wouldn't fall twice for a partnership with a cartel creating newly exclusive rights.

The authors of the papers are also copyright holders.I believe this is worth pointing out: Elsevier is not offering some irreplaceable service by having a web server. Their value mostly lies in setting up the journal review teams and process, and making sure they live up to their standards.

Negative. To publish in an Elsevier journal you must sign away your copyright. The authors do NOT hold copyright. And that's part of why the situation is so ridiculous and urgently needs to be fixed.

I stand corrected then. But they can still distribute a preprint according to their terms: http://www.elsevier.com/wps/find/authorsview.authors/rights

the right to post a pre-print version of the journal article on Internet websites including electronic pre-print servers, and to retain indefinitely such version on such servers or sites for scholarly purposes (with some exceptions such as The Lancet and Cell Press. See also our information on electronic preprints for a more detailed discussion on these points)*

Unfortunately, that excludes some of their best publications.

Many would gladly pay a reasonable price.

High-quality Open-access Peer-reviewed journal that takes less than a year to get review and published is already in place (e.g., http://www.josis.org/index.php/josis). As a matter of fact, the academic community loves it.

I'd be interested to know how much money they're saving. On its face, it seems like ONE university in every rich country should pay for 'all there is' (within reason). Or, at least the leading journals in each field, and some of the other resources posters have mentioned above.

Like it or not, America spends a huge amount on research as published in journals, and if a country has no subscriptions to it at all they're simply cut off from that. I don't have a horse in this race: I would be very happy if academic publishing were completely different. However, realistically, these things should be 'somewhere' in a country the size (and wealth) of Germany, available for consumption by its interested scholars.

Might only be the maths department, but Elsevier is sitting on a whole lot of loose snow right now and this is yet another snowball picking up speed somewhere further up the mountain.

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