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The publisher Elsevier had a major booth at the 2013 Frankfurt Book Fair in Germany.

The publisher Elsevier had a major booth at the 2013 Frankfurt Book Fair in Germany.

ActualLitte/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In unique deal, Elsevier agrees to make some papers by Dutch authors free

A standoff between Dutch universities and publishing giant Elsevier is finally over. After more than a year of negotiations—and a threat to boycott Elsevier's 2500 journals—a deal has been struck: For no additional charge beyond subscription fees, 30% of research published by Dutch researchers in Elsevier journals will be open access by 2018.

"It's not the 100% that I hoped for," says Gerard Meijer, the president of Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, and the lead negotiator on the Dutch side. "But this is the future. No one can stop this anymore."

The dispute involves a mandate announced in January 2014 by Sander Dekker, state secretary at the Ministry for Education, Culture and Science of the Netherlands.

. It requires that 60% of government-funded research papers should be free to the public by 2019, and 100% by 2024. His argument, one echoed by academics around the world, is that the public has traditionally paid twice for research: once to fund the research and then again to read the results. But for-profit publishing companies like Elsevier have argued that someone has to pay for the cost of the publication, either universities paying for subscriptions, or scientists paying article processing charges to make their papers open access. (Advocates counter that the prices for both are too high considering that most of the editing and all of the reviewing is unpaid work done by academics.)

This isn't the first time researchers have agitated against Elsevier. An unenforced boycott against Elsevier journals has been running for years in the United Kingdom, though with little impact, and some universities have tried to play hardball. The Dutch gambit was different, Meijer says. "For one thing, it helped that Elsevier is based in Amsterdam,” he says. “It would be very bad for them to lose the Dutch scientific community." Meijer admits that the Netherlands is a small fish. "We only publish about 2% of academic papers. But the quality of our papers is above average and we're big enough to be taken seriously."

Unlike larger countries such as the United States, all 14 universities in the Netherlands have a single bundled deal to access Elsevier's subscription journals. Elsevier was forced to make a compromise because "we stood united," Meijer says. "Rather than university librarians, it was the presidents of the universities doing the negotiating," he says. They had the power to pull out of the bundled deal, he notes, and “we played it as hard as we could."

The Dutch proposal was "to convert subscription into open access," Meijer says: The universities would keep paying the bundled subscription deal, but Elsevier would then make papers published by Dutch researchers open access, free for anyone to read.

In the end, they could only get Elsevier to a compromise. In a joint press release that went online yesterday, Elsevier and the Association of Universities in the Netherlands agreed to a 3-year deal. Starting in 2016, 10% of papers that have corresponding authors with a Dutch affiliation will be made open access with no extra charge to the authors or universities. Exactly which Elsevier journals will have this open-access option is yet to be announced, but they will come from the three broad domains of "science, technology, and medicine," Meijer says. "We produce about 6000 Elsevier articles per year. So we chose a certain number of journals from each domain to meet the 10% target." In 2017, the open access target will be 20%, and then 30% in 2018.

"We hope that other countries will get to the same result," Meijer says. Which country will be next to fight? "Austria is a good one," he says. "They are small like us and very organized."

We welcome the agreement as the continued subscription access to a substantial part of the world’s highest-quality, peer-reviewed research is essential to the Netherlands maintaining its position as one of the world’s most impactful research nations," said Philippe Terheggen, Elsevier's managing director of journals.

Dutch researchers seem to be pleased by the compromise. "This is an important step in the right direction," says Anouk Post, a physics Ph.D. student at the Academic Medical Center of the University of Amsterdam. "As a researcher, I want to publish open access, but when renowned journals with high impact factors are not open access this leaves you with a problem. The chance of getting funding for your research increases when you have publications in these renowned journals. You should not have to choose between publishing open access and increasing your chance to get funding. With this type of agreement you will not have to choose."