Deal impasse severs Elsevier access for some German universities

As talks with the publisher stall, researchers in the country weigh whether they can cope without a deal

January 6, 2017
Visitors walk past giant books at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Germany
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Kein Problem: sharing networks mean that lacking access to publishers’ platforms is less of an issue, said one commentator

At least a dozen German research institutions have started the new year without access to Elsevier journals after an acrimonious breakdown in licence negotiations between the country’s research organisations and the publisher.

But German universities can survive without access because there are so many other ways to get hold of articles, according to one of those leading the effort to forge a new deal, who hopes to see the “collapse” of big publishers’ subscription models in favour of open access to research.  

This is the first time that German research organisations, including universities, research networks such as the Max Planck Society and the country’s grant-giving German Research Foundation, have united to negotiate collectively to strike a better deal with Elsevier.

In December, talks broke down, with the German side accusing the publisher of unfair pricing and not doing enough to make papers openly accessible. 

With no last-minute deal struck before the new year, and about 60 research organisations seeing their individual contracts expire at the end of 2016, German researchers are beginning to lose access to journals.

So far, at least a dozen institutions have lost at least partial access to Elsevier journals, a spokeswoman for Projekt DEAL, the negotiating coalition, told Times Higher Education, although she added that these are mainly smaller organisations and declined to identify them.

Larger universities still seem to have access, she added, but this could change, as Elsevier appears to still be processing the cancellations.

Some institutions will still have access to material they were subscribed to in 2016, explained Harald Boersma, Elsevier’s director of corporate relations for science and technology, with only newly published material affected.

The publisher has also previously hit back at “allegations” that it was cutting access to German universities, pointing out that institutions themselves had decided not to renew their contracts “based on the assumption that a national deal would be reached by the end of 2016”.

The issue now is how much pressure losing access will put on German universities to reach an agreement, which raises the broader question of whether contracts with publishers are important for universities in an era of myriad ways to share research.

Ralf Schimmer, deputy director of the Max Planck Digital Library and a member of Projekt DEAL’s working group, said that due to sharing networks such as ResearchGate, university repositories and individuals emailing their research to others, lacking access to major publishers’ platforms was far less of a problem now than previously.

“The monopoly of getting the content only on the publisher’s platform…has been perforated severely,” he said.

Libraries can also loan each other articles if one institution loses access, explained Silke Glitsch, director of public relations at the University of Göttingen, which is one of the universities now without a contract, although it usually takes a week for a paper to be delivered.

Academics might also turn to Sci-Hub, the pirate research sharing site that has attracted tens of millions of downloads. German researchers would “of course” use Sci-Hub if their access was cut, said Dr Schimmer. “The younger generation does it all the time.”

The idea to collectively negotiate a better deal on subscriptions has been around in Germany since 2013, explained Dr Schimmer. But the dispute has become about a more fundamental issue: whether universities can “offset” the cost incurred from article processing charges – paid by researchers to make an article open access – against publishers’ subscription costs.

Projekt DEAL has demanded these open access charges be “taken into consideration within the scope of…licences” for closed journals but Elsevier insists on treating these two areas separately. “It’s important to note…that we keep the subscription and open access business models separate,” said Mr Boersma.

Dr Schimmer said that Germany had been emboldened by a 2015 deal eventually struck by Dutch universities with Elsevier after a long stand-off. The agreement means that 30 per cent of articles published in certain Elsevier journals will be open access at no extra cost to authors.

But Germany is demanding that 100 per cent of papers that have a Germany-based corresponding author be made open access as part of any agreement, said Dr Schimmer. The German consortium also plans to extend this approach to the other big publishers, Springer Nature and Wiley, with exploratory talks set to start this month.

Dr Schimmer also argued that research organisations should only negotiate deals with publishers of a maximum length of two years – far shorter than last year’s five-year deal signed between Elsevier and Jisc, which represents UK universities – because it gives them the flexibility to capitalise on new deals as the publishers’ subscription model gives way to open access.

“Our goal is to have the subscriptions system collapse,” he added.

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Reader's comments (1)

The be precise, the Dutch agreement means that in 2018 30% (in 2017 20%) of all articles published in all Elsevier journals by Dutch university affiliated authors can be OA without extra cost to the authors, with the restriction that (in 2017) only 276 journals fall under the agreement. If OA artciles in these journals constitute more than 20% of all articles published, then in 2018 Elsevier will add (some 135) journals titles to the agreement for which they expect fewer Dutch submissions, as to ensure we will not go over 30% in 2018. At this pace we would theoretically reach 100% in ten years, but the agreement is only for three years.

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