Big Deal for Open Access

University of California system secures a landmark open-access deal with publisher Elsevier. Some university librarians hail the agreement as a breakthrough, but others worry about possible long-term impacts.

March 17, 2021
 
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When the University of California system canceled its bundled journal subscription deal with publisher Elsevier and walked away from contract negotiations in 2019, it wasn’t clear whether the two parties would ever be able to get back on the same page.

The UC system wanted to save money and stop supporting the production of research that is inaccessible to the public. Elsevier offered to combine the costs of accessing paywalled content and publishing open-access articles. But the offer came with a price tag with the UC system was not willing to pay. 

Over the past two years, both the UC system and Elsevier struck up multiple open-access agreements with other parties. Elsevier has now signed 15 open-access deals, while the UC system has signed nine. With more experience and data, Elsevier went back to the UC system in the summer of 2020 with a new proposal, and negotiations began again in earnest.

Yesterday, the UC system and Elsevier announced the details of their agreement. Under the new deal, which is the largest of its kind in North America, all UC lead authors will be given the opportunity to publish accepted works in Elsevier journals openly so that anyone can read them without paying or subscribing.

"This agreement reflects the journey that we've been on with our customers over the last two years, working in partnership to truly understand their needs and craft tailored solutions," said Gemma Hersh, senior vice president of global research solutions at Elsevier. "In our collaboration with UC, you really see a coming together of both sides." 

In addition to openly publishing research in Elsevier journals, the deal also means that instant access to paywalled Elsevier research will be restored for faculty and students at the 10 campuses of the UC system, many of which are among the most prominent public research universities in the U.S.

"We were focused from the beginning on our goal, which was a comprehensive open-access agreement for all of our publishing," said Ivy Anderson, director of collection development and management at the California Digital Library, who led UC's negotiations with Elsevier.

The four-year agreement, which Elsevier describes as a pilot, will go into effect on April 1. On that date, UC will regain access to all of the journals that it stopped subscribing to in 2019, as well as some additional journals, according to a memorandum of understanding published yesterday. The UC libraries will pay a maximum of $10.7 million to Elsevier in year one, which will increase by 2.6 percent per year.

The open-access publishing terms of the agreement will allow UC researchers to publish open-access articles in any of Elsevier's 2,500 journals, including prestigious titles such as The Lancet and Cell Press titles. A small number of journals published by Elsevier on behalf of scholarly societies may be excluded. 

Open-access publication will be presented as the default publishing option to UC authors, but they will have the opportunity to opt-out if they wish, said Anderson. The UC system anticipates that very few authors would choose not to publish their work openly. 

To publish an open-access article, journals typically charge a four-figure article processing charge. Under this new deal, the UC system will get a 15 percent discount off the list price for these charges and a 10 percent discount for publications in The Lancet or Cell Press. The standard article processing charge for Cell Press is $5,200. With a 15 percent discount, the UC libraries would pay $4,420.

These article processing charges will be covered through an unusual multipayer model -- combining grant funding and library funding where possible. When an author doesn't have funding to support open-access publishing costs, the library will cover these costs.

"We feel very good about the deal," said Anderson. "We didn't get the deep, deep cost reductions that we were looking for in 2018, so we had to compromise a little there, but we have still reduced our expenditures in a way that is meaningful and helpful."

Aside from keeping costs down, it was extremely important to the UC system that all its research be openly disseminated. 

"We've achieved the open access opportunity we wanted for all of our authors, and that was our fundamental goal," Anderson said. 

Going Cold Turkey

When big deal renewal negotiations began in 2018, the UC system made clear that it didn’t want to continue its bundled journal subscription, or big deal, with the publisher any longer. But its proposal for a new kind of big deal didn’t initially sit well with the publisher.

At just under $10.6 million in 2018, UC's previous big deal with Elsevier was expensive and supported the continued publication of paywalled research -- a business model that is at odds with the UC system’s mission of making all research open and freely accessible to the public.

Instead of paying both to access paywalled research and make individual articles open access on publication, the UC system proposed to pay one fee for both reading paywalled content and openly publishing all UC system research in Elsevier journals.

Initially, the publisher balked. The UC system wanted to pay less than it was paying in subscription fees to both read and publish research. Elsevier said it could potentially combine the costs of accessing and publishing but could not offer a two-for-one deal.

Having reached a stalemate, the UC system decided not to renew its big deal with the publisher. Unlike some institutions that have canceled their big deals and then subscribed to a smaller number of journals, the UC system went cold turkey -- canceling all its Elsevier journal subscriptions.

Without active subscriptions to Elsevier journals, researchers within the UC system could still access older content but could not immediately access the newest paywalled research, said Jeff MacKie-Mason, university librarian and chief digital scholarship officer at UC Berkeley, who also helped to lead negotiations for the UC system with Elsevier.

