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.