This month, approximately 300 academic institutions in Germany and Sweden lost access to new papers published in Elsevier’s journals due to a standstill in negotiations for nationwide subscription contracts. While Elsevier’s papers remain inaccessible, academics are turning to alternative means of obtaining them, such as using inter-library loan services, emailing authors, finding earlier versions on preprint servers, or buying individual papers.
“Of course, we can’t deny that it’s a loss not being able to have a complete [collection] of scientific papers in front of you and just screen through them,” says Anders Götherström, an archeologist at Stockholm University. “But I imagine eventually, we will still find a way to get the papers that we want to get.”
Josef Pfeilschifter, a pharmacologist and toxicologist at Goethe University Frankfurt, is very concerned about the loss of access to Elsevier’s journals at his institution. “For life scientists and medical scientists, [Elsevier’s titles include] important journals that we need to have access to,” he tells The Scientist. “I think this is definitely not a good deal for those of us doing research.”
As annoying as it is to not be able to get journal articles, I think reaching a new way of doing publishing is more important than my level of annoyance.—Christopher Kyba,German Research Center for Geosciences
Academic library consortia in the two countries are pushing for a so-called publish-and-read model, which combines publishing articles as open access and reading paywalled articles into one fee.
Germany’s Project DEAL, representing approximately 200 universities and research centers, and the Swedish Bibsam Consortium, which includes 85 institutions, have been in negotiations with Elsevier since 2016. Still without an agreement, Bibsam announced last month that it would not renew its contracts with Elsevier—and when subscriptions lapsed on July 1, academics at Swedish institutions were no longer able to access new articles in the publisher’s journals.
“We never expected that they shouldn’t cut us off,” says Wilhelm Widmark, the library director at Stockholm University and a member of Bibsam’s steering committee. “If we cancelled the contract, of course they should cut us off.”
Academic institutions in Germany, however, have been able to access Elsevier’s journals for many months—some more than a year—after their subscriptions ended. Around 60 universities and research centers ended their subscriptions at the end of 2016, and by the beginning of this year, approximately 200 institutions had parted ways with the publisher. Until last week, Elsevier continued to provide continued access to its journals while negotiations continued—apart from a brief period at the beginning of 2017, when it blocked users during the first wave of cancellations.
Elsevier declined to comment on the record on the differences in access between the two countries.
“It was not a real surprise” that Elsevier cut access now, says Bernhard Mittermaier, head of the Jülich Research Center’s Central Library and a member of DEAL’s project group. “We knew that Sweden had cancelled their contracts effective as of June 30. And Elsevier has said they would shut off access.”
Pfeilschifter says that, while most academics share the view that there is a need for better pricing for journal subscriptions, “we do not all agree on the open-access strategy.” He adds that, from his perspective, the DEAL consortium should take a step-by-step approach to the negotiations—specifically, to agree on cheaper prices, then try to establish an open-access agreement.
Other scientists are supportive of DEAL and Bibsam’s strong stance. “As annoying as it is to not be able to get journal articles, I think reaching a new way of doing publishing is more important than my level of annoyance,” says Christopher Kyba, a postdoc at the German Research Center for Geosciences. Kyba adds that he’s decided to decline peer review requests from Elsevier’s journals while the current situation continues. “I agree with what [DEAL] is trying to do, and this is one concrete thing I can do [to help].”
Elias Jarlebring, a mathematician at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden, says that he also does not plan to peer review for Elsevier while the conflict continues—and that the disagreement between the publisher and the Swedish consortium will also influence where he chooses to submit future papers. “In many cases, there’s more than one journal that you might consider publishing in—and I certainly will be more inclined to publish in a non-Elsevier journal than an Elsevier journal,” he tells The Scientist.
Because most of the German subscriptions—like the Swedish ones—included continued access to articles published before the cancellation date, most institutions are only blocked from papers published in 2017 or 2018. However, some bundled contracts, which cover collections of journals, did not include post-termination access, meaning that almost all the articles from those titles are now unavailable.
Elsevier has stated that it remains “open to constructive talks in order to find a sustainable national solution” in both Germany and Sweden.