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Tag Archives: Elsevier

University of California v. Elsevier: Why It Matters to Virginia

Note: This is the first in a series of Open@VT blogposts that will appear over the ensuing months focusing on Virginia Tech’s “Big Deal” contracts with commercial journal publishers. As the University Libraries’ contracts with Elsevier, Springer, and Wiley come up for renewal in 2-3 years, we will have to decide whether to renew or cancel these contracts. We look forward to engaging the VT community in a conversation about the best path forward.

Image of dominoes falling

Dominoes falling (Photo by aussigall. CC BY 2.0)

On February 28 the University of California announced that it was terminating all of its journal subscriptions with the scholarly publishing giant Elsevier. The news sent shock waves throughout the world of higher education—not just in America but globally. Why? Because Elsevier is the world’s largest publisher of scientific research and the University of California (UC), with its ten-campus system, is one of its largest customers. The impact on Elsevier was immediate: its parent company, RELX, saw its stock drop nearly 7 percent in the aftermath of the UC announcement—and its value still has not yet recovered.

In Virginia we are paying special attention to the situation because our own research universities, including Virginia Tech, have a similar journal subscription agreement with Elsevier that is set to expire in two short years. Millions of dollars are at stake in Virginia. Globally it is in the billions.

What’s the Problem?

At the heart of UC’s dispute with Elsevier is what is known as the “big deal.” A big deal is a contract between an institution (often a university library but sometimes a business or government) and a publisher to purchase access to a large bundle of the publisher’s journals. Think of cable TV bundles in which customers get hundreds of channels at a lower per-channel rate. Many of the channels, however, go unwatched, all while customers’ bills continue to rise. The same is true with big deals. Elsevier publishes more than 2,500 journals. Many are invaluable to their fields and frequently used and cited. Many, however, are used infrequently, and yet libraries still have to buy them as part of the bundle. All the while, the price of the bundle goes up and up. Over the last thirty years library journal budgets have risen by a staggering 500 percent (see chart), which inevitably leads to cuts in other areas of library budgets. UC was paying Elsevier more than $10 million per year for its big deal. Altogether, the publisher’s revenue in 2018 surpassed $3 billion and its profits exceeded $1 billion, resulting in a gaudy profit margin of 37 percent.

Universities are understandably tired of big deals. Not only have big deals meant runaway prices, they also perpetuate an outdated business model from a time when subscriptions were an efficient way to pay for the cost of printing and distributing journals. Today subscriptions are inefficient for the simple reason that journals can be published online for immediate access. Publishers like Elsevier, however, have an interest in keeping the old system alive. This is why they continue to invest in expensive publishing platforms that restrict access to only the wealthiest institutions. There must be a better way.

The solution proposed by the University of California is to do away with the big deal concept and replace it with what is known as a “read and publish” agreement. A read and publish agreement (RAP) is a single integrated contract that enables a library to pay a one-time, up-front charge for the right to read all of a publisher’s content and to publish in any of that publisher’s journals under an open access model. The first RAP agreement in North America was announced last year, between the MIT Libraries and the Royal Society of Chemistry. Ultimately, the goal of RAP agreements is to transition scholarly publishing to a universal access model.

Momentum Is Building

UC is by no means the first university to stand up to Elsevier, but UC has special clout because of the sheer size and research output of its ten-campus system, which accounts for nearly 10 percent of the nation’s research publications. Meanwhile, governments and national research funders are increasingly demanding open access to their researchers’ articles, even imposing concrete deadlines. Sweden’s government is calling for OA by 2026. Norway’s goal is 2024. The initiative known as Plan S is even more ambitious. Originating in Europe, Plan S calls for all publicly funded research to be published in open access journals by 2020. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was the first North American foundation to sign on to Plan S.

As more universities and governments push for open access, the more it seems that Elsevier is destined to lose this battle. But this does not mean that it will lose the war. Elsevier is shrewd enough to adapt to (and even shape) whatever new business model emerges around open access publishing. Perhaps anticipating this change in business model, Elsevier has skillfully and steadily turned itself into one of the world’s largest publishers of open access as well as toll-access journals. It has also been diversifying its business portfolio to the point that it no longer even refers to itself as a publisher but as a “global information analytics business.” In other words, Elsevier is not going away anytime soon.

Implications for Virginia

Virginia will soon be in UC’s shoes. In 2004 seven Virginia research universities including Virginia Tech negotiated a big deal agreement with Elsevier. (The other schools are George Mason University, James Madison University, Old Dominion University, University of Virginia, Virginia Commonwealth University, and College of William and Mary.) The number of journals in that big deal was 1,800 and the total cost to the seven universities was $27 million over five years. The license has been renegotiated several times since then, and we are now in the third year of a five-year contract covering 2,278 journals at a total cost of $46 million. This contract will expire at the end of 2021.

