Germany edges towards brink in dispute with Elsevier

Publisher and research community remain divided over question of access to international publications

December 6, 2017
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Title battles: Elsevier’s Hannfried von Hindenburg looks forward to ‘a new contract’ but won’t speculate on future

With less than a month to go until some of Germany’s biggest universities and research institutes sever their contracts with the Dutch publishing giant Elsevier, there is still no sign of a deal to allow continued access to the publisher’s research.

The publisher has said that although a deal was still “possible”, the two sides are divided over how German institutions should pay for access to research originating from outside the country.

Hannfried von Hindenburg, senior vice-president for global communications at Elsevier, told Times Higher Education that the company had no problem with moving to a “100 per cent gold open-access world”, as demanded by Project Deal, a consortium of German universities, research institutions and funders.

This national alliance, negotiating collectively with Elsevier for the first time, wants to pay per published paper, rather than an ongoing subscription fee for access, as has been the traditional model.

But the “sticking point” is that the German universities want this fee to allow them to access Elsevier publications elsewhere in the world that still require a subscription to read, Dr von Hindenburg said.

“You can’t expect to get…content from America, or elsewhere, for free,” he argued.

A spokeswoman for the German side said that they were aiming for a fully open-access system where authors, their institutions or countries pay for publication. “For more than a decade…scientists have demanded the flip of the scholarly publishing system to open access. Elsevier could have done it…at their sole discretion, but they refused,” she said.

Negotiations between the two sides broke down about a year ago, leaving at least a dozen German institutions whose contracts expired at the end of 2016 without access to new Elsevier papers – although they were quickly reconnected free of charge by Elsevier as a sign of “support for German research”.

A similar loss of access could happen at the beginning of 2018, although on a bigger scale. Project Deal says that nearly 200 institutions, including some of Germany’s top-ranked universities, such as the Humboldt University of Berlin, have committed to letting their contracts expire at the end of this year.

Dr von Hindenburg said that he remained positive. “We are in touch with the HRK [the German Rectors’ Conference] and the negotiation team all the time,” he said. “There isn’t silence, and there’s a pretty good relationship on a personal basis.” He said that official meetings with Project Deal were “ongoing”, although he did not specify when the last one had taken place or when the next one was scheduled to occur.

In contrast, the German side has been bullish, talking up the prospect of seamlessly continuing without new Elsevier contracts,  announcing the resignation of German academics from positions at Elsevier journals in October, and saying that “discussions have been discontinued until further notice”.

Asked what would happen at the beginning of next year, Dr von Hindenburg said: “My hope would be that champagne corks go off as we celebrate a new contract or some kind of transition deal.”

But if there is no deal? “I don't speculate," he said. 

The Project Deal spokeswoman said that “there is no transition/extension planned at the moment”. “About 200 institutions have cancelled their contracts with Elsevier, which means that they won’t have institutional access to the content,” she explained.

Elsevier is also seeking to shift its image away from that of being purely a big publisher towards that of a provider of digital tools that assist researchers in finding papers and applying for grants.

The company is “an information and analytics business”, Dr von Hindenburg said. “We don’t describe ourselves as ‘just as a publisher’.”

He acknowledged that the “majority” of the company’s income from universities still comes from selling them access to journals and books. “We’re not saying ‘goodbye’ to publishing,” he said.

But one question for the company is whether selling digital tools can ever be as profitable as its publishing business, especially as a range of other firms offer research search and analytics services.

Rivals such as Google – which offers Google Scholar – are not publishers and therefore lack a good grasp of how papers are used – which publications, for example, end up informing patents, Dr von Hindenburg said.

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