Science - January 15, 2015

The hard road to Open Access

Dutch academic publications are supposed to be made freely accessible to all from 2024. But negotiations on open access between universities and publishers are not going too smoothly at the moment. ‘The crunch will come in 2015.’

By 2024 all articles by Dutch academics should be available free of charge online, wrote secretary of state for education Sander Dekker to the lower house of parliament in 2013. Currently, most academic journals are behind the digital tollgates of the publishers. Universities pay annual subscriptions for access to them. As a politician, Dekker sees a lot of advantages in embracing openness. It will enable the general public, students and hard up researchers to keep up with the latest science. And that is not just a matter of principle, but also provides a stimulus for the economy, says Dekker. ‘Free access can help companies, both large and small, in developing and applying innovations.’

BIG DEALS

The question is, however, whether universities can convince the large academic publishers to make their articles freely available, or open access (OA). Last year the Association of Dutch Universities (VSNU) started negotiating with a few large publishers with a view to realizing Dekkers’ vision. The universities are aiming high: they By 2024 all articles by Dutch academics should be available free of charge online, wrote secretary of state for education Sander Dekker to the lower house of parliament in 2013. Currently, most academic journals are behind the digital tollgates of the publishers. Universities pay annual subscriptions for access to them. As a politician, Dekker sees a lot of advantages in embracing openness. It will enable the general public, students and hard up researchers to keep up with the latest science. And that is not just a matter of principle, want all articles to be open access without it costing any more than the current subscriptions. Because a system of open access publications is bound to entail costs, of course. Somebody has to pay for the journal to be put together. Publishers also take care of quality control, layout and archiving. None of which is free. The idea is that in future only the author will pay and not the reader. In the Netherlands, subscription fees are jointly agreed in ‘big deals’ for packages of journals, to the tune of 34 million euros in total. The VSNU wants to convert these deals into – equally costly – contracts which include the right to publish open access. The first success has already been booked: the broad lines of an agreement with Springer, one of the three largest academic publishers in the world. For a ‘minimal rise in costs’, all corresponding authors at Dutch universities will be allowed to publish open access in ‘almost all’ Springer’s 1500 journals. Negotiations of the details are still going on. It is not surprising that it is Springer that is the first to bite. The publisher has already taken over an open access publisher and is eagerly embracing the concept.

PIONEER

As long as the age-old system of subscriptions and open access are running side by side, the Netherlands runs the risk of paying more for the privilege of being a pioneer. A danger Marcel Dicke, professor of Entomology, is afraid of. In order to make an article open access, academics are now paying an average of 1100 to 1500 euros. Until the universities succeed in bringing down the subscription costs, this will come on top of the old bill of 34 million, Dicke fears. ‘Academics in the Netherlands publish a total of about 40,000 articles a year. That brings you to about 50 million euros extra.’ But that is a worst case scenario. Koen Becking, chair of the board of Tilburg University and VSNU negotiator, thinks this kind of ‘double dipping’ can be prevented. He points to the agreement with Springer. ‘This deal shows that it can be done differently. No double dipping and no excessive rise in costs.’ But Dicke is not optimistic about the chances of more deals. ‘I don’t think the publishers are going to give up their large profit margins without a fight.’ This seemed to be confirmed last October, when negotiations broke down with another publisher, the Amsterdam-based Elsevier. The VSNU wrote in a press release that Elsevier’s proposal ‘in no way caters for the change to open access that is being asked for and is needed.’ According to Becking it is not surprising that some negotiations are more difficult than others. ‘Of course the transition to OA has implications for the publisher’s business model,’ he says. ‘It is quite a job to think up a new business model. One publisher takes bigger steps towards it than another does.’ Elsevier prefers not to comment while the negotiations are still ongoing.

GOLDEN ROAD

At first sight, the VSNU does not have a very strong hand for persuading or forcing companies to collaborate. The ‘big three’ publishers, Elsevier, Springer and Wiley, have a huge market share. What is more, they are not working in a normal market. Each journal has its own niche and publishes unique articles. Financially, too, the publishers have a lot to lose, says Hubert Krekels, director of the WUR library. ‘Their profit margins are around 35 to 40 percent. Absurd amounts. The gap between the operational costs and the profits cannot be justified in an era when electronic publishing is getting cheaper.’ But the universities have allies. Open access has the support not only of the minister but also of more and more academic financiers and institutions. What is more, the VSNU is in a position to increase the pressure if the negotiations come to nothing. ‘If Elsevier doesn’t budge before the summer, we will start a boycott,’ said Gerard Meijer, board chair of the Radboud University and VSNU negotiator, in Dutch daily newspaper the NRC on Saturday 10 January. First, the Dutch editors and advisors at Elsevier will be called on to resign. This will be followed by appeals to academics to stop reviewing work, or even to stop publishing with Elsevier. Not everybody is happy with the degree to which the negotiations emphasize publishing in academic journals. Marcel Dicke, professor of Entomology, sees other routes to making articles open access. It is already possible, he notes, to place copies of articles – without layout – on your own website or in a database. ‘That is quite simply allowed by the big publishers.’ Researchers could in future stick to these limited possibilities for publication – the ‘green route’. Ministry regulations do not currently allow for that possibility, however. Universities are forced to take the ‘golden route’: publishing through the journals. Negotiations between the VSNU and Elsevier and other publishers will continue in 2015. In an interview with the Nijmegen magazine Vox, Meijer recently declared that he was not to be swayed. In his view the time has come for ‘rebellion’ against the power of the journals. And for achieving 100 percent open access in the Netherlands, the crunch will come in 2015. ‘This is a crucial moment for us. If we give in now, it will be a big loss.’

For news on the negotiations with Elsevier, follow our website Resource-online.nl. You will also find a longer interview with Marcel Dick there, about his experiences with open access.

Open Access publishing, a bright idea? Read everything about the pros and cons for individual researchers on resource-online.com. Search for the term ‘Open Access Publishing’.


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