Huge US university cancels subscription with Elsevier

University of California system and Dutch publisher fail to strike deal that would allow researchers to publish under open-access terms.

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The Geisel Library building at the University of California San Diego

The University of California system produces 10% of published research in the United States.Credit: Mike Blake/Reuters

The University of California — the United States’s largest public university system — has cancelled its subscription with Dutch publishing giant Elsevier after months of negotiations over a proposed deal that would have allowed university researchers to publish in Elsevier journals under open-access terms.

The move is the latest in an escalating global row between scholarly publishers and academic institutions, which are pushing to make more of the scientific literature freely available and say that the costs of publishers’ subscriptions are becoming unreasonably expensive.

The University of California (UC) is the first US institution to have completely cancelled its subscription with Elsevier because of such negotiations.

“UC will embolden other institutions to take a hard line,” says Joseph Esposito, a senior partner at publishing consultancy Clarke & Esposito in Washington DC. “Some will be willing to walk away from deals.”

Esposito argues that pirate-paper site Sci-Hub has undermined the ability of some publishing firms to continue operating as they have before.

Tug of war

UC had been seeking to strike a ‘read-and-publish’ deal that would have allowed its researchers to read papers from the publisher, as well as to publish in Elsevier journals under open-access terms. Conventional licensing deals cover only the cost of accessing paywalled articles.

But the university — which publishes nearly 10% of US research papers — said on 28 February that it would not renew its contract, because Elsevier was demanding too high a price for the deal. UC’s latest subscription with the publisher expired on 31 December, and researchers’ access to Elsevier journals had been extended while negotiations continued.

UC pays about US$11 million a year to Elsevier in subscription fees, and the publisher wanted to increase the cost by about 80%, according to the institution’s calculations, said Jeffrey MacKie-Mason, co-chair of the UC negotiating team, in an interview with Berkeley News, a website maintained by the university.

In a statement to Nature’s news team, Elsevier called UC’s decision “disappointing”, and said that it had offered a model in which researchers could publish for free or open access and provided a path to reduce the costs for each UC campus.

In the past few years, stand-offs between academic publishers and institutes have increased in Europe, where a growing number of publishers have struck read-and-publish deals with university consortia.

Other US institutions, including Florida State University in Tallahassee, have cancelled major subscription deals with Elsevier over concerns about costs, but have continued to pay for access to a small subset of journals.

Researchers in European countries, including Sweden and Germany, have been without access to new papers in Elsevier journals for months, while national library consortia try to negotiate new deals.

‘Short-term pain’

Some UC researchers welcomed the institution’s decision. “I’m ecstatic,” says Jeffrey Ross-Ibarra, a plant geneticist at the University of California, Davis. “I think it was the right call.” He predicts “some confusion and short-term pain” as researchers determine how to access articles without a subscription.

Jay Keasling, a chemical engineer at the University of California, Berkeley, has mixed feelings about the situation. A lot of students and scientists won’t have access to publications, he says. “On the other hand, Elsevier is a bit of a monopoly and I totally get where the university is coming from. I wish they could have gotten to some point of agreement.”

Keasling, co-editor-in-chief of the Elsevier journal Metabolic Engineering, worries that UC’s break from the publisher will affect the quality of Elsevier’s publications. “Will people quit reading the journals? Will people not want to publish on them?”

Despite the cancellation, UC academics will still have access to much of Elsevier’s back catalogue and will lose access only to articles published in Elsevier journals since the expiry of the institution’s licence, because of contract clauses that cover ‘post-termination access’.

Elsevier, headquartered in Amsterdam, publishes nearly 3,000 journals, which together issue more than 400,000 papers each year. UC, which has 10 campuses across California, says that 18% of its researchers’ published studies are in Elsevier journals.

Nature 567, 15-16 (2019)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-00758-x

Additional reporting by Emiliano Rodríguez Mega.

Updates & Corrections

  • Update 01 March 2019: This story has been updated with comments and further details.

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