At the end of February, the University of California (UC) system announced that it had ended a long period of negotiations with Elsevier. Those negotiations had been undertaken as the system’s collective agreement for access to Elsevier’s complete list of scholarly journals (a.k.a. the “Big Deal”) was coming to an end, an inflection point at which UC hoped to create a completely new kind of agreement with the publisher. The close of those negotiations leaves UC without a deal, though not yet — as we shall see below — without access. Jeff MacKie-Mason, University Librarian and Professor of Information and Economics at UC Berkeley, graciously agreed to answer a few questions for Scholarly Kitchen readers about the background of UC’s decision and its plans and expectations going forward.
Can you give our readers a very quick summary of what you were asking for from Elsevier?
From the start of our negotiation with Elsevier in July 2018, we publicly stated our two goals:
- An integrated agreement that covered access to Elsevier journals as well as default open access publishing for all UC corresponding-authored articles in Elsevier journals. That is, a “publish-and-read” or “offsetting” agreement.
- An overall cost reduction commensurate with the value that we believe Elsevier journals offer.
For more detail, we are making every effort to be transparent, and we have posted a public summary of what we and Elsevier offered each other.
Why do you think they finally weren’t willing to agree? Were you surprised?
Of course, I can only hypothesize why they didn’t agree to our requirements for a contract. But since their offer (summarized in the document linked above) came close in several regards to what we proposed, with the main difference being price, that appears to be the sticking point. Elsevier sees open access publishing as a second source of revenue – they keep referring to it as a separate, second “service”, and that they should be paid for both services (reading via subscriptions, and open access publishing via article processing charges [APCs]). So, they want a lot more money to publish our articles open access. We keep pointing out that historically they provided both publishing and reading for a single charge (publishing was free, and we paid subscriptions to read), and that we’re simply proposing reversing that (we’ll pay for publishing, let us read for free), but they say they want to be paid for both.
Were we surprised? Not really: in our experience (and the experience of many others!) Elsevier has been intransigent on this issue in the past. We hoped that it realized that times were changing, and that they might be ready to move forward, and so we engaged in good faith, very frank and energetic negotiations for eight months before giving up.
At any point, did you consider just negotiating for a price reduction instead of for a change in access/publishing model?
No. We set out both goals from the beginning and we never wavered.
Since the announcement of your Big Deal cancellation, there have been strong public statements of support from UC’s President and Academic Senate. Can you also tell us how you went about consulting with rank-and-file faculty before the decision to cease negotiation with Elsevier, and how they’ve responded since the announcement?
Good librarians are always communicating with faculty (not just elected representatives); for us, that communication has included open access for some time. And the communication has been two-way: it was the faculty who wrote and passed the first UC open access policy, in 2013, and the faculty have been leading activists on this front for well over a decade. (Yes, formally the policy was passed by the Academic Senate, but in UC the faculty senate is very powerful and is very highly regarded by faculty in general, and so there is a lot of engagement and communication throughout the ranks: the senate is not just a puppet debating society operating on its own!)
When we, together with the Senate committee on libraries (UCOLASC) and the UC Provost’s library advisory committee (SLASIAC) collectively decided in winter 2018 to change the way we negotiate with journal publishers, we began an extensive two-way consultation operation to engage faculty. On all 10 UC campuses we – librarians and faculty – held open town halls, met with the library committees, sent out open letters to all faculty and graduate students, published web pages describing what we were doing, and informed our departmental liaison librarians who then reached out to their particular faculties.
Reaction generally has been strongly positive: UC faculty care about open access, and they understand the very high and increasing prices that for-profit publishers have been charging, which have been cutting our ability to spend on other scholarly resources.
What’s the timeframe for enacting the cancellation decision? Will it leave any UC campuses with current access to any Elsevier journals?
We did not renew our contract, which ended 31 December 2018; since then we’ve had no legal right to access, via Elsevier’s website, its new (2019) publications and a small amount (by usage) of historical content (we have perpetual access rights to most historical content). However, as of this writing at the end of April, Elsevier has not yet turned off direct access.
