French research institutions claim they are saving millions of euros in subscription costs after refusing to agree a new deal with the publisher Springer.
The impasse is a sign of rising assertiveness towards big publishers across Europe, fuelled by anger over high costs and slow progress towards open access.
Just as German institutions have done in negotiations with Elsevier, France appears to have called Springer’s bluff, with access to the publishers’ titles being maintained free of charge.
Discussions over a new contract have dragged on for more than a year between Springer Nature, Springer’s parent company, and Couperin, which represents more than 250 French universities, grandes écoles, and other research bodies such as the National Centre for Scientific Research.
Couperin wants costs to fall, arguing that subscription fees should drop as more and more journal articles are made available open access, meaning that the costs of publication are already covered by the author. Major UK funders have raised similar concerns after costs continue to rise despite moves towards open access.
But Sandrine Malotaux, head of the Couperin negotiation department, told Times Higher Education that Springer continued to demand “slight increases”.
French research institutions have been without a contract with Springer Nature since the beginning of the year, she said, but have not yet been cut off.
Couperin has said that the lack of agreement is costing the publisher €5 million (£4.4 million) a year. Springer Nature did not comment on this figure.
During discussions in March, Springer Nature threatened to cut off access to journals on 1 April, according to Couperin, triggering some research organisations to warn their staff in advance.
While the publisher has not commented on this claim, access has been maintained. “As requested by Couperin, we are considering a further proposal and during this time the affected journals will remain accessible,” a Springer Nature spokeswoman said.
The situation in France mirrors that in Germany, where a national consortium is thought to be saving more than €10 million a year after failing to reach a deal with Elsevier. Despite having no contract, the publisher has not cut off access.
This increased assertiveness has been driven partly by new ways of sharing papers, said Ms Malotaux. The pressure to have a contract with a publisher “is not as strong as it was”, she said.
Nicolas Galtier, a research director at a CNRS institute in Montpellier, said being cut off would “presumably” have no impact on his work.
“You can access many papers as preprints or via social networks, or by asking colleagues,” he said – as well as the pirate site Sci-Hub. “I doubt publishers will ever cut us off; they badly need citations, and you cite more what you can easily access.”
Valérie Masson-Delmotte, a climate researcher at the University of Paris-Saclay, said a cut in access could “potentially” be a problem for her. But there were “growing concerns” among researchers in France and elsewhere over the “unsustainability” of increasing costs, she said.
In a statement, the Springer Nature spokeswoman sought to downplay the scale of the impasse, pointing out that the negotiation was over access to less than half of Springer’s more than 2,900 journals, and was on behalf of only about 100 of Couperin’s member organisations. It did not affect other publishers in the Springer Nature group, such as Nature Research, publisher of Nature, she said.