Elsevier open access row escalates as California academics quit posts

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The UC System and Elsevier have remained at loggerheads over the open access issue for months.

By U2B Staff 

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Thirty-one University of California (UC) academics have quit their Cell Press posts to protest the breakdown in negotiations between Dutch publisher Elsevier and the university system over subscription costs and open access to articles.

As leading figures in their fields, the move is expected to ramp up pressure on Elsevier to pander to the demands of the system, whose academics produce 10 percent of all academic papers in the US. 

Heather Joseph, Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition executive director, described the resignations as a significant development in the open access movement. 

“Any time faculty members are educated and energised enough to take a stand like this, it’s a huge plus,” she said in a Times Higher Education (THE) report.


In announcing their decision, the academics said they were taking a stand due to the “current lack of a contract” between UC and Elsevier.

The high stakes standoff between both parties has resulted in them losing access to the company’s library of some 2,500 scientific journals and research published in Cell Press as well as other Elsevier publications.

“Pending the signing of a new contract with UC, we wish to inform you that we are suspending our editorial services to Cell Press journals. We very much hope to hear of an appropriate resolution and resume our productive relationships with Cell Press,” they concluded in the three-paragraph statement.

The 10-campus US system had in January refused to renew its contract with Elsevier unless the publisher agreed to following: universal open access publishing at a reasonable price, allowing taxpayer-funded research conducted at its campuses to be freely available to everyone in the world.

According to reports, UC’s proposal would cut an estimated 10 percent off the US$11 million a year that it currently pays Elsevier.

Talks broke down when Elsevier reportedly agreed to expand its open access offerings but not to prominent titles such as Cell and The Lancet. It also said it would not reduce the US$11 million annual fee.

Pending negotiations, the publishing giant continued to allow UC’s online access to publications for a period, but all that ended it last month with no clear resolution in place. 

UC Berkeley library
UC currently pays US$11 million a year to access Elsevier’s publications. Source: Shutterstock

This put UC academics in a bit of a bind; UC Berkeley professor James Hurley who helped organise the resignations said no one thought at first that the impasse would continue for this long.

“We thought this would resolve itself, and everyone went back to their work and didn’t pay too much attention,” Hurley said in THE.

“It became more real when the access was actually cut off in July.”

He said Elsevier was failing to recognise the contributions of UC’s academics to its publications, with hundreds who serve on its editorial boards and thousands more who write and review its articles. This, he pointed out, is on top of the US$11 million the system pays the publisher in annual fees.

“If they don’t recognise that that’s part of the value that UC contributes, then we need to publish elsewhere,” said Hurley, who has served on the boards of Cell and three other Elsevier journals.


Matthew Welch, the UC Berkeley professor who helped draft the letter, said the mass resignations were the academics’ way of drawing attention to the issue and pressuring the parties into working out a resolution.

“This is not going to affect the day-to-day operation of the journals in a tangible way. but it would send a message to the journals that we don’t have to participate in this process if the university is unable to successfully negotiate with them in good faith,” he said in a UC Berkeley report. 

“We have lots of other choices, as far as where we exert our efforts and submit our papers.” 

Whether or not the resignations will lead to a resolution, however, remains to be seen. This isn’t the first or only such setback Elsevier is facing, nor is it expected to be its last.

Complaints against the firm’s subscription models can be traced as far back as 2012, when 17,000 academics signed a petition accusing it of charging “exorbitantly high prices” and “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. 

But the firm has yet to take a major hit from these developments; Elsevier’s stock price has dropped 3 percent following second-quarter earnings but its last quarterly report by parent company RELX shows its operating profits remain at 36 percent.