Big Win For Open Access, As University Of California Cancels All Elsevier Subscriptions, Worth $11 Million A Year

from the academic-publishing's-emperor-has-no-clothes dept

As Techdirt has reported over the years, the move to open access, whereby anyone can read academic papers for free, is proving a long, hard journey. However, the victories are starting to build up, and here's another one that could have important wider ramifications for open access, especially in the US:

As a leader in the global movement toward open access to publicly funded research, the University of California is taking a firm stand by deciding not to renew its subscriptions with Elsevier. Despite months of contract negotiations, Elsevier was unwilling to meet UC's key goal: securing universal open access to UC research while containing the rapidly escalating costs associated with for-profit journals.

In negotiating with Elsevier, UC aimed to accelerate the pace of scientific discovery by ensuring that research produced by UC's 10 campuses -- which accounts for nearly 10 percent of all U.S. publishing output -- would be immediately available to the world, without cost to the reader. Under Elsevier's proposed terms, the publisher would have charged UC authors large publishing fees on top of the university's multi-million dollar subscription, resulting in much greater cost to the university and much higher profits for Elsevier.

The problems faced by the University of California (UC) are the usual ones. The publishing giant Elsevier was willing to move to an open access model -- but only if the University of California paid even more on top of what were already "rapidly escalating costs". To its credit, the institution instead decided to walk, depriving Elsevier of around $11 million a year (pdf).

But that's not the most important aspect of this move. After all, $11 million is small change for a company whose operating profit is over a billion dollars per year. What will worry Elsevier more is that the University of California is effectively saying that the company's journals are not so indispensable that it will sign up to a bad deal. It's the academic publishing equivalent of pointing out that the emperor has no clothes.

The University of California is not the first academic institution to come to this realization. National library consortiums in Germany, Hungary and Sweden have all made the same decision to cancel their subscriptions with Elsevier. Those were all important moves. But the University of California's high-profile refusal to capitulate to Elsevier is likely to be noted and emulated by other US universities now that the approach has been validated by such a large and influential institution.

As to where researchers at the University of California (and in Germany, Hungary and Sweden) will obtain copies of articles published in Elsevier titles that are no longer available to them through subscriptions -- UC retains access to older ones -- there are many other options. For example, preprints are increasingly popular, and circulate freely. Contacting the authors directly usually results in copies being made available, since academics naturally want their papers read as widely as possible.

And then, of course, there is Sci-Hub, which now claims to provide access to 70 million articles. Researchers that end up at Sci-Hub in search of a hard-to-find item may well discover how much more convenient it is than the traditional subscription services that impose strict controls on access to publications. The risk for Elsevier is that once researchers get a taste of quick, seamless access to everything, they may never want go back to the old system, however much the company slashes its prices to win back business.

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Filed Under: academic research, journal articles, open access, paywalls, scientific research
Companies: elsevier, uc berkeley, university of california

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  1. This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Mar 2019 @ 5:11pm

    Alternative journals for alternative facts.

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