University of California challenges Elsevier over access to scholarly research


Lots of universities grumble about the price and restrictions of their subscription contracts with publishers, but few have the negotiating power of the University of California System -- which single-handedly accounts for almost 10 percent of the research output of the United States.

The UC system, which paid over $10 million this year to the publishing giant Elsevier in journal subscription fees, is unhappy with the status quo. So unhappy that when the UC system’s current five-year contract with Elsevier ends on Dec. 31, officials say, they are willing to put access to Elsevier journals on hold until the university gets what it wants. An Elsevier representative said that the publisher is working hard to reach an agreement with the UC system before its contract expires.

Millions of dollars in potential fees are not the only leverage the UC system is using against the publisher. A recent email from the University of California, Los Angeles's provost to the campus urged the faculty to consider declining offers to review articles for Elsevier and not publishing in Elsevier journals "until negotiations are clearly moving in a productive direction."

Unlike some other universities that have canceled, or at least threatened not to renew, their bundled journal subscription agreements with publishers, the UC system is not primarily protesting rising prices, though it would still like to see its fees reduced. The California system wants to fundamentally alter how it pays for journal content from publishers like Elsevier and to accelerate open-access publishing in the process.

The UC system, which is made up of 10 campuses and 100 libraries, wants to do more to make publicly funded research freely accessible to the public, said Ivy Anderson, associate executive director of the California Digital Library, who is involved in the negotiations with Elsevier.

Currently, final versions of research papers are often made available to the public some time after they have been published, said Anderson. The UC system wants journals to make this research immediately available to all.

To facilitate this, the UC system is pursuing a new kind of arrangement with Elsevier and several other publishers, Anderson said. Rather than paying separately to access subscription journals and make articles immediately available in OA, the UC system wants to roll both costs into one annual fee, which could potentially be higher than what the UC system currently pays for subscriptions only.

This arrangement, called a "read-and-publish" deal, would mean that the public would have immediate, free access to final versions of UC research papers, with no additional article-processing fees to the UC system.

In pursuing such an arrangement with Elsevier, the UC system is “trying to fundamentally change the ecosystem of scholarly communication,” said Rick Anderson, associate dean for colleges and scholarly communications in the Marriott Library at the University of Utah.

While other libraries might be interested in pursuing such deals, “few have enough negotiating leverage to really push it in the way that UC can,” Rick Anderson said. “The UC system is actually somewhat like a European country in that it’s a single system that encompasses a relatively large number of institutions.”

But whether the university system will actually pull it off is unknown. The UC system and Elsevier have been locked in negotiations since the summer and seem to still be at odds about how to move forward.

A ‘No Deal’ Scenario

The clock is ticking for the California system and Elsevier to reach a systemwide subscription deal before the year's end.

The UC system wants to reach an agreement with Elsevier as quickly as possible but is prepared for the “possibility that we may be without a contract for some period of time," said Jeffrey MacKie-Mason, university librarian at UC Berkeley, who is also involved in the negotiations with Elsevier.

The system is prepared for that eventuality. Numerous town hall meetings and discussions between professors, faculty senates, librarians and lead negotiators have taken place over the past few months, and each of the system’s 10 campuses is prepared for the possibility of a "no deal" scenario, said MacKie-Mason.

Faculty members have been largely supportive of the UC system’s negotiation strategy, MacKie-Mason said, though he acknowledges some academics are concerned about losing access to key new research.

If an agreement is not reached before the deadline, then as soon as Jan. 1, 2019, the 69,000 faculty members and 238,000 students in the UC system may no longer have access to new articles published in over a thousand Elsevier journals, including Lancet and biology journals published through Cell Press. Access to older articles through Elsevier’s Science Direct platform will continue uninterrupted.

Stephen Floor, an assistant biology professor at the university's San Francisco campus, confirmed that the faculty largely supports what the system is trying to do.

“Obviously we would prefer no disruption, but we have a network of colleagues and systems in place from which we can request articles,” said Floor. “It’ll be an inconvenience, sure. But I think we understand the importance of what they’re trying to achieve.”

Floor said that communication with faculty about the negotiations has been good, but it’s now up to faculty members to “take that message and broadcast it to everyone else who might be affected.”

Jonathan Eisen, a biology professor at UC Davis, agreed that "not being able to read some papers will be awkward," but, he said, "there's a lot to read out there that isn't in Elsevier journals."

The push by the UC system for immediate open-access publication is an important one, said Eisen. "Prepublication versions of articles are frequently different from final versions, and there are many things that are supposed to be in archives that are in fact, not," he said.

Open to Some Experimentation

Speaking to the Los Angeles Times, Ivy Anderson hinted that Elsevier may be willing to try out a new open-access fee arrangement with the UC system, but that this would not look like the read-and-publish deal the system is seeking.

Gemma Hersh, vice president for global policy for Elsevier, said in an interview Wednesday that the company is one of the leading open-access publishers and continues to be receptive to working with universities to explore different open-access options.

"There's a lot of experimentation in the market, and we've been engaged in pilots for a number of years," said Hersh. "We're always open to testing and trialing something new, and we have a very broad menu of options."

