European university heads take the fight to publishers

Vice-chancellors are leading contract negotiations, allowing universities to make more demands on open access and costs

February 19, 2019
Source: Getty
Power play: university leaders are now involved in six in 10 European negotiating consortia

University heads from across Europe have increasingly taken the lead negotiating new national contracts with publishers, allowing institutions to make tougher demands and in some countries break off contracts altogether, according to new research.

In Germany and Sweden, both currently without a contract with the publisher Elsevier, university leaders have taken charge in order to take a firmer stance on issues such as open access and rising journal costs for libraries.

University leaders are now involved in about six in 10 European negotiating consortia, once largely the preserve of librarians, according to preliminary data from the European University Association’s latest survey on big publishing deals across the continent.

In a quarter of these consortia, university heads are leading the negotiations.

Lidia Borrell-Damian, the EUA’s director for research and innovation, said that there were now “a substantial number of consortia that have university leaders involved”.

“The anecdotal evidence is that it does make a difference” to negotiations, she said, as university leaders “have a broader overview than the library”.

In Sweden, Astrid Söderbergh Widding, vice-chancellor of Stockholm University, took over the leadership of the country’s consortium in 2016, the first time it had been headed by the leader of a large research university. “This was indeed a conscious choice in order to strengthen the consortium,” she told Times Higher Education.

Negotiations with publishers “have become a primary concern for university leadership perhaps even more than for librarians…because they are part of the transition to open access and open science, which indeed is the responsibility for university leaders”, she said.

Even more important had been unanimous support for their negotiating stance from other Swedish rectors, she said – backing that had been “decisive” in allowing Sweden to break off its contract with Elsevier after the sides failed to reach a deal.

In Germany, too, national negotiations with the major publishers have been led for the first time by university heads.

Bernhard Mittermaier, a member of the country’s negotiating team and head of the library at the Jülich Research Centre, said that their involvement had made “the threat credible that we were prepared to walk away from the table because it showed that it was not only a library that was sitting there, but a whole institution – or 700 institutions.”

University leaders “can speak from firsthand experience” about publishing, said Dr Borrell-Damian. “They know what it means to publish an article, what it means to be open access, what it means to have to pay to access that research,” she said.

They were also better able to keep academics onside, even through breakdowns in access to journals. “It has to be an academic leader to create the glue” to keep researchers supportive, she said.

Even those countries where university leaders were not on the negotiating team were “in the process” of involving them, she said.

In the UK, Jisc Collections, the consortium that negotiates deals with publishers, is looking to bring more university heads into the fold. Director Liam Earney said that these plans “are well advanced and have been welcomed by our university library stakeholders”, and stressed that vice-chancellors had also been involved in previous deals.

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