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NO TO ELSEVIER'S UNFAIR DEALS

Since November 2016, more than 2700 members of the academic community in Finland have signed tiedonhinta.fi online petition which called for fair pricing for academic journal subscriptions and increased open access in the ongoing negotiation with international publishers. More than two thirds of those who signed the petition were prepared to abstain from editorial and reviewer duties in journals whose publishers are unwilling to meet the demands of the Finnish negotiators. It’s time to stand by that commitment: no deal, no editing and reviews.
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Divide and conquer: Elsevier approaches Finnish academic institutions and individual researchers

FinELib told in their recent news release about Elsevier approaching individual Finnish researchers and academic organizations with a letter stating their perspective on the ongoing, difficult negotiations between FinELib and the publishing giant. While FinELib answered Elsevier’s claims in the release, the letter itself wasn’t published. We felt that for the sake of transparency and open dialogue, the content of the letter should be made public. Below you will find the text in full, courtesy of one recipient who wishes to remain anonymous. Below the letter, we give our own comments on the individual sections of the letter.

Elsevier’s full letter

FinELib has asked us [Elsevier] for a proposal that constrains costs and also provides full open access to articles by Finnish researchers, two ambitions we fully support. Given FinELib’s request, we have put forward concrete proposals that would enable Finnish researchers to continue to access all the subscription content we publish at a fair price. We have also suggested a mechanism whereby 100% of Finnish articles would be made available open access for no additional cost (green open access). These proposals fully align with Finland’s Open Science and Research Roadmap 2014–2017, issued by the Ministry of Education and Culture and with the European Commission’s requirements for open access.

As the world’s second largest gold open access publisher, Elsevier fully supports this method of publishing too and this option also forms part of our open access proposal to FinELib. However, as articles published under the gold open access model are funded in an entirely separate way to subscriptions, additional funding needs to be made available for this. A further challenge is that over 80% of articles published globally are only available via the subscription route – a ‘pay to receive’ model. Countries choosing to pay to disseminate their articles via gold open access will, therefore, additionally need to pay to receive the rest of the world’s articles published under the subscription model. This structural challenge means gold open access will not constrain costs, as FinELib would like to do, but will in fact increase costs in the short to medium term.

Indeed, Elsevier’s articles published via the traditional subscription route continue to grow each year, a phenomenon which reflects the market as a whole. The number of new articles we have made available to Finnish subscribers between 2012-2016 has grown by 4.6% and inflation in Finland over this same period has grown by 1%. In addition, subscription content published by Elsevier is cited on average over 30% more on a per article basis than the world average. Despite this, the price paid per accessible article to Elsevier between 2012-2016 has remained flat. This represents a net benefit to Finland. We remain fully committed to reaching an agreement in Finland and look forward to continuing our discussions with FinELib.

 

Our response

 

FinELib has asked us [Elsevier] for a proposal that constrains costs and also provides full open access to articles by Finnish researchers, two ambitions we fully support. Given FinELib’s request, we have put forward concrete proposals that would enable Finnish researchers to continue to access all the subscription content we publish at a fair price. We have also suggested a mechanism whereby 100% of Finnish articles would be made available open access for no additional cost (green open access).

FinELib already commented this claim:

 

Elsevier has offered nothing new to the FinELib consortium. The open access options are the same that are already available to all researchers:

  • Publishing in journals that are behind a paywall (hybrid journals) and paying a high article processing charge (APC) per article to have the article as open access
  • Using the green open access model, where the accepted manuscript can be shared only a long period (typically 12–36 months) after publication

 

Both models allow Elsevier to maintain the current subscription model and continue introducing annual price increases on top of the already-high access fees. At the same time, Elsevier collects significant revenues from open access publishing.

The mechanism whereby 100% of Finnish articles would be made available accessible through self-archiving (i.e. green open access) is called fair copyright policy. Elsevier presents letting authors have copyright to their own text as some major concession from their part, when in fact approximately 80% of scholarly journals already offer this possibility to their authors. What’s more, the Finnish government is preparing legislation that would make copyright agreements preventing parallel archiving illegal. Green open access is an important way of making science more open, but due to lengthy embargo periods, as explained in FinELib’s answer above, not sufficient as a single solution.

 

These proposals fully align with Finland’s Open Science and Research Roadmap 2014–2017, issued by the Ministry of Education and Culture and with the European Commission’s requirements for open access.

 

It is true that the Open Science and Research Roadmap presents green and gold open access as equally useful models for making scholarly publications accessible, without taking a stance on costs, nor making statements concerning how long embargo periods are acceptable. At the same time the roadmap envisions “[…] a situation in which research data and materials move freely throughout society; from one researcher or research team to another, between disciplines, to innovative businesses, and to decision makers and citizens.” Embargos of 12 to 36 months and unaffordable costs hardly represent the free flow pictured in the roadmap. A press release from the Ministry of Education and Culture from 8th of December 2016 seems to confirm our interpretation of the roadmap, stating that “[a]ccording to a survey published in summer 2016, subscription fees in Finland for scientific publications have risen by around ten per cent per year between 2010-2015. In the future, this cost level must be reduced. In addition, the business models of publishers must be renewed to take into account the increasingly common demand for openness.”

 

As the world’s second largest gold open access publisher, Elsevier fully supports this method of publishing too and this option also forms part of our open access proposal to FinELib. However, as articles published under the gold open access model are funded in an entirely separate way to subscriptions, additional funding needs to be made available for this.

This is a somewhat bizarre reasoning coming from Elsevier, which one can interpret in at least two ways. First, if Elsevier refers to the fact that from a customer’s point of view subscription and gold OA are funded differently, they certainly are right. As FinELib points out, however, all the necessary money is already in the system. The problem is that because there is no functioning market to speak of, Elsevier’s offers (e.g. subscription bundles) make it very difficult for libraries to shift funding from subscriptions to APCs in for gold OA. Also as far as we understand, offsetting the costs of publications in so called hybrid journals is much bigger issue than funding gold OA.

