German Universities Say No to Elsevier Journal Subscriptions

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Certain publishing houses are notoriously famous for arm-twisting academics to pay extravagant subscription fees to publish and read scientific articles. Researchers have a powerful tool to stop publishers from manipulating their research publications: Don’t give them your texts. And maybe even more important: Don’t demand from your applicants that they have published in high impact journals from the very same publishers that make your life hard.

This simple change in thought process might really better scientific research in general.

Since the past few years, everyone has been complaining about Elsevier. They still have publications and they still seem to have no problem to fill them.

That’s the problem!


Late last year over 60 German universities, members of the Project DEAL, canceled their subscriptions to the scientific and academic research journals published by Dutch-British giant publisher Elsevier. The reason cited was too high subscription fees and lack of open access to the journals.

Initially, this move was meant as leverage for DEAL representatives who were to negotiate a nationwide license for entire Elsevier’s portfolio as well as greater open access rights.

Unfortunately, the first round of negotiations fell through as Elsevier’s offer was rejected. The offer did not comply with “open access principles” among other things (to see the full notice published by Göttingen university, click here).

DEAL project members lost their access to Elsevier’s journals on January 1st, 2017. However, following Elsevier’s statement their access was restored as a show of good faith. The next round of negotiations are ongoing.

This is not the first time that the publisher has encountered something like this. In 2015 Dutch universities also boycotted Elsevier’s journals over this issue. However, an agreement was reached. Elsevier made 10% of articles authored by Dutch authors open access this year; that will go up to 20% in 2017 and 30% in 2018.

This is the first time that leading German research organizations, including universities, research networks such as the Max Planck Society and the country’s grant-giving German Research Foundation, have united to negotiate collectively to strike a better deal with Elsevier.

“The Netherlands model doesn’t go far enough for us,” says Horst Hippler, president of the German Rectors’ Conference in Bonn and lead spokesperson for Project DEAL.The Dutch arrangement allows the publisher to “double dip.”

He further added: “Researchers end up paying twice for many publications: once for publishing them and again for reading them.” DEAL’s goal, he says, is to move away from subscription fees and toward a model in which the institutes pay a flat fee for “article processing charges,” so that all publications become fully open access.

Ralf Schimmer, deputy director of the Max Planck Digital Library and a member of Project DEAL’s working group, said “The monopoly of getting the content only on the publisher’s platform…has been perforated severely.”

Open-access advocate Leo Waaijers, a former librarian at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, said that is the only approach that will work. “These negotiations are tough,” Waaijers further added.

“You must be prepared to step out of the contract. Otherwise, you have no negotiation power.”


The message further clarifies the background of its action stating that at the end of last year Elsevier did make an offer to the DEAL representatives which was deemed unacceptable – “The publisher rejects more transparent business models that are based on the publication service and would make publications more openly accessible. Its offer does not comply with the principles of Open Access. Despite its current profit margin of 40 percent, the publisher is still intent on pursuing even higher price increases.

By 2018, Dutch universities would get open access to 30% of journals published by Dutch researchers. Even before this, there were boycotts of this publisher’s work. But, German research institutes are demanding that 100 % of papers that have a Germany-based corresponding author would be made open access as part of any agreement, said Dr. Schimmer.

The German consortium also plans to extend this approach to the other big publishers, Springer Nature and Wiley, with exploratory talks set to start this month. “Our goal is to have the subscriptions system collapse,” he added. 

Many field medalists including mathematician Sir William Timothy Gowers called for the boycott of Elsevier’s journals as early as 2012. That same year Harvard University’s Library dropped its subscription to Elsevier deeming it too expensive as prices of journals could go as high as 40k dollars.

According to a statement released by the University of Göttingen, “All participants in this process are aware of the imminent effects this has on research and teaching. However, they share the firm conviction that, for the present, the pressure built up by the joint action of many research institutions is the only way to reach an outcome advantageous for the German scientific community.” However, Elsevier stated that it would continue with the negotiations in the coming year.


Germany is not the only one. Other countries are also facing the similar issue wherein the increasing subscription costs are becoming difficult for institutions to bear. Earlier this month, the library of National Taiwan University (NTU) also declared that from 2017, it planned to discontinue its subscriptions to Elsevier’s ScienceDirect journals due to their high subscription costs.

Considering this is a serious issue which can hamper the progress of science, it should be wisely resolved globally.

Source Göttingen University timeshighereducation FAU Erlangen- Nürngerg

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