University of California, Elsevier Reach Transformative OA Agreement

On March 16, the University of California (UC) and scientific publisher Elsevier announced a transformative agreement that will enable universal open access publishing in Elsevier journals for all UC research, control costs at a sustainable level, and support the university’s transition from paying for subscriptions to paying for open publishing of its research. The four-year agreement, which went into effect on April 1, is the largest of its kind in North America to date.

University of California, Elsevier logosOn March 16, the University of California (UC) and scientific publisher Elsevier announced a transformative agreement that will enable universal open access (OA) publishing in Elsevier journals for all UC research, control costs at a sustainable level, and support the university’s transition from paying for subscriptions to paying for open publishing of its research. The four-year agreement, which went into effect on April 1, is the largest of its kind in North America to date.

The 10-campus UC system generates nearly 10 percent of the United States’ research output. Elsevier, the world’s largest scholarly scientific publisher, currently disseminates some 17 percent of journal articles written by UC faculty. Through the deal, the number of articles available through UC’s existing OA agreements will double. UC’s payment to publish OA in Elsevier journals will be capped at $10.7 million the first year and increase by 2.6 percent annually.

“This groundbreaking agreement will allow for more open, equitable access to information,” said UC President Michael V. Drake in a statement. “As more universities and research institutions support open access, scientific knowledge will advance at an unparalleled pace.”

Gino Ussi, Elsevier executive vice president of research solutions, said in the company’s press release, “Our agreement with UC delivers a real win for the world-class researchers across the UC system, supporting them to publish open access and read high quality, trusted research by others in Elsevier journals. The collaboration and flexibility from both sides led to a truly tailored approach, based on the needs of the research-intensive UC community, so that we can test and learn from author choices and enable a sustainable transition to open access for UC research.”



The agreement comes two years after UC cut ties with Elsevier after months of unsuccessful negotiations. In January 2019, UC opted not to renew its subscription contract with the publisher, which was unwilling to meet UC’s goals: 100 percent OA publishing in Elsevier journals for its authors and a reduction in expenditures, along with full reading access to Elsevier publications for the UC community.

Under Elsevier’s proposed terms, UC authors would have been charged sizeable publishing fees on top of subscription costs, which continued to rise every year. Toward the end of negotiations, the publisher expressed a willingness to consider publishing most articles OA, said UC Berkeley University Librarian and Chief Digital Scholarship Officer Jeffrey MacKie-Mason, who cochairs the UC negotiating team—but not for all journals and at a steep price hike.

A number of academic libraries issued statements of support at the time, and over the next year several major research institutions followed suit and did not renew their own Elsevier subscriptions. Others chose to subscribe to Elsevier journals on a title-by-title basis, foregoing expensive big deal bundles. UC issued a toolkit to help guide institutions who wanted to negotiate with publishers, using their discussions with Elsevier as a template.

UC saw success with its model in negotiations with other publishers. In spring 2020, UC and OA publisher Public Library of Science (PLOS) piloted a two-year transformational agreement under which UC Libraries agreed to pay the first $1,000 of any article processing charge (APC) for its researchers publishing in a PLOS journal. Researchers without available funding to pay the charge can request the full amount, which will be paid by UC Libraries, eliminating the financial barrier.

In June 2020, UC entered into a transformative OA agreement with Springer Nature after its journal subscription contract expired at the end of 2019. Negotiations with Wiley, which expired at the same time, are still ongoing.

During that time, UC and Elsevier continued to hold informal conversations. “We always wanted to reach some sort of agreement,” said MacKie-Mason. “Our scholars wanted reading access, and we wanted to publish open access. So we had kept the door open, and had kept up some informal communications with Elsevier throughout to see if things might move forward.”

In summer 2020 Elsevier, which has entered into transformative agreements throughout Europe and Asia, returned to the bargaining table proposing a new approach that was responsive to the goals UC had set out two years earlier, and negotiations resumed in October 2020. From that point on, said MacKie-Mason, “We were all going in the same direction.”

Although UC’s goals and motivations remained unchanged from when it first began negotiating with Elsevier, said MacKie-Mason, the COVID-19 pandemic drove home the fact for everyone in the scientific publishing community that “science moves better, and moves faster, when people have access to read [it].” Most major publishers made their COVID-related research OA for the duration of the pandemic, he noted. As devastating as it has been, “It's proven that what the open access advocates have said for decades is true—that it really is better for the world to have the free ability to read new science. I think that certainly raised awareness, and it reinforced what we were trying to accomplish, whether or not that had a direct effect on the negotiations for us.”

