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Dr. Jessica Gardner on the ongoing negotiation between Cambridge and Elsevier

This post by Dr Jessica Gardner, Cambridge University Librarian, introduces the context for the ongoing negotiation between Cambridge University and the publisher Elsevier. It is the first in a series of posts on the negotiation from members of the Cambridge community. If you would like to contribute your own post, please get in touch via the link in the post below. 

As Cambridge University’s Librarian, I am mindful of the need for our academics to be able to access the journals they require and publish in the journals they feel most befit their research. The library is here to support Cambridge’s academic mission to develop and share new knowledge, which requires comprehensive access to the scientific record. Through the coming months, as we continue our negotiations with Elsevier, we want to listen to the academic community to better understand how these negotiations may impact their work.

But the university and its library also have a strong mission around open research and a commitment to sharing knowledge as openly and freely as possible. Regardless of where you are around the world, we want you to be able to access and build upon the world-leading research produced at Cambridge. As we have seen over the last 18 months of the pandemic, open research has the potential to truly revolutionise how research is conducted and shared, allowing us to address challenges affecting local, national and international communities. The library will continue to lead this open agenda while serving our academic communities with the resources and expertise they need within different disciplinary settings. 

Across the UK, our total spend with Elsevier is likely to reach £50 million in 2021. For Cambridge, our share of this figure includes what we pay for journal subscriptions and article-processing charges for open access. With our current agreement due to expire at the end of this year, we have a fiscal responsibility to review this deal and to ensure that we are paying the correct amount to access and publish with Elsevier journals. Working in a consortium organised by Jisc, we are seeking to renegotiate this figure (through a ‘transitional agreement’) while ensuring a meaningful reduction in the price paid. You can read more about the negotiations and our objectives here. 

In order to ensure that all voices are heard relating to these negotiations, we are engaging with staff and students through a number of channels. We are seeking input form the Cambridge community via a consultation where you can tell us what you feel our future relationship with Elsevier should be. In addition, we will be hosting town hall events in September to keep the community informed and seek further input (stay tuned for details). This blog will also be used to highlight the views from across Cambridge. Please do get in touch with Samuel Moore, Scholarly Communication Specialist at the library, if you would like to write a blog post on any topic relating to the negotiation or the future of scholarly communication at Cambridge.  

Though Cambridge is aiming for a deal, it is important to understand that, as in any negotiation, there is a possibility that one cannot be struck. We are committed to dialogue but also aware that we cannot continue to simply meet rising prices year on year or to accept deals that do not further our open access goals. The university sector is facing multiple financial pressures, including those arising from the pandemic, and we expect publishers to take the financial situation and the sector’s needs into account. Given Elsevier is the largest publisher in the world, the stakes are undoubtedly high, but we are confident that our sector  will work to get the best deal possible. Nevertheless, as a sector we may have to hold the line, push back and challenge, keeping in mind that many other universities around the world have walked away too. In such a scenario, we know that effective strategies for journal access will be critical to the academic community in Cambridge.    

Looking further ahead, it is beholden upon us to look beyond the negotiation with just one publisher. The last twenty years have seen a decided shift towards open access and open research and it is clearly the direction of travel. In some academic subjects, this has been vital to the world-wide pandemic response through rapid sharing of results, such as via preprints and data sharing. Libraries have been committed to the OA agenda and are leading the way through a variety of models, including through the kinds of agreements we are seeking with Elsevier to transition us to a fully open access world. We are now at a point of transformative change that will lead us to a time when it is a normal practice to make things openly accessible, and we look forward to working within the disciplinary needs of the Cambridge community to make this open future a reality.   

Staff introduction: Dr. Samuel Moore, Scholarly Communication Specialist

I am delighted to have joined the Office for Scholarly Communication here at Cambridge and wanted to post a brief introduction about my previous work in scholarly communication and the vision I have for my role as Scholarly Communication Specialist.

