When collaborations go bad: Why the Elsevier boycott is a lesson in compromise

SOURCE: PolyPloiid/Shutterstock
Elsevier is a multibillion-dollar company who thought they held all the cards. But the latest boycott has become a case study in how not to work with universities.

By Emma Richards 

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Scholarly publishers have one of the most essential, longstanding and secure relationships with universities – or so you would think.

While companies like Elsevier are inextricably linked to the academic success of a university, they are fast learning they are not indispensable as universities fight back over soaring costs and unfair practices.

With negotiations with the world leading publisher ground to a halt, universities the world over have been refusing to be bullied by Elsevier’s monopoly on the market and are instead jumping ship and looking elsewhere.

Elsevier is a multibillion-dollar company who thought they held all the cards. But the latest boycott has become a case study in how not to work with universities.

Where did it go wrong?

Not long ago it would have been unthinkable for universities to walk away from a publisher as powerful as Elsevier, but academics have had enough and have grouped together to wield their collective power.

Back in 2012, among the first to act in an official capacity were over 17,000 academics who signed a petition against Elsevier on the premise that they “charge exorbitantly high prices” and are “exploiting” universities.

In 2016 universities in Germany stopped paying their subscription, followed later by Sweden and then Hungary.

At the end of 2016, around 60 universities and research centres ended their subscriptions, and by the beginning of 2018, approximately 200 institutions had parted ways with the publisher. Several key American universities, including the University of California – are also following suit.

What are they angry about?

The frustration with the Dutch publisher can be summed up in a few words – cost and open access.

Even with the boycotts and the cancellations, Elsevier still made a whopping US$1.18 billion in 2017. This rose to US$1.24 billion in 2018, giving the publisher a profit margin of 37.1 percent, according to annual financial results filed by parent company RELX.

The University of California (UC) alone paid them US$11 million last year.

The costs are so high in part because Elsevier charges institutions for both publishing journals, and subscription costs to access those journals. This apparent double-charge has made it a very lucrative business, but priced many institutions out of the market.

“Make no mistake: The prices of scientific journals now are so high that not a single university in the US – not the University of California, not Harvard, no institution – can afford to subscribe to them all,” UC librarian and economics professor, Jeffrey MacKie-Mason, said in a statement.

And he’s not wrong. In 2012, even the very affluent Harvard University complained that its US$3.5 million-a-year subscriptions bill was “untenable.”

According to financial results from parent company RELX, Elsevier made $1.2 billion in 2018. Source: Casimiro PT/Shutterstock

What’s more, they don’t actually help fund any of the research they publish. The majority of research is funded by the government – i.e. the taxpayer. But for the regular taxpayer to have access to that research, they will likely be met with a paywall from the publisher. In other words, they are paying twice, which becomes a real problem for less wealthy academics and smaller institutions.

But academics want to change this, and their push for open access was one of the sticking points with Elsevier. UC listed the issue as the main reason it cut ties with the publisher.

“Knowledge should not be accessible only to those who can pay,” said Chair of UC’s Faculty Academic Senate, Robert May. “The quest for full open access is essential if we are to truly uphold the mission of this university.”

But Elsevier refused to budge on their position, despite the mounting pressure.

Compromise is key

While Elsevier’s unwillingness to compromise has been a detriment to them, it is a boon for other scholarly publishers.

Elsevier may be the biggest in the market, but it is far from the only one. Seeing an opportunity, Wiley – the US-founded global publisher – compromised to offer universities what they were asking for.

In January this year, after nearly three years of contract negotiations, a consortium of nearly 700 German libraries, research institutes, and universities signed an agreement with the publisher – one that moves the publishing industry towards more open access.

Project DEAL, as the consortium is called, signed the three-year agreement which allows institutions to both publish open access articles and read any papers in the publisher’s journals for a single fee.

“With Wiley, we found a publisher on the other side of the table that was willing to make this transition [to open access] in partnership with us,” said molecular physicist at the Fritz Haber Institute of the Max Planck Society and a member of the DEAL negotiations team, Gerard Meijer.

“We consider the contract with Wiley as a blueprint for the contracts that are going to follow.”

DEAL weren’t the only ones switching sides. In the last few months, both Norway and Hungary have successfully come to an agreement with Wiley, both citing the publisher’s acceptance of open access as the overriding reason.

The door, however, was not completely closed on Elsevier – all countries are still open to talks – but it is on the firm condition that the publisher move with the times.

“The university’s, and the world’s, move toward open access has been a long time in the making,” said Associate Executive Director of UC’s California Digital Library and co-chair of UC’s negotiation team, Ivy Anderson.

“Many institutions and countries agree that the current system is both financially unsustainable and ill-suited to the needs of today’s global research enterprise.

“Open access will spur faster and better research — and greater global equity of access to new knowledge.”

You live, you learn

Anderson is not alone in believing open access is the future and, as of late-April, it appears one important player agrees with her. On April 23, Elsevier announced a EUR9 million (US$10 million) agreement with a national consortium of universities and research institutions in Norway.

A first for the publisher, the deal consolidates the cost of “read and publish” into one payment rather than the double charge of previous contracts. The payment will cover access to the publisher’s journals as well as approximately 2,000 open-access articles that the consortium – named Unit – expects Norwegian academics to publish annually.

In a statement released after the deal signing, Roar Olsen, Director of Unit, said:

“We are very pleased to have signed this groundbreaking pilot agreement that enables Norwegian researchers to read and publish in the vast majority of Elsevier’s high-quality journals.

“The data harnessed will be invaluable in gaining a deeper understanding of what can be achieved when a publisher and consortium work so closely together.”

Elsevier finally joins the likes of Springer Nature, Wiley, and Taylor and Francis, all of whom have struck similar read and publish deals in recent years.

While publishers have been slow to embrace the new model, it seems after years of negotiations academics are finally getting their hard-won victory.