More than two years after negotiations began, the University of California and the academic publisher Elsevier announced on March 16 that they had finally secured an open-access deal.

“We hope that others will take the message that a research-intensive, high-output institution can, in fact, negotiate and implement an open-access agreement with a major publisher that is affordable and sustainable,” says Ivy Anderson, the associate executive director of the California Digital Library and co-chair of UC’s publisher negotiation team. “It’s a path that we hope others will consider following.”

The agreement comes after a widely publicized split between Elsevier and UC, a network of 10 campuses and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. After eight months of negotiations with no deal, UC cancelled its subscription to Elsevier in February 2019. Following this move, many academics spoke out in support of UC by stepping down from their positions...

See “With No Open Access Deal, UC Breaks with Elsevier”

The new, four-year agreement goes into effect on April 1, making open access the default option for UC academics wishing to publish their work in Elsevier’s journals. This does not immediately apply to the majority of journals that fall under the Cell Press and Lancet portfolios, but those titles will be integrated within the first two years.

There are definitely people who do not believe in the University of California goals, because they don’t believe in a system that encourages publication with legacy, profit-seeking publishers.

—Lisa Hinchliffe, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

“Because this is a very large agreement with a high volume of UC publishing with Elsevier, we are taking on a big financial commitment to support our authors in this agreement,” says Anderson. “We need to see how that works out before we integrate the Cell and Lancet journals because they are quite a bit more expensive.”

This deal implements what’s known as a multi-payer model, which UC has also applied in its other so-called transformative agreements, deals designed to shift publisher contracts from paying primarily for reading paywalled content to paying for publishing articles that are freely available to the public. Under this model, UC will pay the first $1,000 of the article publishing charges (APCs), and the authors will be responsible for covering the rest out of their research funds. If authors don’t have the funds, the library will cover the costs. (Authors can opt out of the open-access option and publish their work behind a paywall if they don’t wish to pay the APCs.)

APCs for Elsevier’s journals vary widely. For some publications, they are as low as $150. But for the most prestigious titles, such as Cell, the APC can be as high as $9,900. UC authors will receive a 10 percent discount on the APCs for Cell Press and Lancet journals, and 15 percent off the APCs for Elsevier’s other titles.

The deal includes a cap on the maximum fee that UC will pay to Elsevier for publishing: payments will not exceed $10,700,000 in the first year, and that cap will increase by 2.6 percent each year. This does not include the portion of the APCs paid by UC authors. Access to paywalled content comes at no extra cost to the university. UC has the option of purchasing add-on features, such as post-termination access to all previously subscribed journals for $1,050,000 per year. UC paid around $11 million in subscription fees in 2018.

Based on UC’s projections, “the total expenditure by the University of California—the libraries plus authors using the research funds—should be about seven percent lower this year than it would have been if we had continued with the previous model,” says Jeffrey MacKie-Mason, a university librarian and economics professor at UC Berkeley, and co-chair of UC’s publisher negotiation team.

For Elsevier, this is the first agreement that implements the multi-payer model. “The total value of the contract over the next four years will depend on author participation, article volume, and on some of the optional extras that are built into the contract,” says Gemma Hersh, Elsevier’s senior vice president of Global Research Solutions. “Both sides are certainly expecting the value of the contract to grow.”

Mixed reactions

According to MacKie-Mason, the announcement about this new deal has been met with positive feedback. “For the past several hours since the announcement went out, congratulations have been pouring in from across the UC because the faculty and the staff feel so strongly that this is the right thing to do,” he says.

On social media, reactions were mixed. While some lauded the deal as a win for open access, others were more critical.

Librarians at other universities also expressed their criticisms of the deal. “If pay-to-publish models (whether multi- or single-payer) become the new norm, they will inevitably lead to a system where the work of scholars from less-privileged institutions and less-well-funded disciplines will be left out, and where academic voices that have too long been silenced will remain marginalized and under-represented in the scholarly conversation,” Chris Bourg, the director of MIT Libraries, which is also in the midst of negotiations with Elsevier, says in an email to Inside Higher Ed.

Lisa Hinchliffe, a professor and the coordinator of information literacy services at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, notes that Elsevier’s deal with UC—and other such deals that have been made in recent years—signifies the publisher’s willingness to shape agreements to meet a library’s goals. However, “we shouldn’t confuse ‘customize an agreement’ with ‘not making profit,’” Hinchliffe says. “There are definitely people who do not believe in the University of California goals, because they don’t believe in a system that encourages publication with legacy, profit-seeking publishers.” 

For Elsevier, the deal with UC marks the 15th transformative agreement the publisher has made with universities worldwide over the last two years. There still remains no deal with one of the largest consortia: the DEAL Project, which represents hundreds of academic institutions across Germany. Elsevier and DEAL are not currently in formal negotiations, but “we speak to the DEAL team regularly,” Hersh says. “We are here, ready, willing, and able to reach an agreement whenever they’re ready to come back formally to the negotiating table.”

See “Elsevier Progresses in Open-Access Deal Making

Correction (March 19): UC paid around $11 million, not $10.5 million as we originally stated, in subscription fees in 2018. The Scientist regrets the error.

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