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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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I’ve been pursuing a Freedom of Information request against the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills for some time now. BIS have consistently tried to block me from finding out what the Minister for HE, Jo Johnson (hereafter JJ), discussed with Elsevier. (Thank you, “most transparent government ever”.)

Today the Information Commissioner ruled at least partly in my favour and BIS have given me the handwritten notes from the meeting. I provide a transcription alongside the hard-to-read original below. There are still some redacted portions, specifically around the dataset and the tender.

By way of background, this was a meeting that took place as an introduction on the 4th November. The notes seem highly discontinuous and pertain to research performance profiling. It looks as though JJ is interested in getting a data-based argument in line to protect the research budget for sci/tech/medical. Indeed, to the Minister’s credit the meeting’s purpose primarily looks to “protect and grow” research. They do want to do this through metricised researcher productivity statistics, though. There’s also a discussion about worldwide effects of cuts to research budgets and what it does to jobs/GDP, as in the case of Michigan.

However, what is most interesting to me is the part that hasn’t been shared here. There is a struck-through line from RM (Richard Mollet, I’d assume, as he is head of “government affairs” at RELX. Yes, they have that. Although it could also be Ron Mobed.) that says “Dataset”. This is what caught my interest in the first place. Specifically, I was interested in this meeting’s relation, if any, to this tender, which I’ve heard went to Elsevier.

The tender was advertised on the 30th October. 5 days later, Elsevier have a meeting with the Minister for HE and discuss a dataset. They continue to redact this conversation. However, it could well be about the tender in question, or it could be about other work that Elsevier does for the government. Marcel remarks at the end that “Outputs in top percentiles” is a “v. positive measure”. Jo Johnson asks about potential competitors to which “Thomson Reuters” is suggested, the only other organization that I believe could have filled that tender. BIS did not meet with Thomson Reuters in the same period.

Edit (2016-05-09): I do just want to add that I do not mean to imply that Elsevier got the contract through nefarious means, although I dislike their lobbying practices. I suspect it was entirely fair and within the rules of HEFCE’s standardized process. I do not suspect BIS of influencing HEFCE in their choice. However, I believe that there are only two providers who could fulfil this tender request: Elsevier and Thomson Reuters, an effective duopoly. I have altered other parts of this post from its original state to make clear that I do not think that BIS influenced HEFCE’s tender process but that I do think that Elsevier could likely presume that they would be awarded the contract. This is my personal opinion and nothing more.

So, all in all, Elsevier continues its march into data analytics. The Minister for HE tries to protect the research budget through worldwide comparisons and citation indices. I think that while this was probably done for half-decent reasons, it is a misguided introduction of metrics into political budget-wrangling.

In this light, the Stern review will be interesting.

Jo Johnson meeting with Elsevier

The following transcription was prepared by me and not authorized by BIS. I make no warranty as to its accuracy. Any mistakes here are purely my own.

RM, Marcel, Alistair Tebbit [& Jo Johnson (JJ)]

RM: Background to RELX [Elsevier], engineer by trade, no. of opps [illegible] Sci/tech/medical & clinical medicine & P [Publishing?]

  • High-performing computing cluster – developed outside of Elsevier
  • £30bn worth 50:50 in London and Holland
  • Rep for quality and accuracy is what stands Elsevier at [illegible] of research experts by c. 3% a year.

JJ: That’s roughly in line w/ GDP? Almost a direct correlation. Assign science role in as a productive factor – surprised it’s not bigger.

RM: China/India 15 years ago 1% on R&D.

JJ: Now China spends £133bn.

RM: The £400bn remaining flat in developed countries. Michigan State funding has been pulled back.

JJ: How do we measure that? Patents? Spinoffs?

RM: Michigan - if we can demonstrate link to jobs then we have a start. Showcase research in unis & link this to SMEs, maybe even let them use it.

JJ: Similar to our idea of catapults – give access.

RM: Look to investigate amount of research & [illegible] it up. The linkage to protect and grow research.

RM: Researcher productivity, researcher spending, [illegible: too?] long writing grants, finding info etc.

RM: Researchers have so much more info to deal with & also have to work more inter-discipline.

RM: When data is digital can get more & more derivative dataset.

RM: Medical field – give drs too much info then they take too long to give the right diagnosis.

JJ: Why are sectors moving at different paces?

RM: Oil price crash years ago is a factor–

RM: Dataset

[THIS PORTION WITHHELD UNDER SECTION 43 OF THE INFORMATION ACT: COMMECIALLY SENSITIVE]

JJ: Platform?

RM: [illegible] are that we supply Science Direct.

RM: We’re doing lots of work on the signals re. what researchers are doing and building it out.

JJ: Competitors?

RM: Thomson Reuters.

[THIS PORTION WITHHELD UNDER SECTION 43 OF THE INFORMATION ACT: COMMECIALLY SENSITIVE]

Marcel: Outputs in top percentiles v. positive measure.