SAN FRANCISCO — Researchers in the University of California system on Wednesday lost subscription access to the major publisher Elsevier, the result of a closely watched fight between the two parties over how academic research should get read and paid for.
The UC system, one of the largest in the country, has long paid Elsevier so that its affiliates could access hundreds of Elsevier journals. But negotiations broke down for a new contract that would have begun at the start of this year because of a dispute over payments for open-access research, which is made freely available to the public online. At the end of February, the UC system decided not to renew its Elsevier subscriptions. That decision didn’t have any tangible effect until Elsevier’s move this week.
The subscription’s suspension means researchers in the UC system have lost access to all new paywalled articles — and some old ones — in journals from Elsevier. That spans 435,000 subscription articles published annually in 2,500 journals, including big names like Cell and The Lancet, according to Elsevier. Jeffrey MacKie-Mason, a librarian at UC Berkeley who had helped lead the UC’s now terminated negotiations, previously told STAT that he anticipated the UC would lose access to about 5% of paywalled Elsevier articles published before this year.
In an update on its website, the UC system said that the process for discontinuing access is complex and that UC researchers may retain different degrees of access depending on which UC campus they work for and which journal they’re trying to read until Elsevier finishes cutting off access. Anticipating this week’s change, the UC prepared a guide about alternative legal ways for faculty and students to get articles.
For its part, Elsevier put out its own competing guide to the situation for UC researchers. Gemma Hersh, Elsevier’s senior vice president for global research solutions, said in a statement that Elsevier’s decision to cut off access to UC researchers “was not made lightly” and that “this stalemate was avoidable.” Hersh’s statement added that the publisher hopes to resume negotiations with the UC library system and believes “we can find a pragmatic way forward if there is will and engagement from both sides.”
The fight comes as academics across the globe are mounting a push to shift toward more open access in research and loosen the power of publishers like Elsevier on the process.
The UC system paid Elsevier more than $10 million in 2018 for journal subscriptions. 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.
But the UC saw that second set of payments as an attempt by Elsevier to double dip. In its contract negotiations with Elsevier, the UC sought to change the payment structure to roll the subscription fee and the open-access fees into a single annual payment that would come at a discount. But the two sides couldn’t reach an agreement.