Since long, the university libraries (together with the Royal Library) have negotiated with scientific publishers on a national level in the so-called UKB consortium. Until recently a delegation of library directors went to the negotiation table. Dekker’s announcement triggered university rectors to declare the big deal negotiations Chefsache, as the former German Chancellor Schröder used to call it, and to take over the lead. The seat of the library consortium was taken over by university rectors representing the Association of Dutch Universities (VSNU). Library directors were still involved, functioning as linking pin between the negotiators and the needs of professors, researchers and students.
Four big deals
And not without success. Quite progressive deals were closed with Springer and SAGE. Scholars working in Dutch universities can now publish their work in gold open access in all journals of these publishers without extra costs. In these two deals, a solution was found for the pressing problem of the financial burden in the transition phase. After all, having to pay article processing charges (APCs) alongside licence fees to continuing access to the non-OA articles by researchers from outside the Netherlands wasn’t too appealing. Springer and SAGE agreed to open up their subscription journals and their open access platforms for scholars working at Dutch universities and research institutions. The latter can publish their papers in open access without paying additional APCs while the license fees for the – now hybrid – subscription journals remains roughly the same.
A somewhat less rosy picture emerged from the deal that VSNU and Elsevier announced in December 2015. Basically, the contours of the ‘agreement in principle’, the details of which are yet to be unveiled, are in the same vein as those of the Springer and SAGE deals. Publishing in open access will be without extra costs for researchers with a Dutch affiliation. However, Elsevier negotiated out a ceiling percentage of 30% open access articles in 2018 that are to be published in a selection of journals both parties still have to agree upon. Whether this will be hybrid journals only, or also open access journals (Elsevier has quite a list of such journals, as well as a megajournal open to all scientific disciplines called Heliyon) is still uncertain. Regardless, the agreement leaves it up to the universities to decide which papers of which scholars are eligible for publication in open access and which are not. (There are more pleasant tasks for university administrators.) In 2018, a reassessment of the situation will be made by both parties to see which further steps toward OA – if at all – will be taken.
What surprises most is that the agreement is completely at odds with NWO’s new open access policy.
A few weeks ago, another deal was announced, now with John Wiley and Sons, Inc. Compared with the Elsevier deal, the conditions of this one are more favourable from the universities’ point of view. From 2016-2019 – one year longer than with Elsevier – researchers at Dutch universities and affiliated research institutions will have continued access to all Wiley subscription content. Also, the deal enables publishing 100% of the Dutch papers in open access in Wiley’s hybrid journals, the number of which will increase to around 1,400 titles. But here’s the catch: in Wiley’s hybrid journals only. Wiley does have a portfolio of full OA titles. However, these are not included in the arrangement. If authors with a Dutch affiliation insist on publishing their work in one of these titles, they will have to pay APCs like everyone else. What surprises most is that this agreement is completely at odds with the new open access policy of NWO. This organization, the most important Dutch science funder, discourages hybrid open access by actually stating that this form of OA publishing will not be supported with its funds. As for VSNU itself, its web pages about its open access policy do not even mention the hybrid option.
The cash cow and piracy
So why did VSNU approve this deal? At first glance, it looks as though Wiley wants to protect its cash cow, the subscription and licencing model. Which makes sense: the brand names of its vintage subscription journals are more likely to generate cash flow than its newer, full OA titles. The latter experience strong competition by the newer players, notably PLOS, PeerJ and Frontiers. With this deal, it is now more attractive for Dutch scholars to publish in Wiley’s hybrid journals for free than having to pay APCs to the PLOSses and PeerJ’s of this world. (It doesn’t come as a surprise that PeerJ has been striking deals with individual Dutch universities as well, like the University of Groningen a few weeks ago.)
But there may be another, and far more important, reason: the growing threat of piracy. Since the publication of this article and the discussion that ensued here and here, many scholars have become aware that an enormous amount of scientific papers have been harvested and included in the LibGen (Library Genesis) database. LibGen is a pirate database covering all sorts of content. Currently (March 2016) it allegedly hosts a whopping 47 million scientific articles. A computer scientist from France showed that already in January 2014 the majority of papers with a digital object identifier (DOI) in journals owned by Elsevier (77%), Wiley (73%) and Springer (53%) were present in LibGen.
— Guillaume Cabanac (@gcabanac) 27 maart 2015
Recently, Elsevier stated before the court that thousands of its articles are harvested through Sci-Hub each day. Currently resurfaced on sci-hub.io after a court injunction, it is a site where researchers lacking access to publishers’ databases can obtain pirated copies of articles. If the requested paper is already in the LibGen database, a copy is delivered without delay. Otherwise, using access credentials ‘donated’ by sympathizers with access, Sci-Hub harvests the article and delivers it while putting a copy in LibGen. Hence, the pirate database keeps growing.
