Last summer, dozens of academic institutions in Sweden let their Elsevier subscriptions lapse, forgoing permission to read new content in the scholarly publisher’s journals. Like other groups in Europe and the US, they were pushing for increased open access and contained costs—and had reached a deadlock in negotiations with the publisher. On Friday (November 22), the two sides announced that they had finally come to an agreement, establishing a so-called transformative deal that includes access to paywalled articles and open-accessing publishing into one fee.
“We had a lot of [informal] discussions with Elsevier during the cancellation and we started to negotiate again in the summer,” says Wilhelm Widmark, the library director at Stockholm University and a member of the steering committee for the Bibsam consortium, which negotiates on behalf of more than 80 Swedish institutions. “I think Elsevier has become more flexible during the last couple of months.”
One of my hopes is that this is heading towards a sort of reciprocal arrangement where people can access Carnegie Mellon research, and in turn, over time, we’ll be able to benefit from free access to other universities’ output.—Keith Webster, Carnegie Mellon
Just a day before the Swedish deal was made public, Elsevier and Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania announced a similar deal. These are the latest of several agreements Elsevier has forged to pilot open-access elements since the beginning of 2019. Earlier this year, for example, Hungary and Norway—both countries that had cancelled their subscriptions with the publisher after stagnant negotiations—also announced new contracts with the publisher.
“We are happy that we could eventually agree on this transformative agreement,” says Adam Der, the head of development at the Electronic Information Service National Programme (EISZ), a consortium that negotiates deals on behalf of more than 200 academic institutions in Hungary. “We found common ground in the end.”
The growing number of transformative agreements fits into a broad trend, where more and more publishers are willing to make these types of deals. “All the major publishing houses are interested in licensing agreements which include open-access components,” says Roger Schonfeld, the director of libraries, scholarly communication, and museums for Ithaka S+R, a consulting group in New York focused on higher education. “I think that’s been clear for a number of years.
As Elsevier is successfully forging deals on both sides of the Atlantic, there are still two major academic groups missing from these announcements: the University of California (UC) system, which includes 10 campuses, and Project DEAL, which represents around 700 academic institutions in Germany.
One size doesn’t fit all
Elsevier’s licensing agreements differ in terms of which paywalled journals members can access and where they can publish open-access articles at no extra cost. “Every agreement is unique, because each customer is unique, and their requirements and circumstances are also very specific,” according to an emailed statement from Elsevier.
Bibsam’s agreement includes unlimited “gold” open-access publishing—in which an article is made freely available on a publisher’s website immediately upon publication—in almost all of Elsevier’s journals. However, this excludes hybrid journals (which include both open-access and paywalled content) in The Lancet collection and limits open-access publishing in Cell Press hybrid journals to 100 papers per year for the entire consortium. The deal also includes the ability to read paywalled content in almost all of Elsevier’s journals—except Cell Press titles, which universities will need to purchase for an extra fee.
According to Widmark, under this new three-year agreement, the annual payment to Elsevier will be roughly similar to what the consortium was paying previously with read-only licenses. (The exact cost will be published online along with the contract once member institutions have finalized their decisions about whether or not to join.)
The deal between Elsevier and EISZ is slightly different. It allows members to read paywalled content and publish a total of 1,000 open-access articles per year in most of Elsevier’s journals—with some exceptions, such as titles in The Lancet journals and Cell Press. There are, however, vouchers to cover article processing charges (APCs), fees for publishing open access, for five articles per year in Cell Reports, an open-access journal published by Cell Press. The licensing fee for the new contract, which spans two-and-a-half years, is around €13 million ($14 million US). EISZ’s previous agreement with the publisher, which did not include open-access publishing, cost around €9 million ($10 million US) for two years.
Carnegie Mellon’s deal is similar to Bibsam’s but more extensive. Once the agreement comes into effect in January 2020, academics at the university will be able to access paywalled papers of all of Elsevier’s titles—and publish open access in them for no extra fee. “One of my hopes is that this is heading towards a sort of reciprocal arrangement where people can access Carnegie Mellon research, and in turn, over time, we’ll be able to benefit from free access to other universities’ output,” says Keith Webster, Carnegie Mellon’s dean of libraries who previously worked in the publishing industry as the former vice-president of Wiley. Webster tells The Scientist that he cannot disclose financial details.
