An Elsevier Pivot to Open Access

A Norwegian consortium has signed a new kind of subscription deal with Elsevier that includes open-access publishing -- a first for the publisher. But the new rights come at a cost.

April 24, 2019
 

In a move that could signal the beginning of a significant shift for its business model, publisher Elsevier has agreed to its first “read-and-publish” deal with a national consortium of universities and research institutions in Norway.

Rather than paying separately to access content behind paywalls and make selected individual articles immediately available to the public, the Norwegian consortium has signed a deal that rolls the two costs into one.

This new kind of “big deal” is a big deal because there are a growing number of librarians and negotiators who believe this model will reduce subscription costs while boosting open-access publications. Eventually, some believe, the model could eliminate paywalls altogether.

So-called read-and-publish deals are gaining traction but are still highly unusual. Many publishers have been slow to embrace the model, fearing the long-term impact it may have on their income. That said, Springer Nature, Wiley and Taylor and Francis have all struck a handful of such deals in recent years.

By failing to reach read-and-publish agreements, Elsevier lost business. The University of California system recently canceled its Elsevier subscription for this reason. National consortia in Germany, Hungary and Sweden also canceled their Elsevier subscriptions.

Norway, too, was ready to walk away. The consortium declared in a press release just last month that they were canceling their deal, stating that Elsevier’s offer was “far from fulfilling the requirements of Norway for open access.” At the time, Elsevier published a statement saying that Norway was “essentially asking to receive two services for the price of one.”

That the consortium and Elsevier managed to reach a deal is, therefore, a breakthrough. But whether the arrangement is a good model for other universities is less clear.

In a press release on Tuesday, representatives from the Norwegian consortium said they were pleased with their agreement. But there are few details in the press release about the terms of this agreement.

The deal is framed as a two-year pilot, which will give seven universities and 39 research institutions access to Elsevier journals as well as cover the open-access publishing costs of articles published by researchers employed by the universities when their pieces are published in an Elsevier journal. Reporting by The Financial Times suggested the deal would cost 9 million euros ($10.1 million), an increase of 3 percent over the consortium’s previous agreement, which did not include open-access publishing costs. In essence, the deal is a step toward paying to publish research, rather than paying to read it.

A key difference between this deal and the failed read-and-publish deals with Elsevier is that the Norwegian consortium appears to have been willing to pay more than its current subscription to cover the cost of open-access publishing. Other consortia have refused to settle on deals that did not bring down costs significantly, said Roger Schonfeld, director of Ithaka S+R’s libraries, scholarly communication and museums program. He suggests that perhaps Elsevier may have softened its stance on read-and-publish deals in response to recent high-profile cancellations.

A Norwegian open-access website called Openaccess.no suggests that the deal will cover open-access publishing costs of up to 90 percent of articles published in Elsevier journals by members of the consortium. Around 400 journals owned by academic associations, as well as third-party titles Cell Press and Lancet, are not part of the agreement. The site reports, however, that these journals will be asked to participate in the pilot.

Nina Aslaug Karlstrøm, a member of the Norwegian negotiating team, said in an email that the consortium would not get a refund if they failed to publish the allocated number of open access articles.

"Likewise if the number of articles exceeds the allocated amount, a list-price article processing charge must be paid if it is to be published open access," she said. Karlstrøm said that publishing open access would be optional for authors, though they will be encouraged to select this option. She confirmed there is "no separate allocation of fees for reading and publishing in the current agreement." 

The deal may please those focused on the philosophy of open access, but not those seeking to cut the costs libraries face to provide journal access.

Whether the deal is a good one or not “depends on your perspective,” said Jon Tennant, a paleontologist and open-access advocate. “The Norwegian negotiation team have a tough problem to solve, between being progressive or disruptive and balancing the needs of the researchers they represent. From that view, this is a success -- a small amount of progress.”

Tennant feels the deal is “one step forward, two steps back.” He thinks the negotiators should have walked away from a deal rather than settling on one that represents an increase over current subscription costs.

“It is absolutely unclear what these funds are being spent on,” he said. “It seems like the amount being charged is ‘this is how much revenue we get from you now, and this is how much OA you can get whilst sustaining that revenue,’ and completely divorced from the true costs of publishing within an effective, modern communication system.”

“Norway is paying €9 million for the prestige of publishing within Elsevier,” said Tennant. “It’s nothing to do with the cost of publishing, or the inherent value of the research. It shows that the power dynamics in this space are all still backwards.”

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