Kudos to UC for Breaking up with Elsevier

One step closer for open access

Long ago now, when I was a young and inexperienced manager at the University of California San Francisco Library, I proposed that we shut off access to all of our journals for just one day. Seemingly nobody who used the journals had any idea how much they cost to provide — millions of dollars, for a system like ours. And absolutely nobody had any idea about the mountains of back-end work — the licensing, bargaining, and tracking of everything that UC obtained — that led to their ability to access all that scholarly research with just a few clicks. This one day strike, I reasoned, would make the central role of the library much more clear.

Nobody liked my idea. It was far too radical. Even if it had made its way out of the committee where I had proposed it would surely have died when it reached the library director. I didn’t actually think the proposal would fly— librarians live to provide content to patrons, and here I was asking us not to do that. But it was borne out of frustration that we played an essential role in providing scholarly materials online, and yet had absolutely no power to dictate the terms of the exchange. Researchers wanted things, publishers provided them, and librarians wrote the checks.

Against this backdrop was the tantalizing prospect of open access publishing — that we could use the internet to make all the world’s research available for free to anyone who wanted it. Pre-web journals had to be printed and mailed, which was a significant distribution cost for publishers. But online the cost of distribution was essentially free. Why not open the world’s research? In addition to paying all those millions of dollars and doing that mountain of back-end work, academic librarians then had to build walls around their online collections so that only “authorized users” could read them. Given that most librarians went into the field to spread knowledge, locking it away instead felt like a punch in the gut. But that was the license, and those were the terms.

I thought about all this a lot this past Thursday, when the University of California — my erstwhile employer — refused to renew its deal with Elsevier. UC was willing to pay a licensing fee that was offset by the costs of making articles by UC authors open access on Elsevier platforms. Elsevier wanted the license fee plus the costs of making articles open access. UC said no deal to that particular arrangement. This came after eight months of negotiations, in which UC librarians gained the support of every critical campus constituency in case the library ended up rejecting the deal.

Elsevier is the world’s largest scientific publisher, offering many supposedly “must-have” journals. That has long been a problem; as long as publishers could bundle essential titles in their packages that librarians could not get in any other way, there was no real choice but to get the whole lot. So the fact that UC broke up with Elsevier (which the system paid $11 million dollars to in 2018 alone) is huge. It wouldn’t have happened in previous years, but perhaps in 2019 the tides are finally turning.

The standard counter-argument to such figures as $11 million is that, when you divide that figure by the number of times people access an article in Elsevier journals, the effective cost is pennies on the dollar per use. Even if it’s true (librarians and publishers always disagree about figures like this), it misses the point. The point is the librarian’s complete lack of agency, the feeling of utter powerlessness that comes from standing in the go-between position between researchers and publishers.

The UC Libraries asserted their agency on Thursday. I am still pleasantly shocked that it happened because it’s never really happened before. When I was at UC there was a similar spat with Nature, but at the end of that 2010 dispute UC kept writing checks to Nature just as it had always done.

I was excited by the Nature dispute, thinking it would change things. When it didn’t I began to despair about whether librarians would ever be able to make a statement, or would forever be consigned to a mere support role.

I am not despairing anymore.