It was a long and difficult road to get the major publishing houses to open up to open access, but in the end the Dutch universities got their much awaited ‘gold deal’ for open access. A recently revealed contract between Elsevier and the Dutch research institutes lays bare the retardant tactics the publishing giant employs to stifle the growth of open access.
The traditionally Dutch Elsevier was playing a home game, but that didn’t save it from getting entangled in a series of difficult negotiations with the Dutch universities over the course of 2014 and 2015. The ministry of Education, Science and Culture, backing up ‘The Consortium’ negotiating on behalf of the Dutch universities, called for all research articles funded with public money to be made publicly available. The publishers were not having it. At the end of 2014 negotiations ended in what the chair of the The Consortium called ‘a stalemate’ and a boycott of Elsevier was looming.
The boycott threat was effective. Elsevier budged and at the close of 2015 The Consortium and Elsevier reached their ‘Gold deal’ for open access. But how golden is this deal? What is gained and at what cost?
But how golden is this open access deal? What is gained and at what cost?
This was the question asked by Dutch librarian, and previous member of the negotiating team on behalf of The Consortium, Leo Waaijers. He filed a freedom of information request with the Dutch universities to open up their contracts to reveal the open access and financial paragraphs. The universities were willing to do so but Elsevier and Springer, the two major publishing houses, objected to publication with the appeals committee.
So much for the history.
This week the appeals committee held its sessions, hearing arguments from the universities and the publishers. That very day the contract of Elsevier was leaked to our website ScienceGuide. This article is about what is in this contract and how it might affect the rise of open access, both in The Netherlands and abroad.
In essence The Consortium and Elsevier came to an agreement to raise the price of subscription in return for a set number of open access publications.
An increase of 2,5% and 2.0% of the subscription fees in 2017 and 2018 respectively, grants the Dutch universities a yearly 600, 1200 and 1800 open access articles in 2016 through 2018. Starting from a combined fee (all institutes together) of € 11,697,147.38 per year in 2016 this means a net increase of € 836,638.45 to publish a maximum of 3600 articles with Elsevier.
The open access ‘pilot’ comes with major restrictions on who can publish where.
A mere € 232.40 per open access article might seem like a fairly good price for an open access article, but there is more. The ‘pilot’ comes with major restrictions on who can publish where.
The first requirement is that the corresponding author, typically the first or last author on a paper, should be affiliated with a Dutch institute. A fair requirement perhaps, for this is a Dutch deal, but not very open minded for a multinational such as Elsevier. Also this restriction is anything but accommodating for researchers working in international partnerships.
The second devil is in the seemingly long list of details: the journal titles eligible for open access. Each consecutive year Elsevier adds another 133 titles to the list of journals in which the Dutch institute affiliates can publish their work open access, free of charge. This results in roughly 20% of Elseviers 2000+ journal titles eligible in 2018.
A closer inspection of the long list of eligible journals reveals obscure titles such as: Clinical Genitourinary Cancer, Internal Journal of Coal Geology and Ticks and Tick-borne diseases, and even German and Polish journals. Said journals have an h-index of 34, ‘unknown’ and 22 (for reference, Elsevier’s flagships Cell and The Lancet have 616 and 600 respectively). Also, a lot of the journals selected already publish some articles under open access rules, at a price of course.
A closer inspection of the long list of eligible journals reveals obscure titles such as: Clinical Genitourinary Cancer, Internal Journal of Coal Geology and Ticks and Tick-borne diseases.
According to the website www.openaccess.nl a total of 382 open access articles were published with Elsevier under the ‘pilot’ deal in 2016, that is 64% of the maximum. The remaining 218 papers are carried to the next year but after the three year contract all remaining rights are waived.
And this brings us to the interpretation part. What is Elsevier up to and what is the future the publisher sees for open access?
If open access is to succeed it is no exaggeration to assume this would require a major, and international, shift in the culture of publishing. Some have therefore even argued that because of the nature of the publishing industry, the major houses can never be part of a solution. Their inherent interest is not the dissemination of information, it is profit. However, many researchers, for a myriad of reasons, still want their work to be published in high-impact journals and care deeply about their citation scores.
Elsevier knows this, and knows that for the time being it controls the keys to this gate. As with fossil fuels the parties controlling the resources will do everything in their power to draw every last drop of revenue from the old system before making the shift to a new system. This is essentially what Elsevier is doing with this so called ‘pilot’ for open access: giving in just enough to prevent any major alteration to the status quo.
As with fossil fuels the parties controlling the resources will do everything in their power to draw every last drop of revenue from the old system before making the shift to a new system.
Right now the same uphill battle for open access is fought in many other countries such as Finland, Germany and in the European Union in general. The recent publication of the Dutch contracts might change the conversation there, making parties reconsider whether the way forward for open access is with Elsevier and its competitors at all. At least we now have a glimpse of what a major publisher like Elsevier is willing to concede — not much.