Elsevier last week stopped thousands of scientists in Germany from reading its recent journal articles, as a row escalates over the cost of a nationwide open-access agreement.

The move comes just two weeks after researchers in Sweden lost access to the most recent Elsevier research papers, when negotiations on its contract broke down over the same issue.

Negotiators on both sides in Germany now seem to be waiting for the other to blink, says Joseph Esposito, a publishing consultant in New York City. The highly public nature of the stand-off means that "any deal Elsevier does with them becomes the de facto deal for the entire world," he adds.

Elsevier’s move to cut off access to some German researchers also provides a test as to whether the scientists can survive without a subscription deal with the mega-publisher, says Ralf Schimmer, director of scientific information at the Max Planck Digital Library in Munich, Germany. “If it comes to hardship and misery, then the negotiators might be forced back to the negotiating table.” His organization provides journal access to the dozens of Max Planck Institutes and their libraries, and its contract with Elsevier finishes at the end of this year.

Elsevier declined to comment on the move, which was reported by negotiators, some affected libraries and Germany's national university association. The Amsterdam-based company instead reiterated a 5 July statement saying it was committed to reaching a deal with the German consortium Projekt Deal, which is brokering an agreement on behalf of hundreds of Germany's universities and research organizations.

Elsevier added that it is individually contacting the research centres whose contracts have expired to find out if they want access, while negotiations continue. It publishes more than 2,500 journals, which issue in excess of 400,000 papers each year.

Subscription shutdown

The standoff was sparked by talks between Elsevier and Projekt Deal, which is pushing to create a collective subscription agreement to replace the individual deals each institution has held with the publisher.

This new type of deal would offset the cost of publishing under open-access terms against the price paid for subscriptions to paywalled journals. These ‘read and publish’ contracts have become popular in recent years, as governments in some European countries have tried to make the fruits of publicly funded science open to all.

Academic library consortia in Austria, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Sweden and Finland have all struck read-and-publish deals with various publishers — including Wiley, Springer Nature and Taylor and Francis — that cover varying parts of their portfolios. (Nature’s news team is editorially independent of its publisher, Springer Nature.) Last month, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge became the first US institution to enter into one, covering journals published by the Royal Society of Chemistry. But some national consortia are now coming up against fierce resistance from Elsevier to such contracts.

In May, talks collapsed between Elsevier and the Swedish Bibsam Consortium, which brokers deals on behalf of 85 institutions across the country. Their existing contract expired on 30 June, and some researchers in Sweden have now lost access to all Elsevier journal articles published after this date. Projekt Deal declared on 6 July that it had suspended talks with Elsevier.

Tough compromise

Negotiators in Germany and Sweden want all their papers published in Elsevier journals to be open access as part of any new contracts. They have said that they will not pay more than they did previously for subscriptions. But, until now, the Dutch publisher has offered other countries read-and-publish deals that cover only a small proportion of a country’s publishing output.

Apart from a brief shutdown in early 2017, which affected about 70 German institutions, Elsevier has provided mostly uninterrupted access to German institutions whose contracts have expired, while negotiations continue. Around 200 are thought to be affected by the latest switch-off, according to the consortium.

The affected universities and research institutes can still source missing Elsevier articles through inter-library loans from the 150 or so institutes whose contracts have not yet expired.

The pressure on Elsevier to accept a read-and-publish contract is increasing, says Bernhard Mittermaier, head of the central library at the Jülich Research Centre in Germany and a member of the Projekt Deal negotiating team. He sees the widespread shift to ‘gold’ open access — whereby journals make papers freely available once published — as inevitable. “Publishers would be well advised to take it into their own hands and flip by themselves,” he says. “Science in Germany will not break down.”

Esposito thinks that the German institutes have leverage over Elsevier because their researchers can access papers on the illicit sharing site Sci-Hub — but that does not necessarily mean that Elsevier will back down.

“The problem in finding a resolution is that the Germans insisted on conducting this negotiation in public,” which could, he says, lead to a no-deal scenario as other countries may now want the same. If the stand-off continues without resolution, Elsevier will be closely monitoring journal article submissions from researchers based in Germany, Esposito predicts. “If it drops sharply, Elsevier will likely reconsider its position.”