University of California defiant as Elsevier cuts journal access

US’ top producer of research papers hopes stance will force major gains in open access

July 11, 2019
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Academic publisher Elsevier has cut the University of California’s access to its library of 2,500 scientific journals, six months after the UC system refused to sign a renewal, in what many see as a key battle in the open-access movement.

“This decision was not made lightly,” Gemma Hersh, a senior vice-president at Elsevier, said of the move blocking the UC community from all 2019 editions of its online journal content and a subset of older articles.

Elsevier, Ms Hersh said in a note explaining the move, had given UC the half-year no-charge extension of access “in the good-faith hope that UC negotiators would come back to the bargaining table and reach a mutually agreeable compromise”.

UC responded with far less regret. “I’m so proud of the UC system,” Carol T. Christ, chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, said in an interview ahead of Elsevier's public announcement. “The level of profits that Elsevier gets, for what is essentially university labour, strikes me as not ethical.”

Leaders of the system-wide Academic Senate issued a statement saying that by walking away from Elsevier, faculty believe they “can help change the system of scholarly communication for the betterment of all”.

The showdown stands as the biggest US challenge to Elsevier from universities and faculty faulting the publisher for making high profits from publicly funded science – the publisher’s profits were nearly £1 billion in 2018 – while moving slowly to adopt formats that are free to all readers.

In its pending offer to Elsevier, UC said it wanted the company to make open-access formats the default option for all authors, and to cut 10 per cent from the $11 million (£8.8 million) a year UC had been paying Elsevier. UC said Elsevier showed a willingness to expand its open-access formats across many of its journals, but without including prominent ones such as Cell and The Lancet, and without reducing overall costs.

Pressure on publishers – and especially Elsevier, given its profit margins – has been building for years, as academics and their funders grow dissatisfied with a system where university scientists typically write articles and serve as peer reviewers without pay, while institutions must buy journal subscriptions to read their work.

Representatives of UC and Elsevier had not talked formally since February, and had had relatively few informal discussions since then, said Ivy Anderson, an administrator with UC’s California Digital Library who serves as the system’s co-lead negotiator.

Elsevier said in a statement that the company supplied about a quarter of all journal articles downloaded by UC researchers and students, at about a dollar per download, or about 25 per cent less than eight years ago.

“The negative impact this will have on UC students and researchers productivity is unfortunate,” the company said.

But UC – which produces 10 per cent of the nation’s academic research papers – expressed confidence in its cause and in the likelihood that its users will find alternative methods to obtain the articles they need. UC has been offering suggestions that include using connections to other libraries and direct requests to authors for their work.

“I’m expecting the faculty will adjust,” Professor Christ said. “There’s enormous faculty support for this effort, the faculty feel just as angry about it as the librarians feel.”

A leading open-access advocate, Heather Joseph, executive director of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, said she is eager to see how UC scientists handle the challenge, given the number of other US universities watching their example.

“This will really be the acid test in terms of faculty response,” Ms Joseph said. UC hopefully will use the opportunity to identify which academic fields experience “more pushback than others” and then use that information to guide other institutions, she added.

UC is already thinking along the same lines. It has scheduled a meeting for late August in Washington to brief other universities on its experience. The session is already oversubscribed, said Ms Anderson’s negotiating partner, Jeff MacKie-Mason, the university librarian at Berkeley.

Major institutions facing renewal decisions with Elsevier at the end of this year include the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

An Elsevier spokesman cited renewals recently signed with authorities in Norway and Hungary among several “clear” examples of the company’s willingness to reach agreements that expand open-access formats.

But Mr MacKie-Mason said the Norway and Hungary pacts – signed after UC rejected the company’s renewal offer – appear to allow the countries open-access options at their previous contract amounts, making them “quite similar” to what UC has been seeking.

By contrast, he said, UC would see an 80 per cent rise in its total payments to Elsevier if UC accepted the company’s current offer and then made all its published articles available in open-access formats. “I would be very interested if they’re willing to come back and offer us the same thing,” Mr MacKie-Mason said.

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Reader's comments (1)

UC leads where others will follow. High time to show Elsevier the limits of their greed!