Skip to main content

When we think about disruptive institutions, libraries typically don't come to mind. But in late February, when the University of California's library system decided to boycott the publishing powerhouse Elsevier, it delivered a shot heard around the academic world. By canceling its subscription to the world's largest publisher of scientific papers, UC has disrupted the status quo of scientific publishing.

The dispute between UC and Elsevier hinges on something called "open access." Most universities that subscribe to Elsevier typically pay not only hefty subscription costs, but their scholars must also submit fees to release their articles from paywalls that readers otherwise encounter. Advocates of open access see this as a form of double dipping. Why, they wonder, should researchers pay, usually through grants, article-processing charges that reach well into the thousands of dollars, on top of subscription costs, if they want their research to be openly accessible? Further, they argue regarding the portion of articles that are funded by public grants, why should taxpayer-funded research be placed behind a paywall in the first place?

In its last report to the UC academic community, UC negotiators, who have been in talks with Elsevier for over eight months, explained that "Elsevier was ultimately unwilling to meet UC's key goal: securing universal open access to UC research." So UC walked.

As is often the case with California, its size was the prime driver of its negotiating power. Ten percent of the nation's publishing output comes from scholars at UC's 10 campuses. Nearly 20 percent of the 50,000 articles published last year by UC scholars appear in Elsevier's 3,000 journals. In addition, UC pays over $11 million to Elsevier in subscription and article fees. "We hope we can bridge this divide with them soon," Tom Reller, vice president of communications for Elsevier, which is based in Amsterdam, said in a statement following the split.

European universities helped paved the way for UC's move. The Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU)—a consortium of 14 institutions—has used its collective bargaining power over the last several years to persuade the biggest publishers, including Elsevier and Springer, to start shifting from hybrid to open-access arrangements. By insisting that research papers from authors within VSNU be allowed open access without an additional charge—and choosing instead to negotiate a single subscription fee—these universities pioneered a "read and publish" model that has helped raise the number of open-access articles published by Dutch scholars from 17 percent in 2010 to close to 30 percent today.

This "read and publish" arrangement was what UC sought with Elsevier, if only as a move in the direction of eventually having an exclusively open-access model that replaced subscription costs with article-processing fees alone: an arrangement that would allow scholars to shop around the publishing landscape for the best deals while being certain that, wherever they published, their work would be paywall-free.

UC faculty who have spoken to media characterize the university's break with Elsevier as consistent with the university's formal commitment to open access. Steven Brenner, a professor of plant biology at the University of California–Berkeley, told the Daily Californian: "We are interested in using text-mining to learn from the scientific literature. Open-access articles can be more readily obtained, analyzed, and curated. Those which are part of traditional subscriptions cannot be readily studied in this way." University of California–Davis psychology professor Karen Bales told the Los Angeles Times: "We all agree that open access is a good thing. It increases the visibility of our research, and it's something the taxpayers deserve."

But the UC-Elsevier divorce presents real concerns for faculty. Although archived Elsevier articles remain accessible, thousands of newer ones must now be obtained in alternative ways, including snail-paced interlibrary loan. (Others will surely access—with questionable legality—articles pirated and stored on Sci-Hub.) One scientist working in the UC system, who wished to speak off the record, expresses concern that existing open-access journals (such as PLoS and eLife) might have a conflict of interest in advocating for an all open-access publishing landscape. If other journals go away, according to this scientist, the open-access journals get more papers, which helps finance their operations.

Further, the "read and publish" model, used as a stopgap, has its critics. Roger Schonfeld, director of libraries, scholarly communication, and museums for Ithaka S+R, an educational-access consulting service, worries that problems arise with universities paying publishers one negotiated bundled fee that swallows article-processing charges. First, authors lose access to price transparency, and have no idea what the charge folded into the subscription cost was. Second, publishers could end up actually charging more than universities currently pay, which UC conceded was possible. And third, what open-access visionaries interpret as a temporary measure on the road to open access could easily become a permanent solution. Schonfeld writes, "To those European librarians who might say that their ['read and publish'] deals are merely transitional, I would note that publishers are taking these models seriously as the future of their business."

Either way, the ultimate impact of UC's split with Elsevier will depend on how other large university systems react. Early indications suggest that they are emboldened. Lorraine Haricombe, vice provost and director of libraries at the University of Texas–Austin, says that the UC move "came as a very, very pleasant surprise that has gotten the attention of our faculty on the Austin campus." The UT system pays $50 million for a five-year contract with Elsevier. Reflecting on how the UC decision resonates at UT, Haricombe says, "we are all standing up a little bit straighter because of what they did."*

*Update—March 12th, 2019: A previous version of this article reported that the University of Texas–Austin pays $50 million for a five-year contract with Elsevier. The contract is held with the whole University of Texas system.