Collaboration is the key to open access and open science

Publishing deals need to acknowledge the reality that most research is not yet gold open access, says Elsevier’s Gemma Hersh

August 21, 2019
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Over the past 18 months, university library consortia in Germany, Sweden and California have cancelled their subscriptions to Elsevier journals. This is because we have not yet reached agreement on how to support their objectives, which include making researchers’ published articles immediately open access.

Elsevier deeply regrets this situation. We fully support open access. And we recognise the benefits and importance of open access to many research communities. By sharing our perspective, we hope to build support to move things forward globally.

Journal publishers serve the research community. Our role is to filter, enhance, disseminate, register and preserve new knowledge. We put significant resources into soliciting, vetting, curating and disseminating high-quality content, and then technologically enriching it to produce fully searchable, hyperlinked, easily manipulated, feature-rich articles. On average, each Elsevier article contains more than 400 embedded links for navigation, verification and citation, for example. Numerous mechanisms, from editorial independence to anti-plagiarism technologies, ensure that published research upholds the highest standards of integrity.

About 2.5 million articles are published globally each year. Roughly 85 per cent are published on a subscription basis, although preprints can be made freely available immediately and accepted manuscripts are often posted openly online after an embargo (known as green open access). The remaining 15 per cent are published on an immediate open access basis in exchange for a fee. Proponents of this “gold” model, which has been around for 15 years, are understandably frustrated that its uptake has been slow. The reasons for this are complex, but are structural, not ideological.

Last year, Elsevier published 470,000 articles. Only 34,000 were gold open access, but all of them could have been if authors had chosen that option. Individual articles can be made gold open access whether published in established subscription journals or in one of our new fully gold journals (we’re launching one, on average, every three working days). Across both models, and on a per-article basis, Elsevier charges around or below the industry average, while our quality is above the industry average.

So why is the uptake not higher? Apart from author demand, another key factor is the common preference of large funders and institutions for green open access over gold. That is because a universal switch to gold would see research-intensive institutions and countries paying a larger portion of publishing costs because they are the ones producing the most high-quality research. Institutions with no published output would pay nothing.

Consortia in Germany, Sweden and California want all their researchers’ output to be gold open access, which we fully support. At the same time, they also want their researchers to keep reading the rest of the world’s articles that, today, are still published under the subscription model. Finally, they want this package to cost no more than they have paid historically for subscriptions alone.

Specifically, California Digital Library (CDL), which represents the University of California (UC), each year pays about $11 million (£9 million) to read Elsevier’s 435,000 newly published subscription articles. Of these, 1 per cent are authored by UC researchers. To publish them gold open access at market rates would cost approximately $15 million.

If the world became gold open access overnight, there would be nothing to subscribe to, and CDL would only need to pay to publish UC’s articles. But this is far from today’s reality. To make progress, we need to work on a solution that addresses the fact that the large majority of the world’s published research is not yet gold open access.

Aiming to make such progress with UC, Elsevier offered to hold subscription prices in line with inflation and to fully fund a fivefold increase in the volume of UC-authored articles published gold open access.

Our offer did not deliver everything that CDL was requesting, but would have enabled CDL to increase its gold open access uptake with Elsevier by more in one year than has been achieved over the past 15 years, and without incurring additional costs. We are willing to share the financial burden of a transition in a sustainable way. Unfortunately, our efforts were unsuccessful and CDL cancelled its subscription – leaving UC researchers without seamless access to newly published articles.

We believe that the most fruitful way to achieve open access is to work constructively, step by step, country by country, based on the circumstances. There is no silver bullet. The challenges are complex, but they can be overcome with creativity, flexibility, commitment and pragmatism. In Poland, Hungary, Norway and France, we have recently concluded agreements that have both subscription and open access components. We are optimistic that we will also find ways forward with California, Germany and Sweden, and remain strongly committed to helping them achieve their objectives.

Solving such challenges paves the way to unlock further value for the research community. Huge inefficiencies exist in the $500 billion that is spent annually on academic and government research, related to grant administration, talent management, data and image manipulation, and impact measurement. The term “open science” encompasses information-based solutions, such as research data management, facilitating collaboration, improving research integrity and evolving systems of evaluation.

While the potential benefits of open access are big, the benefits of open science are even bigger. Each percentage point of efficiency gain is worth $5 billion to the sector. More importantly, it will further advance science. If all of us in the research ecosystem engage and collaborate constructively, together we can deliver the benefits of both open access and open science.

Gemma Hersh is Elsevier’s senior vice president, global research solutions. She will be interviewed on this topic by Times Higher Education editor John Gill at THE’s World Academic Summit in Zurich on 12 September.


