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Dutch universities and Elsevier fail to reach consensus

Dutch universities and Elsevier fail to reach consensus

VSNU called upon academics to play a vital role in breaking deadlock.

Recently, scholars and several research libraries have rolled out a petition to boycott Elsevier, the biggest scholarly materials publisher, in protest of its new open access policy. Elsevier, an Amsterdam based company, again faced another set of challenges- this time it’s homegrown.

Pressure on Elsevier

The Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU- its Dutch acronym) has announced that the negotiation with Elsevier over open access is going nowhere, because it is in a deadlock. Last year, the association began negotiating with Elsevier to reach consensus on open access and journal subscription matters. But so far, compromise and agreement remained elusive.

The statement release by the VSNU made clear that Elsevier brought forward a series of proposals. None of them, however, appeared good enough to be accepted by the team of negotiators appointed by VSNU. The association’s position is to get the renewal of the previous agreement on a bundled package of journal subscription, which is known as ‘big deal’. The association further demanded that Elsevier allows full access (through open access) to sixty percent of the country’s scientific output by 2016 and a hundred percent by 2024. While the negotiations with Elsevier showed no result, the VSNU made clear that negotiations on open access with other major publishers such as SAGE, Springer and Wiley have succeeded.

The VSNU, disappointed and frustrated by the deadlock, has called up on academics to play a vital role to break the deadlock. First and foremost, the VSNU hopes, the academics on the editorial board may use their leverage to exert pressure on Elsevier. If this yields no result, it will request the academics to also quit Elsevier’s editorial board and also stop publishing on Elsevier’s journals.

Opening up

Industry dominant academic publishers charge high subscription fees. Yet, research libraries and authors around the world subscribe to journals owned by companies like Elsevier. The major reasons behind this are alleged editorial quality and impact factor of the journals publsihed by those companies. However, skyrocketing subscription fees combined with a growing open access movement are forcing some authors to start publishing on open access platforms. Moreover, research libraries are making policy changes to embrace the use of open access scholarly materials; which are showing steady improvements both in quality and availability.

Read more about Open Access on the United Academics Foundation.

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  • Stevan Harnad
    July 14, 2015, 12:58

    Boycotting To Sustain Bloat

    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.

    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, in their own institutional repositories, 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.

    Harnad, S. (2007) The Green Road to Open Access: A Leveraged Transition. In: Anna Gacs. The Culture of Periodicals from the Perspective of the Electronic Age. L’Harmattan. 99-106.

    ________ (2010) No-Fault Peer Review Charges: The Price of Selectivity Need Not Be Access Denied or Delayed. D-Lib Magazine 16 (7/8).

    ________ (2013) The Postgutenberg Open Access Journal (revised). In, Cope, B and Phillips, A (eds.) The Future of the Academic Journal (2nd edition). 2nd edition of book Chandos.

    ________ (2014) The only way to make inflated journal subscriptions unsustainable: Mandate Green Open Access. LSE Impact of Social Sciences Blog 4/28

    Houghton, J. & Swan, A. (2013) Planting the Green Seeds for a Golden Harvest: Comments and Clarifications on “Going for Gold”. D-Lib Magazine 19 (1/2).

    Sale, A., Couture, M., Rodrigues, E., Carr, L. and Harnad, S. (2014) Open Access Mandates and the “Fair Dealing” Button. In: Dynamic Fair Dealing: Creating Canadian Culture Online (Rosemary J. Coombe & Darren Wershler, Eds.)

    Swan, Alma; Gargouri, Yassine; Hunt, Megan; & Harnad, Stevan (2015) Open Access Policy: Numbers, Analysis, Effectiveness. Pasteur4OA Workpackage 3 Report.

    Vincent-Lamarre, Philippe, Boivin, Jade, Gargouri, Yassine, Larivière, Vincent and Harnad, Stevan (2015) Estimating Open Access Mandate Effectiveness: I. The MELIBEA Score JASIST, in press.

  • Louis Lapidaire
    July 14, 2015, 14:48

    Dear Stevan,

    You are exactly right and as a matter of fact this is exactly why United Academics was founded!

    As a matter of fact, both the Dutch and the British position, will show to be a big mistake. Currently United Academics is working very hard to complete the “unified Open Access Library” where all open access papers are made available at no cost to everybody in the world.

    When this project is completed it will mean the beginning of a new era in which our motto “Connect Science & Society!” gains in meaning and momentum..at least that is what we hope 😉

    I am very glad that you took the time to post your very clear analysis and share it with us and our readers.

    Feel free to contact us anytime and please continue to promote true Open Access.

    Kind Regards,

    Louis Lapidaire
    Founder United Academics