No big deal: calling the publishers’ bluff on high-price access to publicly-funded research

This blog has written a number of posts about open access, and its difficulties. One important impetus for the move towards open access was the increasing use by academic publishers of so-called “big deals”. Wikipedia explains:

In a big deal, a library or consortium of libraries typically pays several million dollars per year to subscribe to hundreds or thousands of toll access journals. By offering such discounted bundled subscriptions, the largest journal publishers were able to squeeze out of the market smaller (often, non-profit and less expensive) publishers, who did not have many journal titles and could not offer a discounted bundle subscription.

As well as harming smaller publishers, big deals are bad deals for libraries. Educational institutions often end up paying for many additional journals of little interest to their academics, simply because publishers refuse to license titles separately. The unwanted bundled journals mean that big deals are often poor value. As a result, the academic institutions and the consortiums representing them fight hard to bring down the package price as much as possible in what are often long drawn-out negotiations. Here, for example, is what happened in Germany:

In 2014, a union of German research organisations established Projekt DEAL, a national-level project to negotiate licensing agreements with large scientific publishers. Negotiations between DEAL and Elsevier began in 2016, and broke down without a successful agreement in 2018; in this time, around 200 German research institutions cancelled their license agreements with Elsevier, leading Elsevier to restrict journal access at those institutions.

Elsevier’s hope was doubtless that when thousands of German researchers found themselves unable to access Elsevier journals they would run to their libraries and demand that even in the absence of Projekt DEAL, some other deal should be made, never mind the cost. An interesting new paper in Quantitative Science Studies – from which the above quotation about Projekt DEAL is taken – looks in detail at what happened after Elsevier withdrew access:

We investigated the effect on researchers’ publishing and citing behaviours from a bibliometric perspective, using a dataset of ~400,000 articles published by researchers at DEAL institutions between 2012-2020. We further investigated these effects with respect to the timing of contract cancellations, research disciplines, collaboration patterns, and article open-access status.

It’s an important question, because publishers in general, and Elsevier in particular, naturally try to use the threat of academics being unable to access key journals in order to force through big deals at high prices. Equally, if academic institutions and the consortia that represent them know that the lack of a deal, big or otherwise, isn’t really an issue for researchers, it strengthens their negotiating hand. That seems to be the case:

We conclude that negotiations with Elsevier and access restrictions have led to some reduced willingness to publish in Elsevier journals, but that researchers are not strongly affected in their ability to cite Elsevier articles, implying that researchers use other methods to access scientific literature.

Other methods include two alternative sources of academic papers that have been mentioned previously on this blog, Sci-Hub and ResearchGate. As Walled Culture the book (free digital versions available for download) explores, both have been the target of legal action by publishers on the grounds of alleged copyright infringement. The claim of exclusive ownership by publishers is particularly outrageous for research papers that were mostly funded by the public through government grants. One of the motivations for the legal bullying is doubtless to stop academics from finding other ways to access papers that Elsevier and other publishers would like to withhold, for example if there are no big deals.

That’s also an important reason why both Sci-Hub and ResearchGate should not be shut down or throttled, since doing so would reinforce an indefensible monopoly that publishers enjoy because of ill-judged copyright assignments by authors. Open access is a laudable attempt to move away from that outdated system of disseminating publicly-funded knowledge. But as Walled Culture posts have indicated, publishers have succeeded in hijacking parts of the open access movement through so-called article processing charges (APCs), as evidenced by the numerous issues with mainstream gold open access. Although diamond open access resolves most of them, until it is widespread it is important that there are still resources like Sci-Hub and ResearchGate so that consortiums and libraries can call publishers’ bluff when negotiating big deals, by saying “no deal”.

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