Open access: coming down hard
Scientific publishers earn loads of money while the content of their journals is provided for free by university scholars.
In order to have access to these journals, universities have to pay a considerable sum.
With Open Access, publishers offer the chance to make an article freely accessible, but this also costs money.
In 2024, all Dutch research which has been funded through public financing must be made freely accessible. As such, Open Access has been on the rise since 2013.
This year, the VSNU consciously chose to make arrangements only with publishers who were taking ‘clear steps’ towards making their articles freely accessible.
Various publishers agreed to cooperate, but Elsevier asked much too high subscription prices and money on top of that for Open Access, the VSNU says.
The VSNU threatened to boycott the provision of articles to Elsevier in July.
In September, the publisher and the VSNU announced the re-opening of negotiations.
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The situation is making the scientists, officials and librarians alike uneasy. Scientific journals – Science, Nature, The Lancet and thousands of other titles – are making heaps of money. Their profit margins are more than impressive. Last year, Elsevier had a profit margin of 37 per cent and their annual figures show that their subscription price goes up each year. But who provides the content of the journal? The universities. And they do it for free.
‘We produce the knowledge, we utilise it. We should manage the output ourselves. Why do we have to have a business middleman?’ says RUG linguistics professor Jan-Wouter Zwart.
Scientists carry out research using public finances. They write the articles, work as editors for the journals and judge the work of their colleagues in their field via peer reviews. They don’t receive any money for these tasks – ‘nor is that necessary’, astronomer Amina Helmi hastily emphasizes. But in order to read those articles again, the universities have to pay large subscription fees. And that stings. ‘They seem to think that their services are indispensable’, RUG president Sibrand Poppema says.
Each year, the RUG spends six million euros on books and journals. Of that, 4.5 million euros is spent on journal subscriptions, and that sum multiplies due to inflation each year, says Peter van Laarhoven from the University Library.
Publishers often offer the possibility to make an article freely accessible – in other words, to offer ‘Open Access’ – but then the scientist has to pay article publication charges which can amount to up to 5,000 euros. In some cases, you even have to pay twice: once for the subscription and once again to ‘buy access’ to the article.
‘Unreasonable’, says Amina Helmi. ‘The contrast is just too large’, says professor Petra Hendriks of semantics and cognition. Van Laarhoven also agrees that it is ‘impractical and undesirable’. It is old-fashioned in this age of sharing and openness. Moreover, the information produced from the research using public financing is not accessible to that same public, neither for the doctor in his practice nor the teacher who wants to polish up his skills. The information is also difficult to access for scientists in developing countries.
What is Open access?
Open Access is an international academic movement that strives for free access to scientific articles.
A lot of research is financed by public resources. Researchers then publish their articles in scientific journals from publishers such as Elsevier, Springer, Wiley and SAGE. In order to be able to read these, the universities have to sign up for expensive subscriptions.
That’s unfair, as the same scientists and scholars are the ones who judge the quality of their colleague’s articles (‘peer review’) and serve as editors, all of which they do for free. Open Access makes the intervention of a publisher redundant and allows for lower costs.
Yet university boards haven’t done much to make this possible. That is because the publications in so-called ‘high-impact’ journals count towards the quality assessment of the researcher just as much as the institution. As a rule, the impact of Open Access journals is lower. That is why a movement is beginning that pleads for counting the citations towards the researcher’s assessment.
‘But the universities are stuck in this system’, says Zwart. ‘Truth be told, they are addicted. The universities have to join ranks and do something about it.’ Zwart already put his words into action years ago and stopped reviewing the Elsevier journals out of principle.
It seems that Zwart’s example is finally beginning to be followed. In 2013, state secretary Dekker decided, just as had been decided in Great Britain, to make all Dutch research which had been publicly funded freely accessible in 2024.
Since then, Open Access has had the wind in its sails. Open Access is no longer just for the fanatics and idealists. For example, university association VSNU refused to make any new agreements with scientific publishers if they were not seen to be making ‘clear steps’ toward making the articles they provide freely accessible.
