Led by vice chancellors, Dutch universities have recently announced plans for a country-wide boycott of the academic publisher Elsevier. Such a boycott has the potential to be a significant game changer in the relationship between the research community and the world’s largest academic publisher. But how will it affect open access momentum in the UK and around the world? Here we have brought together two expert views on the subject. Danny Kingsley, the Head of Scholarly Communication at University of Cambridge and Steven Harnad, longtime advocate for open access, share their views on what the Dutch boycott can hope to achieve.
Dutch boycott of Elsevier – a game changer?
Danny Kingsley welcomes the potential boycott as a university-backed means to break the stranglehold Elsevier have on the research community. Meanwhile, hybrid open access journals, many of which Elsevier have launched in response to UK open access policy, continue to place a significant burden on budgets.
A long running dispute between Dutch universities and Elsevier has taken an interesting turn. Last week Koen Becking, chairman of the Executive Board of Tilburg University who has been negotiating with scientific publishers about an open access policy on behalf of Dutch universities with his colleague Gerard Meijer, announced a plan to start boycotting Elsevier.
As a first step in boycotting the publisher, the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU) has asked all scientists that are editor in chief of a journal published by Elsevier to give up their post. If this way of putting pressure on the publishers does not work, the next step would be to ask reviewers to stop working for Elsevier. After that, scientists could be asked to stop publishing in Elsevier journals.
The Netherlands has a clear position on Open Access. Sander Dekker, the State Secretary of Education has taken a strong position on Open Access, stating at the opening of the 2014 academic year in Leiden that ‘Science is not a goal in itself. Just as art is only art once it is seen, knowledge only becomes knowledge once it is shared.’
Dekker has set two Open Access targets: 40% of scientific publications should be made available through Open Access by 2016, and 100% by 2024. The preferred route is through gold Open Access – where the work is ‘born Open Access’. This means there is no cost for readers – and no subscriptions.
However Gerard Meijer, who handles the negotiations with Elsevier, says that the parties have not been able to come close to an agreement.
Why is this boycott different?
It is true that boycotts have had different levels of success. In 2001, the Public Library of Science started as a non-profit organization of scientists ‘committed to making the world’s scientific and medical literature freely accessible to both scientists and to the public’. In 2001 PLoS (as it was then) published an open letter asking signatories to pledge to boycott toll-access publishers unless they become open-access publishers. The links to that original pledge are no longer available. Over 30,000 people signed , but did not act on their pledge. In response, PLOS became an open access publisher themselves, launching PLOS Biology in October 2003.
In 2012 a Cambridge academic Tim Gowers started the Cost of Knowledge boycott of Elsevier which now has over 15,000 signatures of researchers agreeing not to write for, review for, or edit for Elsevier. In 2014 Gowers used a series of Freedom of Information requests to find out how much Elsevier is charging different universities for licence subscriptions. Usually this information is a tightly held secret, as individual universities pay considerably different amounts for access to the same material.
The Boston Tea Party, an early American boycott of British goods (Wikimedia Public Domain)
The 2015 Dutch boycott is significant. Typically negotiations with publishers occur at an institutional level and with representatives from the university libraries. This makes sense as libraries have long standing relationships with publishers and understand the minutiae of the licencing processes . However the Dutch negotiations have been led by the Vice Chancellors of the universities. It is a country-wide negotiation at the highest level. And Vice Chancellors have the ability to request behaviour change of their research communities.
This boycott has the potential to be a significant game changer in the relationship between the research community and the world’s largest academic publisher. The remainder of this blog looks at some of the facts and figures relating to expenditure on Open Access in the UK. It underlines the importance of the Dutch position.
UK Open Access policies mean MORE publisher profit
There have also been difficulties in the UK in relation to negotiations over payment for Open Access. Elsevier has consistently resisted efforts by Jisc to negotiate an offsetting deal – where a publisher provides some sort of concession for the fact that universities in the UK are paying unprecedented amounts in Article Processing Charges on top of their subscriptions because of the RCUK open access policy.
Elsevier is the world’s largest academic publisher. According to their Annual Report the 2014 STM revenue was £2,048 million, with an operating profit of £762 million. This is a profit margin of 37%. That means if we pay an Article Processing Charge of $3000 then $1,170 of that (taxpayers’) money goes directly to the shareholders of Elsevier.
