Comments for Times Higher Education: University of California break with Elsevier tipped to boost ‘global revolt’

Times Higher Education just published an article about the latest in the ongoing ‘Elsevier versus everyone else’ saga. It contains a quote from me, so I decided to post my full unedited response to Ellie, the writer, here for full transparency (with permission). Her questions are in italics, and my responses in normal text.

How much of a boost is this for the open access movement?

This depends on which angle you look at it. Statistically, 10% of the USA’s total publishing output is pretty huge. So for the US this is a big deal, but on a global scale still just another drop in the ocean. However, the message that it sends out is much clearer. Coming from UC, this matters, as it is a much more powerful statement. It is the latest in a global revolt against Elsevier (see e.g., Germany, Sweden, Hungary, other US libraries), and shows that the power dynamics are changing.

Do you think this might give other major US university systems the impetus to follow suit?

Yes, I do. If we look at SPARC’s big deal cancellation tracker (https://sparcopen.org/our-work/big-deal-cancellation-tracking/) we see this is just the latest in a string of libraries and institutes saying no to the big publishers. I think we are going to see a snowball effect as more universities/libraries realise they have more power when they coordinate, and that the service offered by some of these publishers is discordant with the prices they charge.

And do you think Elsevier’s new CEO might lead to changes in the company in the area of open access? Will she be under pressure to loosen their policies?

I strongly doubt that anyone at Elsevier, including their new CEO, is against OA on a personal or principled level. It is virtually impossible to make an argument against the ethical or practical value of OA. The problem that Elsevier, and its staff, have is that they are constrained by the business they operate in. They simply can’t support policies and practices that will disrupt their revenue or growth. So things like Plan S and OA in general, which can be seen to disrupt their ‘business as usual’ have to be fought against. This is why Elsevier remain one of the smallest OA publishers (6-10% tops annually is OA) and the largest barrier-based publisher. It’s just business. I think that internally many of their staff actually struggle with this tension, and want to do things better, but they simply cannot.

What Elsevier need to do is have a massive strategic rethink about their place in this system. If they are service providers, they should provide the services that researchers want in a fair and competitive environment. It is clear that they are not able to do this at the present, and if they want to be part of the future, they need to think about how they treat those who give them content, labour, and money. I do not know of any other industry where such a negative relationship dynamic exists.

If we look at the public comments that Elsevier keep making, they say things like ‘We have the best interests of research and researchers at heart’; well, now it is time for them to put their money where their mouths are. They clearly do not know better than researchers themselves, and if they want this to be more than just empty rhetoric, they will lower their conditions and agree to what the research community wants. This does not have to be the big fight that it is playing out to be, and Elsevier and co. might have to lose a bit of profit to readjust. I think they should be open to that reality.

3 thoughts on “Comments for Times Higher Education: University of California break with Elsevier tipped to boost ‘global revolt’

  1. I do wonder about this: “So for the US this is a big deal, but on a global scale still just another drop in the ocean.” Dunno what percentage of the world”s scholarly output comes from the US, but seems to me UC’s scholarship might be a significant chink.

    1. I read somewhere before that is about 40% of their total revenue, so the UC alone would be 4% of the total global revenue. I can hunt down the statistics if needed, but probably just from Elsevier’s annual reports.

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