Elsevier’s contracts in Norway and Poland, where a new deal was agreed upon this summer, are closer to Hungary’s: They also specify the number of articles that can be published open access per year with no extra fee. (France, too, made a deal with Elsevier in 2019. But that deal includes discounts on APCs rather than an allowance for publishing a certain number of open-access articles per year.)
Elsevier has managed to come to a consensus in Hungary, Norway, and Sweden, but such discussions in Germany and California remain stagnant. Both DEAL and UC have been pushing for licensing agreements that combine access to paywalled articles and open-access publishing in all of Elsevier’s journals into a single fee.
UC and DEAL want to publish 100 percent open access in all of Elsevier’s journals—including those in the Cell Press and The Lancet.
In Germany, these talks began in 2016. According to Bernhard Mittermaier, head of the Jülich Research Center’s Central Library and a member of DEAL’s negotiating team, the last official negotiation with Elsevier was in July 2018. That same month, Elsevier ceased providing access to newly published content in its journals to German institutions that did not renew their contracts in 2016, 2017, and 2018.
UC’s negotiations with Elsevier started last July and official discussions came to a halt this February—two months after UC opted not to continue its subscription with the publisher at the end of 2018. “From the very beginning, we said that cost reduction, or at least cost containment, and full open access were the essential elements,” says Jeffrey MacKie-Mason, the university librarian at the University of California, Berkeley, and the co-chair of UC’s negotiation task force “Our commitment hasn’t wavered, and our faculty has continued to tell us we should be standing firm.”
Unlike some of the other consortia that have reached agreements with Elsevier, UC and DEAL want to publish 100 percent open access in all of Elsevier’s journals—including those in the Cell Press and The Lancet. But when it comes to those titles, “Elsevier has been reluctant,” MacKie-Mason says. “Those are their flagship journals and they’re also their most expensive to produce . . . so they’re treating them differently in negotiations.”
DEAL and UC have forged open-access agreements with other publishers this year—DEAL established a new contract with Wiley in January and UC with Cambridge University Press in April. Neither have immediate plans for more official talks with Elsevier, although both have continued to engage in informal discussions with the publisher. There have been some signs of progress—according to Mittermaier, over the last few months, Elsevier has started to become more flexible regarding what it’s willing to offer. “The difference between the respective ideas [about a suitable deal] is becoming smaller,” he says
At some universities, a push for open-access elements in new deals are coming from members of the faculty. In the State University of New York (SUNY) network, where Elsevier’s contract is set to expire at the end of 2019, the Faculty Senate recently passed a resolution voicing support for open-access publishing and encouraging SUNY to take a “strong stance in negotiations.
SUNY has been negotiating solely for reduced pricing with Elsevier—but the faculty resolution has led to “conversations about what transformative publishing might look like for us as a community,” says Evviva Weinraub, the vice provost for university libraries at the University at Buffalo. “I think all of us agree that the models that exist aren’t working.”
Some of the ongoing deal-making discussions have sparked concerns among the academic community. Earlier this month, a leaked document from the negotiations between the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU) and Elsevier, obtained by the Dutch outlet ScienceGuide, set Twitter abuzz when it revealed that the two parties were considering packaging access to journals with digital research tools such as the reference manager Mendeley. One concern was that such a deal could “lock-in” universities to the company by making them more dependent on its services.
This kind of bundling “reminds a number of us of the early days of the big deal when some people were saying, ‘What’s going on here? Over time, this is going to have really negative implications for the way that libraries and universities manage content collection,’” says Schonfeld of Ithaka S+R, the consulting group. In the same way that universities became reliant on massive package deals from big publishers, pairing publications to digital research tools could make institutions even more dependent on the companies that produce these products, he adds.
At least one European consortium has already started bundling deals. Poland’s new license with Elsevier includes both SciVal, a tool for assessing research performance, and Scopus, a database of abstracts and citations. “Libraries are no longer coming to the table only asking for reading and Elsevier is no longer only providing reading,” says Lisa Hinchliffe, a professor and the coordinator of information literacy services at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “As a result, we’re no longer seeing homogenized big deals, but customized big deals.”
Correction (Dec 2, 2019): This article has been updated to indicate that the University of California opted not to renew its previous contract with Elsevier in December 2018, not February 2019. The Scientist regrets the error.
Diana Kwon is a Berlin-based freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter @DianaMKwon.