The University of California and the world's largest publisher of scientific research are locked in a dispute over how information is shared.
This struggle could end up reinventing a global system for how academics publish studies and how others access that research.
The UC’s 10 campuses, spread throughout California, loom large in the research world.
"In terms of everything — holdings, like the books that we have, the number of people we support — we're at the same size as the Library of Congress," said MacKenzie Smith, who runs the library at UC Davis.
Up until a week ago, her library and the other nine in the system relied heavily on a company called Elsevier. The well-established global publisher produces respected research journals like The Lancet and Cell.
Under the company’s general model, customers pay to access published studies. The UC has an $11 million contract with Elsevier.
Meanwhile, in most cases, academics publish for free.
“About 80 percent of the articles published globally are published under that ‘reader-pays’ model,” said Gemma Hersh, Elsevier’s senior vice-president for global research solutions. This means that a user must pay to access the research.
But the UC’s digital library system is working to transition to a different system of publishing. It started negotiations with Elsevier last summer to make that happen — but those negotiations completely broke down in February.
“We are very deeply disappointed with the situation that we’re in,” Hersh said regarding the company’s severed relationship with the UC system. She said the decision to terminate their contract was not “taken lightly.”
Under the UC’s “open-access” plan, academics would pay to publish.
"In that model, anybody can get access to our articles and not have to pay for them," Smith said.
The current model is like a bookstore: You pay to get a book. Under open access, it's more like a library; the publisher pays in this case, and anybody can then read it for free. If Elsevier shifts to open access for the UC, it would require the university pay for both publishing and reading.
The UC does a lot of both. It publishes roughly 10 percent of all research in the United States, and on average downloaded a study every three seconds last year.
To continue at that pace under a new contract that would allow for open-access, the UC would continue to pay $11 million for access to research articles, plus an additional $15 million in publishing fees for the roughly 5,000 articles it makes available through Elsevier annually.
Those combined fees would more than double the previous contract price. Negotiations brought that down a bit, but still pushed the price tag up by 80 percent, which was unacceptable to the system’s negotiators.
“[It’s] double dipping,” said Jeff MacKie-Mason, UC Berkeley’s librarian and the co-chairperson of the Elsevier negotiation team. “They charge the libraries reading fees, and then they charge the authors publishing fees on top of that if they want their articles open-access.”
Hersh says the company is supportive of open-access, but characterized the UC’s demands as wanting “two services for the price of one service.”
“I can be absolutely crystal clear here that Elsevier does not double-dip,” Hersh said.
But the open-access issue was only one sticking point for the university. MacKie-Mason called Elsevier’s profit margin too high, especially for a public institution, so his intent was to bring down overall contract costs.
Hersh says the company, which is part of the broader RELX group, had an “operating margin” — which she distinguished from what the UC calls a “profit margin” — of 19 percent last year. She attributed that rate to the company being efficient, and downplayed accusations that the company charges too much for its content.
She says the UC wants to quickly switch to open-access, but that the move is a very complicated change to the system of publishing.
"[T]he rest of the whole world isn't all moving at the same pace and the same speed, and that has implications for how quickly or how affordable a transition can be,” Hersh said.
Representatives for both the UC and Elsevier say they want the dispute resolved, but negotiations remain at a standstill.