Organisation - September 10, 2015

Universities versus Elsevier

Rob Ramaker

Dutch universities do not want to pay higher fees but they do want all their articles accessible to the public. Negotiations with publishing house Elsevier are still not going smoothly. A total rift would have far-reaching consequences.

Illustrations: Geert-Jan Bruins

Dutch universities and publisher Elsevier have been at loggerheads for a year now. The universities want to see everybody having access to all academic articles from this country – ‘open access’ – by 2024. Currently these articles are only available to people with a subscription to Elsevier. If the papers became open access, Elsevier would lose that income. The universities say knowledge should be freely available. But as long as they are not prepared to pay extra for this, Elsevier does not agree. For Wageningen UR there is much at stake and time is running out, as the contract with Elsevier ends on 1 January.

The universities announced in July that they were considering a boycott of Elsevier. This would take place in three stages, said Gerard Meijer in the NRC newspaper in July. Meijer is chief negotiator for the universities and chair of the executive board of the Radboud University. Meijer’s fi rst targetted researchers who worked as editors for one of the 2200 Elsevier journals. He would ask them to stop doing that work. If that had no effect, the next step would be to call on all researchers to stop peer-reviewing articles for the journals. And as a last resort, they would all stop sending in articles.

It is not easy to estimate how much this would hurt Elsevier. According to estimates by the Dutch universities’ association VSNU, there are 835 editors in the country, out of a total (according to Elsevier) of 17,500 editors around the world. Of these editors, 94 are from Wageningen UR. And inquiries suggest only half of them would be prepared to stop doing this work. In some institutions a higher proportion are prepared to do so. It would seem to be even harder to force a boycott of peer-reviewing or of publishing with Elsevier.

The Dutch boycott would not be the fi rst protest Elsevier has faced either. In 2012, British mathematician Tim Gowers launched his petition The Cost of Knowledge. In it he protested against Elsevier’s high subscription fees. The annual report of 2014 reveals that in its academic activities Elsevier makes a profi t of 37 cents (before tax) on every euro. Gowers’ petition was signed by 15,000 people. The mathematician is not satisfi ed with the effect it has had, as he writes in his blog. Apart from a couple of quick concessions from Elsevier, he does not see much substantial change. In a response, Elsevier says it is absolutely not against open access. The company notes too that things are moving in that direction. The publishing house is investing extensively in initiatives for ‘open’ research, says Philippe Terheggen, managing director of STM Journals at Elsevier. And 200 of their 2200 journals are already open access, while another 1600 are hybrids, which means that if the author pays for it, his papers are made open access.

The Netherlands wants journals accesible in their entirety: 'gold' open access

Meanwhile Elsevier can see that Dutch universities want to make a much faster transition to open access. And the Netherlands expressly wants journals to be open access in their entirety; this has been dubbed ‘gold’ open access. In other countries, by contrast, there is still a lot of demand for access by subscription, says Terheggen. This is sometimes combined with ‘green’ open access, in which researchers are allowed to post a draft of the article on their own sites or in a database. ‘For the time being the UK and the Netherlands are the only countries opting for a transition to gold open access. That means these countries will face additional costs,’ says Terheggen. ‘You pay as a country for making your own articles freely accessible to the rest of the world, whereas you would also like to retain access to articles from countries which are still working with subscriptions.’ He also points out that Elsevier invests a lot in online platforms from which millions of papers are downloaded every day.


Elsevier itself does not expect the disagreement to end in a total rift. ‘There is absolutely nothing to suggest that it won’t work out in the end,’ says Terheggen. ‘Both Elsevier and the VSNU eventually want to see a transition to open access.’ So he does not want to speculate about the consequences of a rift. But those consequences would be far-reaching. Elsevier would be bound to lose some of its income.

Universities are not allowed to say how much they pay Elsevier, but figures are starting to trickle in from abroad. In 2009, for instance, American universities paid between 400,000 and 2 million dollars per year. But it is not clear whether the Dutch situation is comparable. In any case, as a proportion of Elsevier’s total turnover - 7.2 billion euros (2014), the amount is negligible. The negative publicity is far more damaging to the company, and could lead to similar campaigns in other countries. Universities, and certainly Wageningen UR, are going to feel the effects much more strongly. Elsevier is by far the most powerful market player of all academic publishers. Between 2008 and 2014, about 25 percent of Dutch articles were published in an Elsevier journal, says John Janssen, senior contract manager at Surfmarket. He adds that this is probably an overestimate. Elsevier’s market share is even higher for researchers at Wageningen UR. The WUR library says 35 percent of the articles appear in Elsevier journals.

Wageningen researchers also read and cite a lot of articles in these journals. Of all the work they cite, 33 percent is in Elsevier journals. And the data from Surfmarket suggests that Wageningen researchers lead the fi eld in downloading Elsevier articles. This probably has to do with the Wageningen focus on the natural sciences. After a rift they would have to buy these articles, ask the authors for them or go knocking at their fellow researchers’ doors. ‘The universities and Elsevier are dependent on each other,’ says Janssen, summing up the situation, ‘but the universities are more dependent on Elsevier than vice versa.’

Consultations between Elsevier and the VSNU resumed recently and all parties are optimistic about the prospects of coming to an agreement. Given the power relations, the question is whether the universities will get the outcome they want. Janssen believes that a partial deal is the best that can be expected. In the long term, however, the trend towards open access in unstoppable.