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How might we reduce our dependency on legacy publishers such as Elsevier?

To coincide with our first townhall event on the Elsevier negotiations, Professor Stephen Eglen offers his perspective on the University’s future relationship with the publishing industry. Prof. Eglen is Professor of Computational Neuroscience in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at the University of Cambridge.

I’m often asked why I single out Elsevier when discussing spurious publishing practices*. The simple reason is that they are the single largest publisher that most institutions deal with. Other legacy publishers adopt similar practices, outlined below, that I disagree with. However, given that Elsevier tends to take about 40% of our journal subscription costs, it is worth focusing on. Even finding out these costs required an extensive set of FOI requests over several years, revealing a large disparity in costs between UK Universities. However, I do not blame Elsevier for the current situation – they are a successful business with shareholders to satisfy. Their consistent high operating margins (~ 30%) indicate that they are very capable. However, this comes at a price, e.g. their current median gender pay gap in 2020/21 was 36%, compared to 11.1% at the University of Cambridge, and 7.3% at Springer Nature.

Big Deals

We currently ‘rent’ the collection of Elsevier-published articles via ScienceDirect; this is analogous to a cable TV subscription where you pay a monthly amount to access all of the TV channels from a particular company. Just like a cable TV subscription, it is significantly cheaper and convenient to buy everything, than it is to just buy what you really need.

In the case of Elsevier, I would argue that they publish a few, very popular, journals, such as The Lancet, Cell, and many others within Cell Press. In my corresponding slides, I analyse our University’s download statistics of articles for 2019. I am unable to publicly share these findings, as the download statistics data are not freely available. However, it was no surprise to see that some journals are much more popular than others. Our costs for the Big Deal have steadily increased in recent years, on the notion that we are getting access to more content with more journals being added. However, these would seem to be journals that are rarely read.

Transformative deal elements

Jisc are now negotiating with Elsevier for a ‘transformative deal’ which will allow us to both read and publish in these journals. Although on the surface attractive, they simply maintain the ‘lock in’ to the publisher, and come with their own problems. For example, often the number of articles that can be published per year is capped – what happens when the cap is exceeded? They also unwittingly introduce problems for scholars in poorly funded institutions who cannot afford such deals nor high article processing charges (APCs). Why should we continue to support a system that negatively impacts on scholars in the Global South?

Embargoes and Rights Retention

The UKRI currently have clear requirements for dates by which research articles should be open access: 6 months for STEM, and 12 months elsewhere. Journals therefore had a choice: to allow authors to meet UK open access policy by paying an APC, or by reducing embargo periods on author accepted manuscripts to meet UK constraints without paying an APC. Unsurprisingly, Elsevier saw no reason to reduce their embargo periods. From 2022, however, UKRI have reduced these embargo periods to zero months. While it is highly unlikely that Elsevier will reduce their embargoes to comply with this new policy, we can look to alternative approaches to facilitate immediate open access.

For example, the Rights Retention Strategy is a recent innovation to allow authors to maintain rights over their work, rather than signing over copyright to the publishers, which enables the immediate release of author accepted manuscripts upon publication. This is seen as a valuable tool for promoting green open access. However, many publishers, including Elsevier, noted their vocal opposition to the Rights Retention Strategy. Further, In July 2021, Elsevier wrote to editorial board members noting that it had been lobbying UKRI and Government regarding its opposition to planned changes to UKRI policy.

What next?

The publishing industry is moving towards deals combining both read access to journals and the ability to publish in those journals. I dislike such deals, as I think they continue a ‘lock in’ of funds to one publisher, having negative consequences for those that cannot afford them. I believe all scientific articles need to be free to access, and ideally free for authors to publish. So, how might we reduce our dependency on legacy publishers such as Elsevier?

  1. Decline a big deal and instead subscribe to individual journals from the ScienceDirect catalogue that our tailored to our local needs. US institutions have done this recently, saving significant sums (Thornton and Brundy, 2021).
  2. Use the savings to invest in more ethical approaches to scholarly publishing. This would include Diamond OA journals, such as Discrete Analysis, Volcanica and Beilstein Journal of Organic Chemistry. Such journals are supported by grants, and are free of author-fees and free to read. We could also invest further in infrastructure to support scholarly publishing. For example, UK has been a long-term supporter of the arXiv preprint server – in 2020, we contributed $55,000 to its running costs. Finally, libraries are now choosing to directly fund open access journals in models such as Subscribe to Open and The Open Library of Humanities.
  3. Support researchers to adopt the Rights Retention Strategy as a way of maintaining rights over their works, and being able to publish their work as green open access.
  4. Work together with other institutions to ensure legal, low cost, alternative routes to accessing scientific literature (e.g. rapid interlibrary loans).

I hope the discussions that we are having in Cambridge around the Elsevier negotiations are just one part of a larger move to consider our future vision of an ethical and inclusive scholarly publishing system. Legacy publishers will not provide this; we in academia need to build this vision, working with forward-looking partners.

