Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Q&A with FinELib, the consortium of Finnish Universities, Research Institutes and Public Libraries

On 17th January FinELib, a consortium of Finnish Universities, Research Institutes and Public Libraries, announced that it has signed an agreement with Elsevier to provide access to around 1,850 journals on Elsevier’s ScienceDirect platform.

Valued at 27 M euros, the three-year contract applies to 13 Finnish universities, 11 research institutions and 11 universities of applied sciences.

In addition, to support Finland’s goal of transitioning to open access publishing, Elsevier and FinELib have initiated an open access pilot program intended to encourage Finnish researchers to publish their articles open access.

The open access pilot, which offers researchers a 50% discount if they publish OA in Elsevier journals, will be available for all corresponding authors in organisations that are parties to the agreement and covers 1,500 subscription journals and over 100 fully open access journals.

Observers were quick to point out that the agreement is far from comprehensive. As Ulrich Herb put it on his blog, since Elsevier publishes a great many more journals (2,967) than are included in the deal, “Finnish researchers can neither read all Elsevier journals nor publish open access in all of them at reduced prices.”

Unsurprisingly, therefore, the news was greeted with little enthusiasm by Finnish researchers, who also expressed irritation at the shortage of detail about pricing (despite the fact that no NDA has been signed). 

And they were quick to point out that, instead of facilitating a transition to OA, the deal will likely embed hybrid OA into the Finnish publishing landscape, helping perpetuate rather than replace the subscription system. After all, most of the journals to which the discount can be applied are hybrid (subscription) journals. 

Publishing at no cost?

Concern increased when researchers discovered that the University of Helsinki is already paying 50% of the APC when faculty publish OA in Elsevier journals. Combined with the FinELib deal this would seem to allow researchers at the university to publish in Elsevier’s hybrid OA journals at no cost, giving the legacy publisher a big advantage over pure OA journals. As Leo Lahti tweeted, “On top of 50% Elsevier OA (hybrid & full) discount @helsinkiuni pays remaining 50%: Elsevier is now free (and cheaper than full OA) for a researcher.”

When I emailed the University to check that its researchers would indeed be able to publish in Elsevier hybrid journals at no cost the response I received did not address the question directly but pointed out that researchers rarely pay APCs themselves.

In the meantime, the University had posted a long explanation on its blog that does seem to confirm (amongst other things) that faculty will be able to publish in the designated Elsevier journals at no cost: “Open publishing at the University of Helsinki in the Elsevier publications is free of charge for researchers as the university pays for the second half of the APC.” (Google Translate).

Explaining the rationale for this, the post added that it is “a pragmatic solution aimed at getting centralised information on take-up as a result of the Elsevier agreement and how much it is increasing the University’s costs.”

Strangely, the post goes on to re-affirm the University’s position that hybrid publishing is not recommended.

Disappointment is all the greater in light of the fact that during the negotiations Finish researchers created a #nodealnoreview website where people could commit to boycotting the publisher if it failed to offer a satisfactory deal. More than 2,700 researchers signed up, although a boycott never went ahead (more details here), and it seems unlikely it will go ahead now despite unhappiness over the deal. [Please see the correction to this in the comments below].

Like other national licensing consortia, FinELib has been negotiating with a number of legacy publishers, but it is Elsevier that has proved most obdurate in all cases. This has seen the publisher in a standoff with national consortia on a number of occasions, both over access to ScienceDirect and over agreement on a satisfactory formula for transitioning to OA. 

In the process, the publisher has on occasion cut off access to its journals (or threatened to), and consortia have on occasions threatened not to renew their licensing contract and/or researchers have threatened to boycott the publisher and/or resign from editorial boards – e.g. in Germany, the Netherlands, Taiwan and South Korea.

Invariably, however, these countries have eventually capitulated and signed an agreement with the publisher, always it seems on terms they are unhappy with. As Kim Eun Sung, a librarian at Sogang University in Seoul explained to Science recently, “Even though we are not entirely happy with the proposed rate increase, we must still consider the importance of ScienceDirect journals for our professors’ research”.

Finland is, therefore, just the latest to capitulate, agreeing to a deal that Cambridge mathematician Timothy Gowers has characterised as a disappointing Dutch-style deal. “It looks to me as though it’s probably roughly what they had before but with some discounts on APCs thrown in.”