The numbers involved in this space are staggering. The Wellcome Trust stated in their report on 3 March 2015 The Reckoning: An Analysis of Wellcome Trust Open Access Spend 2013 – 14: ‘The two traditional, subscription-based publishers (Elsevier and Wiley) represent some 40% of our total APC spend’.
And the RCUK has had similar results, as described in a Times Higher Education article on 16 April 2015 Publishers share £10m in APC payments: “Publishers Elsevier and Wiley have each received about £2 million in article processing charges from 55 institutions as a result of RCUK’s open access policy”.
Hybrid open access – more expensive and often not compliant
Another factor is the considerably higher cost of Article Processing Charges for making an individual article Open Access within an otherwise subscription journal (called ‘hybrid’ publishing) compared to the Article Processing Charges for articles in fully Open Access journals.
In The Reckoning: An Analysis of Wellcome Trust Open Access Spend 2013 – 14, the conclusion was that the average Article Processing Charge levied by hybrid journals is 64% higher than the average Article Processing Charge of a fully Open Access title. The March 2015 Review of the implementation of the RCUK Policy on Open Access concluded the Article Processing Charges for hybrid Open Access were ‘significantly more expensive’ than fully OA journals, ‘despite the fact that hybrid journals still enjoyed a revenue stream through subscriptions’.
Source: Robert Kiley (2015). The Reckoning: An Analysis of Wellcome Trust Open Access Spend 2013-14 (CC BY)
Elsevier has stated that in 2013 they published 330,000 subscription articles and 6,000 author paid articles. There is no breakdown of how many of those 6,000 were in fully open access journals and how many were hybrid. However in 2014 Elsevier had 1600 journals offering their hybrid option, and 100 journals that were fully open access (6%). Note that the RCUK open access policy came into force in April 2013. It would be interesting to compare these figures with the 2014 ones, however I have been unable to find them.
While the higher cost for hybrid Article Processing Charges is in itself is an issue, there is a further problem. Articles in hybrid journals for which an Article Processing Charge has been paid are not always made available at all, or are available but not under the correct licence as required by the fund paying the fee. Here at Cambridge, the five most problematic publishers with whom we have paid more than 10 Article Processing Charges have a non compliance rate from 11-25%. With this group of publishers we are having to chase up between three and 31 articles per publisher. This takes considerable time and significantly adds to the cost of compliance with the RCUK and COAF policies.
According to the March 2015 Review of the implementation of the RCUK Policy on Open Access, ‘Elsevier stated that around 40% of the articles from RCUK funding that they had published gold were not under the CC-BY licence and are therefore not compliant with the policy’ (p19).
We support our Dutch colleagues
In summary, the work happening in The Netherlands to break the stranglehold Elsevier have on the research community is important. We need to stand by and support our Dutch colleagues.
This piece originally appeared on the University of Cambridge’s Unlocking Research blog and is reposted under CC-BY.
Netherlands Boycotting Elsevier To Sustain Bloat
Steven Harnad argues that even with the boycott, universities around the world will continue paying subscriptions — not just to Elsevier, but to all other publishers. And VSNU, too, must continue paying subscriptions to all other publishers whose journals Netherlands users need. The far more natural route is for universities to mandate Green OA self-archiving, rather than lock themselves into increasingly unaffordable subscriptions in the form of membership fees.
Sander Dekker, Netherlands’ State Secretary for the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science wants Open Access and has set some deadlines for how soon he wants it for Netherlands. That’s fine. But the Netherlands’ Sander Dekker, like the UK’s Finch Committee, wants Gold Open Access. That means Universities must pay Elsevier’s asking price for Gold OA. Elsevier’s asking price is a price per article that will maintain Elsevier’s current total net subscription revenue.
Elsevier’s current total net subscription revenue is enormously bloated — not only by huge profit margins (c. 40%) but by obsolete product and service costs forcibly co-bundled into the price (print edition, online edition, access-provision, archiving). The Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU) has a consortial Big Deal subscription with Elsevier, and they have said they will continue to pay it if Netherlands authors can have Gold OA for their articles at no extra charge.
Image credit: Kate Arkless Gray/Wellcome Trust – CC-BY
This is basically trying to transform a bloated subscription deal into a bloated Gold OA membership deal, rather like SCOAP3. The reasons this transformation cannot work globally are many, but locally it can be made to work, for a while, by fiat, if VSNU collaborate and Elsevier agrees.
And on the surface it is not obvious why Elsevier would not agree, since it looks as if the deal would give Elsevier exactly what it wants: current revenue levels per Elsevier article will be maintained, but with the Netherlands paying its share not as subscriptions but as memberships, in exchange for Gold OA for Elsevier articles by Netherlands authors.
