Universities pressure Elsevier for cheaper journal fees

British universities are demanding that Elsevier, the world’s largest academic publisher, cuts the cost of its journals and increases the share of articles made available for free online.

The 160 higher education institutions which negotiate through the Joint Information Systems Committee (Jisc), a non-profit technology provider for the sector, warn that their annual £50m bill is unacceptable at a time of intensifying financial pressure and demand for openly accessible science.

The call comes as criticism grows of the traditional model of academic publishing, with increasing government and philanthropic funders including Wellcome insisting that the research they support is made available for free through “open access” online journals.

The tensions have been accentuated with the surge in scientific articles including on Covid-19 topics published in recent months, against a backdrop of falling income to universities.

Liam Earney, Jisc’s director of digital resources, who is leading negotiations begun with Elsevier this week, said: “Our costs are increasing at an unsustainable rate. We want to achieve the transition to open access within our current budgetary envelopes. Many of our members have felt they were not deriving sufficient economic value from the agreement with publishers.”

He said Jisc had already agreed deals with rival publishers including Springer Nature and Wiley that include the costs of publishing 100 per cent and 80 per cent respectively in open access format. The current figure with Elsevier’s ScienceDirect journal division is just 25 per cent.

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While some academics have support from research funders specifically earmarked to pay for publication of their findings in open access form, others do not. Universities are billed separately by Elsevier for publishing articles to be made available for free, alongside charging subscription fees for other journals.

Elsevier, which is part of the quoted Anglo-Dutch Relx group, publishes a number of leading scientific journals including The Lancet and Cell. It said initial discussions with Jisc had “made an excellent start”.

The company said: “Elsevier is committed to establishing a transformative agreement with Jisc and universities across the UK. In fact we offered to switch the current contract to a transformative agreement last summer during discussions about the Covid-19 relief . . . We look forward to further constructive conversations.”

It said its subscription renewals overall were in line with previous years, while the number of articles published, submissions and downloads had risen substantially. It launched 115 new journals last year of which 90 per cent were open access.

Andrew Barker, director of library services at Lancaster University, who had his budget cut by a third this year, said: “No one’s questioning the value of Elsevier’s content, but we can’t afford to keep paying out money for a subscription that is not compliant with open access principles whilst the costs are growing without real increased value to us, that’s just not sustainable.”



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