A new Elsevier journal agreement

When two organisations conclude a business deal, they invariably release a banal press release hailing the success of the deal and how great it is for both parties. The new Elsevier journal agreement, negotiated by Jisc Collections on behalf of the UK’s higher education sector, is no exception. Yesterday’s press release is short on detail but gives a few indications of what the deal might be like.

Numerous people have been decrying the deal on Twitter as a travesty, which I find curious since we don’t yet know what the deal is. While I am highly sceptical that the deal is a good one – I would much rather see an outright rejection of Elsevier’s closed-access journals – I think it’s best to reserve judgement until the details are released. It’s also important to remember that Jisc Collections are simply negotiating on behalf of universities and their mandate is set by universities. It is up to higher education institutions themselves to set the terms they are willing to settle for, and it is up to universities to reject the deal if they wish. No money has changed hands yet because first Jisc Collections and Elsevier collectively come to an agreement on the terms of the deal, and then individual institutions decide whether to sign up and pay for access.

Here is what we do know so far:

  • the agreement is for five years. This is disappointing to me because whatever the terms are, a shorter term would provide more flexibility given how quickly the sector is changing. On the other hand, there may be flexibility built into the contract allowing change to occur before the five years is up, so the precise details are important here.
  • the agreement grants access to ‘around 1,850 journals’. So from the perspective of a reader based an institution that is currently signed up to the previous deal, when the new agreement comes into effect on 1 January they will not notice a difference.
  • and finally, the agreement includes collaboration on ‘open science’:

‘This value is not only based on affordable access to quality research. Both parties have also agreed to collaborate together on open science projects … leveraging new technology to make the future of science more collaborative, open, transparent, effective and efficient’

This is the part of the press release that has caused most anger because it looks like a clear case of openwashing. Over the past few years Elsevier have been pouring a lot of money into the kind of data and analytics services that appeal to university administrators rather than researchers. Since the press release was a message to investors and vice-chancellors, rather than researchers, it seems likely that the new agreement includes access to other areas of Elsevier’s business offering.

The fact that the announcement refers to open science but not open access highlights the main thing that we still don’t know about the deal: does it include any open access element, such as offsetting? On a more technical note, it is also vital to know which currency institutions will be paying in – the recent turbulence in currency markets means that whether the deal is to be paid for in Euros or GBP makes a huge difference to the overall cost. We might have to wait a while before all the details are made available.

[Update 31 March 2017: using a Freedom of Information request, I have obtained a copy of the licence: https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/journal_subscription_license_agr. This does not contain the exact pricing calculations, but does contain most of the other details of the agreement.]