Research publishing companies’ high fees can limit access to information. Now, a group of UC faculty is vying for a new contract with publisher mogul Elsevier to make UC research available to all.
You’re working on a research project. You’re passionate, motivated. But every time you click on an article that looks useful or interesting, you get blocked by a publishing company’s pay wall.
An alliance of faculty, administrators, librarians and researchers is trying to make UC research available to anyone with internet access.
The UC is negotiating with scientific research publishing company Elsevier to push for open access to its articles across the world. In doing so, it joins the ranks of institutions spearheading the open access movement, including Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Germany’s Max Planck Society.
The UC’s five-year contract with Elsevier ended on Dec. 31, but as negotiations continue, Elsevier journals remain accessible.
UC’S STAKE IN THE NEGOTIATIONS
The UC is fighting for two goals — open access publishing and contained subscription costs. In fall 2018, the UC announced its pursuit of a financially sound, open access agreement with publisher Elsevier.
“One of the ways to make sure research has [an] impact is for people to be able to read it,” said UC Santa Cruz university librarian Elizabeth Cowell, who also serves as the chair of the Council of University Librarians (CoUL). “The work we’re doing is for the broader community and [UC research] should be available.”
UC researchers publish 10 percent of U.S. annual research output. When authors publish open access, students, educators and science hobbyists around the world can read high-quality, peer- reviewed research from UC authors.
Created in 2018 by the CoUL, the Elsevier Task Force is representing the UC in the negotiations.
“We’re on a public mission to make the results of science available to the world,” said UC Elsevier Task Force co-chair Jeffrey MacKie-Mason.
ELSEVIER, A PUBLISHING TITAN
A student undertaking scientific research will likely encounter Elsevier.
Elsevier is one of the most influential publishers in the world. In 2018, U.S. researchers downloaded over 100 million Elsevier-published articles, according to the Elsevier website. McHenry Library currently provides access to 239 Elsevier-published journals, on subjects ranging from accounting to cardiology to geochemistry. Elsevier-published articles are also used in UCSC classes, like Disease Ecology, Marine Ecology and Biological Anthropology.
The company’s ScienceDirect platform offers over 15 million publications — but most are only available to scholars associated with a high-paying university. Without that connection, most Elsevier- published research papers are inaccessible.
In 2017, Elsevier’s annual revenue was about $3.2 billion, with about $2.3 billion coming from subscription fees. According to the RELX Group, Elsevier’s parent company, Elsevier retained a 22.6 percent net profit margin that year — more than either Apple or Google’s net profit margins for the same year.
UC librarians reference Elsevier’s impact in the academic community as a reason for the importance of the negotiations.
“They are a huge publishing company,” UCSC science librarian Christy Hightower said. “They control a lot that our faculty interact with. So that does make them a company to watch.”
POTENTIAL CONTRACT CHANGES
In its previous contract, the UC paid a subscription fee for access to publications, allowing students and faculty to conduct research using Elsevier-published articles. If a UC author wanted to publish open access in an Elsevier journal, there was an additional per article fee, ranging from $1000 to $5000. Fees can be paid by author grant money or designated UC funds.
The model the UC has proposed, called a “read and publish” deal, would combine the subscription and open access costs. The UC would pay an annual publication fee to Elsevier, and anyone, with or without an affiliation, could read UC researchers’ work free of charge. Neither Elsevier nor the UC task force could estimate the expected cost of this model at time of press. This change would render the public university’s research work public.
“The big problem is that [Elsevier] pays [its] costs through making people pay to read, setting up a paywall or subscriptions,” said Jeffrey MacKie-Mason, who is also the university librarian and information and economics professor at UC Berkeley. “That means that only those who can afford it can […] read the final publications.”
UC’S MISSION FOR OPEN ACCESS
The UC’s negotiations with Elsevier are part of a larger commitment to open access. The UC Open Access Policy, adopted in 2013, places an emphasis on the UC’s duty as a public institution to make information available to anyone who needs it. Christy Hightower sees the push for open access scholarship as a service to the community. “Open access really speaks […] to the idea that if you can’t afford to get access to crucial information, that makes a have and have-not society,” Hightower said. “So
open access is also a social good.”
The unsustainable economics of the current subscription model are another driving factor for the UC in the negotiations. Elizabeth Cowell, the university librarian at UCSC, pointed out the need for containing subscription costs. “We’re at this point right now because libraries cannot continue to support increasing licensing fees with our flat and/or decreasing budgets,” Cowell said. “So even though faculty are contributing to journals, sometimes we can’t afford to subscribe to the journals they’re
According to the 2018-19 UC budget,
subscription costs have risen more than 320 percent since 1996. For the past two years, the UC has paid over $10 million in annual subscription fees to Elsevier.
Elsevier acknowledged the budget constraints the academic community is facing. But the company believes the value of the curated research they publish justifies the subscription costs.
“We’ve been dropping our per unit costs almost every year. All we can do is compete, right?” said Tom Reller, spokesperson and head of media relations for Elsevier “We want to continually provide more and better content for less price per unit, and that’s what we’ve been doing.”
Despite reductions in per unit costs, subscription costs remain high.
As negotiations continue, the UC will stick to its goals — anything less would lead to an unaffordable, pay walled future, said Elsevier Task Force co-chair Jeffrey MacKie-Mason.
“We’re getting impatient,” MacKie- Mason said. “It’s been going on too long, the costs are getting too high for subscriptions and we’re just slowing down the progress of science around the world.”