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Europe’s open-access drive escalates as university stand-offs spread

Sweden is latest country to hold out on journal subscriptions, while negotiators share tactics to broker new deals with publishers.

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Aerial view of people reading at desks at the National Library of Sweden

At Sweden's national library, negotiators bargaining over open-access terms are holding out on subscriptions to journals from the publisher Elsevier.Credit: Sharon Hahn Darlin/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Bold efforts to push academic publishing towards an open-access model are gaining steam. Negotiators from libraries and university consortia across Europe are sharing tactics on how to broker new kinds of contracts that could see more articles appear outside paywalls. And inspired by the results of a stand-off in Germany, they increasingly declare that if they don’t like what publishers offer, they will refuse to pay for journal access at all. On 16 May, a Swedish consortium became the latest to say that it wouldn’t renew its contract, with publishing giant Elsevier.

Under the new contracts, termed ‘read and publish’ deals, libraries still pay subscriptions for access to paywalled articles, but their researchers can also publish under open-access terms so that anyone can read their work for free.

Advocates say such agreements could accelerate the progress of the open-access movement. Despite decades of campaigning for research papers to be published openly — on the grounds that the fruits of publicly funded research should be available for all to read — scholarly publishing’s dominant business model remains to publish articles behind paywalls and collect subscriptions from libraries (see 'Growth of open access'). But if many large library consortia strike read-and-publish deals, the proportion of open-access articles could surge.

Sources: Universities UK (2017)/M. Laakso & B-C. Björk BMC Med. 10, 124 (2012).

“There is a serious ground for change across Europe,” says Koen Becking, chief negotiator for the VSNU, a consortium of 14 institutes in the Netherlands. In 2014, the VSNU was the first national group to negotiate a subscription deal that included rights for its scholars to publish all of their work openly. It has since agreed several more that include varying levels of open publishing. Consortia in Austria, the United Kingdom, Sweden and Finland have struck similar deals, and Switzerland will start to negotiate its first open-access contracts this year. A survey by the Brussels-based European University Association, published in April, reported that, last year, 11% of negotiating consortia in Europe made deals that took into account open-access publishing costs, but 63% planned to do so in the future.

On 2 May, negotiators from countries across Europe agreed to align their bargaining strategies at a closed meeting in Berlin attended by the European Commission’s special envoy for open access, Robert-Jan Smits. According to Gerard Meijer, one of the German negotiators present, consortia are “frustrated” by the lack of progress in talks and feel the limits of partnerships between institutions and large publishers “have been reached. It is up to us now to act, and to step out of these negotiations if these are going nowhere,” he says.

The meeting was the latest in a string of events in which negotiators from different countries swapped tactics. “More and more people are willing to share their experiences,” says Matthijs van Otegem, director of the library at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, and chair of the open-access working group at the Association of European Research Libraries (LIBER) in The Hague, the Netherlands.

In September last year, LIBER published a list of principles to guide negotiators seeking to change their deals. These include ending non-disclosure agreements that publishers customarily place on contracts (which would enable negotiators to compare deals in different countries) and not agreeing to price hikes without open-access agreements in place. The EUA has also set up international meetings after hearing concerns about the difficulties of thrashing out new deals, says the association’s director of research, Lidia Borrell-Damian.

A key driver behind the activity in Europe is the European Commission’s goal that, by 2020, all research will be freely accessible as soon as it is published. Dutch negotiators have been tasked with brokering a deal that meets this vision. In Sweden, negotiators have set themselves the target of complete open-access research by 2026, and in Switzerland the planned date is 2024.

But word is spreading outside Europe, too: last month, negotiators in Germany travelled to South Korea to discuss their work with consortia there, and representatives from the University of California system attended the Berlin meeting. And a global alliance called OA2020, coordinated from Germany, has gained signatures from more than 100 scholarly organizations across the world that say they want to shift their funds away from subscription publishing to support open-access payments.

Deal or no deal

The situation in Germany has shown that ‘no deal’ is an option, van Otegem says. Since 2016, a university consortium there has refused to shake hands on a deal with Elsevier. Despite the stand-off, the publisher has not stopped German scholars from accessing its journals — suggesting that universities need not fear researchers’ wrath if negotiations stall. Since then, other consortia have also announced 'no deals' with publishers (see 'Contract disputes').

Contract disputes

At least four European consortia, representing libraries and universities, say they have failed to agree contracts with academic publishers to subscribe to their content.

Country

Consortia

Disputes

The Netherlands

Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU)

No agreement with Royal Society of Chemistry Publishing (March 2018)

Germany

Projekt DEAL

No agreement with Elsevier (since December 2016)

Sweden

Bibsam Consortium

No agreement with Elsevier (May 2018)

France

Couperin

No agreement with Springer Nature for its Springer journals collection (March 2018)

One reason that libraries no longer fear an end to their contracts with publishers is that a growing number of free versions of paywalled articles can be found online as preprints or accepted manuscripts, notes Heather Joseph, executive director of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), an advocacy group in Washington DC. Sci-Hub, a website that illicitly hosts full copies of papers and is used by academics around the world, is also a big factor, says Joseph Esposito, a publishing consultant in New York City. “Without Sci-Hub the researchers would be screaming at the libraries and state agencies not to cut them off,” he says.

Costs are a major sticking point in the stand-offs. A spokesperson for the Royal Society of Chemistry's publishing arm, for instance, says that its current dispute with the VSNU revolves partly around the difficulty of reaching "an agreement which makes the transition to open access sustainable". (Other publishers approached by Nature’s news team declined to comment on details of specific negotiations.)

Consortia are generally unwilling to discuss whether the read-and-publish contracts work out to be more expensive, but some say they don’t want to agree to any contracts that require above-inflation price rises. And in the United States, where open access has less political impetus than in Europe, libraries are trying to save money by cancelling ‘big deal’ contracts — comprehensive, but expensive, contracts for access to large bundles of journals — in favour of à la carte access to the journals their academics use the most. This has happened before, but is now occurring with increasing frequency, according to a list collated by SPARC.

Steven Inchcoombe, Springer Nature’s chief publishing officer, says that some deals that combine reading and publishing costs have been brokered in northern Europe because of strong support for open access from research funders, institutions and governments. But unless more money is available to pay for such deals, they are unlikely to become more popular in the future, he says. “It is in everyone’s interest to solve this,” he adds. (Nature’s news team is editorially independent of its publisher.)

If the stand-offs continue, the VSNU’s Becking thinks that negotiators might end up striking deals, but might also simply stop bargaining with particular publishers. In that case, universities could encourage researchers to disseminate their work on alternative platforms, he says.

Nature 557, 479-480 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-05191-0
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Updates & Corrections

  • Correction 21 May 2018: The original image for this article showed Stockholm's public library, not Sweden's national library as stated. It has been replaced.