At press time, Elsevier had not yet responded to requests to comment for this article.



Under the new agreement, all research with a UC lead author published in the majority of Elsevier’s nearly 2,300 journals will be OA by default. Any article written by UC faculty, researchers, clinicians, staff, or graduate students accepted after April 1 is eligible, with approximately 4,400 articles anticipated annually. The Cell Press and Lancet families of journals will likely be integrated after the second year of the agreement, which will increase the number to 4,700.

In addition to ensuring universal OA publishing for authors, this will offer the UC system around 7 percent in savings. The original model of two payment streams, in which UC paid for subscriptions at the same time that authors paid APCs to publish OA in Elsevier journals, amounted to just over $13 million in 2018. Under the new agreement, UC will begin publishing payments at the same price point, three years later. The normal price escalation with Elsevier, covering rising wages and publishing costs, has traditionally been about two and a half percent, said MacKie-Mason. “If we had continued the subscription and the world continued the way it had been if we hadn't changed the terms, [costs] would have been about 7 percent higher.”

As of April 1, nearly all Elsevier journals have become available for members of the UC community to read openly, with the exception of those from a few societies that have chosen to exclude their journals from publishing and/or reading under transformative agreements. Because UC will no longer be paying for Elsevier subscriptions, it can convert those funds into publishing dollars—the “transformative” part of the arrangement. “We're using the money we have been spending on subscriptions,” explained MacKie-Mason, “and instead pouring that into publishing.”

Under what UC terms its multi-payer model, UC Libraries will pay the first $1,000 of any APC and will pay the charge in full if a researcher does not have access to funding. As part of the agreement, UC also receives a 15 percent discount on APCs for most Elsevier journals, and a 10 percent discount on Cell Press and Lancet journals.

Authors may opt out of OA publishing if they wish. In most cases, this will transfer the article copyright to Elsevier, rather than the author retaining copyright. Those publishing OA will retain rights to their own work, with a Creative Commons Attribution (CC-BY) license the default selection and the option to use the more restrictive CC BY-NC-ND.

This brings the UC system to a total of 10 transformative agreements. “We want a level playing field,” MacKie-Mason told LJ. “We want the institutional funding to support open access publishing for small publishers, large publishers, open access publishers, traditional subscription publishers. We've built this portfolio and we think it demonstrates that this model that we've developed in our approach works for all types of publishers.”

With a third of UC’s research output now being published OA, said Ivy Anderson, director of the California Digital Library’s Collection Development and Management Program and negotiating team cochair, “We think that we accomplished something important for the community in developing an agreement that has both significant and meaningful cost control, and helps to transition UC's output—and hopefully the global community—more fully toward open access to the research literature. We think that's important and valuable, and we hope that that will inspire others to pursue similar paths.”

Some institutions have expressed concerns about UC’s model. Brandon Butler, director of information policy at the University of Virginia Library, feels that it is only a single step in the process rather than a full transformation, and Chris Bourg, director of MIT Libraries—which ended negotiations with Elsevier in June 2020—takes issue with the per-article payment standards that serve as the basis for the agreement. But for many, the agreement will serve as an example of how it is possible to negotiate favorably with a large publisher. “Our members are pursuing multiple strategies to advance equitable and barrier-free access to knowledge,” said Association of Research Libraries (ARL) Executive Director Mary Lee Kennedy in a statement following UC’s announcement. “What they share is a commitment to working with faculty, students, and administrators to align libraries’ collections investments with their values and with institutional mission.”

MacKie-Mason urged other institutions considering similar agreements to remember that they have leverage no matter what their size or research output. “We're the customers for purchasing subscriptions, and we're the providers of the research for publishing.” Having an equal number of librarians and faculty on the negotiating team was an important factor in UC’s success, he noted. UC was also able to accommodate journal users during the time without an active Elsevier contract, providing legal copies of articles as needed through “alternative access”—often peer-reviewed preprints—ensuring that scholars’ needs were met during the negotiating process. “We were very clear about our goals, we set them out publicly, we stuck by them, we had unified support across the institution,” said MacKie-Mason. “Anybody can do that.”

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Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Senior News Editor for Library Journal.

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