Science

California universities and Elsevier make up, ink big open-access deal

The Powell Library at the University of California, Los Angeles, is one of many in the 10-campus system involved in the new publishing deal.

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Two years after a high-profile falling out, the University of California (UC) system and the academic publishing giant Elsevier have patched up differences and agreed on what will be the largest deal for open-access publishing in scholarly journals in North America. The deal is also the world’s first such contract that includes Elsevier’s highly selective flagship journals Cell and The Lancet.

The deal meets demands made by UC when it suspended negotiations with Elsevier in 2019. It allows UC faculty and students to read articles in almost all of Elsevier’s more than 2600 journals, and it enables UC authors to publish articles that they can make open access, or free for anyone to read, by paying a per-article fee. Elsevier says it will discount those open-access fees, and UC says it will subsidize their authors.

UC estimates the new deal will cost its libraries’ budget 7% less than what they would have paid had it extended its old contract with Elsevier, which expired in December 2018. UC paid $11 million that year. But the university’s total spending on the deal, including money from outside funding sources, could be higher than that, depending on how many articles it publishes open access, Elsevier says.

The impasse had been closely watched as a bellwether for whether U.S. universities would join what has become a worldwide push toward immediate open access to scientific articles. Elsevier is the largest scholarly journal publisher, and UC is among the top institutions in research spending. Their rapprochement reflects a recent shift in Elsevier’s business strategy toward one friendlier to such deals, which other commercial publishers have been quicker to embrace. It also appeared to reflect the clout that UC’s size affords: The 50,000 journal articles produced annually by researchers on its 10 campuses represent 10% of U.S. output.

For UC, the 4-year deal, which takes effect 1 April, advances its goal of redirecting money it would have paid for subscriptions to read paywalled Elsevier journals to instead paying for publishing open-access articles. Elsevier will discount author fees by 15% for most of its journals, and by 10% for its Cell Press and Lancet titles. Those fees range from $150 to $9900—for publishing open access in the prestigious Cell—with an average of about $2000 per article across all Elsevier journals (before discounts).

UC will subsidize its authors by providing the first $1000 toward those fees. It is asking authors to obtain the balance from other sources, such as federal grants. The university also says it will cover authors who have no funding—a policy it has already adopted experimentally in similar deals with other publishers. But UC says it will provide no subsidy for the Lancet and Cell titles for at least 1 year, so it can gauge whether its spending on publishing in other Elsevier titles falls within affordable levels, say Jeffrey MacKie-Mason, university librarian at UC Berkeley and co-chair of UC’s publisher negotiation team.

With the Elsevier deal, UC has now completed nine such open-access agreements. They cover journals that publish about 35% of the 27,000 articles published annually that list one of its scholars as a corresponding author, says Ivy Anderson, associate executive director of the California Digital Library and co-chair of UC’s publisher negotiation team.

“All of these agreements are showing progress over time, both financially and in terms of the extent of open access that they’re able to support,” Anderson says. “This [Elsevier] agreement marks a significant step in the long journey to full open access.”

Whether UC’s deal will encourage similar ones between Elsevier and smaller U.S. universities remains to be seen, says Claudio Aspesi, a publishing industry consultant based in Switzerland. “At present, demand is so fragmented that no single contract matters much, although purchasing consortia will likely increase the negotiating leverage of academic institutions going forward,” he says. “The UC contract drew so much attention because it aggregates demand from institutions that, separately, would have never gained much attention.”

Relatively few U.S. universities have negotiated such deals. In part, that’s because U.S. funding agencies do not require grantees to publish their work in papers that are immediately free to read. Instead, an existing federal policy, supported by publishers, requires only that grantees place their papers in free public archives within 12 months after publication. Publishers contend that model is necessary to preserve the financial viability of paywalled journals. In contrast, so-called transformative agreements to expand spending for open-access publication have become more common in Europe, where some government funders have mandated open access.

Elsevier’s willingness to give UC a transformative agreement with a cost cut represents a shift from its position in 2019. Then, the publisher argued that publishing articles open access and publishing subscription-based journals were separate services. However, competitors Wiley and Springer Nature have since moved ahead of Elsevier in inking some of the biggest transformative deals. Springer Nature completed the world’s largest, with Project DEAL, a consortium of German institutions, in 2019. Elsevier CEO Kumsal Bayazit—who took the reins in February 2019, just as UC announced the negotiations impasse—gave a speech in late 2019 that many university librarians took as signaling flexibility in dealmaking.

Publishers that ignore universities’ demands for cost controls may risk losing customers and revenue. A growing trickle of U.S. university libraries, such as the State University of New York system, have dropped subscription package deals with publishers that give them access to hundreds of journals, replacing them with work-arounds. These include subscribing to a slimmed-down portfolio of journals, obtaining articles through interlibrary loans, and using online tools to find free versions of articles. At UC, MacKie-Mason says such steps worked “very well” in obtaining paywalled Elsevier journal articles after their negotiations broke down in 2019. But, he and Anderson add, as a long-term strategy the university prefers open-access publishing because it replaces paywalls and speeds the dissemination of scholarly findings and the progress of science.

Observers are now watching to see whether Elsevier can reach a similar rapprochement with the 700-member Project DEAL consortium in Germany, which pulled the plug on its Elsevier subscriptions starting in 2017 because of an impasse over open access. A representative of the consortium said this week it is in informal talks with Elsevier, but negotiations have not officially resumed.

In the meantime, an even bigger question hangs over the global push for open access: whether enough universities and faculty members will choose to pay for open-access papers, or just continue to submit manuscripts to paywalled journals that don’t charge a fee for publication. 

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