Universities in Germany are in a dispute with Dutch publisher Elsevier that could ultimately change the global landscape of scholarly publishing. Last year, a group of 150 education and research institutions led by the German Rectors’ Conference (HRK) approached three major scientific publishers, accounting for more than 50 percent of their library budgets, to propose a new framework for access to science journals. Rather than an ongoing subscription fee for access to papers, universities would pay a basic fee per published paper that would entitle them to open and unrestricted online access to all papers by German authors. Talks with Springer and Wiley were successful and the two publishers are expected to conclude new deals in 2018. But negotiations reached an impasse with Elsevier, the world’s biggest publisher of medical and scientific journals, with representatives from the company arguing that the proposed model would not cover its costs.
The German institutions held firm, however, and 60 universities allowed their contracts with Elsevier to expire at the end of the year. In January 2017 they lost access to the publisher’s 2,400 journals, including such prestigious publications as The Lancet, Cell, Neuron and Current Biology. According to Elsevier, researchers from these institutions attempted unsuccessfully to download 124,000 papers during the period. But the publisher decided to restore access in February and attempted to resume talks with a counter-offer providing better financial compensation for subscriptions and solutions allowing 100 percent of articles to be made available open access. “Unfortunately, HRK denied Elsevier the opportunity to present its proposals. HRK ended the discussion saying that it was only worth coming back to the table if we met their exact demands,” the publisher said in a statement in March. Nine other institutions, including the Humboldt University of Berlin and the Free University of Berlin, have since announced they will not be renewing their contracts with the Dutch publisher when they expire in early 2018. Elsevier again said it regretted the decision and called for negotiations to resume: “We are the right partner to help Germany transition to 100 percent open access in a sustainable way.”
Accounting last year for 5.8% of indexed scientific output worldwide, behind the U.S. (22%), China (10%), and the United Kingdom (6%), Germany has been joined in this movement by various sectors of the scientific community. Last month, five German scientists resigned from Elsevier’s editorial boards in support of the universities’ strategy. “Researchers and publishers have a symbiotic relationship, and the parties have to treat each other fairly. The universities are making a fair offer,” Kurt Mehlhorn, a computer scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Informatics in Saarbrücken, Germany, who resigned as editor in chief of Computational Geometry Theory and Applications, told Science magazine. Martin Köhler, a meteorology researcher at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology who participated in the negotiations on behalf of the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centers, said that institutions whose contracts with Elsevier have not yet expired have come to the aid of those that have canceled their subscriptions. Researchers have also shared copies of their articles with each other. “We will survive without Sci-Hub,” he told the Times Higher Education (THE), referring to the Cocos Islands-based service providing access to pirate copies of millions of scientific articles.
According to estimates by the Max Planck Society, the world’s academic libraries spend €7.6 billion in subscription fees for access to 1.5 million new papers annually in addition to the journals. It is this market that is now at stake. Other countries with less bargaining power are awaiting the outcome from the dispute with bated breath. The Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU) made a proposal similar to Germany’s in 2015, but the best deal it could get was an agreement to make 30 percent of Dutch papers open access by 2018. In Brazil, senior staff at Portal de Periódicos, an online repository run by the Coordination for the Improvement of Higher Education Personnel (CAPES), are also keenly following developments. “We have worked with organizations from Germany, California and Canada to learn how they are renegotiating their contracts,” portal coordinator Elenara Chaves Edler de Almeida announced on the CAPES website in June. “We hope to build on their expertise to refashion our agreements from a new angle.” CAPES offers researchers and students at Brazilian universities access to a set of 38,000 journals, with an approved 2016 subscription and access budget of R$334 million. According to Chaves, CAPES aims to spend less on subscriptions and hopes to create a program to fund publishing. “As contracts expire, we intend to renegotiate them based on the volume of articles published by Brazilian authors,” she said.
German universities see the dispute as a turning point in a process that began in the mid-2000s and has gradually reshaped publishers’ business models. Their inspiration comes from the Open Access movement and its goal of providing readers with free online access to science research. The notion that scientific papers reporting on publicly funded research must be available to anyone free of charge has gained traction in a number of countries, development agencies, and institutions funding research. Last year, for example, the European Union announced that all papers produced in its member states would be publicly available free of charge from 2020.
Many journals have adopted open access publishing and derive revenues from charging authors publication fees. Others use a hybrid system in which articles are available to subscribers only, but authors can pay an extra fee to make their papers open access on the journal’s website, even before the relevant issue is released. This has resulted in increasing publication costs. Elsevier journals use the hybrid model, with open access publication fees ranging from US$500 to US$5,000 per paper depending on the journal.
Dante Cid, vice-president of Academic Relations at Elsevier Latin America, says the transition to a new model needs to be negotiated broadly and not on a country-by-country basis. “European countries are demanding a shift to an open access model in which publication fees are paid per paper. But some of the top countries for scientific output, such as the US, China, and Japan, have continued to use the traditional model,” he says. “That is why we created a hybrid system that gives authors the option to publish papers open access in any of our journals for a fee. In addition, if we were to publish open access with a per-paper publishing fee, we would limit access to our journals by authors from countries that cannot afford to pay fees or do not wish to pay for publication costs,” he says.
Amid the transition, publishers have adopted a strategy that has one foot in the future and the other in the past. On the one hand, they are embarking on new business models—Elsevier, for example, has become a provider of research metrics and has invested in new businesses such as scholarly research preprint repositories and online services for researchers. On the other hand, they are trying to preserve some aspects of the legacy model. Last month, a coalition of five copyrighted publishers—the American Chemical Society, Brill, Elsevier, Wiley, and Wolters Kluwer—issued takedown notices to ResearchGate, the world’s largest academic social networking site, with more than 13 million users, asking it to remove 7 million articles posted by copyright-infringing researcher profiles that had made the articles available to download without permission from the journals where they were originally published. Concurrently, the publishers filed a lawsuit in a court in Berlin, where ResearchGate is based, calling for steps to be taken to prevent the network from publishing this type of content in the future.Republish