The University of California system’s decision to end its contract with Elsevier has been hailed as a “major boost for the open access movement”, with scholars predicting it will result in a “snowball effect” on movement away from the use of high-cost subscription journals.
The major US public university system announced on 28 February that it was “taking a firm stand” by not renewing its nearly $11 million-a-year (£8.3 million) scholarly journal subscription to the publishing giant, following attempts to negotiate a new deal.
It said that Elsevier was “unwilling” to secure “universal open access to UC research while containing the rapidly escalating costs associated with for-profit journals”. The UC system’s five-year licence with Elsevier ended in December.
Research produced by UC’s 10 campuses accounts for nearly 10 per cent of the US’ total academic publishing output. The institution joins a list of at least 45 universities and systems worldwide that have dumped the publisher in the past decade, including national academic library systems in Germany and Sweden.
David Prosser, executive director of Research Libraries UK, said the move was “a major boost for the open access movement”.
“One of the largest inhibitors on change has been our belief that we need to continue to purchase subscription access and this meant that publishers have had little incentive to make truly transformative offerings. The University of California announcement breaks that impasse,” he said, adding that the move will “give institutions worldwide the confidence to say: ‘If California can do it so can we’.”
California’s decision could also prompt changes within Elsevier, he continued, noting that if the company continues to focus on providing products across the whole research cycle, and not just in publishing, “building paywalls around research may become less important to them”.
Jon Tennant, a palaeontology researcher at the Institute for Globally Distributed Open Research and Education, said that California’s move was the “latest in a global revolt against Elsevier and shows that the power dynamics are changing”.
“I think we are going to see a snowball effect as more universities and libraries realise they have more power when they coordinate, and that the service offered by some of these publishers is discordant with the prices they charge,” he said.
Publishing consultant Graham Steel agreed that it was “reasonable to envisage that other major US university systems may make similar moves”.
But Michael Eisen, adjunct professor of genetics and development at the University of California, Berkeley, said the move does not go far enough and called for the UC system to adopt an “ironclad mandate” stipulating that all content produced by UC faculty will be made “immediately freely available” and refusing to “pay a single penny for subscription access to content that should be freely available”.
“If they adopted this stance, and stuck to it, other universities would follow suit and publishers would have no choice but to rapidly transition to a fully open access system,” he said.
An Elsevier spokesman said that the company “put forward a unique model that supports California Digital Library’s (CDL) multi-payer open access request” during the contract negotiations.
“It provides a clear path allowing every researcher to choose to publish for free or open access and provides a scaled path to reduce the costs for each campus library. The proposal also provides every UC student and researcher with access to all journal articles published by Elsevier – articles they download nearly 1 million times every month,” the spokesman said.
“It is disappointing that the CDL has broken off negotiations unilaterally, but we hope we can bridge this divide with them soon.”