The UC Negotiating Team 

Ivy Anderson, (Co-Chair), Associate Executive Director of the California Digital Library; Jeffrey MacKie-Mason (Co-Chair), University Librarian and Professor, School of Information and Professor of Economics, UC Berkeley; Günter Waibel, Associate Vice Provost and Executive Director of the California Digital Library; Richard A. Schneider, Associate Professor, Orthopaedic Surgery, UC San Francisco and Chair, Academic Senate University Committee on Library and Scholarly Communication; Dennis J. Ventry, Jr., Professor of Law, UC Davis and Vice Chair, Academic Senate University Committee on Library and Scholarly Communication

August 2, 2019

Whether you have received an email directly from Elsevier, or have been reading the news coverage since early July, you may have seen some of Elsevier’s claims regarding the journal contract dispute between the publisher and UC. Here’s a fact check from UC’s negotiating team.

Regarding the negotiations:

  • Elsevier claims that it “proposed a series of arrangements that would…achieve the objectives of the Academic Senate.”1

Not so, according to the leadership of the Academic Senate itself. Elsevier’s final proposal only included open access publishing of 30 percent of UC’s research. The Academic Senate’s library committee publicly called for open access publishing of all UC research on April 25, 2018.2 Furthermore, the entire Senate leadership publicly stated, “[We] hereby [signal our] collective and resolute commitment to support UC’s negotiating position with Elsevier.”3 Moreover, the Academic Senate Chair publicly stated at a meeting of UC’s Board of Regents on March 13, 2019, that “Elsevier remains far apart from us both in their commitment to open access, and in their financial offer.”4 These positions were reaffirmed by the Academic Senate during the July 17, 2019, Regents meeting both in Academic Senate Chair Robert May’s opening remarks and his contributions to discussions in the Academic and Student Affairs Committee.5 6 “The Academic Senate has been very firm and strong and unwavering in support of the university’s position,” May said.

  • Elsevier also asserts that it “proposed a series of arrangements that would contain costs.”7

Elsevier’s proposal would only have contained costs under the narrowest of interpretations, in which two-thirds of UC-authored articles would remain behind Elsevier’s paywall. To meet UC’s goal of making all UC research freely accessible, the final proposal from Elsevier would have cost UC 80 percent more than its most recent agreement.8

  • A point Elsevier has made repeatedly is that they offered UC “a five-fold increase in open access publishing.”9 10 11

Elsevier’s offer to increase open access publishing “five-fold” would have resulted in only 30 percent of UC’s research, all of which is supported by public funding, being freely available to the public. Under the past Elsevier contract, which required UC authors to pay an additional charge for open access (after the libraries already paid Elsevier for subscriptions), only 6 percent of UC authors made that second payment — making the majority of UC research published in Elsevier journals inaccessible to the public who helped fund it.

  • The publisher states that it has “opened over 1,900 of its subscription journals to open access submissions.”12

Elsevier has not “opened” its subscription journals. Rather, it is asking authors, after the libraries have already paid Elsevier for subscriptions, to pay a second charge (generally thousands of dollars) if authors want their individual articles to be available open access. Under this model, Elsevier gets paid twice for publishing such articles.

  • Elsevier incorrectly characterizes “the California Digital Library,” or simply “the library,” as the sole decision maker for UC in these negotiations.13

In fact, the negotiating team consisted of members of the UC (faculty) Academic Senate, the UC (campus) Libraries, and the California Digital Library (a unit within the UC Office of the President which, among many other activities, represents and serves as the fiduciary agent for the full University of California library system in contract negotiations with publishers). Indeed, three of the six negotiators were tenured faculty members. UC’s negotiating goals were extensively vetted with faculty and other key leadership groups across the university throughout the course of our negotiations; the decision not to accept Elsevier’s last offer was supported by the Academic Senate, the UC Libraries and the Office of the President. 

Regarding cancellation of UC’s access:

  • In the media and in emails sent directly to UC faculty and administrators, Elsevier has claimed UC “requested cancellation” of campus access to Elsevier journals.14 15

UC did not request that Elsevier cut off journal access. Rather, UC declined to continue negotiations when Elsevier was unwilling to accept the university’s proposal for a comprehensive agreement that met UC’s two key goals: cost neutrality and full open access for UC research. Although UC had no expectation that access would be extended indefinitely without a contract in place, Elsevier ultimately determined the timing for this change in access.

