Elsevier’s surprise decision to strike a deal with Norwegian universities has been seen by some as a significant change of direction in response to years of negative headlines about cancelled contracts, which in one case hit its parent company’s share price.
While the “publish and read” contract does not go as far as some open access campaigners would like, and it excludes publication in some well-known journals such as Cell and The Lancet, it is seen as a significant departure from the publisher’s previous deals.
Just over a month ago, Norwegian negotiators had accepted that the sides were too far apart and resigned themselves to losing access to some of Elsevier’s content for at least the rest of 2019.
But since then, Elsevier returned to the table to strike a deal, said Katrine Weisteen Bjerde, director of research services strategy at the Directorate for ICT and Shared Services in Higher Education and Research, which negotiates on behalf of Norwegian institutions.
“That was a surprise to us,” she said. “We were prepared to go without access for quite a while.”
Some observers believe that the Norway deal could be a sign that an under-pressure Elsevier is beginning to shift its negotiating red lines and to compromise with universities.
Tom Singlehurst, an analyst at Citigroup covering the publisher, stressed that although he did not know exactly what had moved Elsevier to strike a deal, there had been a steady stream of contract cancellations, ranging from Germany to the University of California system at the end of February this year, which had hit the share price of Relx, Elsevier’s parent company.
“This stuff does add up,” he said. “The market tolerance for any form of slowdown in growth at Relx is low,” he added, which might have built pressure to strike a deal.
Not everyone agreed with that reading of the situation. Contract disputes between publishers and universities have been a regular fixture for years, said Sarah Simon, an analyst at Berenberg Bank. But increased attention on social media had led to a “disproportionate” sense that publishers’ revenues were “collapsing”, she said.
The deal is the publisher’s first publish-and-read agreement. Under this model, instead of paying subscription fees to read journals, universities pay on the basis of how many articles their researchers publish open access, and reading rights are bundled in. German institutions signed such a deal with Wiley earlier this year, while Cambridge University Press and the University of California followed suit in April.
Inking a similar a deal with Norwegian institutions might have been the “least damaging” option for Elsevier, avoiding further “bad headlines” and the “open sore” of stalled journal negotiations just as the company was trying to sell universities its other data and analytics products, Mr Singlehurst said.
Under the deal, Norwegian institutions will pay €9 million (£7.8 million) a year to publish 1,850 open access papers in Elsevier journals, and keep reading access, explained Ms Bjerde, a 3 per cent hike on the previous deal. Of the price increase, she said: “We don’t like it, but that was not our first priority.” Instead, negotiations had focused on open access.
The agreement also excludes, at least initially, about 400 journals, among them Cell and The Lancet, she added. Instead, a coordinated international effort will be required to crack these journals open, she said.