Publishing giant Elsevier has signed a national license deal with Couperin, France’s consortium of universities and research organizations, but critics say it doesn’t do enough to advance open access (OA) to scientific journal articles. Its terms are at odds with Plan S, a mandate to make publications immediately free to read starting in 2021, which France’s National Research Agency has backed.
The 4-year agreement includes a discount on subscription costs, bringing them down to 2009 levels by the end of 2022, Couperin announced last month. The French government says the agreement, which is retroactive to January, will save €1.5 million this year. The deal does not provide that all articles be published OA immediately; instead, it includes a 25% rebate on charges that researchers pay if they elect to publish individual articles OA. “For the first time, there is a decrease of expenditure, and it is a significant one,” says a spokesperson for France’s research ministry.
But critics take issue with how the agreement handles papers for which researchers don’t pay the OA fee. The agreement says these papers would become free to read, hosted on Elsevier’s servers 1 year after publishing. This is longer than the 6-month delay defined in a 2016 French law. The French government says the deal does not break the law, which gives authors the right to make their papers freely available in an online archive after 6 months but does not force publishers to do so.
However, any delay is incompatible with the future zero-wait rules of France’s National Research Agency under Plan S. The agency did not respond to Science’s request for comment, and the group of funders behind Plan S declined to comment on the French deal. But Robert-Jan Smits, one of the plan’s original architects, who is now president of the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands, says it is a “real pity” that the agreement does not comply with Plan S.
Other critics say the deal is a missed opportunity to speed up the transition to OA. France’s math society said the deal has problems—among them, that it encourages “hybrid” journals, which charge both readers to access articles and authors to publish OA papers; Plan S is cracking down on such publishing models. The French Society of Physics also points out that other countries have taken a harder line in negotiations with publishers. Instead of mere discounts, institutions in Germany and Norway have signed or are seeking so-called “transformative agreements” that eliminate hybrid spending and use former subscription fees to cover both reading and OA publishing; the University of California system is doing the same.
“I view [the French deal] as a positive baby step towards a wider transition,” says Colleen Campbell, director of the Open Access 2020 initiative at the Max Planck Digital Library in Munich, Germany, which promotes this “transformative” approach.
The French government says two-thirds of the Elsevier savings will go to a “national open science fund” that will soon make €2.6 million available for OA publishing projects. According to France’s Open Science Barometer, Elsevier journals published about 30% of the country’s science papers in 2017, more than any other publisher. Of those articles, about 20% were freely available, whereas the country’s overall average was about 40% OA.