Official Information Act requests in the style of Tim Gowers

Update: information from Victoria University of Wellington received.

Inspired by Gowers’ monumental effort to find out how much commercial publishers are charging universities for journal access, I have sent Official Information Act requests to New Zealand universities. It seems that in NZ (unlike UK) there is no right of internal appeal against a decision to decline to give information, and the next official step is to go to the Ombudsman, whose office is, I am told, overworked.

Here is what I have found out so far. I sent similar requests to several places, but made minor changes out of boredom and interest to see whether a different result would be obtained. As expected, the initial replies have not been very helpful. The next step is presumably to contact these institutions informally and see whether any rewording of the request could be more effective. Beyond that, all I can see is a long wait for the Ombudsman.

The replies (edited down to the essentials) so far are below. It doesn’t seem that there has been as much coordination with Elsevier as Tim suspected in the UK situation. Different excuses are given, which may make at least complaints to the Ombudsman more likely to succeed.

A note on overall journal subscription costs: this information for Australian and NZ universities can be obtained at According to this, for example, in 2013 University of Otago spent over AU$8.4M in serial subscriptions, just under AU$1.9M in non-serials, and a little over AU$9.0M in salaries. So journal subscriptions make up a very large fraction of their budget.

University of Auckland

The University currently pays Taylor/Francis USD 413,715 + AUD 20,292 and Wiley USD 891,067.

Making information about what we currently pay Elsevier and Springer for journal access available would be likely to unreasonably prejudice the commercial position of the University. Withholding this information is necessary to enable the University, without prejudice or disadvantage, to carry on negotiations with these publishers. Accordingly, the information requested is withheld under s 9(2)(b)(ii) and s 9(2)(j) of the Official Information Act.


AUT has a contractual arrangement with Elsevier. For this reason we have reached the decision that it is necessary to withhold the information in accordance with section 18 (a) Official Information Act 1982 and pursuant to section 9(2)(i) to enable the University to carry on, without prejudice or disadvantage, commercial activities and section 9(2)(j) to enable the University to carry on, without prejudice or disadvantage, negotiations.

University of Waikato

The University and Elsevier have a confidentiality agreement regarding the financial and commercial terms of their contract. Your request is therefore refused under Section 9(2)(b)(ii) of the Official Information Act 1982 on the grounds that making the information available would be likely unreasonably to prejudice the commercial position of Elsevier.

Massey University

You have requested details of Massey University’s expenditure annually for access to Elsevier journals. You have specifically requested the total annual fee, split into three components. You have also requested the annual total budget for journal access for all publishers.

Massey University advises that the access to Elsevier electronic journals is subject to a confidential legal agreement. Accordingly, Massey University declines to release the information requested under section 2 (b) (ii)  of the Official Information Act 1982 – which protects the commercial position of those who are subject to the enquiry e.g. Elsevier and Massey, and 2 (ba) which provides for protection of information which is subject to an obligation of confidence.

Victoria University of Wellington

In 2013 they paid Taylor & Francis $484000 and Wiley $542856.  This is for (T&F) Core Journal Collection, Social Science Journals, Science and Technology Journals, CRCnetBASE products; (Wiley) Wiley e-journal package, Current Protocol Online. They also said

The details for Elsevier and Springer are withheld under Section 9(2)(j) of the Official Information Act 1982, on the basis that withholding this information is necessary to prevent prejudice or disadvantage to the ability of Victoria to carry on negotiations with these providers.


University of Canterbury

The University can release to you the second part of your request. The total Library information resources budget for 2014 is $5.9M. … A reasonable estimate of ongoing journal purchases would be $4.6M. ….

The University is withholding the first part of your request – the total annual fee for Elsevier journals – under Section 9(2)(ba) of the Official Information Act on the basis that the information is subject to an obligation of confidence created by a confidentiality clause at 7.8 of the agreement we hold with Elsevier.

The University also withholds this information under Section 9(2)(b)(ii) on the basis that making the information available would be likely unreasonably to prejudice  Elsevier’s commercial position where they have negotiated specific terms with us.

Lincoln University

I have not made a formal request. An informal one to the library resulted in:

I am afraid that Lincoln University is unable to provide you with this information. Most licence agreements prevent us from disclosing this information. I am sorry I am unable to be more helpful.

University of Otago

In 2013 the University of Otago’s budget for print journals and eresources (this includes all e-continuations, databases, journals, streaming video, ebook collections etc  – with ongoing fee, not just journals) was NZD $9,031,438.

The amount spent annually for access to Elsevier journals is withheld under sections 9(2)(i) and 9(2)(j) of the Official Information Act.  The reasons being commercial sensitivity and prejudice to commercial negotiations.


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