Science publishing has pretty much reached a turning point — most science publishers are too expensive and rigid, and they will have to adapt. Otherwise, universities and research institutes will simply give up on them. It’s already happening.

Putting a lock on science doesn’t really help anyone. Image via Pixabay.

Elsevier is notorious for arm-twisting academics into paying extravagant subscription fees to publish and read scientific articles. You would pay over $30 for a single article, and none of that goes to the authors. If you want to buy a subscription to a journal or a set of journals from them… oh boy, you’d better have a lot saved up. They charge big universities around $1,000,000 a year (yes, one million dollars) for a full subscription, and if you think it’s worth it… it’s really not. A Stanford report found Elsevier’s subscription to be “disproportionately expensive compared to their educational and research value” and advised librarians to drop their journals and “not to contribute articles or editorial or review efforts to publishers and journals that engage in exploitive or exorbitant pricing.”

Harvard University has also told its staff to avoid publishing articles in such journals and to instead opt for an open access approach. A memo from Harvard Library to the university’s 2,100 teaching and research staff say they can’t afford to keep paying the $3.5 million they shell out to Elsevier every year. More than 10,000 academics have already joined a boycott of Elsevier and this is really just the tip of the iceberg that’s starting to form.

Scientists are sick and tired of this model and they want none of it — but they depend on it. How else are you going to survive in this “publish or perish” environment? Well, German universities think they can. In a simple move that could revolutionize science publishing and communication, they have announced that negotiations with Elsevier failed, and they’re not moving an inch.

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Hundreds of German universities, technical schools, research institutes, and public libraries joined together in 2014 to form “Project DEAL” in order to conduct nationwide negotiations with the science publisher. That didn’t work for two reasons: Elsevier was asking for too much money, and they weren’t in favor of the open access model that Germany wanted. The Alliance of Science Organisations in Germany, which coordinates DEAL, released a statement saying that Elsevier’s initial offer did not meet its requirements and that Germany will give up Elsevier subscriptions. DEAL’s message read:

“The publisher rejects more transparent business models that are based on the publication service and would make publications more openly accessible. Its offer does not comply with the principles of Open Access. Despite its current profit margin of 40 percent, the publisher is still intent on pursuing even higher price increases. ”

A more adequate logo for Elsevier? Image via Graham Steel / Flickr

It’s not like Germany’s alone in this. Earlier this month, Taiwan University (NTU) also declared that from 2017, it will discontinue its subscriptions to Elsevier’s ScienceDirect due to high costs. Netherlands also opted for a custom deal that would guarantee 30% of Dutch research is open access by 2018. Basically, Elsevier’s monopoly (or quasimonopoly) has been perforated severely. As the University of Göttingen brilliantly said in a statement, the joint action of many research institutes is key here. It is the only way an advantageous outcome can be achieved:

“All participants in this process are aware of the imminent effects this has on research and teaching. However, they share the firm conviction that, for the present, the pressure built up by the joint action of many research institutions is the only way to reach an outcome advantageous for the German scientific community.”

Elsevier also didn’t budge. They said they are interested in continuing negotiations, but can’t meet German requirements — so a stalemate was reached. Researchers in Germany lost access to new papers, and to some archived issues as well. Yet recently, without any announcement, Elsevier resumed access to these universities. It’s not clear what this means, and Horst Hippler, president of the German Rectors’ Conference in Bonn and lead spokesperson for Projekt DEAL, says the announcement came as a surprise even to DEAL negotiators.

“No one knows exactly what it means,” he says. “But it is a move that makes sense for the company to take while talks continue.” A meeting originally scheduled for the end of January did not take place due to scheduling conflicts, Hippler says; the next round of negotiations is scheduled for 23 March.

Whatever the outcome may be for the German universities, I applaud their gesture and truly believe it can be a turning point — not just for them, but for everybody. After all, the only people who win from paywalling science are the paywallers. Everyone else loses.