Leaked Elsevier contract reveals pushback

23 maart 2017 - On the day of the hearing between Elsevier and the Dutch universities ScienceGuide has uncovered the contract which publicity was the centre of the dispute. The open access paragraph in the contract reveals how Elsevier plans to fight open access every step of the way.

All of the Dutch institutions combined will have the right to publish a maximum number of 3600 open access articles in Elsevier journals over the course of three years. They are only allowed to do so if the corresponding author is affiliated with a Dutch insitution, and only a fraction of the publishers vast number of journals is eligible. Elsevier has succeeded to make this deal as unappealing as possible for authors, setting the ‘experiment’ up to fail. 

All of this becomes evident from the leaked contract between Elsevier and the Dutch ‘Consortium’ that spans a period between 2016 and 2018. In 2016 the Dutch ex-librarian Leo Waaijers followed up on the request of student Amos Keestra to make the individual contracts between universities and publishers public. Waaijers wants to reveal the new ‘Gold Open Access’ deal, and the publishers are trying to prevent this.

The contracts between eight out of ten of the publishers and the universities have already been made public (Google Drive). Even though the universities (except for the University of Amsterdam) are willing to make the final two public, Elsevier and Springer have objected to publishing their contracts with the appeals committee. Their biggest concern is that making the clause containing the deal on open access public will harm their negotiating position at home and abroad.   

The disputed ‘pilot paragraph’ is now exposed. The agreement draws a disheartening picture of the so called ‘Golden deal’ reached by the Dutch universities with their major publisher: Elsevier. Hindered by severe restrictions only Dutch corresponding authors from the combined institutions are eligible to publish in a very select set of journals in the Elsevier collection. 

Simultaneously Elsevier raises its collective fees in 2017 and 2018, with 2.5% and 2.0% respectively from the level of €11,697,147.68 in 2016. The contract also states that Elsevier will not levy publication charges to authors. This is included in the price of the deal which has been raised by the publisher to cover the lost revenue. At the end of the contract period parties will decide whether the ‘experiment’ was worth their while.

Small print 

In the contract Elsevier brands the deal as a pilot. From 2016 to 2018 the publisher and the institutions will ‘experiment’ with open access. However, the restrictions on the open access policy are designed to be as discouraging as possible. One primary restriction is that the corresponding author has the affiliated to a Dutch insitution, regardless of whether the publication comes from a Dutch institution. 

Another restriction is the extremely short list of Elsevier journals eligible for open access publications, which boils down to just a fraction of the entire portfolio. A quick scan of the journal titles shows that it contains titles such as: Clinical genitourinary Cancer, International Journal of Coal Geology and Ticks and Tick-borne Diseases. Prominent titles such as The Lancet, Journal of Financial Economics and Cell, Elsevier’s flag ships, are exempt from the agreement. 

Read the entire open access paragraph of the contract here.

The numbers show that researchers aren’t exactly stumbling over each other to publish open access with Elsevier. According to openaccess.nl there were only 382 Dutch publications with Elsevier titles in 2016, this is 64% of the 600 articles allowed (with 1200 and 1800 in 2017 and 2018 respectively). As of now 2017 has yielded 57, making it unlikely that the remaining 3161 will be used up until the end of 2018. 

Unclear motives

An interesting detail of the case is the stance the University of Amsterdam (UvA) has taken in the matter, being the only institution refusing to publish their contracts with Elsevier and Springer. The former stated his objection to publicizing the contracts open access clause and pricing – a case now obsolete.

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