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Academia in 3 Nations Boycotts Elsevier for High Journal Prices

Scientists in Taiwan, Germany, and Peru will lose access to more than 12,000 scientific journals after institutions boycott the publishing giant for high prices and minimal open-access options.

UPDATE: 1/11/17: 

The following is a statement from Harald Boersma, Director Corporate Relations, Elsevier:

"The reference to a ‘boycott’ is incorrect, none of our negotiation partners have started such an initiative. The reality is, that in Peru there was not enough funding available from the government to finance a new agreement. In Germany, individual institutions chose to not renew their contracts based on their assumption there was going to be a national license instead, which is being developed but will take more time to complete. In Taiwan, we simply haven’t yet been able to reach a mutually satisfactory agreement. In all cases, we’ve agreed to continue our conversations in 2017 and we’re hopeful to reach agreements soon. Till then, our efforts are focused on minimizing access loss for researchers."

Nature reports that Elsevier has extended its subscription to universities in Taiwan for another month (until the end of January) and negotiations have resumed. 

Scientists in Germany, Taiwan, and Peru will lose access to thousands of scientific journals this year, as institutions choose not to renew their subscriptions to Elsevier due to high-priced access to journals and papers, and failed open-access negotiations. Contract negotiations fell through in December between the journal-publishing company and scientific-institution organizations in Germany and Taiwan, and in Peru, the government refuses to pay for its universities to access Elsevier’s publications, according to the Tech Times.

Some of Elsevier's academic journals are open access, but the authoring researchers cover publication costs.

Elsevier is a Dutch publication company that publishes more the 12,500 scientific, technical, and medical journals. They supply some open-access journals, but most are protected by a paywall. The company operates with two business models. First, authors can submit scientific papers, and people that want to read them can pay for access or purchase a subscription to the journal. Usually a scientific institution will purchase a license so that its members can log in to Elsevier to read it. The second requires authors to pay Elsevier between $500 and $5,000 to publish an open-access paper that can be read by non-paying or non-subscription readers. Either way, Elsevier gets paid to cover publication costs, which continue to increase as more content is produced by researchers.

A subscription to a journal can cost upward of $3,000 per year, and access to a single paper can cost as much as $30, and authors do not receive any portion of that payment. (See a list of Open-Access publication prices and a list of subscription prices for librarians and agents.) And when research is conducted by federally funded institutions, it becomes more of a public issue, as tax payers fund the research, and then need to pay again to have access to it. Elsevier participates with many governments and research organizations to negotiate deals for more open access to papers written by authors in that country. In 2015, a negotiation between Elsevier and 14 universities in the Netherlands ended in a compromise, with 30% of Dutch papers being published open access without a charge to the authors by 20181.

A similar negotiation called Project DEAL between Elsevier and a group of German institutions did not reach such a compromise; it started as DEAL tried to reach a nationwide license agreement where articles by German researchers would be open access. But the negotiation fell through, and 60 German institutions and universities announced they would not be using Elsevier in 2017, unless DEAL could negotiate a better outcome for more open-access German papers2. As for Taiwan, many top universities have boycotted Elsevier for high prices3. CONCERT, a consortium of Taiwanese universities, is leading the boycott. 

The question is, is science taking the back burner? The scientists in effected institutions will have to find other sources to access key information that stays current with research around the world. The push to lower the cost of obtaining knowledge through open-access journals is likely to have negative impacts on scientific development. Still, organizations like DEAL in particular are pushing to reach a compromise that will lower the price of obtaining knowledge.

The website that allows people to download pirated papers has been met with both caution and praise by scientists.

As more institutions and governments oppose Elsevier’s prices and aversion toward open access, scientists are becoming more reliant on controversial sources like Sci-Hub, which provides open access to more than 58,000,000 scientific papers published in various journals. (See "Who's Downloading Pirated Papers?") Sometimes referred as the Torrent of scientific papers, it was created by a neuroscientist that did not like the idea of having to pay high prices for knowledge. It has cycled through various domains to avoid being deleted, and was shortly rebooted after being suspended by a New York Court in 2015 after a lawsuit was filed by Elsevier for copyright infringement.

Overall, boycotts may lead to negotiations that promise more open access, but not without posing difficulties for scientists to access academic papers first. 

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