In UC's battle with the world's largest scientific publisher, the future of information is at stake

In UC's battle with the world's largest scientific publisher, the future of information is at stake
Royce Hall at UCLA. Are mounting subscription fees at UC squeezing out other academic spending? (Stephanie Diani / UCLA)

Boiled down to dollars and cents, the battle between the University of California, the nation’s premier producer of academic research, and Reed Elsevier, the world’s leading publisher of academic journals, can seem almost trivial. UC is paying almost $11 million this year for subscriptions to some 1,500 Elsevier journals. That’s not much when measured against the university’s core budget of $9.3 billion.

But in fact it’s a very big deal — big enough for the university to consider dropping the subscriptions entirely when its current five-year contract with Elsevier expires on Dec. 31. Scores of town hall meetings for UC faculty to discuss the ongoing negotiations between UC and Elsevier have been scheduled across the system as the deadline approaches. What faculty are likely to hear, in the words of Jeff MacKie-Mason, the university librarian at UC Berkeley, is that “we’re pretty far apart at this point.”


That’s because more than money is at stake. The key issue separating the university and the publisher is the concept of “open access.” At its core, says Dennis Ventry, a UC Davis law professor who is vice chair of UC’s committee on library and scholarly communication, open access means that “research should be immediately and freely available to the public upon publication, and not behind a [subscription] paywall.” The goal of science, after all, is to disseminate knowledge, not keep it sequestered.

They’re the most powerful publisher in the world and they act like it. They've been unyielding.

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That may sound obvious, but to academic publishers the principle is difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile with their prevailing business model.

Scientific and technical journals today are predominantly subscription-based. Researchers submit papers for publication but aren’t paid if they’re accepted; the prestige of their work appearing in a high-profile journal is assumed to be payment enough, especially since they are judged at their universities by their publication history. Universities subscribe to the journals on terms typically making them available to faculty and students affiliated with their campuses or visitors (generally online).

Under open access, by contrast, authors pay the journals a preparation fee covering the cost of publishing an accepted paper. The authors retain the copyright, under which their research can be made accessible to the public at large. Some journals, including some Elsevier titles, are hybrids, featuring some subscription-only articles and others available to everyone.

“We all agree that open access is a good thing,” says Karen Bales, a psychology professor at UC Davis and chair of the campus Academic Senate research committee. “It increases the visibility of our research, and it’s something the taxpayers deserve.”

It’s not surprising that Holland-based Elsevier and other big academic publishers such as Germany’s Springer and the New Jersey-based John Wiley & Sons have fiercely defended the subscription model. The academic publishing business has been fabulously profitable. In 2017 Elsevier recorded operating income of $1.17 billion on revenue of $3.17 billion from scientific, technical and medical publishing, an enviable operating profit margin of nearly 37%.

“They’re the most powerful publisher in the world, and they act like it,” MacKie-Mason says of Elsevier. In negotiations, “they’ve been unyielding.”

Elsevier and the university have agreed to keep details of their talks under wraps until they conclude. But in general terms, UC wants to move to a so-called publish-and-read contract, in which the preparation fees paid by UC authors for papers to be subject to open access are combined with subscription fees in a single deal, hopefully at a money-saving rate. UC estimates that its authors pay Elsevier about $1 million a year in open-access fees that can reach thousands of dollars per paper.

“Elsevier has not shown any interest in discussing a publish-and-read contract,” MacKie-Mason told me. Instead, the publisher is insisting on a traditional subscription deal. Elsevier has expressed some willingness to test a new open-access fee arrangement as a pilot program, says Ivy Anderson, the associate executive director of UC’s California Digital Library, which is the signatory to the master subscription agreement. But it would be on a small scale and not integrated with the subscription contract. As a result, she says, the proposal wouldn’t advance the university’s goal of “effecting a large-scale transition to open access for the entire UC system.”

What’s irksome about the publishers’ stance is that much of their overhead is shouldered by the same people they charge for subscriptions. The publishers don’t pay authors for papers or peer reviewers for their reviews. The research undergirding the published papers often is wholly or partially funded via public grants — that is, by taxpayers, who must pay again to read the results.

“All Elsevier does really is a little bit of text editing and putting the papers online,” says Ted Bergstrom, a professor of economics at UC Santa Barbara and long-term critic of the publishing industry.

