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Elsevier and Norway enter into a new €9 million deal. Great.

Whenever a journalist emails me asking for quotes on a piece, usually only a few of them make it into the final article. This is perfectly normal. However, for the sake of full context and transparency, I feel it is good practice to share the complete comments I made. Others may find them useful, and it holds me more accountable. The latest case here is via Inside Higher Ed, in a story about a new ‘read and publish’ deal between a Norwegian consortium and everyone’s favourite publisher, Elsevier. Here are my full, unedited, comments in response to Lindsay‘s questions.
Is it a good deal or not?
This really depends on your perspective. For the Norwegian negotiation team, this is a better situation then they previously had. The Norwegian negotiation team have a tough problem to solve, between being progressive or disruptive and balancing the needs of the researchers they represent. From that view, this is a success – a small amount of progress. From an outside view, what it looks like is the Norwegians funneling money into a system that we know is deeply unsustainable, dysfunctional, bad for science, bad for researchers, and not what we want or need for the future. For me personally, it feels like one step forward, two steps back. You can do a lot with €9million with modern technology. This is less than the CEO of RELX gets paid. You could fund a platform like the arXiv for 5-8 years with the same funding. You could do so much more, but instead it is going to propping up an archaic system, with around €3m going straight into shareholder pockets at Elsevier (based on their ~37% profit margins). For me, this feels like an incredible mis-use of public funding, and it is unclear who is holding them accountable for such decisions. However, I empathise with difficult position again the negotiation team are in here.
Do you think Norway should have settled for a deal that increases prices?
No. For one major reason: It is absolutely unclear what these funds are being spent on. It seems like the amount being charged is like ‘This is how much revenue we get from you now, and this is how much OA you can get while sustaining that revenue’, and completely divorced from the true costs of publishing within an effective, modern communication system. There are countless examples of publishers, journals, and platforms where publishing can be done for as little as 1% of the cost that Elsevier charge. However, the marketplace is so dysfunctional that such competition does not exist. Norway is paying €9m for the prestige of publishing with Elsevier – nothing to do with the cost of publishing, or the inherent value of the research. It shows that the power dynamics in this space are all still backwards.
Would you consider this ‘transformative’ or in the spirit of other read and publish deals we’ve seen?
It is difficult to say. I feel the Norwegians have been brave, but not brave enough. For me, the best deal they could have made was ‘no deal’, and instead invested that money into more sustainable initiatives, such as non-profit platforms, the Open Library of Humanities, and various other better services. They are signalling that business as usual with Elsevier is okay, when principally and financially, it is not. Elsevier represent one of the biggest threats to the future of science, and democratic access to knowledge out there. Partnering with them in this way is a huge blow to those things, and while again I empathise with the position of the Norwegian negotiation team, I remain disappointed that they did not take a stronger stance.

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