Instead of subscribing to Elsevier's journals, the UC system implemented what it calls "alternative access," said MacKie-Mason. "It's possible to get legal access to every article, and there are multiple different ways to do that," he said. 

Emailing a study author to request a PDF, or finding earlier versions of published articles on preprint servers or in institutional repositories, are both legitimate ways of accessing content, said MacKie-Mason. Additionally, libraries in the UC system participate in interlibrary loan agreements.

If a researcher needed instant access to an article, the library would buy it for them, though that didn't happen very often, said MacKie-Mason. "The system has been working very well, but our scholars prefer direct access as it's faster and easier for them. They have been very patient and generally supportive of our overall goals. Generally, they were very comfortable with the inconvenience as long as it didn't go on forever." 

A Wider Impact?

Though the UC system successfully proved that it could get by without instant access to the newest research published in Elsevier journals, it is clear that the two parties did not want that state of affairs to continue in the long-term. 

“I’m not at all surprised that UC and Elsevier came back to the negotiating table,” said Rick Anderson, university librarian at Brigham Young University’s Harold B. Lee Library. “Elsevier was under a lot of pressure to regain access to UC’s money and authors, and I’m sure the UC libraries were under a lot of pressure from faculty to regain access to Elsevier’s content. Given that pressure, I think both side were inevitably going to give up on getting everything they wanted.”

Whether UC’s experience will impact negotiations between Elsevier and smaller institutions remains to be seen, Anderson said.

“UC has much more money and power than the great majority of universities, and that gives them more leverage than most of us would have,” Anderson said. “But they have certainly set a powerful example of standing up to a major publisher and saying, ‘This far and no further.’”

According to nonprofit SPARC, which tracks big deal cancellations as well as renegotiations, between eight and 13 libraries or consortia have canceled their big deals each year since 2016. That number seems to be holding steady, Anderson said.

“It’s clear that libraries feel more emboldened to renegotiate their big deals than they used to be,” Anderson said. “My guess is that these cancellations will continue into the indefinite future at a steady but slow trickle.”

Institutions have unique goals when negotiating with publishers, said Elaine Westbrooks, vice provost for university libraries and university librarian at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

While many institutions support open-access publications, some do not have the budget, staff or administrative systems in place to support the successful implementation of a drastically different kind of big deal to what they are used to, Westbrooks said.

In April 2020, UNC Chapel Hill decided not to renew its big deal with Elsevier, instead subscribing to a smaller number of popular Elsevier journals. In the same month, the State University of New York Libraries Consortium also canceled its big deal with Elsevier, cutting its subscription down to 248 journals. 

A year later, neither institution regrets that decision. 

“We’re still analyzing the data, but we feel really good about our decision. It's clear we picked the right journals to subscribe to,” Westbrooks said.

Westbrooks said that she discussed the possibility of an agreement that would cover reading and open access publishing costs with Elsevier but didn’t find any of the proposals acceptable.

“Our biggest challenge was always the affordability," Westbrooks said. "We desperately needed a more affordable solution.”

As UNC Chapel Hill is a much smaller institution than the UC system, Westbrooks isn’t holding her breath for a call from Elsevier to restart negotiations.

“I have not approached them, and they haven’t approached me,” she said.

With 10 campuses, the UC system has a lot of negotiating power. It is also able to share administrative burden, costs and risk, said Westbrooks. While she is pleased that there are institutions working hard to change “a system that isn’t working for us,” she notes there “could be unintended consequences we just don’t know about yet” in signing these more experimental agreements -- particularly around which institutions and scholars do or do not get to participate.

It is impressive that the UC system managed to negotiate the inclusion of subscription journal content at no extra cost, said Mark McBride, senior library strategist in the Office of Library and Information Services in the SUNY system. He noted that both sides appear to be assuming some risk, which "is the mark of a good partnership," he said.

McBride said he would be interested to find out more about how the administrative side of UC's multipayer model will work. "Will it fall onto the backs of the libraries to process thousands of article processing charge invoices?" he asked. "What will the billing look like on Elsevier's end?" 

Though it also strongly supports open scholarship, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is pushing for a different kind of agreement with Elsevier -- one that aligns with the principles it laid out in a framework for publisher contracts. The agreement between UC and Elsevier raised some concerns for Chris Bourg, director of MIT Libraries.

“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,” Bourg said in an email.

It's great that UC authors will be able to publish their work openly, Bourg said. But she believes there is a risk that diversity and inclusion in scholarship will suffer if this type of deal becomes standard.

“From what we’ve seen in the public statements from both UC and Elsevier, I don’t think MIT is interested in pursuing a similar deal with Elsevier,” Bourg said.

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