UC-Elsevier: an open and shut case

Joseph Ripp (Cal, ’89)

[five minute read]

At the end of February of this year, the University of California cancelled further negotiations to renew its lapsed “big deal” subscription with Elsevier, citing an unbridgeable gap between the negotiating positions of the two parties. This Wednesday (7 Aug. 2019), UC published a blog post noting how members of its research community and academic allies elsewhere have taken the decision to withhold their research and editorial contributions from Elsevier journals. Without the voluntary contributions of scholars, Elsevier essentially has no ‘product’ to sell, but the influence of this boycott at present is largely symbolic. 

Commenting on the end of negotiations, the UC Office of Scholarly Communication had stated that “UC had two goals for our Elsevier agreement at the start of negotiations:

  • An integrated agreement that covered access to Elsevier journals as well as default open access publishing for all UC corresponding-authored articles in Elsevier journals.  
  • An overall cost reduction commensurate with the value that we believe Elsevier journals offer.”

UC sought to negotiate a single payment near its current total expenditure that would cover both comprehensive open access publishing by UC researchers, and comprehensive reading access to the Elsevier portfolio. Elsevier appears never to have seriously considered UC’s demands. As it had done consistently during negotiations with national consortia in Germany, Sweden, Norway, and Hungary, Elsevier maintained that charges for access (“pay to read”) and charges for publication (“pay to publish”) should remain distinct. The relationship between scale and cost presented a further insurmountable obstacle. As had Germany, Sweden, and Hungary previously, UC similarly accepted the termination of access agreements as a result of the impasse. Norway eventually accepted higher costs to enter into Elsevier’s first open access publishing/reader access agreement.

How has this dispute played out to this point? What follows is a brief, non-comprehensive, and not-entirely-unbiased timeline of the conflict.

25 April 2018: the Library Committee of the UC Academic Senate called for open access to become the default mode of publishing the university’s research, and for this stance to underlie future negotiations with publishers.

June 2018: Noting that the “escalating costs of academic journals are a well-known problem in higher education,” the UC Office of Scholarly Communication published Negotiating Journal Agreements at UC: a call to action. The document emphasizes “dual imperatives”:

  • “The urgent need to reduce costs to levels that the University can sustain; and
  • The desire to transform research production and dissemination in order to make research outputs openly accessible—leveraging the power of digital networks, accelerating beneficial research outcomes, and making the fruits of academic research more trustworthy and more widely available to all who may benefit for the good of society.”

31 December 2018. UC’s access contract with Elsevier ends.

28 February 2019. UC concludes negotiations.

April 2019: Cambridge UP and UC agree a transformative agreement. “Under the agreement, UC will have full and permanent access to the [Cambridge University] Press’s entire collection of over 400 journals, and open access publishing in Cambridge’s journals will be available to authors across the UC’s 10 campuses. Because the subscription ‘reading’ fee will go down as UC’s open access publishing goes up, the university will see no significant overall increase to the cost of its contract. The three-year agreement will allow UC and Cambridge to pilot this approach from 2019 through 2021.” Other national consortia have recently struck similar deals with other publishers. (“Transformative agreements,” however, attract sharp criticism for their perceived failure to address the fundamental flaws in the scholarly communications system.)

6 May 2019: Rick Anderson interviewed Jeff MacKie-Mason, University Librarian and Professor of Information and Economics at UC Berkeley, for the Scholarly Kitchen. MacKie-Mason emphasized UC’s unflagging commitment to its position and acceptance of the outcome.

July 2019. Elsevier unplugs UC.

12 July 2019- to present: A letter circulating among UC researchers has attracted signatures from 30 “prominent” faculty from four UC campuses, signalling their intention to withdraw from the editorial boards of 28 Cell Press (Elsevier) journals. (A number of German researchers have taken similar action). Meanwhile, Elsevier evidently contacted UC researchers directly to make its case. 

17 July 2019: Daniel Marti, head of global public policy at RELX, Elsevier’s parent company, contributed a guest piece to CalMatters, a “nonprofit, nonpartisan newsroom committed to explaining California policy and politics.” Among other claims, Marti asserted that “over the past several months, Elsevier proposed a series of arrangements that would contain costs, achieve the objectives of the Academic Senate and provide students, faculty, researchers and medical professionals with uninterrupted service to the research platform that supports their work.”

2 Aug. 2019: the UC Office of Scholarly Communication published Fact check: what you may have heard about the dispute between UC and Elsevier. The authors challenge Marti’s claims (and communications from Elsevier) under four headings, Regarding the negotiations, Regarding cancellation of UC’s access, Regarding UC’s proposal, and Other unsubstantiated claims. The gist is that Elsevier applied statistics selectively to inflate UC’s reliance on Elsevier, drew quotations out of context, misrepresented both UC’s bargaining position and its own, and potentially fabricated “survey” results.

(Marti of RELX mentioned two surveys, one purportedly of UC researchers, and a second in which German researchers are asserted to have expressed significant discontent with the German consortium’s cancellation of Elsevier subscriptions. UC has publicly called on Elsevier to cite these dubious surveys, calls echoed elsewhere (for example here and here)).

So where does this leave us?

Following the European conflicts with Elsevier, outcomes such as this inspire a growing sense — at least among open access advocates and Elsevier haters — that researchers and university administrators increasingly have the backs of research libraries, that we recognize that our interests correspond. UC is the largest university system in the United States and “accounts for nearly 10 percent of the nation’s publishing output.” It is a significant global player. SPARC (the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition) maintains a list of “big deal cancellations,” to support its goal of “making Open the default for research and education,” and as the list lengthens it suggests that the fabled “tipping point” when open access becomes the norm is slowly nearing. By contributing or withholding their work as authors and reviewers and editors, researchers can ultimately influence any recalcitrant publishers towards recognition that publishers, too, can contribute to a collective, rather than exploitative, endeavour.

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