World’s largest scientific publisher cuts access to UC in battle over digital sharing

Months after the University of California ended negotiations with the largest publisher of academic and medical literature in the world, the publisher this week began cutting the university’s access to its content, starting with articles published this year.

The stalemate ends a decades-long partnership between publisher Elsevier and one of its largest customers – and spotlights a battle of the giants over how academic research is shared in the digital age.

Elsevier, based in Amsterdam, disseminates nearly 20 percent of journal articles written by UC faculty, in publications including Cell and The Lancet. Its articles were downloaded nearly 1 billion times a year by students, faculty, researchers and medical professionals.

But now, more than 350,000 UC researchers and students are losing access to the most current articles as Elsevier rolls out the changes, because university officials claimed Elsevier was charging too much for access – a claim that Elsevier denies.

UC and its California Digital Library were paying $11 million a year to subscribe to Elsevier’s journals. UC terminated its partnership with the publisher in February, and Elsevier this week began cutting access to content published after December 2018.

“This decision was not made lightly,” read a statement from Elsevier Senior Vice President Gemma Hersh, who served on the team negotiating with the UC’s library. “It saddens us, because we believe it will have a negative impact on the UC’s renowned research community and because lack of our services will prevent UC students, faculty, researchers and medical professionals benefiting from reliable, real-time access to peer-reviewed, published research.”

Elsevier says claims about price hikes are inaccurate, and that the publisher provided the exact service it always had at the same costs adjusted for inflation. Elsevier said it was committed to decrease publishing costs at each campus library.

Most research articles are published under a digital pay-to-read or subscription model. Libraries contract with digital publishers, usually for bulk access to content. The public can buy access to individual articles for about $30-$40 each.

Researchers at institutions like UC typically get a better deal: Before the partnership between Elsevier and UC ended, UC’s California Digital Library paid Elsevier for a subscription, and UC researchers, faculty and students could access articles for free.

But the University of California argued that this model restricted access to its researchers’ work. It wanted all publications to be free for everyone – not just those affiliated with the university.

As Elsevier and the UC haggled, Elsevier introduced an alternative “open access” model in which authors pay to publish their articles, and everybody reads them for free.

Elsevier said it supported both the pay-to-read and open access options, and wanted every researcher to be able to choose.

But the university said that under the new structure, UC authors would have to pay large publishing fees “resulting in much greater cost to the university and much higher profits for Elsevier,” according to a statement from the UC Office of the President.

MacKenzie Smith, UC Davis librarian and vice provost for digital scholarship, said that in some cases, Elsevier was being paid twice – once by authors through open access, and once through subscription access to the same content — and that overall the cost was too high.

During negotiations, UC pushed for a hybrid “publish and read” model, according to Smith. This model combines subscription and open access: The more an institution’s authors publish their content open access, the less it pays for its subscription. UC said it wanted an agreement under which 100 percent of UC authors would publish open access.

“Despite months of contract negotiations, Elsevier was unwilling to meet UC’s key goal: securing universal open access to UC research while containing the rapidly escalating costs associated with for-profit journals,” read a statement from the UC Office of the President in February.

Elsevier said it tried for six months to come up with a solution that worked for both partners, and at one point offered to increase by fivefold the content that UC researchers publish in the open access model, while continuing to provide all other Elsevier content for UC users to read under the old deal. California Digital Library negotiators rejected it, they said.

“We believe this stalemate was avoidable,” Hersh said. “We understand that the libraries are under cost pressure, but we don’t believe the solution is to cancel subscriptions to high quality information providers.”

UC said in a news release that its scholars still have access to most pre-2019 content under its old agreement.

Now, if a researcher without a subscription needs to access a post-2018 paper on Elsevier, the price is about $30 per article to get past the paywall.

Libraries like UC Davis are working to inform everyone, particularly faculty and graduate students, how to access published work without paying for it.

UC suggested several alternatives, including directly contacting the author or searching for open versions via web browser plugins or the Google Scholar search engine. Also, it said, librarians can access Elsevier articles through interlibrary loans.

Pirate sites offer content that violates copyright policies; Smith says the university recommends only legal means.

“It’s more work for the library, but once the faculty gets used to the new ways, it should be business as usual,” Smith said. “Some people are worried about their productivity being impacted.”

Karen Bales, a UC Davis professor of psychology and chair of the Academic Senate Research Committee, said she doesn’t expect productivity to be affected, but faculty will have to plan ahead for when they need to access Elsevier content.

“It may take us a little longer to access articles, since in the past that’s been instant,” Bales said. “But our librarians have done an awesome job communicating with faculty about all of our options.”

Other institutions have canceled their Elsevier contracts, including in Germany and Sweden, but Elsevier reached new agreements with universities in Norway, Hungary and Poland.

Smith acknowledged that UC’s move carries risks for its researchers, but “we are going to have to transition” to change the business model throughout the academic world.

“We are long overdue,” Smith said. “It won’t be easy, but it will be the right thing to do.”

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Sawsan Morrar covers school accountability and culture for The Sacramento Bee. She grew up in Sacramento and is an alumna of UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She previously freelanced for various publications including The Washington Post, Vice, KQED and Capital Public Radio.