Michael Eisen [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

July 15, 2019; Los Angeles Times and The Conversation

Major universities don’t just bear the cost burden of the research they undertake; there’s also a lot of money sunk into dissemination of that academic work. The process is fraught, as shown in this spring’s announcement that Stanford had eliminated its $1.7 million subsidy for its academic press. Now, figurative shots have been fired across the bow of the 10-campus University of California (UC) state university system, which produces about nine percent of the country’s research papers, by publisher Elsevier in their impasse on access to published material.

A five-year contract between the university and Elsevier expired last year, and UC insisted on making changes for open access. UC wants work produced on its campuses to be available to anyone—students, faculty, staff, and the general public—for free. Last week, Elsevier stopped access by UC students, as well as the faculty and staff, to any articles published since January 1, 2019, in the 2,500 Elsevier journals. Material published prior to this year is still available.

Here is how the process works. Academic papers are peer reviewed for accuracy, editorially reviewed, then published by Elsevier and other companies for free. They then charge substantial fees for a subscription to the journal. In the years before the internet, a university library would get print copies for their shelves. Anyone could come into the library, sit down, and read them, or put some dimes in the school copy machine to bring a print home. Now, academic journals are digital and, on the Elsevier list, start with Academic Pediatrics, with an institutional annual subscription cost of $450 a year, and go all the way to Zoology for $1,326 a year. (The price of The Lancet, a highly regarded medical journal, is not listed; a sales quote must be pursued.)

The subscription provides digital access, so the research can be retrieved far away from university libraries. That’s wonderful, but also costly—to the point that the very organizations that produce the products have to pay to use them.

UC wants to flip that model: they would have researchers (or their funders) pay to have papers published but then get open-access, free subscriptions. Last year, UC paid Elsevier $11 million for subscriptions, which was approximately 25 percent of the UC subscription budget. Other academic institutions, along with UC, are realizing this is unsustainable. The consolidations that have reduced the number of publishers to a short list have contributed to the high price for information, too. Even with their costs, such as the peer review process, Elsevier’s profit margin is reported to be about 40 percent.

With papers that were published under open access already, the researchers at UC paid $1 million. UC believes that their model of “read and publish,” where publication fees and subscriptions are figured together for a single sum, keeps costs affordable for institutions. At the same time, it would fix the present model that adversely keeps scientific research behind a paywall. The internet was supposed to make this happen, but, as is often the case, an opportunity to make money came along with the digital process. And the general public no longer has the ability to visit a college library and read the printed version for free. Without a subscription, the digital version of an article costs an average of $35 to $40 a copy.

As the ideal of open access spreads, Elsevier has taken the offensive. The company cut off academic consortiums in Germany and Sweden last year when they made similar demands as UC, and, in an emailed statement to UC faculty who are editors for some journals, stated they “sadly had to move forward with [UC’s] request to cancel access.” For its part, UC is still hoping to negotiate; the university does not want to “cancel,” but rather to change the terms of the contractual bargain.—Marian Conway