  • Elsevier has described the current status as “cancellation of campus access to over 2,500 scientific journals” published by the company.16

While UC’s access to 2019 articles in Elsevier journals has been discontinued, this statement requires some context. UC did not lose access to all articles from the 2,500 scientific journals represented in Elsevier’s portfolio. Among the approximately 2,000 Elsevier journals that UC previously licensed from Elsevier, UC retains perpetual access rights to most Elsevier articles published before 2019 (95 percent measured by UC usage). Elsevier cancelled direct access only to new publications since January 1, 2019, and the small amount of historical content not covered by perpetual rights.

  • Elsevier also cites a statistic that members of the UC community “download over 11 million articles a year” from their journals.17

Since UC retains direct access to most previously licensed Elsevier articles (only 2019 articles and certain older content were discontinued), citing the total number of downloads is misleading. Most of the downloads can continue since UC has perpetual access to the back-issues of a significant number of Elsevier journals. Further, the measure Elsevier uses is based on a formula that double-counts many uses of the content published in its journals. For example, when a reader goes to the article web page, and then also downloads a PDF copy, Elsevier counts that as two downloads, when in reality it is only one use.18 A more accurate estimate is that approximately 500,000 article downloads (an average of 50,000 per campus) will be affected in 2019 — a far cry from Elsevier’s 11 million.19 These numbers are not tiny, but they are manageable with alternative, legal means of access.

Regarding UC’s proposal:

  • Elsevier asserts that UC’s proposed model is, “in their own words … complex and risky,” using as evidence a mischaracterized quote from the UC Davis university librarian. A representative of the company wrote: “The plan is so intricate that one senior UC librarian called it ‘akin to modernizing the FAA’s air traffic control system – a million planes are in the air at any moment and changing anything can have serious consequences elsewhere.’”20

We have not characterized our offer as “complex and risky.” The quote Elsevier references describes the complexity of transforming the entire scholarly publishing industry, not UC’s proposal to Elsevier. Read the passage in context here.21

To the contrary, the contract framework we proposed is straightforward,22 and similar to numerous agreements signed by various publishers (including Elsevier) with European university consortia. This is also the framework underpinning an agreement that UC reached with Cambridge University Press.

  • Elsevier describes UC’s proposal as a “restructuring of the research model at UC” that “shifts costs to the UC researcher community under a default ‘author-pays’ model.”23

We did not propose a restructuring of the UC research model. Our proposal would continue to provide researchers with full reading access to Elsevier journals, and would allow researchers to publish in whichever journals they choose. Moreover, UC authors would be able to choose to publish their articles behind a subscription paywall or publish their work as open access. If authors choose open access, our framework asks those who have sufficient research funding to contribute to part of the cost of publishing (with the library paying the rest); many of these authors already pay open access publishing charges, so this does not change the research model. In addition, our framework provides for a discounted price, a partial library subsidy for all authors, and full library subsidy for those authors — including students — who wish to publish open access but do not have sufficient research funding available. Thus, the only change those authors would see is a positive one: the opportunity to publish open access without the need to fully self-fund the open access publishing fee.

Most, if not all, research funders allow, and in some cases actively promote, the use of research funds to support open access publication costs as a matter of policy, and by our published calculations, the total burden on research funds, accounting for the library share of payments, would be less than one percent of research funding.24

  • The publisher further claims that “a UC Library-commissioned study similarly found the plan ‘extremely complex, with significant risk on many sides.’”25

The study referenced was not UC Library “commissioned.” Rather, it was a collaborative research project initiated by two of UC’s libraries, conducted in partnership with other leading North American research institutions and funded by the non-profit Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Five of the eight principal authors were from outside UC.26 As to the quote itself, it referred not to UC’s proposal to Elsevier, but to the challenges of transforming the entire worldwide scholarly publishing industry. UC’s proposal to Elsevier is a thoughtful attempt to address those challenges.

  • Elsevier confusingly states that the university’s “proposed plan would require UC researchers to pay to publish their own output.”27

UC’s proposal would actually reduce the burden on UC authors who wish to publish their work open access, by fully subsidizing authors without access to grant funds and asking those with sufficient grant funding to contribute toward only a portion of the open access fees.

  • The publisher claims that “when surveyed,” researchers had “extremely negative” reactions to the scenarios laid out in the 2016 research study referenced above.28

We are unaware of any survey that addresses the scenarios explored in the 2016 research study. We invite Elsevier to produce the survey that specifically addresses these scenarios, including the questions the survey asked, its sponsor and authors.

