Open access campaigners toughen stance towards publishers

Advocates argue that universities should be prepared to ditch subscriptions altogether

March 27, 2017
Plug being pulled
Source: iStock

Open access advocates want universities to be prepared to “pull the plug” on their subscription deals with big publishers, in a sign of an escalation in tactics to open up more research.

As the German academy remains locked in a dispute with Dutch publishing giant Elsevier, those campaigning for open access struck a combative tone at a conference in Berlin, which also heard frustrations that the move away from closed journals was not proceeding fast enough.

Gerard Meijer, director of the Fritz Haber Institute in Berlin, who led Dutch universities in their protracted negotiations with Elsevier in 2015, told delegates that in order not to be “held hostage” by publishers during talks, “complete opting-out of the contracts had to be a realistic option. And we are prepared for that.”

The aim was to give publishers two options: “either to go along in the transformation [to open access] or to face cancellation of the contract”, he told delegates at OA2020 on 22 March.

During the Dutch talks, editors and referees at Elsevier journals agreed that they would step down if no deal was struck, Dr Meijer explained. “It made the publishers nervous,” he said. Researchers were also told not to have any contact with the publisher, he said. Ultimately, the Dutch consortium and Elsevier brokered a deal where 30 per cent of articles published in some journals would be made open access, with no extra cost to authors.

This new willingness to walk away from the negotiating table, at the risk of losing access to journals, is being tested in Germany. At least a dozen German institutions lost access to Elsevier material at the beginning of the year after talks with the publisher broke down.

The German bloc has argued that it can cope with restricted access by using research-sharing networks and university repositories, although in mid-February Elsevier agreed to restore access, even though no deal had been reached, to signal its “support for German research”.

On the first day of the conference on 21 March, Ralf Schimmer, deputy director of the Max Planck Digital Library and a member of the German negotiating group, said that publishers were being presented with “a binary choice”.

Either they “engage in a transformative arrangement…with OA rights based on fair conditions” or “we pull the plug and discontinue our subscriptions altogether (completely or reduced to only a bare minimum)”, his presentation said.

Alongside this new assertiveness, however, lies a disappointment that despite numerous open access requirements and initiatives by funding bodies and governments, only 15 per cent of peer-reviewed research is freely available to the public.

Dr Meijer said that the growth in open access was now only linear, at about 1 per cent per year. Louise Page, a publisher at the Plos group of open access journals, added that the “numbers are still small…open access has been around for 15 years, it’s not a big jump”.

Launching new open access journals was not going to bring about a large-scale shift to open access, she said. Instead, existing journals “need to start shifting”, she added.

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