California to resume Elsevier talks after signing deals elsewhere

Return to table reflects ongoing string of advances for open science movement

January 25, 2020
University of California, Berkeley
Source: iStock

After watching the University of California head toward a series of open access agreements with other big publishers, industry titan Elsevier has agreed to resume exploratory discussions with the unbending state system.

The 10-campus California system – now more than six months without access to Elsevier’s library of 2,500 journals – announced that the two sides will hold “a meeting to explore reopening negotiations” early this year.

Given the open access deals the California system has signed elsewhere, the system’s library leaders said in a statement, “we are hopeful that this suggests that the publisher is ready to discuss deals that align with UC’s goals”.

The California-Elsevier showdown has been watched nationally and globally, a reflection of the size and importance of the two players and the multibillion-dollar stakes surrounding the challenge across academia of making published research findings open to all.

Last January California declined to sign a new contract with Elsevier, after the company refused to meet its demands that more content from California authors be made available in free-to-read formats and that overall costs be reduced.

With talks stalled, Elsevier cut California’s online reading rights in July. Rather than rebel against their librarians, dozens of California academics turned against Elsevier, quitting editorial positions on some of its leading journals.

California also pursued its agenda with other publishers. That has led to agreements featuring open-access terms with publishing entities that include Cambridge University Press, the Association for Computing Machinery and JMIR Publications.

And UC said that two other major publishers, Wiley and Springer Nature, have now agreed to extend California’s access to their journals – despite their contracts expiring at the end of last year.

In both cases, the California system’s library leaders said, the system and the publishers “have a shared desire to reach a transformative agreement that combines UC’s subscription with open access publishing of UC research”.

The announcements continue a trend of major movement in the US for the idea that the published results of research financed with public dollars should be made immediately accessible to the public.

Examples include librarians from other major US research universities conferring with California’s leaders to share strategies, and the Trump administration giving signals that it might simply mandate free access to the findings of federally sponsored science. Europeans are moving in the same direction with their Plan S initiative.

The agreement with the Association for Computing Machinery highlights the degree of determination among universities to end restrictive publishing models. Along with the California system, it involves Carnegie Mellon University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Iowa State University.

The ACM is the single-largest publisher of articles from Carnegie Mellon scientists. Through the new agreement, said Keith Webster, CMU’s dean of libraries, the participating universities are demonstrating their “collective power to secure the widest possible readership for our research”.

Elsevier, by contrast, has long laboured under the perception that while publishers are entitled to recover the legitimate costs of assembling their journals, its annual profit margins exceeding 30 per cent constitute an unacceptable level of exploitation.

The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment on California’s announcement of plans to resume talks.

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