VSNU failed itself in meagre deal with Elsevier

By the year 2024 State Secretary Dekker wants everyone to have free access to publicly funded scientific research from the Netherlands, also known as Open Access. Chris Hartgerink argues that the VSNU lost a big battle for Open Access by striking a horrible deal with Elsevier.

Currently, access to research literature for scientists and students is being bought with lump sums in so-called Big Deals. However, citizens only gain access to an article when a sum of 30 euros is paid per article. Every few years, these Big Deals are renegotiated in back offices. During the latest round of negotiations (ongoing since 2014), the Association of Dutch Universities (VSNU) has re-entered the discussion with the aim of putting Open Access on the map. With Springer Publishing, a few months sufficed to settle the agreement: Dutch researchers would now be able to publish Open Access by default in about 1,900 magazines. SAGE followed mid 2015, Wiley last March. While those deals are still up for some criticism, the recent deal made with Elsevier is a complete disaster.

Let me first sketch the context of the negotiations with Elsevier. The negotiations started in 2014, but already in November of that year the VSNU reported that “negotiations between Elsevier and universities [were] in a deadlock”. The old contract, which was due to expire on January 1, 2015, was extended for one year while negotiations continued. It was not until December 2015 when the VSNU brought the news that a “principle agreement” had been reached, although the final agreement still needed to be agreed upon. This principle agreement was only reached after the VSNU had issued a clear media strategy.

In the summer of 2015 the VSNU put considerable pressure by announcing in the national media that a boycott of Elsevier was a serious option if no new deal, including Open Access, would be reached by January 1, 2016. The fact that the VSNU made no official statement of this indicated that this was a clear media strategy. A boycott always constitutes heavy artillery, but it indicated that the VSNU’s prevailing interest was indeed to gain ground on Open Access. This gave hope that  a good agreement could be reached after all.

Therefore, I was unpleasantly surprised when I saw the final results of the deal. Dutch researchers are now able to publish on Open Access basis in 141 journals; quite a meagre number. To put it in perspective, there are 5,331 Elsevier journals that offer Open Access — this amounts to a scanty 2.65%. In addition, these 141 journals are only relevant for fields such as medicine and life sciences. This selection is the result of several reasons, according to the VSNU, including “optimal distribution among the universities” and “subject domains with a […] mature open access culture.” Tilburg, among others, has nothing to gain from this deal because social sciences, law and the humanities are completely ignored. In addition, I do not see why medicine and life sciences would have a more mature culture than physics and mathematics, where Open Access was born.

It should be clear that the VSNU did not dare boycott Elsevier and was downright bluffing with its media strategy. Too bad: there are already over 15,000 researchers worldwide, including myself, who completely avoid Elsevier when it comes to the publication of their scientific research. The VSNU has failed itself because it definitely had substantial negotiating power. It had the opportunity to create a precedent for renegiotations of Big Deals in other countries, such as Austria. Unfortunately Elsevier knew this too, and won. Thanks VSNU, for making “progress”.

Opinion by Chris HJ Hartgerink, PhD-student at the Department of Methodology and Statistics.


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