The Rising Cost of Information: University of California Splits from Elsevier

Posted on April 3, 2019

By Georgie Donovan - Associate Dean for Collections and Content Services

An open letter has been prepared and released by the deans and directors of the seven research libraries at public doctoral institutions in Virginia. It is part of an ongoing conversation with our campus communities about responsible stewardship of our investments in research. 

On February 28, 2019, the University of California System announced the end of its relationship with publishing giant Elsevier, when a deal between the two could not be met despite months of negotiation.  The key goal for UC was to secure open access to the research that UC faculty publish with Elsevier while containing the inflation and overall cost associated with the for-profit publisher.  The scholarship produced by UC researchers constitutes 10% of all U.S. publishing, and their desideratum is to see that research openly available online at no cost to the reader. 

William & Mary has a big deal journal package with Elsevier and with a few other major journal publishers such as Springer Nature, Wiley, Oxford, and SAGE.  In December, W&M Libraries published the prices of our most expensive packages as part of our commitment to open dialogue with faculty and students about the high cost of information and priorities for faculty and student research.  The page talks about the tension between our desire to provide access to exceptional collections and the growing realization that our current publishing system is so problematic that it’s irrational, if not impossible, to continue to pour university dollars into for-profit journal publishing at the degree we are now. 

For California, Elsevier offered a renewal contract that layered new OA publication fees on top of higher costs for subscriptions, and excluded OA publishing in some of their highest profile journals including Cell and The Lancet.  In the end, the two sides could not reach an agreement and no new contract was signed by UC for subscription access to Elsevier’s lineup of over 2,500 peer reviewed journals. 

UC’s cancellation is one of the largest examples of a university system splitting from Elsevier in the U.S., though countries and consortia across Europe have made similar moves in the past few years.  In fact, a group of national research funding organizations with the support of the European Research Council announced the launch of Plan S in the fall; this coalition of major funding agencies would insist that funded research be published in open access journals or on compliant open access platforms by 2020.

“At publicly funded universities, taxpayers and student tuition dollars are paying for much of the research process, through funding positions for faculty and others who conduct research, publish articles, and manage the peer review process,” Georgie Donovan, associate dean of collections at William & Mary Libraries said.  “The amount of work that is then gifted to for-profit publishers like Elsevier is enormous.  Elsevier then sells those research articles back to us, costing taxpayers and students more money to subscribe to the same research they funded in the first place.  It’s an absurd system and a huge corporate giveaway.”

This system, however, is gradually giving way to the open access model, in which journals are supported financially by alternative means so that final, peer-reviewed work can be read by anyone, without a subscription.  Even when publishing in traditional journals, researchers in most cases can request to retain their copyrights so their work can be archived in an institutional repository like W&M ScholarWorks or a subject-based repository.  

Both self-archiving in this way and choosing to publish in OA journals are key to increasing access to research in the developing world, increasing readership, and disrupting the current inequalities inherent in the publishing world.  Open access advocates say this is not only a more logical system for research funded by the public, but a much better way of disseminating scientific discovery.  In a recent analysis of William & Mary faculty publications, journal articles that were available open access either in an OA repository such as W&M ScholarWorks or in an open access journal such as those published by PLoS, were cited 90% more than articles locked behind a publisher paywall.

The decision to put open access at the forefront of the UC System negotiation was bolstered by faculty support throughout the process as many faculty authors turned away from editing and publishing with Elsevier because of their high costs and high profit margins, history of litigation and legislative support against libraries and researchers, and aggressive acquisition and control of services and applications in all parts of the research life cycle such as SSRN, Mendeley, Berkeley Press’s Digital Commons, and Hivebench. 

UC has been in the forefront of the open access trend.  Its Academic Senate adopted an OA policy in 2013 whereby UC authors are required to deposit versions of their papers or links in the university’s eScholarship online repository, which currently holds more than 200,000 items available to the public for free.

What should William & Mary faculty and researchers do if they’re concerned about these issues?

“Communication with subject liaison librarians is crucial during this time of upheaval,” stated Marian Taliaferro, digital scholarship librarian for the Libraries.  “Though I’ve heard from several faculty who heard the news about California and were ready for us to take a similar stand, it’s critical for us to discuss how to best foster their research, scholarship, and teaching as we move toward renegotiating our Elsevier contract in concert with other Virginia schools.” 

When asked what key things faculty should understand about the UC break-up with Elsevier, dean Carrie Cooper landed on the need to act collaboratively with other universities, the commitment our Libraries have to supporting exceptional research, and the importance of self-archiving in places like W&M ScholarWorks.  “Our Elsevier contract lasts for another two years,” she stated, “but those two years will pass quickly.  We want to work now to host conversations about open access and the need for real negotiation with publishers.”  She also reinforced the power of working collectively with other universities.  “The impact of the California cancellation is tremendous because it’s such a large and complex system.  We are working with the other doctoral schools in the state of Virginia with whom we share an Elsevier contract to make a strong, collective statement about the needs of our researchers and students.” 

To share your thoughts, ask questions, or get more information from the librarians, archivists, and staff of W&M Libraries, talk with one of our faculty liaisons.  If you’re interested in going open, but are not sure where to start, learn more about open scholarship at William & Mary on our website or by emailing us.