UC system ends contract with largest scientific publisher in push for open-access research

Stephanie Li/Staff

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Update 7/10/2019: This article has been updated to include information from an open letter by university librarian and professor Jeff MacKie-Mason.

According to an open letter published on the UC Berkeley Library website Wednesday from university librarian and professor Jeff Mackie-Mason, the UC system’s direct access to new Elsevier articles has been discontinued. This change means that the UC community will no longer have direct access to 2019 articles in Elsevier journals and older articles in certain journals.

Articles that were published before 2019 in Elsevier journals should continue to be available through ScienceDirect. The letter said the systemwide faculty Senate has encouraged stakeholders across the UC system to use alternative methods to access articles and to abstain from creating new independent Elsevier subscriptions to help the university “change the system of scholarly communication for the betterment of all.”

The letter offered alternatives to accessing the articles such as using tools like Google Scholar, Unpaywall and Open Access Button as well as emailing the author listed. The letter also suggested using the interlibrary loan request form, stating that requests for content no longer licensed through Elsevier would be automatically placed in a special priority queue.

According to the letter, the UC system is hoping to re-enter negotiations wit Elsevier if the publisher shows interest in a contract that combines the university’s goals of “containing costs” and “facilitating open access to UC research.”

This news follows a previous decision by the UC system to not renew its subscription to Elsevier, the world’s largest scientific publisher, citing an inability to reach an agreement that would give public access to all UC research while keeping the costs associated with for-profit journals down.

According to a UC press release, the university aims to make the research produced by its 10 campuses — which account for nearly 10 percent of all U.S. publishing output — available to the world at no cost. UC said Elsevier’s proposed terms would charge UC authors large open-access publishing fees on top of its multimillion-dollar subscription.

“Open access publishing, which makes research freely available to anyone, anywhere in the world, fulfills UC’s mission by transmitting knowledge more broadly and facilitating new discoveries that build on the university’s research and scholarly work,” the UC press release stated.

Elsevier spokesperson Tom Reller said in an email statement that the university is “mistaken” about the characterization of the publishing company’s stance. Elsevier, which distributed about 18 percent of journal articles produced by UC faculty, said in the email statement that it has “first and foremost the interests of researchers and students at heart.”

The email statement from Reller said Elsevier negotiated for a contract that covered academic publishing and access to literature, a model that supports the California Digital Library’s, or CDL’s, multipayer, open-access request.

“The proposal also provides every UC student and researcher with access to all journal articles published by Elsevier — they download nearly 1 million times every month,” according to the email statement. “It is disappointing that the California Digital Library (CDL) has broken off negotiations unilaterally, but we hope we can bridge this divide with them soon.”

Ivy Anderson, the associate executive director of UC’s CDL and co-chair of the UC’s Publisher Negotiation Task Force, said UC authors can still choose to publish in Elsevier. The only difference, she said, is the researcher would have to pay out of pocket to make their work open-access, otherwise access to the articles would be restricted to those who can afford them.

Koret Professor of Law and Co-Director of the Berkeley Center for Law & Technology Peter Menell said the UC system’s decision to not renew a contract with Elsevier is an effort to balance production and distribution of knowledge in the digital age.

“Academic publishers played an essential role in the diffusion of knowledge in earlier eras when print was the only way to disseminate scholarship and the capital, labor, material, and mailing costs of printing were significant,” Menell said in an email. “The digital revolution has brought about far less expensive, open, and flexible ways of disseminating knowledge.”

Anderson said UC will maintain rights to about 85 percent of UC-authored articles published in Elsevier through 2018 to which the university previously subscribed, which amounts to 95 percent of total university usage. Not renewing the subscription means that UC will not be able to conveniently access 15 percent of its articles, which are published in journals in Elsevier that the university system does not have permanent rights to.

Information about how to access articles previously found on Elsevier can be found on the UC Berkeley Library website. Anderson said all campus libraries will provide its students and faculty with similar guidance.

UC Berkeley University Librarian Jeffrey MacKie-Mason, the co-chair of UC’s Publisher Negotiation Task Force, said research is necessary to create knowledge to better the world.

“New research results lead to new medical treatments, better understanding of the human mind, explanations for global conflicts, critical appreciation of literature and the arts,” MacKie-Mason said in an email. “If people have to pay high prices to read new research, then only those who can afford it can quickly learn about — and use! — new taxpayer-funded discoveries. Progress in health, policy, education, poverty, and much more will be slower and we all lose.”

Contact Vanessa Arredondo at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @V_anana.