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Reader's comments (7)

Given that Gemma mentions green open access here - if Elsevier truly, genuinely did fully support open access, they could simply remove the embargo periods they insist upon, allowing authors to make their own author accepted manuscripts available via institutional and/or subject repositories immediately upon publication. Not gold open access, but a major step forward in general. The Royal Society, IEEE, Emerald, are just a few of the publishers that allow this - why can't Elsevier?
There are a number of misleading and generally awkward statements in this piece. If Elsevier ‘deeply regretted’ the situation with the University of California (UC), perhaps it would lower its negotiation stances instead of bullying UC and shutting off access to research for their researchers. UC has, in fact, had to fact check and give a rebuttal on many of Elsevier’s misleading claims about the negotiations: If Elsevier fully supported Open Access (OA), then why is it one of the smallest OA publishers by proportion. 7% gold by its own measure. Absolute numbers mean very little here compared to the relative proportions at other OA publishers like PLOS, BioMed Central, PeerJ, and the thousands of fully OA journals out there, which all have 100% OA. And let us not forget the heroic efforts that Elsevier have done in the past in stopping progressive OA policies, including running smear PR campaigns against it (e.g., If Elsevier ‘serves’ the research community, then why is it so difficult for them to give researchers what they want? This contradicts the statement that Elsevier regrets the current state of affairs. If they did, then they would adjust their services accordingly; for example, by lowering prices, removing embargoes, stopping advertising impact factors, etc. The comment about investing significant resources into each published article is preposterous. Elsevier embeds hyperlinks into PDFs. This was technologically feasible 20 years ago. It is misleading to state that green OA is associated with an embargo period; it is about authors self-archiving a version of their work on a repository. It is further misleading to associate ‘gold’ OA with a fee; this is about free accessibility at the journal website. Elsevier knows this. But continues to perpetuate falsehoods and myths to mislead their customers. Evidence against many of the statements in this piece can be found here: If Elsevier supports OA so much, then why are only 7% of their articles gold OA? Is it not because authors are unwilling to pay the prices they charge? Elsevier puts the blame at the feet of the authors for not choosing their model, when the reality is that they have made it such a difficult and unsustainable level to reach. The statement about being below the industry average needs a supporting citation. Especially as we know that there are around 3 times as many journals as Elsevier publish out there which charge zero APCs, according to the DOAJ: The quality statement too needs a supporting reference. If Elsevier equates citations per article with quality, then they are are continuing to perpetuate misleading information. When Elsevier uses words like ‘sustainable’, I do not think it means what it thinks they mean. The term ‘sustainable’ means maintaining Elsevier’s 37% profit margins and projected growth. Everyone else means not wasting hundreds of millions of dollars and more on a for-profit publisher that continues to aggressively mislead its customers, and lobby against progressive OA models, when a number of better, non-profit, community-led initiatives exist. The fact is that it is this sort of propaganda piece that continues to make Elsevier one of the most despised companies in the world. Elsevier throws around misleading and unsupported statements that are so far from the truth, and expect to keep getting away with it. I am surprised that a piece riddled with so many factual inaccuracies was able to make it past the editors of THE, and their typically high standards. For a more evidence-based account of Elsevier’s practices, I suggest this report via Education International that I helped to write. It gives a much more accurate account of Elsevier’s business practices:
Jon - 1. Elsevier isn't bullying University of California. California Digital Library unilaterally broke off negotiations and stopped paying. Elsevier provided access without payment for more than six months before implementing the cancellation. 2. You can see Elsevier's response to the UC's allegations on this website: 3. You write: "If Elsevier ‘serves’ the research community, then why is it so difficult for them to give researchers what they want?" Elsevier does offer researchers what they want. Last year, Elsevier published 470,000 articles. Only 34,000 were gold open access, but all of them could have been if authors had chosen that option. At the moment, the vast majority of researchers choose to publish for free through the subscription model, rather than paying to publish. That's their choice. For transparency, I work for RELX, Elsevier's parent company. Paul Abrahams
Let's be fully transparent. There is no "publish for free". Libraries pay in millions of dollars to subscribe to these resources, which has no transparent costing model behind them. Why doesn't Elsevier explain why it costs so much to publish an article (in a transparent fashion). On the comment that authors have a choice to publish all 34000 articles via gold route. That would have costed around $80M+ so it is not really about authors choice. It is about market monopolisation and absence of affordable, sustainable choice.
Elsevier is so open-access friendly that they were lobbying to ban open-access in Congress with federal laws! Look for "Research Works Act". To add injury to the wound the ban was targeting research sponsored by the federal budget. They wanted to force taxpayers to pay to see the results of research sponsored by taxpayers. This is, for example, a letter from a high school teacher that basically begs a researcher for a paper because she can not afford to pay 40$ from her own pocket to use this work during her class on evolution. The way science publishing works is just disgusting. Also, this teacher thinks that the researcher actually earns a cent from that paper. No. You and your students' parents already paid for it and the publisher (probably Elsevier) will take that 40$ whole. Elsevier is crony capitalism at it's best - holds works founded by public money hostage to force more money out of the taxpayers.
I simply find it insulting Elsevier throws around this non sense !! My colleagues (especially Jon) have proved the inanity of Elsevier's claims. It is insulting to think that researchers who publish , review for free would accept the fallacies saying it cost so much to publish articles.The reality is Elsevier ( and the other big corporation) do not care about science but are plain capitalistic entities whose only goal is money.No more !!!
Capitalists may be ignorant of the finer things in life but there are few others who can sniff out a profitable opportunity as well as they can. Elsevier does not enjoy a monopoly and there are hundreds of publishers in the business of printing books. If journal printing were profitable, there would be dozens of printers competing for the "profits". Can anyone imagine a writer deciding to become rich by printing journal articles written by others?