The science publishing struggles are not calming down – just the opposite. As of yesterday, the entire University of California system is no longer subscribing to Elsevier journals. That’s a mighty big university system and a mighty big publisher; this is Godzilla vs. Megalon. The dispute is around two mighty big issues as well.
The first one, naturally, is cost. Subscribing to scientific journals has always been expensive (as in, for decades) but the prices have been climbing with great speed and vigor, to the point that many subscribers (especially academic ones) have been feeling the financial pain. Elsevier has been especially notable over the years (since they have so many journals under their umbrella) for pushing subscription plans that require institutions to take a wide range of journals simultaneously rather than a more a-la-carte model. The second issue is open access (OA). The business model of for-profit scientific publishing is the charge money to subscribe to the journal and for access to the archives. Some publishers make older papers open-access, but some don’t, and the definition of “older” varies widely. What the UC system wants to do is have all papers published out of their system be open-access, regardless of the journal they appear in. That’s a laudable goal, but it bangs right into the business model of the Elseviers of the world.
Open-access, of course, can only work if the authors pay costs up front, rather than having the subscribers pay to read the papers when they’re published. (And its that author-pays model that’s left the door open to a lot of shady operators at the low end of the business). The UC folks have apparently been trying to negotiate a deal on what those OA fees would be as part of a subscription agreement, and have been unable to come to terms. So they’ve walked away. Science says that negotiations were underway for eight months, which should have given everyone plenty of time to get their proposals on the table and play all the chicken anyone could want.
This is a big move. The California system accounts for about 10 per cent of all the scientific publications in the US, and they are definitely the largest US academic defection from Elsevier journals. Add this to the ongoing saga of Plan S in Europe, where several national funding agencies are going at the open-access issue with not only Elsevier, but every other for-profit scientific publisher, and it’s clear that begun, these OA wars have.