The one country that continues to hold out is Germany, which turned down an offer from Elsevier last March, and subsequently outfaced the publisher when Elsevier cut off access to its service (access that was later renewed without a deal being agreed). 

And the negotiators of Project DEAL (as it is called) continue to insist that they will not back away from their demands for a nationwide Publish & Read contract with Elsevier, one they expect to include fair pricing, open access for all the Elsevier papers authored by researchers at German institutions (“publish”), and perpetual full-text access to Elsevier’s complete e‑journal portfolio (“read”). 

Real sticking point

Pricing aside, the real sticking point in Europe is the extent and degree of the open access element in the deals being negotiated, and the way in which this will facilitate a transition to OA.

In other parts of the world, the focus appears to be exclusively on the cost of access to ScienceDirect, with less (or no) attention given to open access. One Taiwanese researcher I contacted was intrigued when I told him that in Europe open access is now viewed as integral to Big Deal negotiations with legacy publishers. He added he did not think this was an issue in the Taiwan negotiations, with the entire focus on licensing content.

How the German negotiations will end remains unclear, but some researchers in the Netherlands have come to conclude that their national negotiators should have been firmer with Elsevier. It would seem Finnish researchers feel the same way. After all, as FinELib concedes below, the aim of its negotiation with Elsevier was to achieve “100% OA without additional costs”. This has clearly not been achieved

Meanwhile, the UK – which has been paying for gold OA for some five years now – is having serious doubts about its approach. Research Councils UK (RCUK) agreed to fund gold OA (including hybrid OA) for researchers on a temporary basis. For its pains, it has seen APC costs repeatedly increase, little sign of a meaningful transition to OA, and a continuing need to pay ever-rising subscription costs. (See also here).

The problem negotiators (invariably librarians) face is twofold. First, large legacy publishers have acquired so much content and so much power that they are able to call all the shots during the renewal process. Second, most researchers are still not committed to open access, continuing to prefer to publish in traditional subscriptions journals. They also have little exposure to the costs of scholarly publishing.

In short, the research community is conflicted, divided and in a weak position vis-à-vis publishers and open access, whereas publishers are unanimous in their determination to see the money tree that scholarly publishing has become continue to flourish and grow in ways that enrich them.

And while OA advocates consistently berate libraries for not simply cancelling subscriptions and putting the money towards open access, librarians point out that they simply do not have the power to do this – as is well explained in this blog post.

The upshot: the research community continues to dangle helplessly on publishers’ hooks and finds itself having to fork out more and more money each time a contract comes up for renewal. Unless the Germans can demonstrate that it is possible to wriggle off the hook it is hard to see how things will change in the near future.

Doubtless, we will eventually see near universal open access, but as things stand it seems that this will be almost entirely on terms dictated by publishers, and at considerable cost to the research community (and thus to the taxpayer).

For further discussion of the FinELib deal with Elsevier please read the Q&A below. 

The interview begins …

RP: Can you say what FinELib is and who it represents?

FL: FinELib is a consortium of Finnish universities, research institutions and public libraries. Its mission is to secure and improve the availability of electronic resources.

RP: FinELib recently announced that it has signed a 3-year agreement with Elsevier for its Science Direct Freedom Collection. How long did these negotiations take, and in what ways did FinELib have to adjust its aspirations in the process of negotiation (as inevitably happens)? That is, what did it not achieve that it had initially hoped to achieve?

FL: FinELib started negotiations for access to the SD Freedom collection in 2016 with the goal of achieving reasonable pricing and advancing open access. At the end of 2016, an agreement was made for one year to give more time for the negotiations.

This year we reached a deal which includes an open access element (50% discount on APCs). We see this as a positive step. But, evidently, we have yet to reach the ultimate goal, which is 100% OA without additional costs. Ultimate goals cannot always be reached in as short a time as one would want to.

RP: I understand there was no NDA. Why then have so few details been released? Do you plan to release more detail in terms of what exactly has been bought for how much? If not, why not?

FL: We have published the core details of the agreement: The agreement period is 3 years, at a total cost of about 27 million euros. This gives 35 organisations access to the SD Freedom collection, and a 50% discount on APCs in Elsevier-owned hybrid and OA journals. We are looking into if and which details in addition to these can be published.

RP: If there is no NDA why do you need to establish what other details can be published? FinELib is surely free to publish whatever details it wants if there is no NDA?