I have been involved in open research and scholarly communication for the past fifteen years, having both worked for a number of open access publishers and completed a PhD on the transition to open access in humanities disciplines. I am an information studies researcher by training and a strong advocate for openness in scholarly research. I therefore hope to help Cambridge continue to steer towards an open future for scholarly communication, but importantly one that does not leave any discipline or researcher behind.  Open research needs to be sensitively embedded in our disciplinary cultures so that it is a natural and easy thing to practice.

My doctoral research in the Department of Digital Humanities at King’s College London explored the contrasting approaches to open access publishing of policy-based and grassroots initiatives. From studying the UK funder policies, I identified a tendency to frame open access in terms of compliance rather than something good for its own sake. This meant that many researchers found open access an institutional burden or something not relevant to their own discipline or working practices, while others assumed that OA is just another way for commercial publishers to make increasing amounts of money. Though I think this reputation has improved, my position at Cambridge will be based on helping to show the exciting potential of open research, particularly its ability to contribute to a healthier publishing culture across all scholarly disciplines. For example, a focus of my initial work will be around monographs and the various ways of supporting researchers to explore the diverse ecosystem of long-form open publishers that exists in the humanities, especially those presses that do not charge a fee to publish.

Yet in order to move away from the culture of compliance across all disciplines, we not only have to show the full range of open access publishing opportunities available to researchers, we also have to build upon the work of educating our colleagues about publishing not just as a practice but an industry that shapes this practice. Fairly or unfairly, the publishing industry receives a great deal of bad press within higher education and this has led to a continual reappraisal of academia’s relationship with publishing, specifically with respect to open access. Using this blog and other channels, I hope to inform the university of the debates around the future of scholarly publishing so that researchers can better understand how their publishing decisions are situated in this changing environment. This will involve showcasing a range of views on publishing and the changing ways in researchers communicate and distribute their work.

One way of increasing academic engagement in scholarly publishing is through community consultation on forthcoming developments. The libraries have recently announced a renegotiation of Cambridge’s contract with Elsevier, which is due to expire at the end of this year, in order to seek an affordable Read & Publish deal with the publisher if possible. We are hoping to hear from as many voices at Cambridge about what the university’s future relationship with Elsevier should look like. Alongside showcasing views on this blog, we encourage academics to get in touch via this form to let us know your views and to stay informed about future activities in this area. Please do also contact me if you are interested in writing a blogpost on the topic or interested in learning more.

Related to the future of open access, I am also interested in providing support for academic governance of scholarly communication. I am a scholar of digital commons and community governance and I hope to impart of some of this knowledge to ensure greater accountability of publishing by research communities themselves. Currently, academics have a great deal of editorial oversight over the publications they edit, but less surrounding issues of price, ownership and other policy-related matters, despite the free labour and content we give to publishing houses. I will be discussing with academics and publishers about how we can work together to return accountability of publishing to research communities from the market at large.

Finally, I hope to support and showcase all the excellent work going in scholarly communication at Cambridge. There are pockets of activity across the university that would benefit from wider recognition and greater support, and I have already been contacted by colleagues looking to start or reinvigorate their small-scale publishing project. I will be exploring the ways that libraries can help here, ideally through resources and software, but also through sharing expertise with one another. Again, do get in touch if you have a publishing project that I should know about or can help with.

Scholarly communication is changing rapidly, not least due to the pandemic’s demand for openness, collaboration and immediacy of dissemination, but also through policies like Plan S and the soon-to-be-announced revised UKRI Open Access Policy. As we move in the direction of openness, it is important that all voices in the academic community are heard and that researchers feel confident that open research works for them. I look forward to working with colleagues to help shape Cambridge’s strategy for the future of scholarly communication.

Cambridge Data Week 2020 day 1: Who are the winners and losers of good data practices?

