In Talks With Elsevier, UCLA Reaches for a Novel Bargaining Chip: Its Faculty

U. of California at Los Angeles
At the U. of California at Los Angeles, administrators have encouraged professors to effectively boycott the publishing giant as the university system negotiates a new contract for access to the company’s journals.
The University of California at Los Angeles has turned to an unusual bit of leverage as its system negotiates with Elsevier, the academic-publishing giant: its own faculty’s research.

In a letter on Tuesday, campus officials asked faculty members to consider declining to review articles for Elsevier journals until contract negotiations “are clearly moving in a productive direction.” The letter also asked professors to consider publishing research elsewhere, including in prestigious open-access journals.

The university system has said it wants to reach an agreement that would be less expensive and would simplify open-access publishing. But time for negotiations is running out: The contract expires on December 31.

“The only thing that the publishers have is the content authors give to them,” said Jeffrey K. MacKie-Mason, university librarian at the University of California at Berkeley and a professor of economics and information, who is helping to lead the negotiations. “What they’re selling is access to research. If they don’t have the research, they have nothing to sell.”

The UC system’s five-year contract with Elsevier costs the system about $50 million. The contract allows students, faculty and staff members, and researchers to view the enormous trove of articles that Elsevier publishes. In 2017, the most recent year for which information is available, Elsevier published more than 430,000 articles in some 2,500 journals, according to the company.

But to its critics, the company has long epitomized the faults of a profitable industry that relies on unpaid labor in peer review and editorial management while charging ever-rising fees. (The company argues that the value of a subscription rises annually because the volume of content is increasing, and published articles are cited more frequently externally.)

The letter — from UCLA’s provost, Scott L. Waugh, as well as the chair of the Academic Senate and the university librarian — calls the current situation “unsustainable for the UC system.” A UCLA spokesman said Waugh was unavailable for an interview.

The unusual letter may prove fraught among some of its recipients. While the library and the provost’s office deal with the direct costs of working with Elsevier, faculty members “are likely to have a much more nuanced relationship” with the company, said Rick Anderson, associate dean for collections and scholarly communication at the University of Utah’s Marriott Library. (Anderson recently joined a library advisory board set up by Elsevier; while he does not receive a stipend, his travel to board meetings has been paid for by the company.)

“These are absolutely, centrally important journals in their discipline — not because they’re published by Elsevier but because those journals have a long history of publishing some of the best science,” he said. “That matters to faculty members.”

This is the first time to his knowledge, he said, that a campus administration has encouraged faculty members to boycott a specific publisher.

MacKie-Mason disputed that characterization, calling this a faculty-led effort and adding that there has been at least one other boycott of Elsevier initiated by UC faculty members. Fifteen years ago, they sought a worldwide boycott of six Elsevier-published journals over the cost of access, according to news coverage at the time.

Moving Toward Open Access

Neither the university system nor the company would comment on the specifics of negotiations. Broadly, UC wants one contract that would cover subscription charges and open-access publishing fees, MacKie-Mason said. He said universal, immediate open-access publication for all UC research is also a goal.

UC also hopes to bring down the price of scholarly communications in cases where company profits far exceed the cost of publishing. “We can’t afford it, and we shouldn’t have to,” MacKie-Mason said. “This is publicly funded research.”

About a quarter of what UC spends on journals goes to Elsevier, according to a letter from the University of California at San Francisco library and the Academic Senate.

Elsevier said in a letter to University of California at Davis faculty editors that UC “wants to pay towards its authors publishing OA [open access] for the world to read freely but only pay a nominal amount to access the world’s subscribed content.”

That is hard to reconcile, the letter said, in a publishing landscape that mixes subscription and open-access publishing.

Gemma Hersh, Elsevier’s vice president for global policy, said the company wants to resolve the negotiations, adding that no fixed contract works for all universities, particularly regarding open-access standards. “What we’re observing,” she said, “is that globally our customers have different preferences.”

‘Front and Center’

A fully adopted boycott would probably have consequences, Utah’s Anderson said, although he expected that they would be minor. Perhaps more significant, he said, would be if other universities in the California system made similar suggestions.

MacKie-Mason said there is a “reasonable chance” that the boycott could expand to elsewhere in the system.

Reaction to the university’s letter on social media by faculty members inside and outside the UC system skewed positive, with professors praising UCLA for using its clout to promote open access and to disrupt publishing as an industry.

Some, however, expressed concern about the impact on junior faculty members, who must publish to advance their careers. Elsevier’s journals signal prestige in the academic job market.

Jimi Adams, an associate professor of health and behavioral sciences at the University of Colorado at Denver, wrote in an email that many existing journals have an established brand, community, and track record — all helpful markers for junior scholars in the tenure process.

“That’s especially true for top specialty journals where people outside your area might have to rely more on those signals when they don’t have the expertise to evaluate others’ work outside their own area,” he wrote. “While I’m very in support of developing new avenues of open-access publishing, they aren’t a panacea.”

MacKie-Mason said he did not expect junior faculty members to fear retaliation if they chose not to boycott. “Faculty are given great latitude to pursue their research and the communication of it,” he said.

On the UCLA campus, faculty members are sympathetic to the university’s effort to reduce expenses, particularly in a moment of scrutiny over college costs, said Edward Walker, a professor, vice chair, and director of graduate studies in the department of sociology.

The university’s letter, he said, had put the issue “front and center” for professors.

MacKie-Mason, the UC negotiator, said he hoped that if negotiations continued in good faith past the December 31 deadline, the university’s access to Elsevier’s journals would continue.

Lindsay Ellis is a staff reporter. Follow her on Twitter @lindsayaellis, or email her at