When the cutoff occurs, no UC campuses will have access to current issues of any Elsevier journals: we had a single collective “Big Deal” license, and we are not entering licenses for individual titles.
What are the UC Libraries’ plans for the $11 million that will be freed up by the dissolution of the Elsevier deal? (And has the university administration committed to letting you keep that money for other uses?)
That we suddenly have $11 million of spendable money on our hands is a myth that’s been floating around; I’m happy to try (again) to squash it. It’s just too early to tell, for a few reasons. First, our scholars (faculty and students) will still want to read many articles published by Elsevier. We are prepared to help them obtain alternative, legal access. That will require extra staff effort, and in some cases, extra spend (for document delivery). Thus we will need some of the funds to pay for alternative access, but we’re not sure yet how much. The second important unknown is what the future holds for our relationship with Elsevier. Elsevier has made clear to us (and in public statements) that it still hopes we can reach an agreement, and we are open to that, as long as the agreement satisfies our goals. Thus, at some point we may resume negotiations and eventually reach an agreement. If so, such an agreement might include payment for perpetual access to articles published during the time we were out of contract, so we need to reserve some of the $11 million for that purpose as well.
Should we never return to a Big Deal contract with Elsevier, there will undoubtedly besome savings (though alternative access will always require some amount of funding). As to that, the funds come from each of the 10 campuses and the California Digital Library separately, and each will have to decide what to do with any savings. But speaking for my campus (Berkeley), and noting that 8 of the 10 campuses have signed the OA2020 Expression of Interest, we have committed to “converting resources currently spent on journal subscriptions into funds to support sustainable open access business models.”
What do you estimate will be the cost of providing alternative access to the Elsevier content to which you no longer have licensed access?
As I mentioned above, since direct access via Elsevier’s website has not yet been terminated, we don’t have hard data for this. We have internal estimates, but we’d rather not share our forecasts before we have data. We do plan to measure costs, and as with all of our work on open access and journal negotiations, we plan to share what we learn publicly.
Do you expect UC faculty and researchers to stop editing, reviewing for, and submitting articles to Elsevier journals?
That is up to them. The libraries are not taking any position on what engagement faculty and other scholars should have with Elsevier journals, because we think that is their prerogative. It is notable that there are already two faculty petitions published related to this, one of which is an explicit call for faculty to stop editing, reviewing and submitting (the other is a petition from editors of Elsevier journals calling on Elsevier to change its stance, indicating that many will resign if Elsevier does not). And those who have signed have done so before Elsevier cuts direct access – many expect that the numbers will grow rapidly if and when Elsevier cuts access.
UC’s “Alternative Access to Elsevier Articles” guidance indicates that “The UC Libraries do not endorse using Sci-Hub for article access.” Are the UC Libraries willing to go further and say that you actually _discourage_ the use of Sci-Hub?
That is not for us to say: the faculty and students don’t report to us, and just as we will not take a position on whether they should refuse to provide free labor to Elsevier during the dispute, we won’t tell them how to behave vis à vis copyright laws. All 10 campuses provide copyright guidance to faculty and students, and we are unequivocal: it is our understanding (though we are not attorneys!) that Sci-Hub is in violation of U.S. copyright law. We will not advise nor help anyone to use it. We do get lots of questions about it, so we provide the statement you quoted as a FAQ: we don’t endorse its use.
The Pay It Forward study concluded that a shift to open access would actually end up costing institutions like UC more than paying for access does. If your negotiations with Elsevier had been successful, do you anticipate the net result would have been a cost savings or a cost increase for UC?
