Access to thousands of journals in danger of being blocked


MAASTRICHT. A sinister radio silence is all that is left, after negotiations between Dutch universities and Reed Elsevier publishers have failed. Licences are due to run out on 1 January and researchers will no longer be able to read the latest editions of many journals, including The Lancet.

What exactly is the problem? Dutch universities and government want publishers to change over to an open access model, in which articles based on publically funded research will be freely accessible for anyone. Things are not that far yet. At the moment there is a transitional phase, which is very unfavourable for universities. They have double expenses, which is referred to as double dipping. The institutes pay subscription fees for the journals and they also have to pay (an average of two thousand euro) for each open access publication. It works like this: the author pays, not the subscriber. Universities expect a gesture from the publishers.

A breakthrough was achieved recently with the Springer publisher. University umbrella organisation VSNU and Springer had reached agreement, a press release stated: “Open access publishing is the way of the future.” Exactly what that entails, remains to be seen. Negotiations are still going on. Discussions with Elsevier, the largest publisher, came to a standstill at the beginning of November. The proposal that the publisher presented, was brushed from the table by VSNU. And then all was quiet.

What was Elsevier’s proposal? What was unacceptable for VSNU? What will happen now? Nobody knows, says Henk van den Hoogen, programme manager at the university library. “Things are tense at the moment. The licence runs out in a couple of weeks’ time. Having articles published is always possible and older articles will remain accessible, but new content will not. This means that researchers cannot learn about the latest insights in their field.”

Access to thousands of journals will be blocked, including leading journals such as The Lancet and Cell. “Many researchers are capable of finding each other, I expect, and will exchange articles among themselves. It is now more important than ever to have an international network, where researchers inform each other about new publications. I expect a lively exchange of academic publications on social media. The geographic position of Maastricht is no disadvantage in that case. There is a lot of content present in Hasselt and Aachen. It is not something that the university library promotes, but some researchers will reconnect with their Belgian and German contacts.”

Not all researchers will be affected equally. “Economists have a culture in which they share early versions of articles, at congresses, or on digital platforms such as Repec. There is SSRN for social scientists. In medical-biological circles, this hardly happens at all.”

Alongside the so-called golden route to open access (through publishers), there is also a green route. This is when universities, such as the UM, give researchers the opportunity to place their manuscript in a repository (digital archive), which is accessible through Google. “There is usually a ban or embargo on the publisher’s version, but to a lesser extent on the author’s version, which does not differ in content, only in its look and feel.”

However, very few people at the UM have found their way to the repository, says Van den Hoogen. “It is a matter of lack of awareness, as well as the willingness to look into things. You have to know what conditions the publishers set. Fortunately there is a website, by platform Sherpa Romeo, where you can see exactly which requirements the publishers have, and the university library has an information desk.”

How many Maastricht publications end up in open access journals? Research by the university library shows that 10 per cent of the 3,200 Maastricht research publications that saw the light in 2013, ended up in freely accessible journals. “So the UM is pretty much in line with other universities. Those who want to know more about what is ‘on sale’, can visit the DOAJ site, a Danish initiative that provides a directory of open access journals.”

Access to thousands of journals in danger of being blocked