Leaked document prompts fears of big publisher ‘lock in’

Elsevier could sell Dutch universities a bundle of journal access rights and software, raising concerns that universities could become stuck in one publisher’s software ecosystem

November 20, 2019
Source: Alamy

Big publishers could “lock in” universities so that they are unable to switch research management tools, open access advocates have warned, after a leaked negotiating document between Elsevier and Dutch universities suggested that the publisher would bundle together journal access and its own software.

“Vendor lock-in” – where customers face huge switching costs when they want to change ecosystems, between Microsoft and Apple, for example – looks set to become one of the next battlegrounds in negotiations between universities and publishers as companies such as Elsevier move into providing software products to researchers.

There have been long-standing concerns that big publishers are buying up smaller software companies to create an integrated system of tools covering every bit of the research process, from grant application writing to assessing impact – a system that academics may find it hard to leave.

Now, a leaked negotiating document from the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU) obtained by the Dutch outlet Science Guide suggests that the body could strike a deal with Elsevier that combines open access to journals and software services.

Such a “package deal” would be unprecedented, some observers believe.

The negotiation document says that “Elsevier is willing to work with us on a transition from the current subscription model to a renewed business model based on publication and on targeted software that can advance the interests of Dutch academics and institutions in their analysis and production of scientific output”, according to Science Guide.

It also contains a table listing areas in which Dutch institutions are already using Elsevier-owned products, including Pure, a research planning and evaluation tool, and Mendeley, a reference manager.

There is also the suggestion that universities and the publisher could share data in areas such as funding and content analysis. University data on, for example, which grant applications succeed or fail could be invaluable to publishers seeking to provide analytical tools to institutions.

Jeroen Bosman, a librarian at Utrecht University and an open science advocate, warned that although negotiations were still in their “early days”, such a deal could risk universities being locked in to one publisher’s services.

Publishers could tie universities into their ecosystem by selling a package of software products at a discount, he said, or ensuring that one product works only when combined with another from the same publisher.

Another risk is that universities cannot use the data they generate outside a specific company’s software, making switching to a rival much more difficult, Dr Bosman said.

A spokesman for the VSNU said that the leaked document was a “draft version of an internal positioning document for boards of universities and supporting policymakers” and had been “further refined” and was therefore “incomplete”. Its purpose was “to inform members of VSNU and to collect input to address concerns and opportunities”, he said.

Ownership of universities’ publishing data “will always remain with the institutions/academics. Institutions/researchers will always decide what third parties such as Elsevier can and cannot do with this (meta)data. At the moment, the discussions are still ongoing, if there is an outcome it will be made public,” the spokesman added.

But even if academics and universities retain ownership of their data, the question is whether the information will be made open to everyone or offered only to Elsevier, Bianca Kramer, an open access librarian at Utrecht University, warned on Twitter.


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