9 January: Since this story was published, Elsevier has granted a one-month access extension — until the end of January — to those Taiwanese universities that had cancelled their online subscriptions. Negotiations between the Taiwanese consortium of university libraries, CONCERT, and Elsevier have resumed.

Thousands of scientists in Germany, Peru and Taiwan are preparing for a new year without online access to journals from the Dutch publishing giant Elsevier. Contract negotiations in both Germany and Taiwan broke down in December, while Peru’s government has cut off funding for a licence.

“It’s very unpleasant,” says Horst Hippler, spokesperson for the DEAL consortium of state-funded universities and research organizations, which is overseeing negotiations in Germany. “But we just cannot accept what Elsevier has proposed so far.”

Universities regularly complain about the rising costs of academic journals, and sometimes threaten to cancel their subscriptions. But negotiators usually strike a deal to avoid cutting researchers off. Last year, for example, a consortium of 14 universities in the Netherlands threatened to boycott Elsevier if it could not agree that articles by Dutch authors would be made open access. In the end, it thrashed out a compromise: 30% of its Dutch papers will be open access by 2018. And this month, a Finnish consortium that could not agree on terms with major publishers including Elsevier settled for a one-year extension deal while talks continue.

That hasn’t happened in Germany or Taiwan. In Germany, the DEAL consortium was supposed to broker its first nationwide licence agreement for the beginning of 2017. It wants all German-authored articles to be made open access. But Hippler says that Elsevier’s proposed contract cost too much, and didn’t include an open-access clause. Negotiations ended in December without agreement; Hippler says they are likely to resume in January. Asked for comment, an Elsevier spokesperson pointed to a 2 December statement that said the publisher had “made suggestions for a path to open access publishing in Germany”, and that it looked forward to resuming talks in 2017. Elsevier declined to comment further on details of the negotiations.

Closed access

Before the DEAL collective formed, German institutions had negotiated their own contracts with Elsevier individually. Hundreds of universities are still on multi-year individual contracts, so are not yet affected.

But for more than 60 institutions, access licences ran out at the end of 2016. In October, assuming that a nationwide deal would be struck, they decided not to automatically renew. Now, academics in those institutions are set to lose access: in some cases only to articles published from the start of 2017 onwards, but in others, to archived issues too. At the University of Göttingen, for example, researchers will not have access to archived content in economics journals. The affected institutions could choose to renew their individual licences, but seem content to ride out the lack of access while DEAL negotiations continue.

Elsevier and the DEAL consortium, says Hippler, are still far apart with regards to pricing and the OA business model. “Taxpayers have a right to read what they are paying for,” he says. “Publishers must understand that the route to open-access publishing at an affordable price is irreversible.”

In Taiwan, meanwhile, more than 75% of universities, including the country’s top 11 institutions, have joined a collective boycott against Elsevier, says Yan-Jyi Huang, library director at the National Taiwan University of Science and Technology (NTUST, also known as Taiwan Tech).

On 7 December, the Taiwanese consortium, CONCERT, which represents more than 140 institutions, announced it would not renew its contract with Elsevier because fees were too high. Elsevier switched to dealing with universities individually. But the NTUST and many others — including Taiwan’s leading research institute, Academia Sinica — have each decided to uphold the boycott, from 1 January 2017. “In the spirit of camaraderie with the other schools, the Taiwan Tech library has decided to join the collective boycott against Elsevier with other top universities in Taiwan,” an NTUST statement says.

Alternative access routes

The problem is not as dramatic as it might seem because it is now easy to access many newly published papers in a free-to-read format outside of commercial publishers’ websites, says Ralf Schimmer, a librarian at the Max Planck Society in Munich, Germany (whose Elsevier licence has not yet expired). “There are many perfectly legal ways to obtain scientific papers from open-access platforms, neighbouring institutes or directly from the authors,” he says.

The affected universities in Germany are offering scientists access through inter-library loans — which is also the approach being taken in Taiwan, says Huang. The NTUST, for example, has applied to join an international ‘rapid inter-library loan’ service hosted by Colorado State University Libraries, which already has members in Taiwan, Singapore, and Australia, as well as across the United States.

In Peru, researchers are also set to lose online access to Elsevier’s Science Direct and Scopus platforms from 2017 because of a lack of government funding. But some scientists there say that it’s not a problem, because they can get the papers they need illegally from the Sci-Hub website. “I’m not worried. Downloading papers is rather easy now with Sci-Hub,” says one plant biologist who doesn't want to be named.

Exactly why Peru’s government isn’t providing the funds to its National Council for Science, Technology and Technological Innovation (CONCYTEC) for access to Elsevier’s products is not clear. CONCYTEC announced the problem on 14 December, but declined to comment on why funding was cut off. “The cancellation is a simple result of a lack of government funding,” an Elsevier spokesperson adds. Josmel Pacheco-Mendoza, a bibliometrics researcher at the San Ignacio de Loyola University in Lima, suspects that it may be a combination of government funding shortfalls and high subscription costs: the government spent nearly $10 million for a three-year licence, he says.

Peru had until recently been eligible for free or low-cost access to major science journals under an initiative called HINARI, set up by the World Health Organization. But because of its economic growth, the country lost that route in 2012. At that time — before CONCYTEC stepped in with a national licence starting in 2014 — researchers “had to start begging for papers” through social media groups or from colleagues in foreign universities, the plant biologist says. Now everyone uses Sci-Hub, he adds. “I’m 30 years old, and I would say that around 95% of my generation uses it.”

But other Peruvian scientists say they’re reluctant to use Sci-Hub, and that it cannot be a permanent solution to their lack of access. “I hope the government realizes that databases are important,” says Dionicia Gamboa, a molecular parasitologist from Cayetano Heredia University in Lima. Losing access, she says, is a step backwards.