Leaked document on Elsevier negotiations sparks controversy

Nieuws | door Sicco de Knecht
6 november 2019 | In exchange for full open access Elsevier requests full cooperation on a number of (meta)data projects, a leaked negotiating document reveals. Initial responses to the proposed deal show a fear of 'vendor lock-in' and condemn tying open access to open science goals.

Friday’s revelations about the ongoing negotiations between Dutch Universities and Elsevier have led to a stream of dismayed reactions. As a negotiating offer the publisher has indicated to be willing grant open access to all of its journals – possibly even including flagship publications such as Cell and The Lancet – with no increase in contract costs. The company is willing to do this in exchange for an extensive pilot program on metadata.

Elsevier offers full open access in exchange for data (in Dutch)

On September 9th of this year Elsevier and the Dutch Universities (VSNU) held a so called “legs-on-the-table” session to “explore the option of coupling 100% open access to a series (meta)data applications”. The team of negotiators – Anton Pijpers (Utrecht University), Koen Becking (Tilburg University) and Tim van der Hagen (TU Delft) – has decided to give this option “a serious chance” and to continue negotiations on this premise. All of this can be read in the negotiating document (dated October 1st) obtained by ScienceGuide.

No-deal not an option for university medical centers

At the moment the majority of Dutch universities already use different Elsevier research software packages besides having a subscription to the Elsevier journal portfolio. Typical examples are the research information management system Pure which is used for scientific evaluations and Scopus which – amongst many things – can be used to search (individual) citation scores and impact factors. Together the subscriptions amount to an annual €2.3 million nationwide as compared to €14 million for journal subscriptions.

As of this year a grand alliance of the Dutch Universities (VSNU), medical centers (NFU) and the major research funder (NWO) collaborate in the open access negotiations with Elsevier. None of these parties were willing to publicly comment on the revelations except for the NFU whose spokesperson Edith Meijwaard expects to “have successfully finished the negotiations by Christmas this year”.

A striking point in the negotiating document is the shift in the coalition’s strategy. In the initial phase of the negotiations chief negotiator Becking indicated the VSNU was prepared for a ‘no-deal’, a strategy used in Germany (Projekt DEAL) and the United States (University of California). With the addition of the NFU, the negotiating conditions have shifted: “A no-deal is not a serious option for the NFU since a number of Elsevier journals is of too great an importance to the medical centers.”

Elsevier contract reveals pushback on open access

The Dutch universities were the first to strike a ‘big deal’ with Elsevier back in 2015 and are currently in a second extension period on that three-year deal. Considering the success of the ‘open access pilot’ that was part of the previous deal the current negotiating team is not very enthusiastic: “The possibility to publish open access at no additional cost has not been fully utilized.”

Don’t make the same mistake twice

Now negotiations have taken a drastically different course focusing on the data aspect, the future of Elsevier’s business model. “Elsevier is willing to work with us on a transition from the current subscription model to a renewed business model based on publication ánd on targeted software that can advance the interests of Dutch academics and institutions in their analysis and production of scientific output.”

Judging from the document the negotiating team is clearly aware that facilitating Elsevier in such a ‘flip’ of their business model is prone to raise eyebrows. One of the questions raised in the documents is: “Doesn’t’ this deal enhance Elsevier’s position in the global market?” Earlier the European Commission was slammed by critics from the open science movement for allowing Elsevier to ‘co-opt the open science space‘. Now the Dutch universities are at risk of allowing a similar thing to happen on a national level.

In his initial response to the news Plan S champion Johan Rooryck, who was not aware of the negotiations, is reserved about the entanglement between open access and open science: “cOAlition S supports full and immediate access to peer-reviewed scholarly articles. The particular business model adopted is for negotiations between publishers and consortia/universities. However, we commend principles of open data an open citations.” Elsevier currently does not support open citations.

Gerard Meijer (Projekt DEAL), who negotiated the 2015 Big Deal for the VSNU and recently brokered the first transformative deal between German research institutes and Springer Nature sees the deal as “potentially dangerous”. He warns not to make the same mistake twice. “In the past the academic community made the mistake of letting commercial publishers take over the process of academic publishing, and now we are fighting to take back what is ours. We shouldn’t make that mistake with data.” On his personal Twitter account Rooryck echoes this sentiment.

Fear of vendor lock-in

One the potential goals of the data pilots is described in the document as to “use this data to enrich and substantiate science policy”. Sarah de Rijcke, director of the Centre for Science and Techology Studies (Universiteit Leiden) is suspicious of such goals and points out why this might not be a great idea. ”This deal may effectively transfer crucial means to influence Dutch science policy to private enterprise.”

The fear of giving up too much autonomy and ending up in a vendor lock-in In vendor lock-in the customer becomes dependent on a vendor for products and services, and is (practically) unable to use another vendor without substantial switching costs. is also felt by the negotiating team of the VSNU. In the document a couple of important questions on the matter is addressed, including whether universities will be obligated to purchase Elsevier software and services. “No. Each university is free to develop its own software/services or purchase it at another vendor.” However, the document also states that “agreements will have to be reached on a critical mass considering the number of institutes that participate […]”.

Update: In a public response on Twitter the VSNU confirms the coverage by ScienceGuide, and stresses: “No irreversible steps, options open for whatever result.

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