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Louisiana State University is suing Elsevier for breach of contract as part of an ongoing disagreement about whom on campus the university library’s contract with the publisher covers.

Universities often grumble about the rising costs of journal subscriptions, and Elsevier, due to its position as a major science, technology and medicine publisher, is a popular target of criticism. In this case, LSU could end the dispute by paying Elsevier an additional $165,000, but the university argues it doesn't owe the publisher anything beyond what it has already agreed to pay.

LSU’s School of Veterinary Medicine Library is at the center of the disagreement. According to the complaint, the library used to have a separate contract with Elsevier that covered the roughly 650 faculty members and students associated with the school. When the contract expired in 2016, the school continued to access Elsevier’s publications through an existing agreement that the main university library had signed to cover 35,000 users -- enough for the entire campus.

That October, however, users at the veterinary school ran into authentication issues when they attempted to access Elsevier’s titles. They discovered that Elsevier had blocked several IP addresses associated with the veterinary school -- IP addresses the university’s agreement with the publisher explicitly covered -- from accessing its resources. The issue was quickly resolved, but since January, the school’s access has again been blocked.

Correspondence between LSU and Elsevier show a disagreement about whether or not the veterinary school is covered by the university’s contract. Also in October, LSU asked Elsevier to add several medicine and veterinary journals to its subscription package for 2017. Adding the titles would cost about $35,000 -- a drop in the bucket in an overall agreement that is this year worth $1.64 million.

LSU asked for the bill. Instead, an Elsevier account manager suggested the university library and publisher connect by phone to talk about the additions.

“It kind of resembles a veterinary collection,” the account manager wrote. “As you might be aware, LSU Veterinary School Libraries are in renewal process, and they are not part of our existing agreement with your library. I want to make sure that we are informing each other accurately for next steps.”

LSU, in response, pointed to its existing agreement, arguing that it covers the veterinary school. In follow-up emails referred to but not included in the complaint, Elsevier is quoted as writing that it “would be happy to include [the] School of Veterinary Medicine under a new agreement to have both libraries benefit from all resources.”

The university filed the lawsuit this February in the 19th Judicial District Court Parish of East Baton Rouge. It is seeking compensation and for Elsevier to add the titles it requested and unblock the veterinary school.

“Elsevier’s total disregard for LSU’s serious concerns and amicable efforts to resolve this dispute reflects the monopolistic market power and arrogance that comes with Elsevier’s posturing as a ‘world-leading provider of information solutions that enhance the performance of science, health and technology professionals,’” the complaint reads. “Through its egregious actions, Elsevier has substantially jeopardized and impaired LSU’s ability to fully educate its students and to fulfill its role as a premier research university, thereby damaging LSU’s international reputation and exposing LSU to various possible losses, including loss of research grants, loss of faculty, endowments and impairing LSU’s ability to recruit top students, faculty and researchers.”

Elsevier has so far refused to accept service of the lawsuit, instead proposing to solve the issue by amending the existing agreement with the university. In a deal proposed April 22 that would restore access for the veterinary school, Elsevier suggested LSU add another $170,000 worth of subscriptions to its existing contract and pay $30,000 more for a bundle of titles known as the Freedom Collection. It is only a one-time bump. Next year, the university would pay what it to when the deal was signed in 2014.

Elsevier released the following statement on the dispute: "What is happening is that LSU is asking us to add a previously separately contracted school, along with its associated users, into an existing contract without having to pay for it. The current LSU central campus contract does not include the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine, nor was any 'merger' negotiated. LSU informed Elsevier that it didn’t want to renew the Vet Med contract as of January 2017, to which we obliged. We then offered a commercial option to combine the contracts, and the figure we offered to add more users and content to the central campus represented a substantial discount from the prior fee, but LSU declined. We regret this hasn’t yet been settled commercially but look forward to further discussions to resolve the matter."

The Association of Research Libraries, of which LSU is a member, on Tuesday began promoting the case across its communications channels. In a blog post, the association called Elsevier’s actions “deeply troubling.”

“In a time where states are facing enormous budget deficits, public universities must ensure financial responsibility of scarce public resources,” the post reads. “LSU is attempting to exercise sound judgment and stewardship of limited resources, but its only reward has been Elsevier blocking access to faculty, researchers and students at the university.”

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