California’s Elsevier break strengthens other campuses’ hands

Universities report winning more conciliatory terms on open access question in their own negotiations with publisher

September 2, 2019
Source: Reuters

The University of California’s decision to cut ties with Elsevier has led the publisher to soften its demands with other US campuses, according to an open access advocate.

The 10-campus California system refused to sign a new contract with Elsevier in January after the company failed to move far enough on librarians’ insistence that more content should be made available in free-to-read formats and that overall costs should be reduced.

With no sign of a rapprochement, Elsevier cut the system’s access to its library of 2,500 journals in July, prompting dozens of California academics to quit editorial positions on some of the firm’s leading periodicals.

Such sacrifice may be helping other universities, as several institutions now appear to be winning more conciliatory terms in their own talks with Elsevier.

“That’s actually what they’re telling us,” Jeff MacKie-Mason, the university librarian at University of California, Berkeley and the co-lead negotiator for the system’s talks with Elsevier, told Times Higher Education. “We’ve been told by several other consortia that our backing away and ending negotiations actually helped move theirs ahead more rapidly and more productively.”

California’s assertive stance has thrust the university into a leadership role nationally. It hosted allies from more than a dozen universities at a two-day event in Washington in a bid to initiate a step change towards open access publishing last week.

The event heard that Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University was on the verge of agreeing a new contract with Elsevier, although this was described by both academics and publishers as being unique to the institution’s size and needs, and therefore was unlikely to provide a model for other institutions.

In fact, the event highlighted the complicated challenges of an open access future as much as it clarified any paths forward.

Despite California’s insistence on a price reduction, the dean of university libraries at Carnegie Mellon, Keith Webster, told his academic colleagues to recognise that open access wasn’t necessarily cheaper for them.

And, Mr Webster warned, attempts to push the costs of producing journals on to the authors – a typical open-access strategy – could leave some researchers unable to share their work with the rest of the world.

Creating open access journals cannot come at “the expense of excluding those who have something to say”, Mr Webster said. “Whatever this new equilibrium is, it has to give a voice to everyone who wants to be part of the system.”

Experts at the event described the growing array of open access formats as so difficult to forecast that all sides are eager to watch limited scale examples develop for a while.

“We are at a unique moment with scholarly communication – we are creating the transition and the change that’s going to define what scholarly communication looks like going forward,” said Curtis Brundy, an associate university librarian at Iowa State University. And yet, he said, “I feel like we’re driving blind on some of these negotiations that we’re doing, because we do not have the capacity to analyse the publishing data in a way to run the models and to really inform ourselves about the decisions that we need to make and what impact that’s going to have on us.”

One non-profit publisher, Annual Reviews, is trying a “subscribe-to-open” model in which its papers are offered free once it gets enough subscription revenue to cover its costs. But, said Kamran Naim, director of partnerships and initiatives at Annual Reviews, that pretty obviously creates a “free-rider problem” that requires constant monitoring.

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