Too much to pay upfront

In a first for US institutions, the University of California, the USA’s largest public university system, has decided to cancel its expensive subscription licence with Elsevier. The two organisations had evidently been negotiating for months, but talks finally failed over a proposed deal that would have allowed university researchers to publish in Elsevier journals under open-access terms.

The article suggests, in a quote, that the pirate site, Sci-Hub, may be undermining the ability of publishing companies such as Elsevier to continue operating as they have done previously, but I’m not sure that Sci-Hub carries that much weight in this case. I can’t help feeling that the very high pricing of these subscriptions – $11 million in this case, with an 80% uplift requested by Elsevier (yes, you read that right: 80% increase!) – is the main culprit and obstacle to renewal. I’m sure that Elsevier had made offers to mitigate some of the cost, but clearly it didn’t appease the University enough.

As regards Sci-Hub, no doubt there are students who’ll use it behind the scenes, it’s hard to prevent them, but universities will hardly be condoning access to the site for their staff and students. Although SciHub has undoubtedly had quite an impact on free access to papers, it remains an illegal way to get them, so a University is unlikely to say to Elsevier, “you know what? I think we’ll just use Sci-Hub instead”.

Additionally, for UC, the pain of not having access will be reduced a lot as it has a contract clause that enables UC to retain access to Elsevier’s back catalogue, only losing access to articles published in Elsevier journals after expiry of the institution’s licence.

And so the momentum builds…who’ll be next to cancel, and when does it reach a disruptive tipping point?

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