Not surprisingly, these universities are already looking ahead to 2021 and considering the possibility of walking away from Elsevier big deal as UC has done. (See, for instance, the University of Virginia.)

Here at Virginia Tech, the University Libraries, under Tyler Walters’s leadership, will be engaging the campus community in an ongoing conversation about how Virginia Tech can confront this scholarly publishing crisis. On this, we sincerely want your feedback. Please watch for Library-sponsored events that provide a forum for discussion. In the meantime, feel free to reach out to our librarians and engage them in conversations. Or let us know what you think by replying to this blog post or to future Open@VT blog posts. You can also find up-to-date information at the Library’s Open Access-Open Knowledge website.

 

Worth Reading: Elsevier Costs, Funding OA, Peer Review Platforms, A Publishing Story

Last week Tim Gowers wrote an extensive post on the cost of Elsevier journals that begins to create some transparency in this market. Much of the data so far is from UK universities, but cost data from U.S. universities (including other publishers) should be available soon from Ted Bergstrom’s Big Deal Contract Project.

Providing adequate funding for open access platforms and innovations is becoming an increasingly hot topic, and two excellent posts with different perspectives have recently appeared. Stuart Shieber’s Public Underwriting of Research and Open Access offers a convincing case for open access to research that reminded me of John Willinsky’s keynote address during Virginia Tech’s Open Access Week. Counting up the ways that research is subsidized results in a truly stunning number, and Shieber makes a solid argument for public funding. Cameron Neylon, on the other hand, notes that much of the innovation in scholarly communication comes from the for-profit sector, yet non-profit status is needed to to retain control and prevent diverging interests. So how should we go about funding innovation in scholarly communication? Perhaps OA projects could benefit from socially responsible investing?

One innovation in need of funding is open peer review platforms like LIBRE, which just announced that it is in beta testing. While I like the diversity of opinion that open review makes possible, I think there still may be a role for anonymity, and I’m also skeptical of the invite-your-own-reviewers model. Although it has been around for a while, I only recently discovered a community-edited Google document of standalone peer review platforms, and was surprised by how many there are. I think it would be great if one day I could upload a paper to VTechWorks, have it openly reviewed, and then submit it in my tenure and promotion dossier as a peer-reviewed paper. Then evaluation would have to focus on article quality rather than journal prestige or impact factor.

So few accounts of the publishing process appear that one in my own field of library and information science is definitely worth mention. Catherine Pellegrino’s Walking the walk may be trickier than it first appears: An open access publishing story relates her assessment of publishing venues while feeling the stress of needing to publish. This OA-conscious assessment, and her negotiation to retain copyright, serves as a worthy model for librarians (and non-librarians).

Beyond Elsevier

Elsevier has been sending takedown notices to any site hosting the final PDF version of its journal articles. The takedowns first became apparent on Academia.edu. Mike Taylor was one of the first to blog about it, takedown recipient Guy Leonard blogged about it, and there’s a link roundup on Confessions of a Science Librarian. Later it became clear that the takedown notices were more wide-ranging, going to hosting services like WordPress as well as universities. The blowback was enough to prompt a response from Elsevier.

Elsevier can send takedown notices since it owns the articles in its journals. It owns the articles because authors who publish in Elsevier journals sign away their copyright before publication. The license agreement allows for archiving of the author’s version, but not the journal’s published PDF. Authors should avoid posting the published version of their articles as a general rule, though a few publishers do allow it.

Here are my suggestions for avoiding this problem:

  • Publish in an open access journal (see the Directory of Open Access Journals for a list by discipline). Many require only a license to publish, rather than a copyright transfer, and use a Creative Commons license.
  • If you can’t publish in an open access journal, check a journal’s archiving policy in advance by searching it in SHERPA/RoMEO.
  • Read the fine print regardless of where you are publishing. This is not like a software license where everyone just clicks “I Agree.” This is your work, so read licenses carefully. Copyright transfer gives complete ownership to the publisher, and your rights are limited to those listed in the license agreement.
  • Archive your post-print if possible, since it is your final version incorporating changes from the peer review process. If not allowed, post the pre-print. Archive in a repository where your article is immediately accessible, such as VTechWorks. Research networking sites require membership (Academia.edu) and/or software download (Mendeley) that are barriers to immediate access.
  • Make your archived version easy to read and reuse. If double spaced, revert to single spaced, and insert tables and figures in the appropriate places. Consider archiving your data as well so your work can be replicated and incorporated into larger studies. Attach a Creative Commons license to make it clear you are explicitly allowing reuse. [Update: if you transferred copyright you likely cannot assign a CC license- see discussions by Kevin Smith, Michael Carroll, and Charles Oppenheim.]
  • If you have co-authors, come to agreement early on publishing venues and archiving so you don’t get locked into a result you don’t like. Remember that typically one author signs for all authors, so that person must understand group wishes.
  • Learn about and download the author addendum which allows you to reserve rights, or use the addendum engine.

