Last Friday, after more than 6 months of contract negotiations, the University of California terminated their multi-million dollar subscription with Elsevier, the world’s largest scholarly publisher. UC’s goal in negotiating the contract was to contain costs for its 10 campuses and authors while ensuring its published materials, which account for close to 10 percent of all U.S. publishing output, are immediately available to global readers without cost. Instead, Elsevier wanted to charge UC authors large publishing fees in addition to the university’s nearly $11 million subscription deal.
Founded in 1880, Elsevier is a global information analytics business, specializing in science and health. Headquartered in Amsterdam with offices around the world, Elsevier publishes about 18 percent of the journal articles written by UC faculty.
Insider Higher Ed says Elsevier offered UC a contract that combined paywalled content accessibility with the cost of publishing open access articles, but the price tag was too high, and UC turned down the offer. Instead, UC wanted to integrate fees while also reducing costs.
“Knowledge should not be accessible only to those who can pay,” said Robert May, chair of UC’s faculty Academic Senate. “The quest for full open access is essential if we are to truly uphold the mission of this university.”
UC president Janet Napolitano supported this decision.
“I fully support our faculty, staff and students in breaking down paywalls that hinder the sharing of groundbreaking research,” said Napolitano in a February 28 news release. “This issue does not just impact UC, but also countless scholars, researchers and scientists across the globe – and we stand with them in their push for full, unfettered access.”
Jeffrey MacKie-Mason, university librarian and economics professor at UC Berkley, also commented on the breakdown of contract negotiations.
“Make no mistake: The prices of scientific journals now are so high that not a single university in the U.S. – not the University of California, not Harvard, no institution – can afford to subscribe to them all. Publishing our scholarship behind a paywall deprives people of the access to and benefits of publicly funded research. That is terrible for society,” said MacKie-Mason.
According to Inside Higher Ed, UC is not the only organization to balk at Elsevier’s fee structure. Last year, hundreds of institutions in Germany and Sweden refused to ink a deal with Elsevier unless and until it was willing to change its fee structure. Nature.com reports that U.S. institutions including Florida State University in Tallahassee have also canceled deals with Elsevier to cut costs, but they still subscribe to some of the journals available through Elsevier.
Tom Reller, a spokesman for Elsevier, said in a statement that the company offered an option to let authors choose how they wanted to publish – whether via open access for free or through a paywall. Reller said 85 percent of UC authors choose the paywall option.
This is a far bigger issue than the cancellation of one multi-million dollar deal. Universities are trying to contain costs, while also wanting to provide open access to their research, but not everyone is ready to adjust their thinking or business model to help that idea materialize. Elsevier doesn’t seem ready to adapt to that, and the UC contract, while large, may not be enough to force it to make changes, but at some point, the issue will come to a head. Is there a compromise here somewhere – a blend of subscription, paywalled content and open access – as UC proposed?