'No deal' between Germany and Elsevier: what would it mean?

German institutions and the publishing giant have still failed to agree a new deal. Could this become permanent?

August 3, 2017
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Forget Brexit – there's another European negotiation taking place that should be of great interest to academics.

It's now been more than eight months since the Dutch publishing giant Elsevier and German research institutions should have reached a deal to renegotiate their subscription licenses. But here we are, in August, and there is still no hint of an agreement. If anything, the rhetoric on both sides seems even more ill-tempered that between Brussels and London.

"There can be no mistaking how serious we are about this," Horst Hippler, president of the German Rector's Conference, said in June about German institutions' demands. Elsevier, for its part, has accused the German side of "unilaterally" cancelling a recent discussion workshop in a move it called "disappointing and concerning".

This clash matters because it's arguably the largest scale attempt yet by researchers to get Elsevier, a bogeyman of many academics who believe it enjoys excessively high profits and has dragged its feet over open access, to change its business model.

Germany wants full open access for articles authored by its academics; lower costs generally; and for Elsevier to effectively charge per article published, by offsetting article processing charges against subscription fees.

This last demand may be a particularly tough sticking point. The publisher has been adamant that these two ways of charging for publication – subscription and open access – are kept separate. It seems like if a deal is reached, one of the sides will have to back down on a red line.

Rather like Brexit, the outcome of a negotiation depends on the extent either side can afford to walk away.

Can German universities really jettison Elsevier entirely? Those on their side of the table are certainly talking tough. Back in March, one of the German negotiating group said it was willing to "pull the plug" on Elsevier. They claim it is possible to get access to Elsevier articles from other sources, like university repositories, academic social networks, or even the pirate site Sci-Hub.

At least a dozen (smaller) German institutions started the year without at least some access to Elsevier journals (only some institutions' contracts expired at the beginning of the year, so not everyone is affected by the failure to agree a replacement, national deal). Interestingly though, within six weeks, Elsevier restored access free of charge, meaning we don't know long-term how well German universities would cope.

When I asked Elsevier about a 'no deal' scenario, they pointed out that without access, German university rankings and their ability to attract talented academics could suffer.

Indeed, you can imagine that if accessing papers becomes rather more fiddly in Germany than other countries, it could, at the margins, put off the best researchers and make the country's science system a bit more sluggish (how much more sluggish depends how easily German researchers can get papers from other sources). But if Elsevier subscriptions really are as extortionate as the German side claims they are, might the money saved be worth it?

What about the other side? How would 'no deal' affect Elsevier?

It would obviously be an unwelcome financial hit to lose lots of contracts with universities in Europe's richest country. But it would hardly be crippling. According to the 2016 accounts of Elsevier's parent company, RELX Group, just over a quarter of the publisher's revenue came from Europe; profits were up last year by 3 per cent as the company released another 64 journals. The publisher's profit margin – 36.8 per cent - remains high enough to make many academics wince.

But if other countries saw Germany shrugging off a 'no deal' scenario, might they follow suit, with much bigger ramifications for the publisher?

And finally, one of the biggest unknowns is whether German researchers would continue to publish in Elsevier journals in the event of 'no deal'. There would be nothing stopping them continuing to do so, even if their libraries didn't have access, particularly if publication in 'prestigious' journals remained a path to promotion. But if 'no deal' meant one of the biggest research countries in the world started to turn away from Elsevier, would academics in other countries take their journals as seriously?

For all the noisy press releases from German universities threatening to cut their contracts, we may well end up with a compromise, perhaps some kind of commitment to partial open access (as the Dutch managed when they negotiated) and a face-saving fudge on how costs are calculated.

Still, nothing has been agreed yet. Come the end of the year, major universities in Berlin and Baden-Württemberg will sever their contracts. The clock is ticking.

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