UC terminates its subscriptions to 2,500 journals in a battle over copyrights and access

Sather Gate on the campus of UC Berkeley. (Ben Margot / Associated Press)

You can think of it as a prizefight in the publishing super-heavyweight class.

In this corner, the University of California, one of the world’s leading sources of scientific and technical research. In that corner, the company formerly known as Reed Elsevier, the world’s leading publisher of academic journals.

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As we’ve reported, the two have been locked in battle during the last year over UC’s contract for subscriptions to 2,500 Elsevier academic journals, including some of the most important publications in the world.

Unless Elsevier demonstrates a sincere willingness and commitment to meet the conditions UC insists on, there’s not much point in talking.


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On Thursday, the university announced the talks had reached an impasse and terminated its Elsevier subscriptions. The move made official a situation that had been percolating since Dec. 31, when UC’s most recent subscription contract with Elsevier expired; the deadline had been extended informally while the two sides continued to talk.

“Despite months of contract negotiations,” the university announced, “Elsevier was unwilling to meet UC’s key goal: securing universal open access to UC research.”

Put simply, the university wants 100% of the papers written by its faculty and students to be made available to all readers, for free, permanently.

In the world of academic publishing, UC’s action is tantamount to a nuclear shot. UC claims to generate nearly 10% of all published research in the United States. The university also has been a significant partner of Elsevier, which has published about 18% of all UC output and collected more than 25% of the university’s $40-million overall subscription budget.

But the open access issue is the reason their battle has drawn the attention of academics all over the world. UC’s goal is a direct challenge to the business model of academic publishing that earns Elsevier more than $1 billion in operating profit per year.

Here’s a brief primer. In the prevailing model of academic publishing, which originated in the 1960s, scientific and technical journals are subscription-based. The journals don’t pay researchers for their papers, since the prestige of their work appearing in a high-profile publication is assumed to be payment enough. University subscriptions make the journals accessible to faculty and students and on-campus visitors.

Subscription prices have been soaring, placing an ever-larger burden on university budgets. “The prices of scientific journals now are so high that not a single university in the U.S. — not the University of California, not Harvard, no institution — can afford to subscribe to them all,” Jeffrey MacKie-Mason, the UC librarian and co-chair of UC’s negotiation team, said in the statement issued Thursday by the university.

That has underscored the basic absurdity of the subscription model. Research often funded by government grants — that is, taxpayers — is provided for free to publishers, who then make it available only to readers paying for a subscription. 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. Taxpayers get soaked coming and going.

For the publishers, this has been an enviably profitable model. Scientific, technical and medical publishing accounted for 34% of revenue at Elsevier’s parent Relx, a Netherlands-based conglomerate formerly known as Reed Elsevier, in 2018 and provided a lush operating profit of $1.25 billion on the journal segment’s revenue of nearly $3.8 billion — a 37% operating margin.

But that system is gradually giving way to the open access model, in which researchers pay publication fees to the journals but retain their copyrights so their work can be read by anyone, without a subscription. Open access advocates say that’s not only a more logical system for research funded by the public, but a much better way of disseminating scientific discovery.

UC has been in the forefront of the open access trend. Its Academic Senate adopted the policy in 2013. 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.

UC saw the renewal talks as a way to force Elsevier, to which the university paid roughly $12 million in subscription and publication fees in 2018, to change its business model.

From the inception, says Ivy Anderson, associate executive director of UC’s California Digital Library and co-chair of its negotiation team, “our goal has been to convert our subscription fees to open access fees — to lower our costs and to change what we’re paying for from subscriptions to open access.”

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Anderson and MacKie-Mason say Elsevier initially was unwilling to change to 100% open access. It would support only the transition of subscription payments to open access fees “in a very modest direction,” Anderson told me.

Elsevier’s final offer would have layered publication fees on top of subscriptions, the UC negotiators say. The offer would have increased UC costs by about $30 million over the three-year term of the contract, they calculated — an 80% increase, assuming that all UC authors moved to open access publication.

Elsevier disputes that. “We don’t recognize that number,” says Gemma Hersh, Elsevier’s vice president for global policy. But she acknowledged that “open access publishing will cost [the university] far more in an open access world than subscribing to content costs them today.”

She added that the university’s asking Elsevier to provide open access publishing for its own authors and the same access to journals it receives today by subscription, while spending less than it pays for subscriptions alone, “is extremely unrealistic.”

Elsevier also observes that a transition to 100% open access for UC authors would be a dramatic change, since only 6% to 7% of UC papers appearing in Elsevier publications today are open access.

The publisher has said all along that it’s willing to accommodate the open access model, but maintains that its popularity among researchers is overstated — many still prefer the subscription model because it suits their financial needs better than open access.

Yet UC is not the only source of pressure for change. A consortium of 11 national funding agencies in Europe last year decreed that, as of 2020, every paper they fund will have to be published on the open access model, a system dubbed “Plan S.”

As for UC, “we are at an impasse in negotiations,” MacKie-Mason says. “Unless Elsevier demonstrates a sincere willingness and commitment to meet the conditions UC insists on, there’s not much point in talking. The ball is in their court at this point to be willing to talk about something that satisfies the university.”

Those conditions included a reduction in overall costs, open access as a default publishing mode for UC researchers, and a contract that integrates payments for reading with payments for publishing.

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The practical effect of the impasse remained murky Friday. Elsevier says it has not yet terminated online access to its publications for UC. If the publisher does take that step, MacKie-Mason acknowledges it “will cause some inconvenience to some faculty and students,” but probably not enough to create pressure to reach a deal.

The university has perpetual rights to about 85% of content published prior to Jan. 1, since that’s already been paid for. When it comes to subsequently published material, MacKie-Mason says, “the main inconvenience will be time.” About half of all content is available for free in some non-Elsevier form via the Google Scholar database. Researchers can email authors to receive papers directly, or ask the UC library to obtain a paper via interlibrary loan.

Scholars in Germany and Sweden, who were shut off from access to Elsevier last July in an open access dispute, are having little trouble finding the works they need. “The university libraries are not experiencing any significant pressure to cave in to Elsevier,” MacKie-Mason told me.

“We do hope someday to reach an agreement with Elsevier,” MacKie-Mason says. “We very much would like to see them join us as partners in helping to transform the industry, and act as leaders rather than followers.”

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