FL: It is not that simple. The confidentiality of an agreement is not based on whether or not there is an NDA. At least in Finland the principle of loyalty between contracting parties needs also to be taken into account. For that reason, we prefer to make public information that according to the administrative court is public information. Public information is public regardless of an NDA.

RP: You say the cost of the deal is 27 million euros, but it is not clear what exactly this buys and how it relates to previous contracts. We know it covers access to 1,850 Elsevier journals and discounted APCs for 1,600 journals, 1,500 hybrid OA and 100 fully OA. But what researchers are asking is whether this figure represents an increase in the amount of money paid to Elsevier. If it does, how much is the increase compared to past deals, and is that increase the kind of percentage increase that renewal of Big Deals usually incurs, or is there an additional charge for the OA element? If the latter, how much of the extra is accounted for by the OA element? In other words, does the deal mean that Finland has agreed to pay APCs on top of subscriptions, and thus is paying more than for subscription access alone?

FL: With 27 million euros consortium members will have access to 1,850 journals in the SD Freedom collection for three years.

In addition, corresponding authors affiliated to the organisations that are party to this agreement have the possibility of publishing their articles with a 50% discount on the APCs. The discount is available in 1,564 hybrid journals and 104 full OA journals owned by Elsevier (please note that the SD Freedom collection and the latter list of over 1,600 journals are two different things). At the moment the discount is not available for the society owned journals published by Elsevier.

Each corresponding author who wants their article published open access needs to take care over the discounted APC payment. The FinELib consortium does not do this centrally.

RP: Does that open up the possibility that some authors might end up paying Elsevier the full APC because they are not aware of the deal?

FL: No. We have agreed on a process to check and correct any possible cases where an eligible author has not received the discount.

Two different lists

RP: I am not sure what you mean when you say that the Freedom Collection is not the same thing as the list of 1,600 journals for which an APC discount is available. Perhaps you could clarify?

FL: We are talking about two different journal lists: 1) those in the SD Freedom collection that are available for access (1,850 journals) 2) those for which a discounted APC is available (1,670 journals). These two journal lists are not the same. There are links to both lists on the FinELib website.

RP: Ulrich Herb has said the following: “It should also be noted that Elsevier publishes almost twice as many journals, 2,969: Therefore, Finnish researchers can neither read all Elsevier journals nor publish open access in all of them at reduced prices.” Is his statement correct?

FL: It is true that the FinELib consortium agreement does not include access to all Elsevier titles, only to SD Freedom titles. This has been the case in previous agreements. Elsevier is surely able to provide you the exact number of journals it publishes.

The open access discount agreed between FinELib and Elsevier is applicable in journals owned by Elsevier, not those owned by societies. Societies are welcome to join the agreement if they so wish.

RP: I note Elsevier’s web site says that in order to qualify for access to the Freedom Collection a university must first have a Complete agreement. As it says, “The Freedom Collection Journals is available to academic institutions only who have a current ScienceDirect Complete agreement. Qualifying customers will have access to all non-subscribed Elsevier journal content at a significantly reduced rate.”

This would seem to imply that all the universities/institutions in the FinELib agreement must already have a basic licensing contract with Elsevier (which would I think be more expensive than a Freedom contract). As such, perhaps, the 27 million euros cited in the FinELib press release is just a small part of what Finnish universities will be paying to Elsevier for access to its journals? Is that correct?

FL: We are not familiar with the information that you are referring to. FinELib members who are party to the FinELib agreement have no obligation to subscribe to anything else.

RP: It would seem that over 80% of the journals in the agreement are hybrid OA. I am told that many funders, including the Academy of Finland, do not recommend the use of hybrid OA. Is the deal therefore out of sync with the national consensus on OA?

FL: The Academy of Finland accepts for the moment hybrid open access, as long as it is on a temporary basis. I quote “The Academy is keen to emphasise that hybrid open access is only a temporary solution and part of the transition towards full open access publishing.”

We need all kinds of open access. We need as many publications as possible to be open in every kind of way – in green, in hybrid, in gold – to have more articles open to everybody. 

The reason we need to negotiate with publishers is that our researchers still publish in these journals, that hasn’t changed so far. That’s why it’s important we increase the amount of OA articles in hybrid journals and eventually they need to flip to fully open journals. 

Transition or stasis?