That’s an overly simplified, and thus misleading characterization of one of the Pay it Forward conclusions. The analysis to which you referred investigated what would happen to the distribution of the cost of scholarly publishing if APC price levels were unchanged, and if other funding mechanisms did not emerge. That is, that analysis was completely static – in the world as it is today, what would happen if authors or their institutions paid full APCs? But if the entire business model of the scholarly publishing industry changes, then many aspects of the flow of funds will change, and, I am confident, also the level of prices. First, at the same time we are working to get publishers to switch from pay-to-read to pay-to-publish, there are a variety of efforts to develop mechanisms for routing publication funds to publishers. Many of these involve direct payment from funding agencies – rather than from authors and their institutions – to publishers. That is the model, for example, being followed by Plan S countries. The Gates Foundation has already run a pilot of this model with Science, and it has also signed on to Plan S. We hope that in time US funding agencies will recognize that they should directly fund scholarly publishing, rather than through the current mixture of indirect cost recovery and direct grant funding flows to universities.
Second, prices will adjust: as we economists say, the market equilibrium will change. In a pay-to-publish open access world, to the extent that authors pay any portion of the publication cost through their research grant funding, they will have an incentive to consider submitting articles to the journal with the appropriate prestige level and topic coverage that offers the lowest price (there is never just one journal that is acceptable for any article – there are always at least a few journals in a quality-and-fit equivalence class). That creates price competition between publishers to attract submissions, and that is the lifeblood for the publisher – without quality article submissions, publishers have nothing. And faculty sitting on editorial boards also want top-quality submissions, and will push the publishers to lower prices.
So, we expect that much funding won’t come from authors and their institutions at all, and that prices will fall so that publishers are making respectable, but not monopoly (e.g., 40% or higher) profit margins. And as the new equilibrium is reached, I think it most likely that even the most research-intensive institutions like the UC will see cost reductions, even in a pay-to-publish world.
I’ve written about this issue in more detail in a blog post I wrote a few years ago.
You have publicly said that the dissolution of your Elsevier deal won’t actually deny UC faculty and students access to Elsevier content, but will only make access less convenient. And yet it’s a fundamental principle of the open access movement that charging for access really does make content inaccessible to researchers. Is promoting open access really just about making access more convenient?
I’m an economist, and it is instinctual for us to see everything as a matter of degree. And that applies here. All Elsevier content is accessible without a license: it’s just a matter of how much time and/or money. First, a very high fraction of content is available in author accepted manuscript form (what we use to call “preprint” in the days of print!): much of it on open access repositories (like our institutional eScholarship.org, or on subject-focused repositories like arXiv.org and PubMedCentral), or at ResearchGate or Academic.edu, or finally, directly from the authors (we like to be read – I’ve never denied a reader request for me to send one of my articles). Those all involve some time (often, just a few seconds, given how easy it is to find repository copies, e.g., via Google Scholar). Another approach is to ask the library to get a copy via interlibrary loan: again, a bit of time (typically somewhere between a couple of hours and a few days). Finally, one can purchase any Elsevier article as a single document, either via Elsevier’s website, or via a document delivery service. So, with some time or some money, everything could be available.
I can’t speak for the (mythical) “open access movement”, but our open access objective in the UC is for all published scientific research to be available immediately, to anyone, at zero cost, in its final published form. Time delay and cost are “inconveniences”, but they can be serious inconveniences, slowing the spread of knowledge and hindering the advance of societies through education and further research. And the final published form is important too: the author’s accepted manuscript (AAM), post peer-review, is generally accurate, but in the final published version there may be some copy-editing differences, and final page numbers: thus the AAM is not the version of record (e.g., we cannot cite to the final page number), which also gets in the way of the best and most efficient progress of science.
Is UC contemplating taking similar steps with other publishers at this point?
The 2018 statements by the UC Academic Senate, the UC Provost’s advisory committee, and the UC Council of University Librarians were calls to change the way we negotiate with scholarly publishers, in pursuit of our twin goals of reduced cost and universal open access. We did not single out Elsevier. Indeed, we just recently signed a transformative publish-and-read agreement with Cambridge University Press. And we have regularly stated that we are negotiating with other publishers as well.