A silent revolution is sweeping the $20 billion academic publishing market and its main operator Elsevier, driven in part by an unlikely group of rebels: librarians with little money.
When Florida State University canceled its “big deal” contract for all of Elsevier’s 2,500 journals last March to save money, the publisher warned it would backfire and cost the library an additional $1 million in pay-per-view fees. cost.
But even to the surprise of Gale Etschmaier, dean of the FSU library, the actual cost after eight months was less than $20,000. “Elsevier hasn’t come back to us about ‘the big deal,'” she said, noting that it made up a quarter of her content budget before the terms were changed.
Mutinous librarians like Ms. Etschmaier remain in the minority, but are one of the many strains on the subscription business of Elsevier, the 140-year-old publishing house that produces titles including the world’s oldest medical journal, The Lancet.
The company is facing a major shift in the way it does business as customers reject traditional charging structures.
Open access publishing – the move to tear down paywalls and make scientific research readable for free – is turning the funding model for journals on its head, mandated by regulators and some major research funders, while online tools and the illegal Russian pirate site Sci-Hub readers take.
Even Donald Trump’s administration began discussing an executive order in December to “liberate” publicly funded research, according to people briefed on the process.
At risk is the earnings powerhouse of Elsevier’s parent company, UK-listed Relx, Europe’s largest media company by market capitalization, which reports its full-year results Thursday. The academic department’s £2.5bn turnover is just a third of the company’s turnover and grew by around 2 percent in 2018. But the solid margins — about 37 percent — mean they represent 40 percent of Relx’s operating profit.
So far, Elsevier has defied doomsayers who claimed it is a structurally compromised company.
But only bad news, such as deal cancellations, seems to bring about change.
But the willingness to experiment has grown significantly since Kumsal Bayazit, a former Istanbul management consultant, took over as chief executive last year. Admitting that Elsevier’s transition to open access was too “slow”, she is now gearing up in one of the great evolutions in the company’s history.
Several stalled negotiations over access to journals have been unblocked, including with the Swedish Bibsam consortium of higher education and research institutions in November. A Bibsam member said “the negotiations were dead” until Ms Bayazit arrived and Elsevier’s team received “new guidelines from above”. “We understand the game – it gave them bad publicity that we managed without access to Elsevier magazines,” said the consortium member.
Rivals like Germany’s Springer Nature and Taylor Francis from Informa were quicker than Elsevier to experiment with different pay-to-publish models – the funding mechanism for open access papers. More than three quarters of Springer Nature authors in the UK, Sweden and the Netherlands now publish through free-to-read journals.
While Elsevier supported open access — for an additional fee for article processing — it held up against research institutions’ demands to bundle publishing rights with journal subscriptions for roughly the same total contract price.
Jean-Claude Burgelman, the EU’s open access envoy, has recently noticed “real turnarounds” among major publishers. Recent draft agreements, most notably Elsevier’s with Dutch institutions in December, show how the commercial value is shifting from the sale of the end product – the journal – to other services, such as data tools, which are offered to scientists during the research cycle.
“But only bad news, such as deal cancellations, seems to bring about change,” he said at a conference last month.
Elsevier’s earlier dragging may come as no surprise given the blessed commercial model of academic publishing. Typically, scientists have submitted their research for free to publishers, who use volunteers to research it, before selling the edited journals back at a high price to the universities that paid the bill for the original grant.
While prominent funders such as the Wellcome Trust and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have supported moves towards open access publishing, some academics fear that it could prevent their work from appearing in the most prestigious journals, a key factor in career assessment.
One of the weak points of the old system was the university libraries. Elsevier executives note that their content budgets simply couldn’t keep up with the 3 to 4 percent increase in research funding, or the even bigger increase in Elsevier’s workload and output: it received 1.8 million submissions for 470,000 articles last year. “The tensions resulting from these issues have eroded trust between scientific publishers and the research community we serve,” Ms Bayazit said last month. She even offered an extraordinary apology to librarians who were still upset about double-digit price increases in the 1980s and 1990s.
Ivy Anderson, co-chair of the University of California publishers’ negotiating team that canceled its $11 million contract with Elsevier in March, said at the time that academics “were tired of high prices and paywall magazines, they stand up and say we be willing to bear the discomfort [of not having journal access]†
A “big deal”
Ms Etschmaier’s big deal contract with FSU was certainly not the largest of the 6,000 Elsevier negotiated, nor the most difficult; his disputes with the University of California and another with a consortium of 700 German institutions are more significant.
But FSU’s ability to cope is a vivid example of how the market is changing and eroding Elsevier’s pricing power. A study by Our Research, a nonprofit supporter of open access publishing, found that 31 percent of all journal articles in 2019 fell outside the traditional paywall.
Elsevier also tested a new approach in a draft deal with Dutch institutions, which may include unlimited publishing rights and includes its analytics services and data tools for the first time.
This potentially creates a path for the company to recreate its indispensable position as a magazine publisher in the industry of providing academic research, from idea generation and funding to data collection and publishing.
Thomas Singlehurst — an analyst at Citi who recently upgraded Relx’s stock to a buy — said the big question was whether Elsevier’s conciliatory tone would extend to accepting discount offers on its magazines to encourage the use of tools and services. “Basically, we think it may be necessary to admit defeat to some battles to win the bigger war in the longer term,” he said.
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