2019 Was Big for Academic Publishing. Here’s Our Year in Review
2019 Was Big for Academic Publishing. Here’s Our Year in Review

2019 Was Big for Academic Publishing. Here’s Our Year in Review

Licensing negotiations between libraries and publishers continued, a radical open-access plan made changes, and the flaws of some publishing tools and techniques came to light.

Dec 27, 2019
Diana Kwon

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The global push to make the scholarly literature open access continued in 2019. Some publishers and libraries forged new licensing deals, while in other cases contract negotiations came to halt, and a radical open access plan made some adjustments. Here are some of the most notable developments in the publishing world in 2019:

Perils of existing tools and practices

This year, The Scientist heard scientists’ complaints about the supplementary files that accompany journal articles and concerns about predatory journals on PubMed, the massive repository of abstracts and citations belonging to the US National Library of Medicine (NLM).

The NLM has quality control procedures for PubMed in place, but some articles have slipped through the cracks. Academics began raising concerns about the presence of predatory journals on PubMed for several years—and those worries remain today.

Supplementary files, on the other hand, have been criticized by scientists for containing broken hyperlinks and being published in clunky and outdated formats. As a result, more scientists are opting to deposit their files into online repositories hosted by universities, research institutions, and companies. Publishers, too, have begun to encourage this practice.

New tools can have their own flaws. This summer, several scientists noted that their papers were erroneously flagged by journals’ automatic plagiarism detectors. Instead of identifying actual cases of plagiarism, they were picking out author lists, methods, or references. Despite some of the current limitations of this technology, some publishers are working on extending the reach of artificial intelligence into other parts of the peer-review process, such as identifying statistical issues. “These will turn out to be useful editorial tools,” Bernd Pulverer, chief editor of The EMBO Journal, told The Scientist in June. “But [they] most certainly should not replace an informed expert editorial assessment, let alone expert peer review.”

UC breaks with Elsevier

At the end of February, contract negotiations between Elsevier and the University of California (UC) came to a halt. The two sides had failed to agree on terms after more than half a year of discussions. The previous contract ended in December 2018, but Elsevier continued to provide free access until July. Since then, UC has been unable to read new content published in Elsevier’s journals.

Our commitment hasn’t wavered, and our faculty has continued to tell us we should be standing firm.

—Jeffrey MacKie-Mason, University of California, Berkeley

In August, UC faculty members protested Elsevier by stepping down from the editorial boards of Cell Press journals, which include some of publisher’s most prestigious titles such as Cell, Neuron, and Current Biology. More than 30 professors signed an open letter stating that they would not return to their posts until a deal between UC and Elsevier was made.

Like Project DEAL, a consortium that represents approximately 700 academic institutions in Germany, UC has been pushing for a contract that combines subscriptions to read paywalled journals and publishing in open-access formats into a single fee. Project DEAL is also currently in a standstill with Elsevier, and hundreds of German institutions have let their subscriptions with the publisher lapse since 2016.

“From the very beginning, we said that cost reduction, or at least cost containment, and full open access were the essential elements,” Jeffrey MacKie-Mason, the university librarian at the University of California, Berkeley, and the co-chair of UC’s negotiation task force, told The Scientist earlier this month. “Our commitment hasn’t wavered, and our faculty has continued to tell us we should be standing firm.”

Other publishers have also faced difficult negotiations. This week, swissuniversities, an organization that represents universities in Switzerland, announced that they would no longer have a contract with Springer Nature starting in January 2020 due to a failure to come to a new licensing agreement.

Deals are made

In January, Wiley and Project DEAL announced that they had successfully forged a new licensing agreement. The deal allows member institutions to access paywalled papers and publish open-access articles for a single annual fee that is determined by the total number of published manuscripts. “With Wiley, we found a publisher on the other side of the table that was willing to make this transition [to open access] in partnership with us,” Gerard Meijer, a molecular physicist at the Fritz Haber Institute of the Max Planck Society and a member of the DEAL negotiations team, told The Scientist in March.

Wiley subsequently announced deals with open-access elements (which are often called “transformative” deals) with consortia of research institutions in Norway and Hungary, where negotiations with Elsevier had also come to a standstill. Unlike the DEAL contract, however, these agreements included fixed fees and a specified number of articles that could be published open access per year.

See “As Elsevier Falters, Wiley Succeeds in Open-Access Deal Making

In the months since, Elsevier has managed to turn the tide in Norway and Hungary, where it now has transformative deals in place. The publisher also recently forged such an agreement with the Bibsam consortium, which represents academic institutions in Sweden. Bibsam had previously terminated its negotiations with Elsevier and let their contracts lapse in mid-2018. “I think Elsevier has become more flexible during the last couple of months,” Wilhelm Widmark, the library director at Stockholm University and a member of the steering committee for the Bibsam consortium, told The Scientist this month.

Elsevier has also made transformative deals with both individual universities and library consortia in several other countries. Many other publishers, including Springer Nature, Cambridge University Press, and Frontiers, have also forged new transformative deals this year.

See “Elsevier Progresses in Open-Access Deal Making

Changes to Plan S

Last year, a group of European funding agencies calling themselves cOAlition S launched a radical plan to put an end to paywalled journals. The initiative, dubbed Plan S, mandated that academics receiving grants from participating funders must publish solely in open-access journals starting in 2020. The plan also highlighted 10 key principles, which included funders’ commitments to assist with publication fees and sanctions for those who broke the new rules.

Since the plan’s debut, several other national and charitable agencies around the world, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in the US, the World Health Organization, and Jordan’s Higher Council for Science and Technology, joined the coalition.

Plan S has been met with mixed reactions. Although many researchers have praised the open-access mandates, the initiative has been criticized by both publishers and members of the academic community. One of the key concerns was a ban on hybrid journals, which contain both open-access and paywalled articles and include titles such as Cell, Science, and The Lancet.

In response, cOAlition S has since relaxed its initial guidelines. The updated rules, which were published in May, include a temporary reversal of a proposed cap on article processing fees (payments for publishing open-access articles) and a softened stance on hybrid journals—they will now be allowed for a limited time if they are a part of a transformative agreement. The group also postponed the deadline for implementing its rules from 2020 to 2021 to give publishers and academics more time to prepare for the changes.

See “Plan S: The Ambitious Initiative to End the Reign of Paywalls

Other notable developments in publishing this year include: a $50 million fine for OMICS International, a publisher and conference organizer accused of predatory behavior, a call from academics to drop statistical significance, and a new preprint server for clinical research. 

Diana Kwon is a Berlin-based freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter @DianaMKwon.