It is well conceivable that the big science publishers have started to doubt the sustainability of their trade.
It is far from certain that the battle of the academic publishers against academic piracy is lost. In calling Sci-Hub the ‘Napster of science’ it should be borne in mind that Napster was eventually forced to stop its practices, as was the Pirate Bay. Yet, given the staggering amount of pirated papers, it is well conceivable that the big science publishers have started to doubt the sustainability of their trade. Experience has taught that the fiercer the policing of copyright infringements becomes, the more sympathy and support pirates tend to receive, and the more the role of copyright in academic publishing is called into question.
The ‘author pays’-model of gold open access offers academic publishers an escape hatch. It makes little sense for pirates to ‘liberate’ papers already published without most copyright restrictions. At the same time, the ‘author pays’-model guarantees a steady stream of revenues, at least as long as the big deals with university consortia will be renewed every so many years.
So from an economical point of view, the fact that academic publishers agree to co-operate with the Dutch negotiators in opening up the Big Deals for open access publishing should not surprise too much. There is a caveat, though. The national policy the Dutch are trying out might result in a strange variety of protectionism, one in which public money, currently around € 45 million per year (Henk Voorbij/Koninklijke Bibliotheek, personal communication, 5 Feb 2016), is used in giving the established publishing companies a competitive advantage over the new kids on the block. Or, more in line with reality, it enables them to catch up with the open access leaders: those persons and institutions who were the first to take the risk and embrace the dawning revolution in academic publishing.This is not just a hypothetical scenario. Figures show the yearly amount of papers submitted and published to PLOS to have dropped by 11% since 2013 in a quickly expanding OA market. Evidently this might just be a sign of a developing market with new competitors entering all the time. But let us not fool ourselves: research funders forcing scholars to publish their work in open access, combined with publishers turning their subscription journals into hybrids, has taken away a considerable quantity of wind out of the pure OA platforms’ sails. The deliberations above show that a really free market, with a level playing field for all competitors, is not achieved if the Dutch policy is to receive following in other countries.
To be sure, for a free market to come into existence other conditions must be satisfied. First, the coupling of publishing and prestige needs to be undone. If this requirement is not met, the huge differences in APCs between journals we are already witnessing today will broaden instead of eliminate the gap between those working in well-to-do universities and institutions and the rest. And as a consequence, an unnecessary amount of taxpayers’ money will keep on flowing in the pockets of the publishing companies’ shareholders.
Second, more clarity has to be created as to what constitutes open access in the first place. Is it just free access, or does ‘open’ also mean free of other restrictions, like those on (re)distribution, re-use and modification? Due to unclarity about this in funders’ policies, open access has meanwhile become a scale depicting degrees of openness rather than a clear dichotomy. Both science funder NWO and university association VSNU do not require academics with a Dutch affiliation to publish under a Creative Commons-Attribution Licence (CC-BY). Open access publishers have convincingly argued that this (or a comparable) licence is the only one granting users the rights advocated for in the Budapest, Bethesda and Berlin declarations on open access in 2002-2003. It is, for example, the only CC licence enabling researchers to mine the content of academic journals for research purposes. Scientometrists and methodologists in particular need such a licence to acquire the data sets they need. Also, advanced library search systems need to be able to make a copy of journals articles for indexing and recommendation purposes.
All things considered, the deal between VSNU and Wiley is not such a giant leap forward in making open access the default option in academic publishing in the Netherlands. One could even argue that it is a step backward, favouring hybrid over ‘pure’ gold and thereby frustrating the new OA policy of science funder NWO that explicitly discourages publishing in hybrid journals. One can only guess what lies behind this strange state of affairs. That is probably hidden in the minutes of the negotiations, which are – open access or not – company confidential.
Corrections and updates:
Full disclosure: As a professor of library science and as a freelance consultant, I am not affiliated to academic publishing companies and have never received payments for services delivered to them, be they legacy publishers or new OA platforms. The special chair in library science I hold at the University of Amsterdam is supported by the Royal Library of the Netherlands (Koninklijke Bibliotheek). Both the university and the national library are organizations involved in negotiations with publishing companies over licencing ‘big deals’. I have never been involved in these negotiations and have not received any information other than from public sources. The views expressed in this post are mine and do not reflect policies of either the university or the national library.
VSNU-Wiley: Not such a big deal for open access is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.