California academics quit Elsevier journals in open access row

Resignations follow loss of access to company’s titles

August 10, 2019
University of California, Berkeley

More than 30 University of California faculty have quit editorial positions at Cell and other leading academic journals owned by Elsevier in an escalating showdown with the publishing giant over open access.

The editors include many leading figures in their fields, compounding the pressure on Elsevier as it battles a major statewide university system that produces 10 per cent of the US’ academic research papers.

“Any time faculty members are educated and energised enough to take a stand like this, it’s a huge plus,” said a leading open access advocate, Heather Joseph, executive director of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition.

In making their move, the editors talked more about the inconvenience that California faculty now face than they did about any determined commitment to global efforts aimed at making science articles freely available to all users.

In a three-paragraph letter to Elsevier, the participating faculty said simply that they were protesting against the lack of a contract between the California system and Elsevier, and their resulting inability to directly access the company’s library of 2,500 scientific journals.

The 10-campus California system refused to sign a renewal with Elsevier when its contract expired in January, insisting that the publisher take more aggressive steps to offer its content in formats that do not require subscriptions.

Elsevier allowed California’s online access to publications to remain in place for nearly six more months before finally cutting it last month in the absence of any new negotiations.

Up to that point, said James Hurley, professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley, who helped to organise the mass resignations, the issue “didn’t seem that pressing” because the institution’s contract talks with Elsevier in past years had often produced drama and occasional impasses.

“We thought this would resolve itself, and everyone went back to their work and didn’t pay too much attention,” Professor Hurley said. “It became more real when the access was actually cut off in July.”

California’s pending contract offer would require Elsevier to make open access formats the default option for all authors, and would cut 10 per cent from the $11 million (£9 million) a year the system had been paying Elsevier. The company has been willing to expand its open access offerings, but without including prominent titles such as Cell and The Lancet, and without cutting the $11 million annual fee.

Professor Hurley – who served on the editorial boards of Cell and three other Elsevier journals – accused Elsevier of failing to recognise that California’s $11 million payment comes on top of the work performed by hundreds of California academics who serve on the company’s editorial boards and the thousands more who write and review its articles.

“If they don’t recognise that that’s part of the value that UC contributes, then we need to publish elsewhere,” he said.

Other signatories include Berkeley’s Jennifer Doudna, a co-inventor of the CRISPR-Cas9 technology to manipulate genes; Nobel prizewinner Elizabeth Blackburn, of the University of California, San Francisco; and Stephen Smale, vice-dean for research at the medical school of the University of California, Los Angeles.

By other measures, however, Elsevier may have little reason for urgency. The quarterly earnings report issued last month by its parent company, RELX, showed that Elsevier’s operating profit remained at about 36 per cent – a level many academics see as proof that the company is not treating them fairly – with reported increases in both contract renewals and new subscription sales.

An Elsevier spokesman expressed regret for the inconvenience facing California faculty and said he was optimistic that the situation would be resolved.

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