On Wednesday, a group of 31 UC faculty members signed a letter stating that they will be suspending their editorial services to Cell Press, a set of research journals published by Elsevier — which had its contract with the UC system terminated Feb. 28.
The letter was written in response to an impasse in negotiations between Elsevier and the UC. The letter states that the signatories will only resume their relationships with Cell Press when an appropriate resolution has been made. According to the UC Office of Scholarly Communication website, the contract was halted because Elsevier demanded a higher price but diminished UC access to its content.
“We value our long-standing relationships with Cell and other Cell Press journals, which have helped make and keep these journals at the forefront of scientific publishing,” the letter said. “We therefore wish to express our concern at the current lack of a contract between UC and Elsevier, and the decision to deny our UC colleagues access to research published in Cell Press and other Elsevier journals.”
According to James Hurley, a UC Berkeley professor of molecular and cell biology and a signatory of the letter, when UC professors serve on Elsevier editorial boards, it adds prestige to the research journals. In fact, roughly 10 percent of the 108 members of the Cell Press editorial boards are UC faculty, and about half of them have stepped down because of the letter, according to Hurley.
In the future, additional editorial board members from other universities may follow in the footsteps of UC faculty, which, according to Hurley, could be devastating for Elsevier.
“I think what will happen is that if the journals don’t have the buy-in from the leaders in the field anymore, their prestige is going to disappear, and then their niche disappears,” Hurley said. “Then there’s nothing really to differentiate them from the existing open-access journals.”
In addition to losing prestige, Elsevier might also lose critical oversight by field experts. Zena Werb, professor and vice chair of the department of anatomy at UCSF and a letter signatory, said in an email that as a board member, she would assess the quality of submitted manuscripts and advise the publisher on whether they should be submitted for further review.
For Werb, signing the letter was a show of support for open-access research.
“I do wish science was not published by for profit publishers, only by those run by scientists and scientific organizations,” Werb said in an email. “The for profit publishers are a matter of history, but they are predatory and we should not tolerate them.”
According to UC Berkeley professor of cell and developmental biology and letter signatory Matt Welch, even with UC faculty taking a stand, Elsevier may not feel much pressure. Welch said in an email that because there are still many editorial board members who have not stepped down, Elsevier’s reputation may be impacted more than its day-to-day operations.
The UC hopes to reenter “formal negotiations” with Elsevier as soon as the publisher indicates an interest in resuming discussions over a contract that “integrates the university’s goals of containing costs and facilitating open access to UC research,” according to Jeffrey MacKie-Mason, UC Berkeley’s university librarian and a professor in the campus School of Information and department of economics.
“In the meantime, UC is partnering with publishers, including Cambridge University Press, to develop transformative agreements that make the results of its taxpayer-funded research freely available to everyone,” MacKie-Mason said in an email.