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SAN FRANCISCO — There’s a high-stakes fight in California that could shape the way that academic research gets read and published far beyond the West Coast.

The battle is pitting the University of California system against Elsevier, the Netherlands-based publisher of academic journals. At issue is how open-access research gets paid for.

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UC paid Elsevier more than $10 million this year so that its affiliates could access hundreds of Elsevier journals. On top of that, UC researchers collectively pay nearly $1 million annually — often thousands of dollars per article — in preparation fees to make their research freely available to the public online.

UC sees that as double-dipping, and so it wants to change the payment structure to roll the subscription fee and the open-access fees into a single annual (discounted) payment. The idea is to accelerate the shift toward greater open-access in research and loosen the grip of publishers like Elsevier on the process.

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Elsevier, however, is balking, because it wants to get paid individually for open-access papers and because its existing payment model is popular, its executives have said in interviews.

This is all coming to a head now because UC’s current five-year contract with Elsevier is set to expire on Dec. 31. UC and Elsevier have spent months in negotiations — and both sides are playing hardball.

Not many universities have the leverage to take on Elsevier. But UC, which has 10 campuses and 100 libraries, can be likened to a European country, one expert quipped in an interview with Inside Higher Ed.

So, what’s next? Jeffrey MacKie-Mason, a librarian at UC Berkeley who’s helping lead UC’s negotiations, said the two sides have another negotiation meeting scheduled for today.

MacKie-Mason told me he thinks “it would be very surprising if we reached an agreement by Dec. 31, though I would be delighted if we could.” And if no agreement can be reached? “It will be up to Elsevier whether they limit access to UC’s faculty and students,” MacKie-Mason said.

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