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Germany vs Elsevier: universities win temporary journal access after refusing to pay fees

Scientists in Germany can still read journals even though institutions there have not renewed their subscriptions.

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Central Library of Humboldt University, Berlin.

The Central Library of the Humboldt University in Berlin, which is one of around 200 institutions to have let its subscription to Elsevier journals expire.Credit: Gonzales Photo/Alamy

The Dutch publishing giant Elsevier has granted uninterrupted access to its paywalled journals for researchers at around 200 German universities and research institutes that had refused to renew their individual subscriptions at the end of 2017.

The institutions had formed a consortium to negotiate a nationwide licence with the publisher. They sought a collective deal that would give most scientists in Germany full online access to about 2,500 journals at about half the price that individual libraries have paid in the past. But talks broke down and, by the end of 2017, no deal had been agreed. Elsevier now says that it will allow the country’s scientists to access its paywalled journals without a contract until a national agreement is reached or 200 individual contracts are hammered out.

The two sides had “constructive conversations well into December”, says Harald Boersma, a spokesman for Elsevier. “We will continue our conversations in the first quarter of 2018 to find an access solution for German researchers in 2018 and a longer-term national agreement,” he says. “Where access agreements ended, we have informed these institutions that we would maintain access to our content while we continue to work with the German Rectors’ Conference [which leads negotiations for the consortium] on a solution and specifically a 1-year extension to existing contracts, covering 2018.”

Günter Ziegler, a mathematician at the Free University of Berlin and a member of the consortium's negotiating team, says that German researchers have the upper hand in the negotiations. “Most papers are now freely available somewhere on the Internet, or else you might choose to work with preprint versions,” he says. “Clearly our negotiating position is strong. It is not clear that we want or need a paid extension of the old contracts.”

Academic-publishing experts around the world are keenly observing the situation in Germany. The nationwide deal sought by scientists includes a open-access option, under which all corresponding authors affiliated with German institutions would be allowed to make their papers free to read and share by anyone in the world. This would be a milestone for global efforts to make the results of publicly funded research immediately and freely available to scientists and the wider public in all countries, they say.

Nature 553, 137 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-00093-7
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