A multinational journal giant is understood to be courting vice- chancellors in an effort to win their support for an alternative to open-access institutional research repositories.
Elsevier is thought to be mooting a new idea that could undermine universities' own open-access repositories. It would see Elsevier take over the job of archiving papers and making them available more widely as PDF files.
If successful, it would represent a new tactic by publishers in their battle to secure their future against the threat posed by the open-access publishing movement.
Most UK universities operate open-access repositories, where scholars can voluntarily deposit final drafts of their pay-to-access journal publications online. Small but growing numbers are also making such depositions mandatory.
An internet posting earlier this month alerted repository managers to Elsevier's move. "Rumours are spreading that Elsevier staff are approaching UK vice-chancellors and persuading them to point to PDF copies of articles on Elsevier's web-site rather than have the articles deposited in institutional repositories," the memo, on a mailing list operated by the Joint Information Systems Committee, said.
"The argument being used is that this will be cheaper than maintaining full text within repositories. If these reports are true, my guess is that Elsevier is using these arguments to undermine deposit mandates." The author of the post, Fred Friend, a consultant and former library director, said he wanted repository managers to be aware of the situation.
He said a repository operated by a journal publisher could set access conditions that undermine the needs of researchers and make it hard to "mine" the data.
"If any publisher were to attempt to undermine the value of open-access repositories to the academic community, it would be a matter of public interest," he added.
Stevan Harnad, a professor at the University of Southampton who champions institutional repositories, said he was not surprised by the development. "If vice-chancellors are persuaded to adopt this policy, it would give repository access only to an unsatisfactory version (PDFs will not enable re-use for research purposes) and access on Elsevier's terms," he said.
Deborah Shorley, director of library services at Imperial College London, said she was not aware of Elsevier's activities, but added that "we have to make sure the control remains in the right place, which is with researchers".
Shira Tabachnikoff, director of corporate communications at Elsevier, confirmed that preliminary discussions had taken place with some institutions but would not go into detail on their nature.
"Institutional repositories might not be the best way for institutes to showcase their research," she said. "These discussions are about working with them to find improved methods."
She added that problems with institutional repositories include the archiving of incomplete papers and manuscripts containing errors, and the duplication of costs.