Publisher, university clash stokes debate

University of California // Special to Western News

The decision by University of California – whose 10 campuses are the source of about 10 per cent of Elsevier’s American research content – has set the industry abuzz. A spokesperson for a coalition of U.S. open-access advocates told sciencemag.org it was impossible to overstate the significance of the boycott in the United States.

The decision by one of the world’s largest university systems to end its relationship with the world’s largest scholarly publisher is just as much a clash over universal open access as it is about unsustainable costs, according to postsecondary libraries officials.

The University of California announced last week it had reached an impasse with Elsevier, which publishes more than 2,500 journals, after eight months of negotiations. At issue, University of California officials said, was Elsevier’s proposed fee model that would have seen authors pay publishing fees on top of the university’s $11-million annual subscription fee.

The decision by University of California – whose 10 campuses are the source of about 10 per cent of Elsevier’s American research content – has set the industry abuzz. A spokesperson for a coalition of U.S. open-access advocates told sciencemag.org it was impossible to overstate the significance of the boycott in the United States.

This is a complex issue that has been part of a larger conversation across the globe for decades, said Catherine Steeves, Western’s Vice-Provost and Chief Librarian.

“It is important to note that the UC decision is as much about a commitment to universal open access as it is about unsustainable costs,” she said. “It is a strong statement in favour of the transformation of the scholarly publishing model to an open-access model, a transformation in scholarly communications that a generation of librarians and scholars have been advocating for.

“Western Libraries is working towards open access (for scholarly research) and engaging with national and international partners to who support a move to a more sustainable publishing model.”

Western has been working, in part, through the Canadian Association of Research Libraries (CARL), the Canadian Research Knowledge Network (CRKN), the Association of Research Libraries, the U15 and Universities Canada.

The U15 published a statement in 2017 that committed to “the widest possible access to research and scholarly outputs,” unfettered by an institution’s ability to pay for that access.

Western Libraries also has issued a statement of support for open access and is host to 30 open-access scholarly journals and the institutional open-access repository, Scholarship@Western.

Founded in 1880, Elsevier is the largest of about five big research publishing houses. Its flagship products include VirtualE, ScienceDirect, Scopus, Scirus, EMBASE, Engineering Village, Compendex, Cell, SciVal, Pure, and Analytical Services, The Consult series, and online versions of many journals including The Lancet.

Western negotiates licences for those journals through a national consortium which helps hold costs down.

Western Libraries continue to review journal subscriptions in consultation with faculty to assess what resources researchers need access to, what the most cost-effective forms of access are and what funds are available to provide that access, Steeves said.

Serials accounted for 79 per cent of Western’s total acquisitions budget in 2017-18 – about $12 million out of $15.1 million. Of that total, Elsevier accounted for about $2.4 million.

For decades, publishers’ economic model and profit margins have been under the microscope, as has the broader principle of a publisher’s imposing paywalls on publicly funded research. In the past two years, universities in Germany, Sweden and Hungary have stopped paying for Elsevier’s journals.

The evolution to digital publishing has shifted the conversation and helped provide critics with additional traction for alternative models, Steeves said.