Cambridge Data Week 2020 was an event run by the Office of Scholarly Communication at Cambridge University Libraries from 23–27 November 2020. In a series of talks, panel discussions and interactive Q&A sessions, researchers, funders, publishers and other stakeholders explored and debated different approaches to research data management. This blog is part of a series summarising each event.  

The rest of the blogs comprising this series are as follows:
Cambridge Data Week day 2 blog
Cambridge Data Week day 3 blog
Cambridge Data Week day 4 blog
Cambridge Data Week day 5 blog


The first day of Cambridge Data Week 2020 kicked off with a tantalisingly open question: who are the winners and losers of good data practices? This question was addressed via two different perspectives: those of a funder, provided by Dr Georgie Humphreys (Wellcome), and of a publisher, provided by Dr Catriona MacCallum (Hindawi). Discussion of this topic during presentations and the Q&A session looked through various (but not mutually exclusive) lenses, including those of data sharing, quality, ethics, and research culture. Funder mandates for data sharing and what these have achieved (e.g. saving research funds related to data reuse) were reflected upon, as were disciplinary differences between STEMM, social sciences, arts and humanities. There was also a discussion of evidence relating to shifts in research culture and if this is pointing to better data practices. As a whole, the webinar explored a broader view of good data practices, the consequences of these, and the progress being made in embedding good data management in research. 

Topical for this year, both speakers discussed data sharing related to Covid-19 research. Catriona stated that Covid has exposed systemic flaws in the existing system (in relation to data sharing), and Georgie highlighted some surprising results regarding data availability statements in Covid-related articles. The CARE Principles for Indigenous Data Governance were also bought to the fore by Catriona, who argued for attention to be placed on potential power issues surrounding data sharing. These are a set of principles, complementary to the FAIR principles, but which encourage the open research movement to fully engage with Indigenous Peoples rights and interests. A pervasive undercurrent ran throughout the webinar – research culture and some problems therein. These were addressed explicitly by both speakers, with both stating that more needs to be done by institutions to implement DORA and reward researchers for their achievements and good research practices and not just according to where (i.e. in what journals) their research is published. Catriona highlighted results from a 2019 EUA report that shows that institutions have some way to go in this regard, that the value of data is not fully recognised, and that responsible research assessment is at the heart of cultural change in the right direction.

We had some great questions from the audience that were answered in the Q&A session, such as “In countries without the REF, is data sharing better?”, and “How do you get qualitative researchers on board with this?”, and “What is the role of universities in the so-called data-driven economy?”. Our audience also responded to the poll we held at the end of the webinar, where we asked participants to select one from seven given options that they regard as most likely to prevent good data practices among researchers. Resource indicators (knowledge, time, money for RDM) amounted to 46% of responses (blue in the chart below) and cultural indicators amounted to 53% (orange in the chart). Overall, the results were rather surprising but optimistic, revealing that a dominant perception among the participants is that a shift in cultural practices is one of the leading factors necessary to drive forward good data practices in research.

Graph showing the results of the poll held during the webinar, indicating what participants consider most likely to prevent or inhibit good data practices.
Figure 1. Results of the poll held during the webinar, where participants were asked to choose one of seven factors that they consider most likely to prevent or inhibit good data practices.

Audience composition

We had 274 registrations for this webinar, with just over 70% originating from the Higher Education sector. Researchers and PhD students accounted for 40% of registrations and research support staff for an additional 30%. On the day, we were thrilled to see that 164 people attended the webinar, participating from a wide range of countries.

Recording , transcript and presentations

The video recording of the webinar can be found below and the recording, transcript and presentations are present in Apollo, the University of Cambridge repository.

Bonus material

There were a few questions we did not have time to address during the live session, so we put them to the speakers afterwards. Here are their answers:

What are the ethics of using secondary data, particularly in relation to primary versus secondary researchers’ objectives, meaning of data/methods, consent of participants, and in the case of qualitative data, the personal relationships built between researcher and participants?

