Pierre Vinken, Elsevier and Seemingly-Legalised-Robbery

Pierre Vinken (1927-2011) at this time of writing doesn’t have an English wikipedia article yet. He was chairman of Reed Elsevier, the publishing giant, so one can imagine that he is somewhat resistant to open source events.

Vinken first became neurosurgeon, then editor of a medical journal Excerpta Medica, and the rest is history.  Originally coming from Limburg in the South of Holland (see my earlier weblog on the North-South differences in Holland) he lived around Amsterdam and built up also a reputation in circles of artists and writers that caused positive obituaries, notably also from the otherwise so critical Max Pam (in Dutch). Vinken by chance also got a line in the circles of language programmers.

However, there is also Eric Smit in Follow the Money (Dutch texts, English title). It turns out that Pierre Vinken was some kind of robber-baron, though all neat & legal in the Dutch system – or at least unless finally exposed in legal fashion too.

My position in this weblog is that there should be a parliamentary enquiry into how the legal system allowed the transfer of some EUR 1.5 bn from the pension fund of Rotterdam harbour workers PVH to foundation BPVH to foundation Optas to foundation Inphykem. The latter Inphykem can do more things but has also created foundation Ammodo to give grants to arts and sciences (to present a fine image). As a science fiction writer I am reminded of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series: there is great material here.

The crucial legal step is from BPVH to Optas. Optas under Vinken widened the purposes of the fund, so that it seemingly wasn’t targetted at the Rotterdam harbour workers anymore but had a wider field of operation as a more general insurer. Henceforth it could claim that proceeds from its operation came from general sources and not from money originally put in by the pensioners. That the money was stolen can be established from the fact that Optas was willing to some “settlement” though legally it seemed they were not obliged to. Still, since they were not legally obliged to, the harbour pensioners couldn’t get all their money back. The “settlement” somehow meant that the harbour workers lost their right to protest. Somehow the Dutch legal system allows foundations to rechannel money, or, some notary allowed this to happen. Journalist Eric Smit records what lawyers from the Rotterdam harbour workers have tried to repair (so in a way there isn’t much investigative reporting here yet) but apparently the law is weak or those harbour worker lawyers have been goofing all the way. The failing worker at the FNV labour union is Agnes Jongerius who has now been elected to the European parliament.

A parliamentary enquiry is an instrument for parliament to gather information for law making. Parliament could establish whether foundation law is too weak or whether some notary went wrong. It would seem obvious that the law shouldn’t allow this kind of seeming-legalised-robbery. Eric Smit points to the key role by Pieter Rietbergen, formerly director of foundation BPVH and by notary Steven Perrick, who worked for lawyers Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, which office also worked for Elsevier and thus Pierre Vinken. Steven Perrick is also special professor in Amsterdam and advisor to the Arnhem juridical court. It would be useful to hear their witnessing under oath and tough questions.

The Ammodo foundation seems to be the cherry on the cake that allows the board members to act as filantropists and be treated with great respect by society. The Ammodo foundation collaborated with the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences (KNAW) and six scientists protest that Ammodo was created with stolen money from the pension fund of Rotterdam harbour workers. The scientists are Joop Hartog, Kees Schuyt, Bernard van Praag, Kees Aarts, Philip Hans Franses and Martin Fase, all members of KNAW. Amusingly, their letter is behind a pay-wall at NRC Handelsblad. This is a text on the TU Delft magazine page. Their letter had no effect on the KNAW board. In the official KNAW statement the board holds that the “settlement” means that things have been settled.  It is amazing that the board of Dutch top scientists does not allow for the possibility that the law was too weak or that the Dutch union of notaries KNB allows too much freedom.

There is a system to this. Pierre Vinken first was editor at Excerpta Medica and then board member. This was a foundation too. Its board had full ownership, allowing him to sell out to Elsevier and becoming board member at Elsevier.

Elsevier makes much of its money from “scientific publishing”. Much of this is “vanity press” under the label of science. Scientists like to see their names in print even though they need not have much to say and even though perhaps only one colleague is going to read it. Being editor of a journal allows for trips to foreign lands to discuss journal policy. The real work is done by authors and peer-reviewers. The money comes from universities, i.e. taxes, students and endowments. It is amazing how difficult it is to relocate to open source methods.

In 2012 Timothy Gowers had a boycott of Reed Elsevier.  This is the wikipedia article and this is the original Cost of Knowlegde website. When I looked just now it had 14671 signatures. Mine isn’t on it. It seems somewhat useless. Scientists should direct their attention to their failing universities and institutes like KNAW, create their open access journals, revise the peer-review system. Free markets in publishing and printing are crucial but there can be tenders and the like.


Boycott Elsevier, designed by Michael Eisen 2012

Overall, scientists should protest against the censorship of science. Even 14671 signatures don’t seem enough for that.


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