The VSNU agreed upon a good contract with Springer, a publisher of 300 top scientific journals (the so-called Q1 journals). They decided upon a new subscription with a price increase of two per cent, essentially correcting for inflation. The universities are happy about this, and Springer is, too. ‘A win-win situation for the universities as well as Springer’, says the publisher. ‘We think we will be more appealing to Dutch authors and that is an important, strategic goal.’
For now, the arrangement is valid for a period of two years, but Springer is still satisfied. ‘We hope to continue with the same arrangement in two years’ time.’
A number of other important publishers, such as Wiley and SAGE, are also making ‘significant moves’, according to Van Laarhoven. That is all well and good, but the universities are still struggling with Elsevier. The negotiations with the publisher of around 2,000 titles, including The Lancet, doesn’t seem to want to hurry things up.
Types of Open Access
Gold: The Dutch universities and the government advocate for the ‘golden route’ to Open Access. This means that they will keep on using the platform of the publishers. Instead of paying for access to an article, the researcher will decide upon article processing charges (apcs) beforehand. These costs will be covered by universities or the research financer NWO. Many publishers already work with apcs; however, they also charge subscription fees for the traditional magazines in the so-called hybrid variant.
Diamond: articles which are published in a journal that is fully financed by either the universities or the scientific unions. Apcs and subscriptions are thus rendered unnecessary.
Green: researchers deposit the so-called post print of their article or publication into a freely accessible database. That is the version which has been accepted following peer review but has not yet been formatted for the scientific journal. Many publishers allow this after a period of several months or years.
‘What they are offering is ludicrous’, says Van Laarhoven regarding the latest offer from Elsevier.
‘Our intention is to retain subscriptions, but to come to an agreement moving towards Open Access’, says Bastiaan Verweij from the VSNU. ‘But what they have now offered is much too small a step. And this isn’t going in the direction of the necessary transition’.
Elsevier has made three offers, initially without the Open Access component but with serious price increases. The latest proposal did offer Open Access, but the subscription price was so expensive that the universities were still turned off by the proposal. ‘We would still have to pay double: once for the subscription and once again to gain access to the article’, says Verweij.
The universities disapprovingly refer to this as double dipping. The publishers have a considerably more positive name for the practice: they call it open choice.
Van Laarhoven thinks that Elsevier’s offer is a PR trick. ‘They say they don’t mind talking, but then they make an offer which you just can’t accept.’
Elsevier obviously sees the situation very differently. Michiel Kolman from Elsevier would rather speak about the ‘positive and constructive conversations’ in which both parties are looking for ‘creative solutions to the transition to Open Access in the Netherlands.’
He wants to make clear that Elsevier is also in favour of the transition. There are 150 titles that are ‘pure gold’ (see the ‘Types of Open Access’ box). ‘So our discussion is not about whether we want Open Access, but rather about how we can make the transition in a responsible and sustainable way.’
Why aren’t they making a deal, then? There are a few reasons, says Kolman. Elsevier is publishing ever more and the quality is improving, as the increase in the number of citations can attest.
That should cost something. At the same time, the movement towards Open Access remains small. ‘Worldwide, only ten per cent of publications are freely accessible’, says Kolman. ‘There are only two countries which are going for gold: the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. England has designated 60 million pounds for the transition, but the Netherlands only has a policy.’ In other words: ‘This is the price you pay for leading the way.’ That raises the question: what can Dutch universities do if Elsevier still sticks to its guns? In July, the VSNU threatened to boycott. After all, what can a publisher of scientific journals do if the researchers walk away?
Elsevier is not really worried about that. ‘Access to international journals is of essential importance to science. We provide that access’, says Kolman. Even RUG president Poppema does not see the point in a boycott. ‘Researchers have usually worked a long time in order to be asked to be an editor. This is seen as an affirmation of academic quality. I therefore feel it is wrong to ask them to sacrifice this’, he says.
There is currently no new deal. That could mean that the new articles published in the more than 2,000 titles of the publisher will no longer be able to be viewed by researchers. For some, that is without a doubt a nightmare.
Now that the academic year has begun, Elsevier and the VSNU have announced that they have re-opened negotiations. But whether a new deal will be reached is doubtful, thinks van Laarhoven. ‘Both parties are firmly entrenched.’