Scholars seek open access in academic journal deal


A coalition of around 200 German institutions and libraries is boycotting the academic publishing house Elsevier  in an attempt to secure open access and fair pricing.

Under the banner of Projekt DEAL, a spontaneous grouping of universities, universities of applied science, research institutes, and state libraries is seeking to negotiate nationwide licensing agreements with three major academic publishers for their entire e‑journal portfolios. About a third of the participating institutions canceled their subscriptions during 2017 and the remainder did so on 1 January 2018.

Projekt DEAL proposes a novel Publish&Read model that would (Schäffler 2017):

  • make all articles by authors from eligible institutions open access on publication (under a Creative Commons CC BY license) — the Publish component
  • allow eligible institutions perpetual access to the complete e‑journal portfolio of the publisher in question — the Read component

In return, the participating institutions would agree:

  • fair pricing using an innovative formula based solely on the number of articles published and calculated on the basis of an adequate article processing charge (APC)
  • once yearly payments and transparent contracts
  • any academic institution or library in Germany can sign on

Springer Nature and Wiley have already agreed in principle, but Elsevier is holding out. Negotiations with Elsevier began in 2016. Elsevier’s position on the dispute is outlined in this report from ScienceMag.org (Vogel 2017).

Research organizations supporting the ban include all three Berlin universities, the Centre for European Economic Research (ZEW), and the Bavarian State Library. Despite their contracts expiring, Elsevier has said that all institutions will keep their access while the negotiations continue (Schiermeier 2018).

Cambridge University mathematician Tim Gowers said the developments in Germany are showing that academic institutions can negotiate from a position of strength. “Personally, I hope that the current impasse will last indefinitely, so that other countries will see that scientists can manage without expensive ‘Big Deals,’ and publishers will be forced to adopt much less exploitative business models,” he said.

The German Federal Antitrust Authority (Bundeskartellamt) has cleared the process in relation to competition law (Schäffler 2017). Otherwise this might look like an attempt by German institutions to exercise monopsony power (a buyer’s monopoly).

Academic publishing has been transformed by the internet. Authors now do the bulk of the typesetting and editors and reviewers work without payment. Frustration over both costs and access has been building, particularly in light of the high profits that academic publishers make (Buranyi 2017). Elsevier made 36.8% profit in 2016, significant by any standard (RELAX Group 2017:5).

Tom Brown, a postdoctoral researcher at the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies, whose institution is also part of the boycott, believes that “some of the blame for the current situation lies with researchers themselves”. He advocates that “whole editorial boards should start their own open journals, all the software tools for managing such journals are freely available online”.

Indeed, renowned scientists within the Projekt DEAL coalition have started to resign from Elsevier editorial boards and direct their efforts toward pure open access publishing (Beckmann 2017).

Projekt DEAL is set against the backdrop of a growing number of open access science policies both within Germany and from the European Commission. The rebellion is also part of a worldwide movement with similar actions in Finland, Peru, South Korea and Taiwan (Wikipedia).

Elsevier Corporate Communications did not respond when contacted for their position on the boycott.

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