Tag Archives: Elsevier

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.

This post is released under a Creative Commons Attribution Licence, allowing reusers to distribute, remix, adapt, and build upon the material in any medium or format, so long as attribution is given to the creator.

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 from the Cambridge community, and hope you can tell us what you feel our future relationship with Elsevier should be. There will be a University-wide consultation in Michaelmas Term 2021. In the meantime, we welcome feedback and expressions of interest from anyone wishing to participate in future events and engagement plans. 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.   

The ‘restricting choice of publication’ threat

When you work in the open access space, language matters. It is very easy to distract the academic community from the actual discussion at hand and we are seeing an example of this right now. The emerging narrative seems to be that open access policies, and specifically the UK Scholarly Communication Licence (UKSCL), are going to threaten academics’ ability to choose where they publish.

The UK-SCL Policy Summary is explicitly “an open access policy mechanism which ensures researchers can retain re-use rights in their own work, they retain copyright and they retain the freedom to publish in the journal of their choice (assigning copyright to the publisher if necessary)”.

Let’s keep that in mind when considering the following examples of the ‘restricting choice of publication’ argument that have crossed my path recently.

Sowing the seed 1

In January Elsevier sent an email to their UK editors (and some non UK editors) about the UKSCL.  It was written in a friendly tone expressing ‘concerns’ about the UKSCL. The ‘choice of publication’ argument appeared three times in this letter:

  • [The UKSCL] …“we believe may have a negative effect on UK research and may impact whether and how researchers publish in your journal”.
  • Elsevier fully supports the need for research institutions to use the articles published by their researchers, but further discussion is needed to ensure the SCL does not compromise the sustainability of academic journals or restrict researchers’ ability to publish quickly and easily in journals of their choice.
  • A key concern is that the SCL may restrict a UK researcher’s ability to choose where they publish (given there is no guarantee a copyright waiver will be granted) and ultimately threaten the publication of UK-based papers.

Note that this letter was inaccurate at best, and not just on this point. Under the UKSCL, copyright remains with the author and is free to be assigned to the publisher. The UKSCL is not restricting publisher or journal choice. Only the action of the publisher would achieve this.

Sowing the seed 2

On 26 and 27 February I attended the Researcher to Reader conference which attracts a mixture of publishers, library and administrative staff and some researchers. During the event one of my Advisory Board colleagues, Rick Anderson tweeted this comment:

“Most startling thing said to me in conversation at the #R2RConf: “I wonder how much longer academic freedom will be tolerated in IHEs.” (Specific context: authors being allowed to choose where they publish.)

Rick was quoting someone else, but he ended up in something of a Twitter argument over this tweet, including from Matt Ruen who asked: “Is there any evidence that researchers are actually being prevented from publishing what & where they want? Or is it just that if you want to get certain grants (or tenure/promotion), you have to play by the rules of funders/institutions? Because it has always been so.”

It seems the ‘restricting choice of publication’ message has been clearly disseminated. It is now coming back out from the academic community. Here are two examples that have happened very recently.

The British Academy

On 27 February, I also attended a meeting at the British Academy to discuss the UKSCL. The British Academy is considering their position on open access. They last published something on this in 2014 – see “Open Access journals in the Humanities and Social Science” – and they are consulting with their community to see if the position has moved. I applaud them for this and there is no criticism of the British Academy in what is described here. They are not creating this narrative, they are passing it on.

In preparation for their discussions, the British Academy recently surveyed their membership about the UKSCL. Amongst other questions the survey included the ‘restricting choice of publication’ bogeyman in the context of journals that have longer embargoes. One question was “Opinion of 12 month embargo impact on choice of journal”. The options included:

  • “I would strongly oppose not being able to place the article in the journal that I preferred” and
  • “I would regret not being able to place the article in journal that I preferred”

What is surprising about the result of this question is that only 55% of fellows and 48% of post doctoral fellows chose the first statement.

The problem here is that the ‘restricting choice of publication’  was invoked as an option for an outcome of a 12 month embargo. It is very unclear under what circumstances the ‘restricting choice of publication’ situation would occur in these conditions. Indeed, the number of respondents that chose the option ‘I think the situation is unlikely to arise’ was 14% of fellows and 7% of post doctoral fellows.

The Royal Historical Society

Then in the same week as the Researcher to Reader conference and the British Academy meeting, the Royal Historical Society released “The UK Scholarly Communications Licence: What it is, and why it matters for the Arts & Humanities”. I won’t go into this document in detail – that needs a more comprehensive discussion. But I will pick up on one of the points in the paper.

This document invoked the ‘restricting choice of publication’ argument under the heading: “(D) UK researchers’ continued access (as authors) to non-UK scholarly journals”. This section made the point:

“In addition, the editorial boards of several established non-UK and UK published journals (e.g. the American Historical Review and Past & Present) have indicated that they are unlikely to agree to publish an article which has already been published via an institutional repository.” Note that both named journals are published by Oxford University Press.

Ah, there it is. The first identifiable threat.

So it seems this ‘restricting choice of publication’ argument is striking fear into the hearts of many researchers.

Hang on…

Shall we consider the statement by those editorial boards for a moment?

Green open access works with the Author’s Accepted Manuscript (AAM), not the Version of Record (VoR). The AAM is placed in a repository with an embargo – 12 months in the case of the UKSCL for Humanities and Social Sciences journals.

This ‘indication’ by those editorial boards highlights two an issues:

  1. The embargoed AAM will only be available before the final VoR is published if the journal’s publishing processes are very slow, meaning there is a period of more than 12 months between an article being accepted for publication and it being published CORRECTION 13 March: The 12 month embargo kicks in once the work is published. This makes this point moot in the context here but further underlines the second point.
  2. By their own admission, these journals provide such little value add between the AAM and the VoR that having the AAM available in an institutional repository 12 months after publication means there is apparently no subsequent point publishing the work in the first place.

Neither of these points This does not paint those journals in very good light.

Who is the bad guy here?

I personally consider this simply another in a long series of scare campaigns. But for the sake of argument, let’s observe who is at fault if this restriction were to occur.

If an editorial board is by its own admission prepared to make arbitrary decisions about what they will publish based on people’s location and their policy requirements rather than the quality of the work, does this not fly in contravention of the idea that the ‘best’ research is published in that journal? It points directly to editorial decisions being made on economic  or political grounds.

The problem in this scenario is not open access, it is not funders, it is not the UKSCL. The problem is with the editorial boards and publishers. Why are researchers not pushing back on them and demanding that editorial decisions be made solely on the basis of the work?

Published 13 March 2018
Written by Dr Danny Kingsley
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