German universities plan for life without Elsevier

Loans between libraries, and research sharing between colleagues, could allow country to sever links, negotiators claim

September 5, 2017
Crowd at German beer fest
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German universities have coped "easily" when cut off from Elsevier journals and do not need to rely on pirate article-sharing sites such as Sci-Hub, according to a negotiator from Germany's biggest network of research centres.

Martin Köhler, who has helped to lead negotiations between the Dutch publishing giant and the Helmholtz Association, gave Times Higher Education details of Germany's strategy to survive "no deal" with Elsevier – shedding some light on whether other countries could take a similar stance.

A consortium of all German research organisations is locked in hostile and so far unsuccessful contract negotiations with Elsevier, demanding full open access for German-authored papers and a model in which they pay per article published, not a flat journal subscription fee.

Part of their strategy is to demonstrate that German academics can operate without Elsevier subscriptions, and an increasing number of institutions have said they will not renew their contracts at the end of the year, now including the vast majority of Helmholtz centres, which have a combined revenue of €4.38 billion (£4 billion).

At the beginning of 2017, after negotiations faltered, some German universities went briefly without Elsevier access before the publisher restored it free of charge, giving Germany a dry run of what a national severance might be like.

Dr Köhler said that at two major German universities that were cut off in January, which he declined to identify, there were only "tens" of requests by academics to their libraries for papers they could no longer access, an unexpectedly low number.

These were "easily handled with an inter-library loan", he explained, Germany's "main strategy" for coping without Elsevier.

In almost every case, other libraries were able to send an article electronically "within a day", he said, and while there is a fee, it is much smaller than paying per article.

The right to loan articles is "deeply engraved" into German law, he explained, and publishers have to allow it unless libraries can pay per article at a reasonable price.

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But there are potential problems. "For inter-library loans to work, you still need one partner to access [articles]," Dr Köhler said. At some institutions, existing contracts with Elsevier run for five more years, he added, so the issue is not pressing, but longer term the strategy is untested.

In addition, institutions only lose access to newly published Elsevier papers when they cut their contracts, he explained. This means an ever-increasing number of papers will be inaccessible as time goes on, although current rules make these papers freely available after 12 months, he added.

German researchers who lost access to Elsevier earlier this year generally got papers from colleagues, Dr Köhler explained. As for the pirate site Sci-Hub, "everybody knows about it, but no one says they are using it", he said. "We will survive without Sci-Hub." Telling academics the cost of ordering papers also makes most of them reconsider whether they are really necessary, he added.

A spokesman for Elsevier said that their data show that, in January this year, researchers at the 52 institutions without access tried to download 124,000 Elsevier articles unsuccessfully. He also focused on the fact that German academics could lose access to ScienceDirect, which allows them to search for and keep up to date with new relevant research. Without it, German academics would work more slowly, he argued, and in the long term this could make German universities less competitive.

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