RP: Some Finnish researchers have expressed concern about the passage in the press release that says: “To support Finland’s goal of transitioning to open access publishing, Elsevier and FinELib have initiated an Open Access pilot program that stimulates Finnish researchers to publish their articles open access in Elsevier journals.” Given that the overwhelming number of journals in the deal are hybrid they assume this will only further encourage the use of hybrid OA rather than facilitate a transition to OA. Would you agree? What exactly is the transition strategy?

FL: The ultimate goal of the consortium is to have 100% OA without additional costs. This agreement adds to the number of open access articles. When the amount of open access articles is big enough in these journals, the journals need to flip.

The aim of open access agreements is also to improve and evaluate the open access publishing processes. They need to make it as easy as possible for researchers. During the negotiations with publishers, we have learned that this is not the case yet.

RP: How does the agreement conform to the plan outlined in the Finnish Open science and research roadmap 2014–2017?

FL: Open access in FinELib agreements supports many of the open science and research roadmap’s open access goals. Open access articles increase the societal impact of research, consortium deals create best practices for open access processes and improve the clarity of user rights (cc licences).

RP: How does the agreement meet the H2020 goal of 100% OA by 2020? Some Finnish researchers feel that in light of the deal the EU plan may now be unrealistic in the context of Finland? Would you agree?

FL: We fully support the 100% OA goal and want to see it happen as soon as possible. Negotiations with publishers are one way to move towards this goal, step by step.

RP: Researchers organised a collection of signatures to support the negotiations FinELib has been having with publishers, and also threatened to boycott Elsevier if a satisfactory deal was not reached. Did either of these initiatives help the negotiations? Or were they detrimental (or simply irrelevant) to FinELib’s discussions with Elsevier?

FL: It is extremely important that the open access goal is a common one for the whole research community. As negotiators, we attach great value to the support expressed by researchers.

The statements and the boycott threat have shown that open access cannot be kept separate from licensing negotiations. Many publishers are still reluctant to discuss open access without strong demands from different actors in the scientific community.

We do acknowledge that there are researchers who would have liked to see the licensing agreement being replaced by open access alone, and so are now disappointed. On the other hand, concern was expressed about potential loss of access to a large collection of scholarly journals.

Publish & Read?

RP: You said, “When the amount of open access articles is big enough in these journals, the journals need to flip.” How can you be sure that Elsevier will flip them, and at what point should they flip? You also said, “open access cannot be kept separate from licensing negotiations”. This reminds me that even if it flipped all its journals tomorrow Elsevier would continue to have a huge backfile of papers that it would expect to continue to sell subscriptions to. Would it not have made more sense for FinELib to have insisted on the Publish & Read model that DEAL are holding out for?

FL: We cannot make business decisions on behalf of Elsevier or other publishers. What we can do is to make every effort to ensure that the publishing landscape changes so that 100 % OA becomes the standard way of publishing. FinELib and DEAL share the same goals to make all publications open.

RP: For the moment, however, Finland has not achieved the kind of agreement that the DEAL negotiators in Germany are insisting on. What would you say to those who feel FinELib should have been as firm as the German negotiators?

FL: We wish DEAL every success in their open access negotiations. FinELib and DEAL share the same ultimate goals. Open access is a global issue and all efforts to increase it make a difference.

RP: What do you feel has been learned as a result of the negotiation with Elsevier, and what are the lessons for the future?

FL: Open access still needs a lot of work on all levels to make it the standard way of working. We need to improve processes, communication and data gathering.

In the research community we need to continue the discussions about how to move towards 100% open access. We need to be persistent in making open access the default in scholarly publishing.

RP: Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions.


Toma Susi said...

Thank you, Richard – I find their stance infuriating, as outlined here:

Osma Suominen said...

Minor correction:

"More than 2,700 researchers signed up, although a boycott never went ahead"

You are mixing up two consecutive campaigns. The first campaign, #tiedonhinta, signed by around 2800 people, was not a boycott, just a show of support. The second follow-up campaign, #nodealnoreview, signed by around 500 people (including myself), was a genuine boycott that was in effect for several months during the negotiations, but was called off on 29 December 2017 when it was clear that an agreement had been reached, even though the press release (co-written by Elsevier and FinELib) came a bit later. This is explained in the tweets by Heidi Laine that you link to.

Richard Poynder said...

Thanks for the clarification Osma. That was what I was trying to clarify in this tweet. It seems I misunderstood Heidi's reply.

Richard Poynder said...

FinELib has responded to the criticism that it has not been sufficiently transparent with regard to its recent deal with Elsevier here.