California’s showdown with Elsevier inspires US campuses

Confidence stalls, however, over depth of faculty commitment to open access

April 15, 2019
Bart's Books, Ojai, California the bookstore is open 24/7 & keeps many books in bookshelves on the outside walls of the store.
Source: Alamy

The University of California’s hard-line bid to push publishing giant Elsevier towards open-access models is attracting widespread interest at other US universities where librarians are considering following suit.

Many librarians have expressed their support for California’s decision to cancel its $11 million (£8.4 million) a year subscription with the publishing giant, but are aware that they face their own tough decisions when their own “big deals” come up for renewal. For institutions including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, this will be at the end of 2019. 

“We’re anxiously observing” the California situation, said Lorraine Haricombe, director of libraries at the University of Texas at Austin. “There’s a hunger for solutions to budgetary pressures” caused by high journal subscription prices, Dr Haricombe said. “But there’s also historical inertia that makes the sort of wholesale change to address that…a tough slog.”

California’s central demand was that Elsevier and other publishers move away from a traditional subscription model in which readers pay to access articles describing discoveries that scholars had made and taxpayers had largely funded.

Instead, California’s research universities want Elsevier to embrace open-access alternatives in which the author pays a journal a fee to cover the costs of editing and publishing a paper, and the resulting article is then freely available to anyone to read.

The California system got a boost of confidence this month when Cambridge University Press agreed with it a three-year contract largely along the lines of what negotiators have been seeking from Elsevier.

The agreement gives the California system full and permanent access to Cambridge’s 400-journal collection. The pact envisages the California system paying less in subscription charges as it begins to fork out more in author fees for article processing. Although that should not mean any major change in net payments, it will result in far wider public access to the work of California researchers.

“It shows the world that our broken-down negotiations with Elsevier were not a pipe dream,” said Jeff MacKie-Mason, the university librarian at the University of California, Berkeley.

It does not, however, answer the question of how faculty will handle the major inconvenience of losing access to a publisher as huge as Elsevier.

So far, Elsevier has voluntarily maintained faculty access across the California system while offering to continue negotiations.

One leading advocate of open-access models, Heather Joseph, executive director of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, admitted concern about how California might react if Elsevier does pull the plug on access. “Then we’ll see whether the faculty scream about it,” Ms Joseph said.

California has taken encouragement, however, from the clamour among other US universities to learn about how California had prepared its faculty for the Elsevier showdown.

“A ton of other schools” across the US, Ms Joseph said, appear to be taking serious steps to get ready to challenge Elsevier when their own contracts expire.

Many of the US universities watching California and Elsevier have at least a bit more time to decide. With less than two years before the University of Utah’s contract with Elsevier expires, Richard Bryan Anderson, an associate library dean, said he would probably opt to renew, not being confident that faculty would back him if he challenged Elsevier as California has done.

“It’s possible that two years from now, the (University of California) faculty will feel quite a bit different about the cancellation than they do today,” said Mr  Anderson, who serves on an Elsevier advisory board. “But as of now, I don’t think we really even know much about how they feel about it today.”

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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Print headline: California’s press against Elsevier inspires interest

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