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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