If on the other hand Elsevier means that their own operations are funded differently for conventional subscription and gold OA journal, then it’s boohoo for them. Publisher’s internal arrangements are hardly the customers’ problem and in a functioning market customer could choose another publisher. This is not possible in the current dysfunctional oligopoly.

 

A further challenge is that over 80% of articles published globally are only available via the subscription route – a ‘pay to receive’ model. Countries choosing to pay to disseminate their articles via gold open access will, therefore, additionally need to pay to receive the rest of the world’s articles published under the subscription model. This structural challenge means gold open access will not constrain costs, as FinELib would like to do, but will in fact increase costs in the short to medium term.

This would be a valid point, if it wasn’t beside the point. It is not like FinELib is demanding Elsevier services for free. Instead they ask, that the subscription fees paid by Finnish institutions cover the costs of making articles by Finnish researchers open access upon publication, without additional article processing charges. A package deal, that is. Why this is so hard to deliver, is beyond our understanding, and will remain so, as long as Elsevier continues to present vague explanations, such as “structural challenges”. Of course, making the production costs of its operations known would draw attention to Elseviers ridiculously high profit margins, which we imagine are beyond the scope of it’s “full commitment” to reaching an agreement.

Also, Elsevier must know that Finland is not the only one making the shift towards more affordable OA. The European Commission has already announced, that all research it funds must be published open access by 2020. Many major funders are making similar calls, such as Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Wellcome Trust. So while the additional cost of gold OA may indeed be higher in the short term, the publishing landscape is changing rapidly. Furthermore, the higher costs may be partially offset by rearranging costs in hybrid OA and conventional subscription models. Fundamentally, the reason why Elsevier will not want to see international collaboration between countries on the issue is simple: divide and conquer works much better for them.

 

Indeed, Elsevier’s articles published via the traditional subscription route continue to grow each year, a phenomenon which reflects the market as a whole. The number of new articles we have made available to Finnish subscribers between 2012-2016 has grown by 4.6% and inflation in Finland over this same period has grown by 1%.

Hardly surprising as A) the overall number of scientific articles is growing at a rapid pace, and B) Elsevier’s dominant market position keeps getting stronger.

Even if comparing articles made available and the rate of inflation would make sense (which it doesn’t, because the rise of costs in Finland shouldn’t affect Elsevier, which doesn’t, as far as we know, have any staff or service providers in Finland), our previous point show that this is not surprising. Rather, we think this figure is much more informative:

Source: Iina Peltonen, FinElib https://www.kiwi.fi/pages/viewpage.action?pageId=66818350

The figure clearly shows that funding available for universities in Finland, the prime customers of Elsevier, has not been keeping up with the increase of subscription costs.

 

In addition, subscription content published by Elsevier is cited on average over 30% more on a per article basis than the world average. Despite this, the price paid per accessible article to Elsevier between 2012-2016 has remained flat. This represents a net benefit to Finland.

 

Price paid per accessible article may have remained flat, but because of bundle deals libraries are buying loads of “accessible” articles they weren’t asking for. The increased relative citation rate might also have more to do with Elsevier’s consolidation of the publishing landscape than any “value” they might be offering for explanation or using a citation score they’ve created.

 

We remain fully committed to reaching an agreement in Finland and look forward to continuing our discussions with FinELib.

As much as we would like the believe this, what Elsevier is truly committed to is their responsibility to RELX (the company Elsevier is part of) shareholders. There’s just no way around this: you simply don’t let the cash cow go. We think it’s time for this cow to head for greener pastures.

3 thoughts on “Divide and conquer: Elsevier approaches Finnish academic institutions and individual researchers

  1. Thanks for this great blog post. Ultimately, Elsevier is saying, to the Finnish proposal, “no deal, we will not do this”, but will always couch it behind the various sleight of hand “per article” metrics and logics it likes to bring in in these situations, as if asking for any deal is crazy.

    But the original Big Deal was exactly that—a deal. “Have access to more journals/articles than you actually subscribe to, but at a discounted price. There’s no logic, we just want your custom and a bit more expenditure from you, and to get you interested in more content—it’s called a deal.” Where is the logic that you cannot absorb “per article costs” in the Big Deal scenario? The Big Deal is the ultimate cost offsetting/absorption deal, and it is the core of the big publishers’ success.

    Now, when the same community of customers says “hey, let’s make a deal on Gold OA being included in what we already pay you in subscriptions”, Elsevier becomes all “are you crazy? No, we don’t make deals, we only deal in the absolute logic of per-article costs!” While it would still be an unsatisfactory response, it would be more honest for Elsevier to simply say “no, we will not deal on this, we want/need Gold OA revenue to be over and above subscription revenue.”

    The reason the community wants this deal is that it sure-as-hell knows there is enough padding in Elsevier’s revenue level to accommodate this and any such deal, and then some. Elsevier doesn’t charge for subscriptions on how much producing journals or articles costs, it charges what the market can bear, and then some.

    It is the sudden obsession and reference to “per-article” metrics that is the ultimate sleight of hand in all Elsevier’s arguments on all these deals. While Elsevier may study the market and produce plenty of market intelligence based on breaking things down to the article-level, the number of articles has only become relevant in the APC per-article model, it has never played a consistent, logical role in the unit price of a journal, or collection, other than when Elsevier wants to make points like this. For example, by that logic cited in this letter, presumably journal/collection prices went down or stayed flat back in the 2000s when the Elsevier corpus was not growing so much, or there were (entirely standard) constraints to growth like page budgets, etc.?

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