University of California ends subscription contract with Elsevier

By: | March 19, 2019
UC Berkeley is among the 10 University of California System institutions that have chosen to quit Elsevier. (Source: gettyimages.com: nothjc)UC Berkeley is among the 10 University of California System institutions that have chosen to quit Elsevier. (Source: gettyimages.com: nothjc)

After months of negotiation, the University of California has ended its $10 million subscription contract with Elsevier, the world’s largest scientific publisher, headquartered in Amsterdam. UC cited the rising costs associated with for-profit journals, as well as a desire to allow open-access publishing of UC research.

While the move was backed by UC President Janet Napolitano and widely supported by faculty, it left some wondering if imposing a financial loss to Elsevier would be a Pyrrhic victory if it becomes more difficult for University of California researchers to access peer-reviewed scholarship from other institutions.

“UC scholars—researchers and students—will experience varying degrees of inconvenience,” acknowledges Jeff MacKie-Mason, university librarian and chief digital scholarship officer. “But there are legal ways to access all articles without a subscription. So they will still be able to read the scholarship they wish.”

However, depending on the access method, which varies by article, there may be a delay and additional cost.

Alternative paths

Elsevier has published about 15 percent of content open access, MacKie-Mason says, so no subscription is needed. Also, the public can access as much as 50 percent of Elsevier articles in preprint freely and legally. The articles also come in the form of “author accepted manuscript” from a public server. That means Elsevier has accepted or peer-reviewed the article. But hasn’t provided final edits and formatting, and has not transferred the copyright.

Other options for researchers include requesting a legal fair-use copy of a study directly from the author or through interlibrary loans. Researchers can also purchase single articles without a subscription, typically at a cost of $24 per article.

“The faculty at UC—of which I’m one, by the way—have long advocated for full open-access publishing of our largely publicly funded research,” MacKie-Mason says. “So the faculty have expressed a willingness to experience short-term inconvenience to support a long-term aspirational goal for the good of society.”

University leadership has not taken a position on whether UC scholars should continue to publish their work in Elsevier’s journals.“That is a decision for faculty to make on their own,” MacKie-Mason says. “However, a number of UC faculty have organized a petition drive to establish a boycott. Faculty who sign are committing to not submit papers to Elsevier journals, perform editorial duties or perform peer review.” The petition, at Change.org, currently has nearly 600 signatures. These include some from outside the university system.

The University of California Is Not alone

Since the University of California’s announcement, other entities have also ended their Elsevier contracts. These include research universities in Germany, Sweden, Hungary and Norway.

What about other U.S. institutions?

“We are in discussions with a number of U.S. institutions that are contemplating seeking similar terms to what UC is seeking, and who are contemplating cancelling if they do not achieve those terms,” MacKie-Mason says. “More are contacting us every day.”