*(Disclaimer: I am writing this from the point of view of a researcher in Computational Neuroscience, where I routinely read journal articles in both biological and mathematical domains. I am aware that views on open access vary across disciplines.)

Michael Williams on the Elsevier negotiations: What’s our ‘Plan B’?

As part of our series on the ongoing negotiations between Elsevier and the UK university sector, this post by Michael Williams, Head of Collection Development & Management at Cambridge University Libraries, explores the University’s plans for continued research access in the event that an agreement cannot be reached.

As negotiations continue between Elsevier and the UK university sector, institutions need to position themselves to ensure that we have a realistic alternative access solution if the decision is to not sign an agreement. But what would happen in the event of a non-renewal scenario? This post explores how we at Cambridge University Libraries are preparing for Plan B and the alternative access solutions we will be providing.  

As Jessica Gardner discussed on this blog, our collective ambition is to negotiate a Read-and-Publish deal with Elsevier that meets the sector’s requirements on costs and open access. However, a decision on the deal is looming in the coming months so we need to ensure we have an effective alternative option for accessing journal content if Elsevier does not meet our requirements. Importantly, however, this Plan B does not just apply to Elsevier but would come into play in the event of opting out of deals with other big commercial publishers in future negotiations.

At Cambridge we are doing our best to engage our research communities with the Elsevier negotiation so that any decisions around the deal and potential implementation of Plan B will only take place following communication and engagement with research-active members of the University. If we need to implement a Plan B, it should not come as a surprise; it will be planned and communicated in advance.

Elements of Plan B

An effective Plan B will enable users to obtain articles with a minimum of intervention and as seamlessly as possible. To achieve this, we are developing an integrated workflow that includes the use of browser extensions for discovery and document delivery services such as Inter-Library Loan (ILL). Additionally, we will subscribe to core titles (rather than a ‘Big Deal’ bundle) to provide continual access to content that we know will be in high demand, and make sure to actively share with our academic communities the post-cancellation access information detailing the journal coverage that will continue beyond the end of the existing deal.

Existing ILL services at Cambridge are being developed and expanded. We are implementing RapidILL, a document delivery service that enables quick turnaround times for the supply of journal articles and book chapters, which integrates with iDiscover and other discovery tools. In addition, we are co-ordinating with other UK universities for the supply of content through new and existing peer networks. The negotiations therefore offer the opportunity to bring our document delivery services up to date for this and any future negotiations. For requests that cannot be supplied by Inter-Library Loan, the library is establishing a funding plan to purchase articles on a case-by-case basis.

Another element of Plan B is the promotion of preprint servers and other openly accessible outputs for obtaining research that may not be the version of record but is still of use to researchers. Many articles will already be available as gold open access via publisher websites, but we also encourage our University members to utilise the vast array of papers uploaded to institutional and subject repositories and other indexes available on the web. These include legal author-sharing networks and Google Scholar. Through these networks, along with plugins such as Lean Library, users may also request access to papers directly from the authors themselves. These networks may be used to share materials under copyright. We should acknowledge that pirate sites are heavily used by some researchers; we will not be promoting these pathways to access through library channels and do not recommend their use.


Communications with the Cambridge community about how these alternative forms of access will change their workflows are important to the Plan’s success. Users need to understand that changes will be made but that alternatives do exist for accessing content. If we implement Plan B, we need to minimize the impact of non-renewal and provide solutions that deliver content seamlessly. To prepare for this we will be communicating with our users across our research community to inform, receive feedback and to test the services we deliver. We also need to ensure that library colleagues are aware of the changes and are consequently able to advise on how these changes will affect researchers. Plan B is therefore as much about communication as it is about technical changes.

Our website is a central point for information, containing FAQs and ways for researchers to provide feedback on our plans. Many of the services we are implementing would only be publicly available in the event of a non-renewal scenario. This is a good moment to pause and remind ourselves that the sector’s preferred route is to negotiate sustainable transitional agreements that meet our needs to Read and Publish – at an affordable price and meeting the expectations of funder policies. We must not lose sight of this in our Plan B planning.

Final note

If we are to be in a strong negotiating position, we must have a well-planned, credible alternative to proposals put forward by Elsevier or any big publisher. At Cambridge, we have worked hard for this and are prepared for any eventuality. In the event of moving to a Plan B, we aim to minimize the impact of non-renewal and provide solutions that deliver content seamlessly, but it is important to recognise that no Plan B will meet all user needs and be cost- and disruption-free from the user perspective. Access may be clunky and it will not be available ‘anywhere, anytime’ like current journal subscriptions. Depending on the length of time Plan B is needed, the situation may worsen as time passes (as the first thing we would lose is access to the most recently published content) but I am confident that research undertaken at the University of Cambridge will be well served whatever the outcome of the negotiation. Please do get in touch with the Office of Scholarly Communication if you have any questions at all.

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