University of California System and Elsevier: what the end of their negotiations means for Williams

Jonathan Miller, Director of Libraries, March 13, 2019

Towards the end of this article I describe some of the steps the Williams Libraries are taking in our own relationship with Elsevier and why you might want to keep track of developments, but first some background.

Many of you are already aware that the University of California System recently ended their negotiations with Elsevier, the commercial scholarly journal publisher. Reasonable summaries of the news have been published by Inside Higher Education and commentaries in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and UC has also released a press release, and more details for UC faculty, researchers, and students. Of course Twitter is, well, atwitter over the news (#elsevier #UC #openaccess) and you will find many interesting perspectives there, including links to other published reactions to this news.

Basically, UC ended negotiations to renew their license to the Elsevier ScienceDirect service and all the attendant access to the scholarly journals published by Elsevier. Importantly for UC they were trying to negotiate with Elsevier what is known as a RAP (Read and Publish) agreement, under which all articles written by UC faculty and researchers would be immediately open access (available at no direct cost to readers) and all Article Publishing Charges (APCs) would be included in the licensing fee, and thus at no cost to the UC authors either. UC is the first big academic library system to walk away from this kind of negotiation in the United States. However, in Europe, the German Projekt DEAL after temporarily suspending negotiations in 2018 has so far failed to reach such an agreement with Elsevier after signing such deals with both Wiley and Springer.

Why should we at Williams be concerned with what happens in a large, public, statewide, research-intensive consortium a continent away? Williams also has a license agreement with Elsevier for access to ScienceDirect. Our license to access ScienceDirect is the largest single recurring collection expense of the Williams Libraries. It costs Williams Libraries approximately half a million dollars per year. We reached our agreement, as part of a group negotiation that included Boston College, Brandeis, Tufts, and Wellesley, to license what is colloquially called  the Unified Title List (UTL) version of ScienceDirect.  UC licensed the Freedom Collection from Elsevier, which includes all Elsevier content; the UTL version includes all the content to which any of the group members had previously subscribed, so we have access to less content than UC. Our existing three year agreement concludes in December 2019 and the group is now entering negotiations with Elsevier to renew or revise that agreement. Each individual institution has to decide whether they participate in these negotiations or not.

Williams Libraries is participating in these negotiations in good faith. Many of the journals published by Elsevier are important to a wide variety of faculty, staff, and students at Williams. Content from the ScienceDirect resource as a whole is heavily used by the Williams community. But it is not clear at this time whether the group negotiations will even reach a successful conclusion, or whether the deal that is finally negotiated will be in the best interests of the Williams community. Therefore Williams Libraries has established what we are calling the ‘Plan B Task force.’ This group, consisting of relevant librarians from across our libraries, is chaired by Helena Warburg, the Head of the Schow Science Library. The task force is charged with “proposing at least (but not necessarily only) one alternative to our existing contract for access to ScienceDirect” by August of 2019, so that we will be able to evaluate the final results of the negotiations in comparison with other alternatives, or have alternatives in place should the negotiations collapse.

At this early stage it is not clear how this UC news will impact our negotiations. Some knowledgeable commentators have predicted that this reduces the long term value of the Elsevier content and thus increases existing customers’ bargaining power; others think that Elsevier will seek to recoup lost revenue from those remaining customers. It is unlikely that our negotiating partners will seek a RAP agreement with Elsevier. Our group is less research-intensive than the UC system and generally more conservative when it comes to issues of open access. Williams Libraries will continue to participate actively in our negotiations with Elsevier, but we will also prepare alternatives. We continue to work with the Provost and the Library Committee to be reliable stewards of the funds entrusted to us and to ensure that we manage a sustainable budget that supports the research, teaching, and learning needs of the Williams community. As part of this strategy we continue to actively participate in a changing system of scholarly communication and to participate in, and where appropriate lead, efforts that lead to more open access to the scholarly record. I encourage all faculty to pay attention to developments in scholarly communication and open access, in general and in their own disciplines. Your liaison librarian or I would be delighted to discuss any of these issues individually or with your department. How scholarship is published, how the products of research are read by others, who has access to this research, how it is preserved, and who pays the costs, are all continuing to change. This news from UC is by no means the end of the story.