Above I briefly touch upon the fact that research networking sites do not provide open access, which is an aspect of this controversy I haven’t seen mentioned. By coincidence, at the time this became news I was searching for articles about DSpace and linked data and I found this article on Academia.edu. If you take a look, you’ll see that this article isn’t downloadable or printable without becoming a member of Academia.edu. All you can do is try to read the small print. Which, in my case, was enough to make me realize that I didn’t need it. But what if I did? This article isn’t available anywhere else.

Academia.edu added gasoline to the fire by taking such a combative (and calculated) attitude toward Elsevier in its own notice to users, linking to the Cost of Knowledge boycott and extolling its own support for open access (“Academia.edu is committed to enabling the transition to a world where there is open access to academic literature. Elsevier takes a different view…”). The e-mail signature of Richard Price, the CEO of Academia.edu, says “The goal of Academia.edu is to get every science PDF ever written on the internet, accessible for free.” I’m sure that would be good for Academia.edu, which is a for-profit business with an absurd domain name. Your participation on research networking sites will be monetized one way or another. If your article is available only on a research networking site, like the author above, do you want your work being used to attract members to a for-profit endeavor? Pro-open access statements by such companies should be considered with healthy skepticism, and in some cases they are just plain openwashing.

Most importantly, Academia.edu, ResearchGate, Mendeley (now owned by Elsevier) and others do not provide open access. Sign-up should not be required for access. Software download, in the case of Mendeley, should not be required for access. These services do not meet the definition of open access established by the Budapest Open Access Initiative:

By “open access” to [peer-reviewed research literature], we mean its free availability on the public internet, permitting any users to read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full texts of these articles, crawl them for indexing, pass them as data to software, or use them for any other lawful purpose, without financial, legal, or technical barriers other than those inseparable from gaining access to the internet itself.

The point of this is not to be rigidly ideological for its own sake. It’s important to know what the term “open access” really means, otherwise it will get co-opted for private uses. If you choose to use a research networking service, please make sure you also provide a copy of your article to an institutional or disciplinary repository where it can be found and downloaded on the open internet.

Worth Reading: Easy Steps, Hybrid OA, Elsevier, Jack Andraka

Ross Mounce puts almost everything you need to know in one place with his post Easy Steps Towards Open Scholarship.

I’ve thought from the start that paying to have a single article open access in an otherwise paywalled subscription journal was a bad idea, and the many problems of hybrid open access are detailed nicely by Mike Taylor.

Timothy Gowers- who began the petition against Elsevier called The Cost of Knowledge – posts the resignation of an Elsevier editorial board member. In short, nothing has changed at Elsevier, except that they are now paying editors.

In the “worth viewing” category, the Right to Research Coalition, a student group advocating open access, posts a video conversation between Jack Andraka, 16-year old cancer researcher, and Francis Collins, head of the NIH.

Worth Reading This Week

One of the hottest topics in higher education recently is the MOOC, or massive open online course. MOOCs are a bit of a problem for libraries, since the majority of the content we offer is licensed (at a pretty steep price) and under the copyright of the publisher. At Duke a professor teaching a MOOC couldn’t get permission to use his own articles in the class. Fortunately the journals allowed archiving, and the professor still had his final versions, which were uploaded to the repository, as Kevin Smith writes. There are a couple of things worth noting. First, as Kevin notes, MOOCs provide an incentive for faculty to archive their work. Second, this is a licensing issue. Rather than depend on journal archiving policies, faculty will need to be more active in retaining copyright and publishing under CC licenses.

Last week’s big news about the purchase of Mendeley by Elsevier has resulted in some introspection about the role of for-profit entities in open endeavors. First, John Wilbanks writes that the key is the extent to which “open” is baked into the business model. If it is central to making a profit, fine. But if it can be discarded, it will be. Second, a post by Cameron Neylon takes a different approach by focusing on how nonprofits can take on larger roles- let’s have nonprofit startups, let’s have nonprofits buy out for-profit startups. How do we get there?

I think we need to do more in higher education to shift from commercial to non-commercial providers, because our values simply aren’t being served. Perhaps for journal publishing it would be helpful to have a list of journals published by commercial vs. non-commercial entities. The cost of journals (or their bundles) by commercial publishers is several times higher than for non-commercial publishers, as Stuart Sheiber notes. Maybe if that information was easier to obtain, and the reasons for supporting non-commercial publishers were more explicit, that would help shift perceptions of preferred journals to publish in.