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Carnegie Mellon University and Elsevier Thursday announced a new agreement to radically change how the institution pays to read and publish research.

Instead of paying separately to access Elsevier’s catalog of paywalled content and publish open-access articles in Elsevier journals, Carnegie Mellon will pay one flat fee for both.

The deal means that starting on Jan. 1, 2020, all principal investigators publishing in Elsevier journals will have the option of making their research immediately available to the public, at no additional cost.

The “read-and-publish” deal is a first with a university in the U.S. for Elsevier and is the result of nearly yearlong negotiations. Elsevier struck a similar deal with a consortium of Norwegian research institutions earlier this year.

Like the Norwegian deal, the Carnegie Mellon deal is being treated as an experimental pilot by Elsevier, Keith Webster, dean of university libraries and director of emerging and integrative media initiatives at the university, said in an interview. The Carnegie Mellon deal is for four years, he said.

Read-and-publish deals are being pursued by some colleges and universities as a way to reduce journal subscription costs while boosting open-access publications. As more and more articles are published openly, fewer articles will be paywalled. Some open-access advocates say this approach could eventually eliminate paywalls altogether.

For Elsevier, the pivot to paying to publish rather than paying to read represents a fundamental shift in its business model -- one that the company has been seemingly hesitant to make.

Negotiations between Elsevier and the University of California System broke down earlier this year in part because the two parties could not reach an agreement on pricing. The university system was seeking a deal that would reduce costs and make open-access publications in Elsevier journals the default for UC authors unless they chose to opt out. The publisher said the UC system was seeking two services for the price of one.

In the Norwegian deal, the consortium agreed to an increase of 3 percent over its existing subscription costs, bringing the deal to around $10.1 million. The deal covered the open-access publishing costs of 90 percent of articles published in Elsevier journals by members of the consortium. It excluded around 400 journals owned by academic associations, as well as third-party titles Cell Press and Lancet, though they may participate in the pilot on a voluntary basis.

The Carnegie Mellon deal covers the open-access publishing costs of 100 percent of articles published in Elsevier journals where a Carnegie Mellon academic was the corresponding author. The university currently publishes around 175 articles a year in Elsevier journals, Webster said. It’s possible that number could increase as a result of the read-and-publish deal.

The big question -- how much the university is paying -- is one that will go unanswered for now.

“We have agreed not to give any financial details,” Webster said. “All I can say is that we achieved the financial objectives we set out to achieve.” The institution’s previous subscription deal cost around $1.65 million per year.

Carnegie Mellon’s contract with Elsevier ended on Dec. 31, 2018, but the publisher allowed the university to retain access while negotiations were ongoing, said Webster. Negotiators have been working over the past 11 months to reach a deal that represents good value for the institution. There were no particular sticking points in negotiations, though there were lengthy discussions about whether it is the publisher’s or the institution’s responsibility to notify authors of the option of publishing open access. In the end, Elsevier agreed to notify accepted authors with details of the publishing options available to them under the deal.

Elsevier journals are not the top destination for Carnegie Mellon research, which is concentrated in engineering and computer science rather than life sciences, said Webster. This may explain why Elsevier felt comfortable offering a pilot approach to the institution.

“My sense was the risk was lower for Elsevier than it may have been for some other institutions,” he said.

Webster said he had “benefited greatly from the advice and materials” shared by the UC system, and wants to “return the favor” -- helping other institutions in their negotiations with publishers.

“We can’t go into financial details but are happy to talk with other universities about our approach,” he said.

Jeff MacKie-Mason and Ivy Anderson, who co-chair the team overseeing the UC system’s publisher negotiations strategy, published a statement in support of Carnegie Mellon’s deal with Elsevier.

“We congratulate our colleagues at Carnegie Mellon on their bold commitment to open access and their success in reaching this landmark agreement,” they said. “We are hopeful that the Carnegie news is a positive sign that Elsevier is ready to start signing transformative open-access agreements with other U.S. research universities.”

Elaine Westbrooks, vice provost of university libraries at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said the new agreement is an indication that the publisher may, in fact, be ready.

“This is a sign that Elsevier can sign these kinds of deals with U.S. institutions, which was something I was starting to wonder about,” she said.

Westbrooks said the Carnegie Mellon deal set new milestones. The fact that the deal is 100 percent open-access publishing is significant, she said. It’s also notable that the university negotiated that its authors would retain rights to their work through the agreement.

“On my campus, we are constantly encouraging the researchers to retain their copyright,” she said. “Most are completely unaware of the fact that they can retain their rights.”

Westbrooks has been engaged with negotiations with Elsevier on a new contract since February. The UNC contract ends Dec. 31.

“I’m not sure when we’re going to reach an agreement, if at all,” she said. “We’ll keep talking.”

She said the university is seeking a deal that is “affordable and sustainable.”

“Affordability is more important for us than open access,” she said. “We’re also pushing for transparency. I see no reason why we should sign a nondisclosure agreement not to share our contract. That’s not what we do here.”

Both Westbrooks and Brandon Butler, director of information policy at the University of Virginia Library, wonder whether Elsevier would be willing to strike a similar deal with an institution with a much higher research output in the life sciences. Carnegie Mellon publishes around 175 articles in Elsevier journals each year, while UNC Chapel Hill publishes around 700.

“Carnegie Mellon’s publishing volume and profile doesn’t give me new hope that we could strike a different kind of deal with Elsevier,” said Butler. “This might be a one-off.”

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