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Patrons of the library at the University of California, Berkeley, will no longer have easy access to journals from the publisher Elsevier.


University of California boycotts publishing giant Elsevier over journal costs and open access

The mammoth University of California (UC) system announced today it will stop paying to subscribe to journals published by Elsevier, the world’s largest scientific publisher, headquartered in Amsterdam. Talks to renew a collective contract broke down, the university said, because Elsevier refused to strike a package deal that would provide a break on subscription fees and make all articles published by UC authors immediately free for readers worldwide.

The stand by UC, which followed 8 months of negotiations, could have significant impacts on scientific communication and the direction of the so-called open-access movement, in the United States and beyond. The 10-campus system accounts for nearly 10% of all U.S. publishing output and is among the first U.S. institutions, and by far the largest, to boycott Elsevier over costs. Many administrators and librarians at U.S. universities and elsewhere have complained about what they view as excessively high journal subscription fees charged by commercial publishers.

“It’s hard to overstate how big [UC’s move] is for us here in the U.S.,” says Heather Joseph, executive director of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, a Washington, D.C.–based group that advocates for open access. “This gives institutions that are on the fence about taking this kind of action a blueprint.”

Indeed, UC’s move could ratchet up pressure on additional negotiations facing Elsevier and other commercial publishers; consortia of universities and labs in Germany and Sweden had already reached an impasse last year with Elsevier in their efforts to lower subscription fees.

UC and Elsevier blamed each other for the breakdown. The university was looking for a contract in which it paid one fee that covered both subscriptions and the article processing costs (APCs) that make individual papers available on an open-access basis, says Ivy Anderson, associate executive director of UC’s California Digital Library in Oakland and co-chair of the system’s Publisher Negotiation Task Force. Elsevier has been charging both the subscription and APCs, which Anderson calls a form of “double-dipping” for the same content. UC wanted a deal to lower subscription costs accordingly—a so-called read and publish deal, she tells ScienceInsider.

Jeff MacKie-Mason, who heads UC Berkeley’s library and is also co-chair of the negotiation task force, says Elsevier just didn’t move far enough to UC’s position. The publisher’s final offer “was closer to what we wanted in terms of open access” but nevertheless included a price increase, he says.

Elsevier is hoping to keep negotiating. Tom Reller, vice president for communications, issued a statement that the company’s offer “provides a clear path allowing every researcher to choose to publish for free or open access and provides a scaled path to reduce the costs for each campus library.” The proposal also provided UC students and researchers access to all journal articles published by Elsevier, he noted. “We hope we can bridge this divide with them soon,” Reller said.

UC published about 50,000 articles last year, and a substantial share, about 10,000, appeared in Elsevier journals. For subscriptions and article fees, UC paid about $11 million, the Los Angeles Times reported recently. (UC says the information is confidential under a nondisclosure agreement.)

The UC negotiators’ stances reflected firm support from UC President Janet Napolitano and the university’s Faculty Senate. Together, the system has been on record since 2012 as siding with open-access advocates in Europe and elsewhere, who argue that free access to scientific articles is essential to speed scientific discovery and is justified given that much of the published research was developed with taxpayer funding. However, publishers have said that a sudden flip to a new business model, in which all articles are published open access through author fees, could drive them out of business because revenues per article from subscriptions are higher.

MacKie-Mason said he and his UC colleagues have been talking with other institutions about how to transform scientific publishing to favor open access. “We see this as an opportunity to help push forward a movement that’s gaining momentum globally,” Anderson adds. “We’re trying to develop a model that can work in North America,” where academic libraries and their decisions about journal subscriptions are less centralized than they are in Europe.

For now, UC will have to find other ways to access Elsevier publications, which include Cell and other journals that are among the world’s most selective. UC has said its libraries are prepared to provide UC readers “alternative means of access” at no cost for new articles published by Elsevier and those in a subset of Elsevier journals for which UC lacks permanent access, “as they do for any other content that we don’t currently license.”

UC also noted that some of Elsevier’s newer content is already freely available through open-access publishing, open-access repositories, interlibrary loans, and “other legitimate forms of scholarly sharing.”