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“Young researchers aren’t panicking – that came as a surprise”

“Young researchers aren’t panicking – that came as a surprise”

Photographer:Fotograaf: Simone Golob

Negotiating with Elsevier on open access

Twenty-eight days to go. Will the Dutch universities manage by 31 December to reach an agreement with the publisher Reed Elsevier? The arduous negotiations have been going on for months. Universities are only prepared to keep their wagons hitched to the publisher if it takes steps towards open access, making academic articles freely accessible. “If they don’t come up with something new by 1 January, things are going to have to change”, says Henk van den Hoogen, programme manager at the University Library.

On 6 November, all Maastricht staff received an email from the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU): “Negotiations with Elsevier on open access still in full swing.” In full swing, perhaps, but not going particularly well. The parties remain far apart on key issues, including financial matters, and “preparations” have been made in case the talks fall through. The president of UM, Martin Paul, recently spoke of “precautions” in a committee meeting of the University Council.
What is going on? Periodically, the publishers of academic journals sit down with the VSNU to thrash out a new deal. Last November the negotiations with Elsevier on extending journal subscriptions ended in deadlock. The world’s largest publisher “refused to make an acceptable offer” to facilitate the transition to open access, according to a newsletter that the VSNU published at the time. The Dutch universities and the government want publishers to switch to an open access model in which articles are accessible to everyone, with the researcher paying for publication. Under the traditional subscription model, universities pay a small fortune to publishers to access the journals – and yet it is their academic staff who write, review and edit those same articles.

“It’s an exciting time”, says Van den Hoogen. “If we’re no longer going to have that access, as a university we’ll have to prepare for that somehow. The UL will have to come up with alternative ways to get its hands on articles, such as via social media or digital platforms. There may also be regional options; there’s a lot of content available in Hasselt and Aachen.”
The University Library recently conducted a small-scale survey among junior researchers, asking how they would respond to such a disaster scenario. “We focused on young researchers as we figured more senior ones have usually built up a large network”, says Van den Hoogen. “What came as a surprise was the fact that there’s no sense of panic. Most think they’ll still be able to access papers via social media, sites like ResearchGate or email with the authors. The only thing is that it will of course take more time.”
If no deal is reached with Elsevier by 1 January, researchers will still be able to publish in its journals. The VSNU, however, is not particularly keen on this: “We can’t forbid it, but we do urge researchers to consider whether they can aim for a journal from another publisher, or at least in an open access journal from Elsevier”, says VSNU project leader Robert van der Vooren. “But we understand that for the impact of an article it’s important to choose the right journal.”
The VSNU has been calling on academics to boycott Elsevier since the summer. Taking the temperature among researchers, it asked: in the event of escalation, would they be willing to step down from the editorial boards of Elsevier’s journals? Some would, according to the VSNU spokesperson, but not everyone was equally enthusiastic.
Observant approached at random ten Maastricht researchers who serve as editors for Elsevier journals. Most indicated that they were not keen to simply resign from their posts. UM president Martin Paul acknowledges the importance of taking a strong stand against the publishers, says his spokesperson Fons Elbersen, but is not interested in forcing the hands of his staff. “His view is that it’s an important personal decision, and he will leave it to academics to make up their own minds”, says Elbersen.
By 2024 – just nine years from now – Sander Dekker, the Minister for Education, Culture and Science, wants all academic publications by researchers at Dutch universities to be freely accessible. By 2018 the intention is to be halfway to that target. The present figure stands at around twenty percent, according to Van den Hoogen at the Maastricht UL. He does not have figures on hand specifically for Maastricht publications.
Wading into the battle, the NWO, the national research funding body, is now taking steps to tighten up its grant conditions. Last week it announced that all publications stemming from NWO research grants awarded following calls for proposals made after 1 December 2015 must be published open access.

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