Thoughts about the University of California/Elsevier agreement

Claire Stewart, Dean of Libraries shares her thoughts on the UC/Elsevier agreement and what it means for Nebraska
Claire Stewart, Dean of Libraries shares her thoughts on the UC/Elsevier agreement and what it means for Nebraska

The following message was sent from Claire Stewart, Dean of Libraries to the Libraries Faculty Senate committee:

There was an announcement made on March 16 that the University of California system and Elsevier have reached an agreement, after a prolonged negotiation that saw UC walk away from the table and cancel its subscriptions in 2019 with the support of all of the UC campus faculty library committees. I thought I would share a few thoughts, as briefly as I can, given the density of the topic! Please feel free to forward this message and know that I am happy to have further conversation about this in any setting at any time. As you know from the recent Q&A I gave to Nebraska Today, sustainable scholarly publishing and scholarly communications reform is at the top of my list of concerns and an area of priority focus for the Libraries.

Some basic information:

This agreement shifts from a traditional subscription agreement that provides read access to Elsevier titles to one that covers both reading access and open access publishing for all UC researchers. This is one type of agreement sometimes referred to as a 'publish and read' model, a type of ‘transformative agreement’ that attempts to accelerate and increase open access publishing, while also holding the line on costs to the university. Read and publish is only one way to achieve open access (OA): for a primer on OA and the various paths to achieve it, I highly recommend this 2020 article by two UNL Libraries faculty: Mering, Margaret, and Casey D. Hoeve. 2020. “A Brief History to the Future of Open Access.” Serials Review 46 (4): 300–304. I think they've done an admirable job briefly explicating an often dense and confusing landscape.

For some fields, publishing charges to authors are nothing new, and page charges or color charges have been around for a long time. Some OA publishers cover their costs using this same mechanism, often referred to as an article processing charge or an author publishing charge, or, more commonly, just an APC. APC's are most often paid by authors themselves, usually from grant or research funds. Many federal funders, particularly in the sciences, consider these allowable grant costs. The UC/Elsevier agreement implements a shift to this model: rather than one part of the University (the libraries) paying reading costs, and another part (the faculty/researchers) paying publishing costs, there will now be a single agreement covering both, with a discount and a limit on inflation to both reading charges and per-article APC’s.

Under this new agreement, the default is OA for all articles for which a UC affiliate is the corresponding author. Any author may opt out and choose traditional, non-OA publishing, which means that only subscribers will be able to access their articles. For those that do go OA, the first $1000 in APC is paid from library collection funds. If the author has grant funds, they will cover the balance of the APC. If they do not, the library covers the balance.

Both the UC agreement FAQ and this Inside Higher Ed article are worth a review; they delve a bit more into some detail and the IHE piece captures a wider set of reactions, including some of the concerns about this model.

What does it mean for us?

UNL Libraries negotiate most of our large journal subscription packages jointly with the Big Ten Academic Alliance (BTAA), the University of Nebraska Consortium of Libraries (UNCL), or both. Our Elsevier contract is an UNCL agreement (and public in Nebraska's state contracts database), in force until the end of 2022. This year, the BTAA announced new agreements with the Public Library of Science (PLOS) and Cambridge University Press (CUP) that subsume OA APC’s within the subscription costs already paid by the Libraries. We are actively discussing additional types of sustainable agreements, including some that closely resemble the Elsevier/UC agreement. These are discussions that we hope can engage all stakeholders on campus. This is not just a Libraries issue, it is an academy issue, and it affects all of us.

As you might have guessed based on my comments in the Q&A, I have very mixed feelings about these types of agreements. On the one hand, to the extent that APC-based publishing is already established, these agreements can help cap and streamline those payments. On the other hand, in many cases this model perpetuates a system that continues to funnel very large amounts of money to the same actors who have created our highly dysfunctional and inequitable (my view) scholarly publishing system. They get most of their content for free. They benefit from significant free labor in the form of peer review. There is very little evidence that the APC charges are reasonable approximations of the actual cost to publish. Although publishers do add value, their own market reports show that they enjoy very high profit margins, all at our expense. There is remarkable consolidation in this sector. These companies have used their market position (and monopoly on important parts of the scientific record) to extend into owning new parts of the scholarly workflow.

APC-based open access is not the only path. Here at UNL we have a very strong and proud tradition of providing open access to Nebraska research through the Digital Commons, one of the largest and most heavily used institutional repositories in the country. We also operate a publishing service, as do many of our peer libraries. Many successful open access journals do not charge any fees to authors. Many university presses are also investing in open access. Although these important services cost money to operate, the costs are a fraction of what we spend for subscriptions from large scholarly publishers. At the very least, I would like to see us continue, but ideally to significantly extend, our investments in these important venues.

The choices we make in this area are important, and they should be made according to what makes sense for the University of Nebraska, financially and to advance our research and teaching mission, including our commitment to create a more just and equitable world.

The Libraries new strategic plan includes a commitment to accelerate open scholarship. A foundational tactic for this objective is to "Develop values-based principles for collection development that increase investment in underrepresented areas, support ethical corporate practices, advance openness, and resist monopolization and enclosure." In fall 2019, shortly after I arrived here, the Libraries endorsed the MIT Framework for Publisher Contracts. We hope our own statement of values sets a base for renewed effort to do good, and to create a more equitable future. We very much look forward to collaborating with you on these critical goals.