But what about the rest of the world? They continue paying subscriptions — not just to Elsevier, but to all other publishers. And VSNU, too, must continue paying subscriptions to all other publishers whose journals Netherlands users need.
Would this local Netherlands solution be stable, sustainable and scalable?
The answer is that it would be none of these — and Elsevier knows that perfectly well. And that explains why they are not eager to make this local Gold membership deal with VSNU (even though Springer has been trying to encourage the consortial Gold membership model for its subscribers) — and why VSNU is contemplating asking Elsevier editors at Netherlands institutions (and eventually all Elsevier authors in Netherlands) to boycott Elsevier unless Elsevier makes this transition to Gold
A Gold consortial membership model is unstable, unsustainable and unscalable because memberships, like subscriptions, are locally cancellable — by an institution or a country — and because there are other (competing) publishers in the world.
And membership would be unstable and unsustainable even if the scalability problem could be magically surmounted by a global “flip” in which all institutions on the planet and all publishers on the planet solemnly agree jointly to go from their current subscriptions to Gold OA memberships for all their journals with all their publishers at their current subscription price all on the same day.
The very next day the system would destabilize, with cash-strapped institutions cancelling their “memberships” to journals that their users needed to use but in which their authors published little, preferring instead to pay for publishing by the piece for the few articles they publish in them.
This would in turn destabilize the sustainability of yesterday’s subscription revenue streams via memberships, which would mean that membership fees would have to increase for the non-defecting institutions to sustain all publishers’ net revenue, which would in turn mean that institutions would be paying more for memberships than they had been paying for subscriptions.
And the Global Consortial Gold Membership Deal (which is in reality a global producer oligopoly sustained by a global consumer consortium) would begin unravelling the moment it was “flipped.” Trying instead to get there more gradually, institution by institution, publisher by publisher, journal by journal rather than via a miraculous global “flip” instead destabilizes the scalability of the Gold membership model rather than just its sustainability. Institutions as well as publishers would be participating in a multi-player prisoner’s dilemma, with defection always being the optimal choice.
But this is also the relevant point to recall that there is another way to give and get OA, namely, Green OA self-archiving: For institutions struggling with bloated, unaffordable journal subscription prices, the far more natural route is to reduce subscriptions to just their users’ must-have journals and to mandate Green OA for their own publication output, rather than to lock themselves into increasingly unaffordable subscriptions in the form of membership fees in exchange for Gold OA for their own institutional publication output.
This, of course, is exactly why publishers are trying so hard to embargo Green OA: Not because the survival of refereed journals is at stake but in order to hold publication hostage to either current bloated subscriptions or bloated Gold OA fees that sustain the same net revenue either way they are paid. That way the bloated asking price price will never go down and the costs of the obsolete products and services can continue to be forcibly co-bundled into the asking price.
But publishers know perfectly well that they are fighting a battle that they will ultimately lose, and that all they are doing now is whatever they can to sustain their current revenue levels as long as possible, with the vague hope that piece-wise Gold OA fees might continue to sustain the bloat as unstable, unscalable and unsustainable consortial “memberships” could not.
So publishers continue conning the likes of Sander Dekker into believing that today’s bloated Fool’s Gold OA is the only way to have OA, and that Green OA would destroy journals altogether, so it must be embargoed. And VSNU thinks it is fighting the good fight by threatening another embargo against Elsevier unless they agree to Fool’s Gold consortial OA membership for the Netherlands.
A stable, scalable, sustainable solution, of course, is within reach, through a transition to affordable, unbloated Fair Gold induced by first universally mandating and providing Green OA (there is even an antidote for publishers’ embargoes on Green OA) — but neither Sander Dekker nor VSNU are grasping it.
This piece originally appeared on Steven Harnad’s personal blog and is reposted with permission.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Impact of Social Science blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our Comments Policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.
Danny Kingsley is Head of Scholarly Communication at the University of Cambridge
Steven Harnad currently holds a Canada Research Chair in cognitive science at Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) and is professor of cognitive science at the University of Southampton. In 1978, Stevan was the founder of Behavioral and Brain Sciences, of which he remained editor-in-chief until 2002. In addition, he founded CogPrints (an electronic eprint archive in the cognitive sciences hosted by the University of Southampton), and the American Scientist Open Access Forum (since 1998). Stevan is an active promoter of open access.