However, the publisher does not want to shift from individual article-processing fees to a fixed annual rate for the immediate open-access publication of an unknown number of articles. "Our principle is that we would like to be paid for the articles that we publish," said Hersh.

Hersh said the popularity of open-access publishing is growing, but she noted that the subscription model is also growing and remains popular.

A letter from Philippe Terheggen, managing director of scientific, technical and medical journals at the company, to Elsevier journal editors who work within the UC system, sheds some light on the publisher’s concerns about the UC system’s proposal.

“We understand what [the California Digital Library] wants to accomplish and are working hard to construct an agreement that enables CDL to retain access to the highest quality subscribed content at a fair price and promotes OA in a realistic context,” wrote Terheggen.

He continued, “CDL wants to pay towards its authors publishing OA for the world to read freely but only pay a nominal amount to access the world’s subscribed content. This model could work if this were an all-OA world. But the reality is that the world’s subscribed content comprises 85 percent of scholarly output and continues to grow. Therefore, while [CDL] wants to fund OA, which we fully support, it still needs to pay to access subscribed content.”

A Model for Read-and-Publish Agreements

The UC system wants its read-and-publish contract with Elsevier to be a model that can be adopted by other institutions, and many university librarians have expressed interest in negotiating similar deals, Ivy Anderson said. She thinks about the contract as more than just a new type of agreement that supports both reading and publishing.

“It’s really a way to try and move the journal ecosystem from a subscription basis toward an open-access basis in an orderly but accelerated fashion,” she said.

The idea of read-and-publish agreements is “fairly new,” said MacKie-Mason. In the U.S. there is only one university that has so far secured a read-and-publish deal with a publisher -- the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which announced such an arrangement with the Royal Society of Chemistry in June.

“It’s certainly the case that major publishers have not embraced these types of agreements,” said MacKie-Mason. “Springer Nature has been more agreeable to contracts of this sort, but many are moving slowly, or actively opposing.”

Greg Eow, associate director for collections at MIT Libraries, is supportive of UC’s attempt to get a read-and-publish deal in place with Elsevier.

“The global movement towards open access has dramatically gained momentum in recent months,” said Eow. The launch of Plan S in Europe -- an initiative to support open-access publishing -- has helped to align funders, researchers, publishers and libraries in their commitment to an open-access future. But there continues to be debate about the best path forward.

Eow believes that read-and-publish agreements should be just one of a number of different open-access models being explored so that institutions can “learn from what works and iterate forward.”

Curtis Brundy, associate university librarian for scholarly communication and collections at Iowa State University, said there is growing awareness in the U.S. of the potential of read-and-publish agreements to rapidly increase open-access publishing. Iowa State is set to announce its first read-and-publish agreement with a publisher by the end of the year and has several more in the works for 2019.

“Read-and-publish agreements eliminate publisher double-dipping, where the library continues to pay full-price subscriptions while the publisher collects article-processing charges from authors,” said Brundy. “A read-and-publish agreement brings those payments together and even allows the library to negotiate a reduced price for article-processing charges.” The deals also “give libraries a fairly straightforward way to convert their subscription spend, which currently supports paywalls, to support for open access.”

If the UC system successfully negotiated such a deal with Elsevier, it would be a “landmark agreement, not just in the U.S., but globally,” said Brundy. “China is interested in read-and-publish-style agreements. Germany and Sweden have refused to sign a deal with Elsevier until they get such an agreement. So the pressure is mounting on Elsevier.”

The Impact of a New Type of Arrangement

It remains to be seen whether the UC system and Elsevier will be able to find any common ground, said Greg Tananbaum, a consultant at SPARC -- an organization that promotes open access and tracks "big deal" cancellations. While reaching an agreement with Elsevier may be tricky, Tananbaum suspects the UC system may have much better luck with nonprofit and learned society publishers.

Tananbaum said that what the UC system is trying to do is unusual. "Historically, libraries have been vocal in their dissatisfaction with the lock-in and spend associated with many forms of the big deal," he said.

“In this instance, UC is not simply bemoaning the status quo; they are working proactively to change it,” said Tananbaum. “This effort is not limited to simply trying to hold the line on pricing. It also seeks to reset the university’s relationship with publishers, promoting a partnership approach to create a glide path to OA.”

Lisa Hinchliffe, professor and coordinator of information literacy services at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said that many institutions would be interested in read-and-publish deals if the terms were favorable to them.

“The concern is that any read-and-publish deal is likely to have a higher price than an institution’s current read deal,” said Hinchliffe. “Given that [article-processing charges] are usually not paid from a central fund, adding this expense to the library’s budget could be a challenge even if the overall cost to the institution declined as expenses were bundled.”

Some libraries, wary of entering into big deals with publishers, may feel that read-and-publish agreements are just a “new version of the big deal,” said Hinchliffe.

She said she would not be surprised to see Elsevier offer some kind of read-and-publish deal “if Elsevier can negotiate favorable terms for Elsevier.”

However, she said it is “unlikely that what is favorable for Elsevier will also be considered favorable to an institution, or consortium of institutions.”