Disclosure of institutional costs of the Swiss Elsevier Agreement 2020-2023

Details of the costs that were kept secret by the swissuniversities

Institutional Costs

Disclosed amount for institutions


End of May 2020 Swissuniversities disclosed the contract for the 57 Mio EUR Agreement. Instead of making the contract completely transparent, as one might expect from an earlier announcement by swissuniversities President Michael Hengartner, the costs of the individual institutions were blackened.

Blackened amount for institutions

In recent years, an extreme amount of effort has been put into making it clear in principle that the figures must be published anyway if disclosure is required under federal and cantonal freedom of information laws. The only exceptions are the canton of Lucerne, which is the only canton in Switzerland that does not yet have a freedom of information law, and Basel, where the Federal Supreme Court confirmed a questionable decision by the Administrative Court of Basel-Stadt that the University of Basel did not had to disclose its expenditures to Elsevier from previous years. Instead of resolving these inconsistencies and proactively communicating all the figures, swissuniversities seem to have agreed on the excuse that by publishing the total amount, the legitimate demand for transparency has been satisfied. It was predictable for all involved that this would not be enough and I will definitely ask for more information.

So at the end of May 2020 I once again asked almost all universities what they actually pay to Elsevier. At this point at the latest, Swissuniverisites would have had the opportunity to finally take a coordinating role and simply decide to disclose all figures. But no, it was left to the universities to decide how they would answer my FOI-requests. This means that some universities ignored my requests at first, until I followed up. When the universities realized that I was really serious, Elsevier got an inquiry from each university for a statement. Elsevier then wrote to each university that the numbers were of course business secrets (example). Then every single university wrote to Elsevier that they would still decide to disclose the figures and gave Elsevier a time limit to challenge the decision. Only when this deadline had expired and it was clear that Elsevier would not take action against the disclosure, the numbers were finally communicated to me.

Maybe there is a more efficient way

The approach of asking every single university is extremely inefficient, both from the citizens’ and the authorities’ point of view. There are currently two other procedures in progress that may help here:

1. FOI request directly at swissuniversities

In March 2020 I requested access to documents regarding the meeting of the Open Science delegation of swissuniversties on 13.12.2019, when the new Elsevier Agreement was officialy approved. Yet it seems not so clear, if and what specific freedom of information law actually applies to swissuniversities. After a first decision of the Regierungsstatthalteramt Bern, a further decision is expected to come from the Directorate of Education of the canton Bern.

2. One request for all numbers

From the tradition that I have asked the universities individually about their expenditures, the impression has been created that such questions are also independent of each other. With the Read & Publish Agreements, however, it is not only about the individual issues, but now also about the disclosure of the entire contract, where the individual amounts are listed. In this respect, it should actually be sufficient to ask a university to simply make the page with all universities accessible The first time, this was testet with the RSC Read & Publish Agreement. I asked the University of Zurich to disclose the entire contract. However, the University of Zurich refused to disclose its costs and the costs of the other universities. The Appeals Commission of the Zurich universities recently decided that the University of Zurich must at least disclose its own costs, but not the costs of the other universities, as the University of Zurich allegedly does not have data control over these amounts.

With the support öffentlichkeitsgesetz.ch, I have now filed an appeal against this decision with the Zurich Administrative Court. The court must now decide whether the University of Zurich should not also grant access to the part of the contract where the payments of all universities are mentioned.