The near-monopolization of academic publishing by for-profit companies began in the 1960s, Bergstrom explains. At that time, most publishing was in the hands of professional societies. But the societies couldn’t keep up with the demand for more specialized journals as their disciplines expanded. The commercial companies stepped in to meet the demand.

“At first they weren’t exploitatively priced,” Bergstrom says. “But the publishers noticed the demand was inelastic and they could get away with selling these things for much higher prices.” Come the internet and the shift from paper to online publication, and it became a simple matter to bundle hundreds of titles together in a single institution-wide contract.

The growing institutional discontent with this model arises partially from changes in the economics of public universities, which are increasingly strapped for money. At UC, support from the state budget has fallen by one-third since 2000-01, accounting for inflation. That has forced the university to rely more on student tuition, which has more than tripled after inflation, and nonresident tuition, which has nearly quintupled. Both factors erode the universities’ fundamental mission to serve California students.


Nevertheless, Elsevier’s contract with UC, which was signed in April 2014, calls for annual rate increases running ahead of inflation. Over the five-year term ending Dec. 31, the subscription rate increased by more than 11% while inflation raised consumer prices by less than 7%.

Open access is expanding in various forms, with nearly 25% of all papers freely available in some form in 2016, compared with fewer than 15% in 2008.
Open access is expanding in various forms, with nearly 25% of all papers freely available in some form in 2016, compared with fewer than 15% in 2008. (Nature)

Elsevier says it’s a believer in open access. “We absolutely support public access to publicly funded research,” Gemma Hersh, its vice president for global policy, told me. But she says the best solution is to integrate open access into the “menu of options” that Elsevier offers its customers. The vast majority of academic papers are still offered via subscriptions, she says, because many customers prefer to pay for access over time rather than upfront via publication fees.


Revenues from the subscription model are still growing by 3% a year on average. Hersh acknowledges that the open access model is growing faster, by 20%, but it’s building on a much smaller base, accounting as yet for only 15% of the research papers published globally.

Yet it isn’t clear that the publishers, powerful as they are, can hold back the tide. Publishers devoted entirely to open access have gained high prestige in the marketplace, including the Public Library of Science, or PLoS, which was founded in 2001 by scientists at Berkeley, Stanford and the National Cancer Institute.

In 2012, investment analyst Claudio Aspesi of Bernstein Research warned that if academic researchers decided that Elsevier’s business model was “hindering the progress of science or their ability to efficiently perform research, the risk of a further escalation in what is already an acrimonious debate would rise substantially.”

In September, a consortium of 11 European research agencies decreed that by 2020 every paper they fund will have to be freely available from the moment of publication, an initiative known as Plan S. The decree means that papers would no longer be able to appear in high-profile journals such as Science and Nature or Elsevier’s Cell and Lancet unless their business models changed drastically. German and Swedish universities have dropped their Elsevier subscriptions to protest the firm’s resistance to full open access.

Open-access advocates believe that UC, if it stands firm, could serve as the standard bearer for American researchers. Certainly no institution is better positioned to play that role. The university boasts that it accounts for nearly 10% of all published research in the United States. It’s also a significant partner of Elsevier, which publishes about 18% of all UC output and collects more than 25% of the university’s $40-million overall subscription budget.

UC policy has been explicitly committed to open access since 2013, when the university’s Academic Senate adopted the policy. UC authors are required to deposit versions of their papers or links in the university’s eScholarship online repository, which currently holds more than 200,000 items available to the public for free. (Compliance by researchers is thought to be spotty as yet, however, in part because there’s no enforcement system.)

No one knows yet how the showdown between UC and Elsevier will play out. Some observers expect that the deadline will be extended so the two sides can continue negotiating, though Elsevier would have the right to shut off access to new journal issues as of Jan. 1. (Access to prior publications already paid for wouldn’t be affected.)

As for the longer time frame, the research community expects the big publishers to stay in business, but perhaps with narrower profit margins and an evolved model more reliant on preparation fees than subscriptions.

Researchers have begun to sense that they may have more leverage against the publishers than they assumed. “As authors, we do have a choice of where we send our articles and invest our time as peer reviewers,” Bales says. “If enough of the publishers’ customers end their subscriptions... they’ll have to change.”