The Conflict over Open Access between Elsevier and German Academic Institutions Shows the Importance of Journal Subscriptions

Alte Universitätsbibliothek, Kiel, Schleswig-Holstein, Germany, January 30, 2018 | © Courtesy of Rüdiger Stehn/Flickr.
Alte Universitätsbibliothek, Kiel, Schleswig-Holstein, Germany, January 30, 2018 | © Courtesy of Rüdiger Stehn/Flickr.

As an agreement on terms of access to paywall-protected journals between Germany’s educational and scientific organizations and the international publishing house Elsevier continues to elude the negotiating parties, a growing criticism from the side of scholarly publishers and university representatives indicates that journal subscriptions are critical for scientific research and publication processes, in spite of the expected transition to Open Access.

A Blog Article by Pablo Markin.

Since the subscription contract deal talks between the Project DEAL, the German consortium of research universities and institutes, and Elsevier have been taking place for about two years, the current lack of clarity concerning the feasibility of a subscription agreement between these sides, further amplified by a formal negotiations’ breakdown from July 2018, leads to a critical reconsideration of the unyielding stance in relation to Open Access that German counterparties have taken. As Elsevier has cut off German scholarly libraries from access to its databases, the international positioning of Germany’s researchers might suffer as a result of that, due to additional financial and time-related costs that access to its journals and latest publications may require.

On the one hand, European Union-level science-related foundations and organizations favor a transition to Open Access. On the other hand, a stalemate between Elsevier and its German negotiators can be perceived as a result of the broad local support for Open Access as a highly preferable model, especially in the long term, the availability of interlibrary loans and pre- or post-prints for recent articles and a recognition among scientists and researchers that scholarly publishing needs to be transformed according to the principles of Open Access.

However, the insistence of the Project DEAL on Gold Open Access as the only admissible model for Open Access and coterminously driving journal subscription prices downward is at variance with both existing scientific publishing practices and the leverage that German science-related organizations can have vis-à-vis Elsevier. The reason for this is the continued predominance of the subscription-based article and journal publication model that rules out unrestricted access to paywall-protected material. Articles published in the framework of Gold Open Access model, despite the rise in their absolute and relative numbers in recent years, continue representing a limited share of global scientific output.
While, as Elsevier suggests, Green Open Access, a model that provides Open Access to article archives but bundles subscriptions with recent article access, can represent a viable compromise between its interests and the prospect of a long-term transition to Open Access, its German counterparts hold on to Gold Open Access and paid-access subscriptions as components of the publish-and-read agreement they would like to reach.

In the meanwhile, numerous representatives of German universities and publishers, such as Astrid Holzheid from Universität Kiel and Georg von Samson-Himmelstjerna from the Free University Berlin, have stressed in their open letter that failing to reach a subscription deal with Elsevier can have unwelcome repercussions for local scientific institutions. The uncertainty over the access to Elsevier’s journals can translate into competitive disadvantages for German researchers, universities and institutes, due to being shut off from direct access to the majority of scholarly articles that Elsevier publishers.

In other words, should German and global scientific journals maintain their scholarly quality and continue developing their service offerings, they might need to combine Open Access and subscription options.

By Pablo Markin

Featured Image Credits: Alte Universitätsbibliothek, Kiel, Schleswig-Holstein, Germany, January 30, 2018 | © Courtesy of Rüdiger Stehn/Flickr.

This post is based on an article that originally appeared in OpenScience, 12/10/2018,

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