Other unsubstantiated claims:

  • Elsevier alleges that “one senior library official has repeatedly pointed to illegal sources of articles, including a Russia-based piracy site.”29

We are unaware of any library employee who has been directing users to illegal sources of articles. On the contrary, UC explicitly published a statement on its website, in response to questions asked by users, that states: “The UC Libraries do not endorse the use of Sci-Hub for article access.”30 As the UC Berkeley university librarian said in a published interview, “we are unequivocal: it is our understanding (though we are not attorneys!) that Sci-Hub is in violation of U.S. copyright law. We will not advise nor help anyone to use it.”31

  • Elsevier claims that after Germany canceled its contract with the publisher, “83% of those surveyed complained of a ‘significant decline’ in their research productivity and that most wanted the contract renewed.”32

We are unaware of any such survey. When we inquired of German colleagues, they were also unaware of any published survey results correlating to these numbers. We invite Elsevier to produce the survey, the questions asked, and its sponsor and authors.

  1. Marti, Daniel. July 17, 2019. “UC Library’s hasty implementation of a complex plan means academic researchers lose.” CalMatters Commentary. Marti is head of global public policy at RELX, the parent company of Elsevier.
  2. University Committee on Library and Scholarly Communication. April 25, 2018. “Declaration of Rights and Principles to Transform Scholarly Communication.”
  3. Academic Council of the Academic Senate of the University of California. February 28, 2019. “University of California Academic Council Statement on the University’s Negotiations with Elsevier Publishing.”
  4. Remarks of Academic Senate Chair Robert May. March 13, 2019.
  5. Remarks of Academic Senate Chair Robert May: Board. July 17, 2019.
  6. Remarks of Academic Senate Chair Robert May: Academic and Student Affairs Committee. July 17, 2019.
  7. Marti (2019), op. cit.
  8. University of California Office of Scholarly Communication. March 20, 2019. “Open Statement: Why UC terminated journal negotiations with Elsevier.
  9. Marti (2019), op. cit.
  10. Hiltzik, Michael. July 11, 2019. “Column: In act of brinkmanship, a big publisher cuts off UC’s access to its academic journals.” Los Angeles Times.
  11. Pant, Sameera and Julia Shapero. July 11, 2019. “UC no longer has direct access to publications on Elsevier.” UCLA Daily Bruin.
  12. Marti (2019), op. cit.
  13. Id.
  14. Id.
  15. Hiltzik (2019), op. cit.
  16. Marti (2019), op. cit.
  17. Id.
  18. Bergstrom, Ted, Richard Uhrig, Kristin Antelman. June 5, 2018. “Looking under the COUNTER for overcounted downloads.” UC Santa Barbara Working Paper.
  19. Our estimate is based on Elsevier’s figure for the percentage of the 11 million article uses representing the most recent 12 months of content (which we have previously independently verified), adjusted for overcounting of usage (Bergstrom et al., 2018, op cit.) and pro-rated for the number months of discontinued access from July-December 2019. A separate analysis based on more recent download data collected between January-May 2019 yielded the same estimate. We’ll share more about how we arrived at this data soon — stay tuned for a link.
  20. Marti (2019), op. cit.
  21. Smith, MacKenzie. July 15, 2019. “University of California’s showdown with the biggest academic publisher aims to change scholarly publishing for good.” The Conversation.
  22. Anderson, Ivy, Jeffrey MacKie-Mason, et al. May 2019. Negotiating with scholarly journal publishers: A toolkit from the University of California; see pp. 3-4.
  23. Marti (2019), op. cit.
  24. See, e.g., MacKie-Mason, Jeff, Günter Waibel, Mathew Willmott. April 8, 2019. “UC and Elsevier: A blueprint for publisher negotiations” at slide 35.
  25. Marti (2019), op. cit.
  26. Smith, MacKenzie, Ivy Anderson, et al. July 18, 2016. “Pay it Forward: Investigating a model of sustainable open access charges for large North American research institutions.” See pp. 9 for the list of authors. The UC Libraries agreed to publish the document, but that does not make it a UC Libraries study any more than Elsevier publishing a research article by a Harvard professor means that Elsevier agrees with every statement made by the author.
  27. Marti (2019), op. cit.
  28. Id.
  29. Asimov, Nanette. July 10, 2019. “Largest publisher of scholarly journals cuts off UC researchers amid cost dispute.” The San Francisco Chronicle.
  30. See, e.g., University of California Office of Scholarly Communication. “Access to Elsevier Articles.
  31. Anderson, Rick. May 6, 2019. “The University of California and Elsevier: An Interview with Jeff MacKie-Mason.” The Scholarly Kitchen.
  32. Asimov (2019), op. cit.

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