Academic journals: boycotts, negotiations and allegation of abuse of market power

Originally published as: Ulrich Herb (2016). Wissenschaftsjournale: Boykott, Verhandlungen und Vorwurf des Missbrauchs der Marktmacht. In: telepolis, 13.12.2016

Academics and libraries grapple with Elsevier – a never-ending story

For years, academic publisher Elsevier has been strongly criticised for its business strategies: Nationwide licensing negotiations are presently faltering in Germany and Finland, while in Great Britain the publisher is facing difficulties over abuse of its market power.

Elsevier is seen as contentious – the publishing house regularly generates profits of between 30% and 40%, and in 2015 profits amounted to 36.71%, or 760 million British pounds. Such margins can only be achieved by pursuing extremely aggressive pricing policies, however.

It is precisely these business practices that prompted mathematician Timothy Gowers, 1998 winner of the Fields Medal, the equivalent to the Nobel Prize in mathematics, and Tyler Neylon, to call for a boycott of Elsevier in 2012. Those who joined the campaign on website The Cost of Knowledge declared their commitment to neither submitting articles to the publisher’s journals, nor reviewing them or acting as an editor for Elsevier magazines.

Although the campaign attracted more than 16,000 signatories and found great resonance in the media, it had little influence on the business practices of the publisher. This explains why German scientific institutions came together in the guise of Project DEAL to persuade Elsevier to back down on the pricing of its publications.

DEAL was initiated by the Alliance of Science Organisations in Germany, however the German Rectors‘ Conference (HRK) is taking the lead role. The goal is to achieve national licensing agreements for the entire programme of electronic magazines from the major academic publishers, namely Elsevier, Springer Nature and Wiley. The organisations joined forces in order to strengthen the negotiating power of the scientific institutions and the universities and their libraries, and in the anticipation of making savings in the licensing of scientific journals.

Profit margin of 40 per cent

The prices of these journals rise each year by around 5 to 7%, which results in such dramatic funding shortfalls in the acquisition of academic literature that a phrase has been coined to describe the situation: the Serials Crisis. Elsevier was agreed on as the pilot partner for these negotiations; the stated goal was aiming to achieve “a significant change compared to the present situation in negotiations, contents and pricing structure”. In particular, the initiative was designed to provide financial relief and encourage consideration of an open access component intended to make it easier for academics to provide the public with open access to articles in Elsevier journals.

Last Friday the Alliance of Science Organisations in Germany published a press release which gives some indication that Elsevier is not to be messed with when it comes to money. The Alliance criticised the publisher’s contract offer as follows: „This offer does not comply with the principles of open access and fair pricing. Despite its current profit margin of 40 percent, the publisher is still intent on pursuing price increases that are higher than the licence fees paid until now. The publisher rejects more transparent business models that are based on the publication service and would make publications more openly accessible.“ The Alliance of Science Organisations in Germany goes on to state that it rejects Elsevier’s offer, and calls on the publisher to submit an new proposal.

Numerous libraries, such as the Berlin State Library, for example, have terminated their own contracts with Elsevier as far as possible in the past in order to lend more emphasis to the action by the consortium, and are now faced with the choice of either relying on progress in the DEAL negotiations or once again entering into their own agreements with Elsevier. Gaps in acquisitions that occur in the interim must be filled – for better or worse – by interlibrary loans or other document delivery services.

Just how hard it is to negotiate with major academic publishers is no secret in Finland either, where universities and scientific bodies had to pay a hefty 27 million euros for subscriptions to academic journals in 2015. As a result, the attempt was also made in Finland to persuade major academic publishers to enter into nationwide consortia using open access options.

The result was similar to that for the DEAL project – currently it seems extremely unlikely that agreement will be reached by the deadline for negotiations on 31.12.2016, after which the supply of the publishers’ titles will end. In order to put pressure on the publishing houses, the attempt – similar to the Elsevier boycott mentioned above – is being made to convince academics to no longer work as reviewers or editors for journals whose publishers cannot reach agreement with the FinElib Consortium which is conducting the negotiations. It seems doubtful whether this campaign will be successful, given Elsevier’s obduracy.

Market monopoly and abuse of power

What might create more of a headache for the publisher is a move by Martin Paul Eves, Professor at the University of London, Dr John Tennant, Imperial College London and Stuart Dawson, doctoral candidate at the University of London. The three academics are applying for an investigation into Elsevier for abuse of market power by the Competition and Market Authority. The basis for their action includes scholarly proofs of concentrations in the academic publications market, where, according to an investigation by Vincent Larivière, Stefanie Haustein and Philippe Mongeon, Elsevier, Springer and Wiley shared almost 50% of the market in 2013 – and rising.

Furthermore, in the view of Eve, Tennant and Lawson, market rules have been breached due to lack of price transparency, because contractual agreements between publishers and universities usually included strict confidentiality clauses that prevent any price competition. In addition, they say that academic journals are not substitutable, meaning that a university cannot simply unsubscribe from an Elsevier journal and replace it with a cheaper journal from another supplier – the contents are too different, even in the case of journals in the same sub-discipline.

This aspect, the non-substitutable nature of academic content, is precisely the card that Elsevier is playing in its negotiations with DEAL and the FinElib consortium – abstaining from the core journals in their discipline is impossible for any academic, even though – and this is the crux of the matter – it is not the publisher that produces the indispensable content, but the authors, reviewers and editors. The publisher only sells this content – and does so, furthermore, without rewarding those who create it and whose institutions can no longer afford it.

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