Doubt over replicability of Elsevier’s first US open access deal

Publishing giant strikes deal with Carnegie Mellon, but California dispute remains unresolved

November 22, 2019
Carnegie Mellon University
Source: iStock
Carnegie Mellon University

Elsevier has struck its first deal with a US university that grants automatic open access status to articles by its academics, but sector leaders have expressed doubt that the agreement will be swiftly and widely replicated elsewhere in the country.

The four-year pact with Carnegie Mellon University not only maintains the Pittsburgh institution’s access to the full library of Elsevier’s 2,500 journals, but also gives authors the right to make their articles immediately and freely available to all readers.

Keith Webster, dean of Carnegie Mellon’s libraries, said the “completely new type of agreement” marked another step by Elsevier towards accepting that open access formats, in some form or combination of forms, would overtake subscription-funded publishing models.

But some unique circumstances of the Elsevier-Carnegie Mellon relationship – including the university’s relatively small size – left it unclear how quickly any breakthrough might be replicated.

That reality is highlighted by the fact that Elsevier still has not resolved more than a year of pleadings from the University of California system for a contract renewal similar to the deal that it struck with Carnegie Mellon.

California – one of the world’s biggest and most prestigious university systems – has been without an Elsevier contract since January and without access to the company’s journals since July.

Carnegie Mellon’s new contract with Elsevier, however, was less a model for California or other universities than it was an “exploration on both of our sides” of how an open access model might work, Mr Webster said.

Carnegie Mellon stands out as a good test opportunity, he said, because – unlike the case at most major US research universities – Elsevier’s journals are not the top choice for most of its scientists.

Its researchers work primarily in engineering and computer science, Mr Webster said, and Elsevier journals handle only about 500 of the more than 3,000 articles published each year by Carnegie Mellon authors.

“Therefore, Elsevier, from our end, is relatively little risk; and for them, we are low risk,” Mr Webster said.

Tom Reller, an Elsevier vice-president and head of global media relations, also resisted the suggestion that the Carnegie Mellon agreement could serve as a template for other institutions. “The thing to understand is that these are all pilots, as they are all unique and catering to different needs in different ways,” he said.

The pricing structures of the deal have not been revealed.

California’s negotiators issued a statement expressing hope that the Carnegie Mellon deal was “a positive sign that Elsevier is ready to start signing transformative open access agreements with other US research universities”. But, they acknowledged, they have had no formal talks with Elsevier since February.

Elsevier and Carnegie Mellon announced their deal just as US government auditors issued a report finding that the federal agencies that provide research grant money are yet to fully implement a 2013 requirement to make the results of their funded research fully accessible to the public.

Mr Webster added that he recognised that Elsevier’s strategy for covering the costs of open access journal formats could fuel the publisher’s promotion of propriety data-related services to the university research community.

Such services, he said, are understood to carry the risk of creating new obstacles to universities and funding agencies ensuring full public access to their work.

US universities might have trouble generating the unified approach necessary to avoid such a future, Mr Webster said. “We need some sort of national convening power to bring us together,” he said, noting that the US has no coordinating body like the UK’s Jisc.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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