The scientific publication system is in the middle of a transition from publication in subscription-based journals to open publication on the internet – open access. The problem is that the financing system is still based on the old model, with payment of subscription fees to the publishers.
In addition to these licence fees for reading, publishers have also begun to charge for online publication – known as an article processing charge (APC, see fact box). For higher educational institutions (HEIs), this has led to escalating costs.
Desire to take control of costs
Swedish researchers publish approximately 4,000 articles in Elsevier’s journals each year. In the last few years, the licence fees have increased by 3.75 per cent per year. In 2017, the HEIs paid a total of 130 million in licensing costs for reading, and 13 million in APCs. Since 2016, Sweden’s Bibsam Consortium has negotiated with Elsevier for better terms, but ended up terminating the agreement from 1st July.
Astrid Söderbergh Widding, president of Stockholm University, is the chair of the Bibsam Consortium’s steering group and is leading the negotiations with the publisher.
“We need to change the system of scientific communication because of the rising costs for both licences and APCs. These high prices are depleting state research funds to the benefit of commercial enterprises. We must take control of the costs, and we believe the time is ripe now that Germany has set the example, and there are also other countries in the pipeline”, she says.
Elsevier has defended the price increases
“The number of articles submitted to Elsevier increases by ten per cent each year, and the number of articles we publish increases by five per cent. For the past fifteen years, we have had the lowest price increases compared to other commercial publishers, despite the fact that both the number of articles and their quality – measured in terms of the number of citations – are increasing. We also invest part of our profits in new products and services”, explains Gemma Hersh, who is vice president of open science at Elsevier and has been involved in the negotiations with the Bibsam Consortium.
Demands for open access to a sustainable pricing model
Sweden is demanding immediate open access for publishing and reading access to all Elsevier’s journals in accordance with a long-term sustainable pricing model that makes the transition to open access possible.
“This means that we are willing to pay for open access publishing, but in exchange we would like a lower fee for reading access so that the costs will not continue to increase. We already have such an agreement with another major publisher, Springer Nature”, says Anna Lundén, head of unit at the National Library of Sweden and a member of the Bibsam Consortium’s negotiating delegation.
In the long term, the objective is to completely move over to open access publishing, which, with the current pricing model, would only involve APCs with no costs for reading.
“We are happy to pay for the publisher’s services, but not to read that which Swedish researchers have produced themselves”, says Anna Lundén.
Elsevier’s offer was not enough
For the amount that Sweden would be able to invest, Elsevier offered what they call gold open access – immediate open publishing – for approximately two thirds of all published articles. The reading fees, however, would continue to rise, and the discount that Sweden would have initially received on APCs would decrease with time.
“Really, Elsevier wants to continue to charge for both publication and reading. This means that the costs would continue to increase. This resulted in the unanimous agreement of Sweden’s heads of educational institutions that the agreement should be terminated”, says Anna Lundén.
Gemma Hersh explains Elsevier’s pricing model.
“For gold open access, we charge a publication fee. However, 85 per cent of all articles are still published in accordance with a subscription model. Countries that take the lead with gold open access must therefore continue to pay to read the majority of the subscription articles. But Elsevier supports open access. It is something we have invested a lot in, and we offer both gold and green open access for all our journals”, she says.
Articles can be accessed in different ways
For Swedish researchers, the termination of the agreement means that, since 1st July, they have not been able to read new articles published by Elsevier via the educational institution’s library. There are, however, alternative ways of accessing the articles – for example, by means of parallel publishing and interlibrary loans.
Access to articles published between January 1995 and June 2018 remains unchanged. There has been a mixed response from researchers.
“Some are critical because they do not have access in the usual way, but many take a positive view and support both the termination of the agreement and our objective of moving towards open access”, says Anna Lundén.
Other European nations considering termination
At present, it is unclear for how long the interruption of reading access will continue.
“I expect the negotiations to resume in the autumn. We heads of European educational institutions have a lot of contact with each other in order to monitor developments. Within the EU, there is now the view that research financiers also have a responsibility. If they begin to demand open access publication, the publishers will be forced to flip the system”, says Astrid Söderbergh Widding.
Germany is demanding 100 per cent open access and reading access without any cost increases. Up to 200 German educational institutions have been without contractual agreements since 2016/17. Since Sweden terminated its agreement, even more German universities have been excluded.
Finland had similar demands to those of Germany and Sweden, but chose to sign an agreement with a 50 per cent discount on APCs with an annual increase in the cost of licences. Norway, the Netherlands, Austria and Switzerland have announced that they are considering taking the same approach as Germany.
In some countries, there are also research protests whereby researchers refuse to act as reviewers or editors for articles that are to be published in Elsevier’s journals, for as long as the publisher does not apply open access. The first such protest – ‘Cost of Knowledge’ – was made in the UK in 2012, and Finland has seen the ‘No deal, No review’ initiative.