Georgie Humphreys This question seems to allude to informed consent which is still a topic of active discussion in terms of what one tries to build into the original informed consent to allow subsequent secondary use down the line. There is this idea of broad consent now where a participant would consent to that particular project but they’re also consenting to their data being kept and maybe reused for other purposes related to different scientific questions, but maybe with clauses such as ‘not for commercial benefits’. There are potential concerns about re-identification but there are mechanisms for dealing with that – mechanisms which reduce risk whilst retaining value, such as anonymisation or synthetic data creation. But there are other datasets where that’s just not going to be possible, where you lose all value of the original dataset. The UKDS have a nice page on informed consent, providing information on what you put in your consent forms to enable secondary use. This needs to be thought about at the very start of the study prior to collection of the primary data.

Catriona MacCallum This question is really focusing on data privacy issues. The primary researcher collects the data, the secondary researcher reuses the data. There are ways that researchers can be given access to the data while maintaining privacy. The primary researcher is creating the relationships with participants in order to obtain data, so what does this mean ethically for those wishing to reuse the data? Safety nets do need to be put into place. Here, it’s important to raise the CARE principles again. These were the result of a working group that came about as a result of concerns about how data from indigenous people are being treated. The slogan is now ‘Be FAIR and CARE’. The CARE principles are emerging in the UN’s agenda, and UNESCO, and I’m sure it will come up with the Research Council’s too.

What are the best practices to ensure data quality? 

Catriona MacCallum It depends what is meant by ‘quality’ as there are various ways of looking at this. The European Commission came up with the economic loss of not publishing failed experiments; in other words, the publication bias that results. We need to redefine what we mean by quality, integrity and again this speaks to the research culture as no one gets rewarded for publishing a failed result and in fact the researchers end up feeling embarrassed and tend not to do it. Publication bias is huge! It also applies to the humanities and social sciences as well but potentially in a different way, and there are huge biases in terms of what gets published and what is allowed to get published.

Georgie Humphreys This issue is probably a plug for the open peer review model where the filter is not at the beginning but later on. [In open peer review, authors and reviewers are aware of each other’s identity and encouraged to engage in open discussion. This makes the process more transparent, removing bias or conflicts of interest. Manuscripts are made publicly available pre-review, and reviews are published alongside the article].


So, who are the winners and losers of good data practices? Georgie believes that everyone, in the long term, will be a winner. If time is spent ensuring data is well-documented, well-organised, has dictionaries, is stored somewhere for the long term, then it will benefit the data creators just as much as anyone else. In the short term, she acknowledges that there may be people that find being a champion in this field a challenge for them individually, but it’s just about continuing along this journey to get to the point where everything is in place to truly reward and recognise those that have good open practices and good data management practices. Catriona says that there are so many winners: the economy, society, and science, the social sciences and humanities – all will benefit from data sharing. Taking society as an example, sharing data and sharing it well (through good research data management) will increase public trust in science, benefit public health and even help toward achieving multiple sustainable development goals.


A Covid-19 press release by Wellcome in January 2020 called on researchers, publishers and funders to share or facilitate the sharing of interim and final data as rapidly as possible. Wellcome have been exploring the impact of this statement on data sharing.

‘The FAIR Guiding Principles for Scientific Data Management and Stewardship’ by Wilkinson et al. in Scientific Data (March 2016).

CARE Principles of Indigenous Data Governance. The full CARE principles are outlined here.

UKDS information on informed consent, including a downloadable model consent form with suggested wording to allow secondary data reuse.

An April 2020 publication by Colavizza et al. on ‘The citation advantage of linking publications to research data’ showing that article citations are greater when they have data availability statements that include a link (e.g. DOI) to data archived in a repository.

A European University Association (EUA) report published in October 2019 by Saenen et al. on ‘Research assessment in the transition to Open Science: 2019 EUA Open Science and Access Survey Results’.

Published 25 January 2021

Written by Dr Sacha Jones with contributions from Dr Georgie Humphreys, Dr Catriona MacCallum and Maria Angelaki.  

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