Elsevier’s Open Access Controversy: German Researchers Resign to Register Protest

Update: Elsevier recently proposed that a shift to regional open access publishing models would be suitable for the publisher and help it resolve disputes with German institutions that want Elsevier to adopt the open access model. However, some open access advocates have criticized this suggestion and accused Elsevier of altering the definition of open access to suit its own needs. As per the Elsevier proposal, a journal available under green open access in one country could become available under gold open access in another country. Unfortunately, the controversy continues to rage and the issue seems far from resolved for now.

Meanwhile, five German scientists have resigned from different Elsevier journals as a last resort in the battle between Projekt DEAL and Elsevier. Projekt DEAL negotiators claim that many more scientists might adopt similar measures in the next few days if Elsevier does not offer a meaningful resolution in a timely manner. In addition, around 200 DEAL member institutions have refused to renew their subscriptions to journals published by Elsevier.


The academic publishing industry has become a lucrative business. Libraries now have to pay $1000, per year, for access to just one title, with annual fee increases of 5%. Elsevier, the biggest publisher of academic journals, has found stiff resistance against its profitable model in Europe, led by German universities and research institutions. For 2 years now, the Projekt DEAL consortium has tried to negotiate a better pricing with Elsevier for its journal subscriptions and for improved open access. This move has since spurred more boycotts and negotiations by other universities in Finland, Peru, and Taiwan.

Pushing For A New Model

First, what is Projekt DEAL asking for from Elsevier? They want a nation-wide licensing deal. It should guarantee fair subscription fees, convert all German-based publications to open access while letting all consortium institution members freely access all the Elsevier articles online (full-text). In this “publish and read model”, only a single payment once a year, would be made to Elsevier, which should substantially reduce the overall costs for libraries.

This is a reasonable request as academic research is not funded nor paid for by Elsevier. Researchers “give” this away to Elsevier (and other publishers) to publish, usually signing away any copyright. The publications are then sold back to university libraries and other research organizations at hefty prices. The Max Planck Society estimated that it now costs €3800–5000 to access each paper. This does seem quite high. No wonder 2015 saw Elsevier make a record 37% profit margin.

Germany Holds Firm

Although the 60+ institutions in the German consortium let their 2017 subscriptions with Elsevier expire, these have since been restored while negotiations continue. The bold move initiated by Projekt DEAL has clearly gained momentum and more public support. By not wavering, it hopes Elsevier will compromise. Otherwise, Elsevier stands to lose Europe’s most populated and powerful country (Germany has the largest economy), and its large academic research market, as a valued client.

In the latest developments, negotiations with Elsevier are tough but ongoing. However, those with other publishers are more promising. Both SpringerNature and Wiley, the two other big academic publishers, are warming up to the “publish and read” model. This is good news. If they agree to a deal, then Elsevier is more likely to do so as well, eventually. A key sticking point is the price per published article.

What is a fair and just price? The consortium is negotiating for something between €1300 and  €2000. Perhaps these costs will vary depending on the discipline (e.g., humanities vs. medicine vs. engineering sciences). Right now, universities in the Netherlands pay as low as €1300 but as a high as €4000. So, whether a deal actually materializes will boil down to the maximum price per article.

Another sticking point is that Elsevier is not keen to make the terms of any deal struck with the Projekt DEAL public. Obviously, by keeping all this private, it prevents other universities from noticing. However, one would think that transparency in pricing would enhance competition, not stifle it. In the Netherlands, fees for subscription journals were made public after a legal fight. It was found that Elsevier was charging 2-3 times more than SpringerNature, Wiley, and Taylor-Francis. As a final analysis, in order to succeed Projekt DEAL must be ready to leave the negotiating table with nothing.

Boycott By Finnish Researchers

In the meantime, Finland has taken its own stand against price gouging by the big publishers. However, negotiations through 2016 and 2017 have stalled, which only strengthens the #NoDealNoReview boycott by the Finnish library consortium (FinElib). This movement by the Finnish research community is noteworthy. Why? Because it strengthens the European momentum and awareness for sustainable pricing of subscription journals. It also helps in moving towards a universal open access model for published research.

Until Elsevier negotiates a new licensing agreement with FinElib, Finnish researchers are being asked to refuse to review manuscripts for Elsevier journals. The boycott has gained pledges of 2700 academic researchers since November 2016.

Elsevier does not appear willing to risk losing its dominant and growing market share in academic publishing. It apparently offered FinElib the same open access options that it markets to all researchers globally. Neither FinElib nor Projekt DEAL are asking for cost-free Elsevier services, but rather better prices. Given its 2016 profit margin of 40%—most companies can only dream of this—but both FinElib and Projekt DEAL are justified in rejecting the “offers” Elsevier made to them last year.

Interestingly, last year three University of London-based academics formally asked for an investigation into the market monopoly and abuse of power by Elsevier. As also noted by Projekt DEAL and FinElib, the glaring lack of price transparency in this industry is very problematic and concerning. The outcome of this investigation may influence negotiations with Elsevier not only in Great Britain, but also in Germany and Finland.

What Impact Ahead?

The big academic publishers are also under increasing pressure from illegal open access platforms, like Sci-Hub. Therefore, opting for a new “publish and read” model may be a wise option for Elsevier. If this ongoing boycott by the German and Finnish researchers is successful, then watch out. Many other universities in the academic research community will surely notice, as will their funding agencies. This may result in a move to boycott Elsevier and the likes. This could be the beginning of the end for the traditional subscription model of academic publishing.

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