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SFU Faculty perspectives on open access and the University of California's Elsevier cancellation

Published April 8, 2019 by Kate Shuttleworth

The University of California recently took a bold step in support of open access publishing by terminating subscriptions with Elsevier, the world’s largest scientific publisher. We asked SFU Faculty for their thoughts on the cancellation and what this means for open access.

What happened?

The University of California is committed to making the results of research freely available to anyone, anywhere in the world through open access, as indicated by UC's faculty-driven principles on scholarly communication and its Open Access Policy which was adopted in 2013. Elsevier charges academic libraries for access to subscription-based research articles, while at the same time charging Article Processing Charges for open access articles published by UC researchers. 

UC was attempting to negotiate a deal with Elsevier which would see the costs of subscription journals offset against the cost of open access publishing in order to ensure cost neutrality in the shift towards open access. When a deal could not be reached, UC canceled its Elsevier subscriptions with support from faculty and the Academic Senate, and provided a set of alternative solutions for accessing content when Elsevier begins limiting access to new content. 

Comments from SFU Faculty

In addition to widespread support from UC faculty, the cancellation has been commended by the research community worldwide as a step towards securing a cost-neutral approach to making research openly available.

"Faculty are typically removed from the economics of scholarly publishing," says Juan Pablo Alperin, Assistant Professor in the Publishing Program and a Associate Director with the Public Knowledge Project at Simon Fraser University. "All we see these days are the exorbitant article process fees, but the libraries bear the brunt of journal subscription costs. As a community, academics wholeheartedly support the principle of open access, even if we do not know how to pay for it. We need more bold moves, like the one that UC took recently, to show that we want to explore alternative models of financing scholarly communication."

The UC decision is aligned with similar cancellations around the world, which are tracked by the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition's (SPARC) Big Deal Cancellation Tracking tool. Research consortia in Hungary, Germany, Sweden, and Norway have all canceled their big deals with Elsevier due to their inability to reach satisfactory deals ensuring pricing sustainability in the shift to open access publishing.

In Canada, the Canadian Association of Research Libraries (CARL) and the Canadian Research Knowledge Network (CRKN) issued a joint statement in support of the University of California's decision. 

"Individual academic libraries have little leverage in negotiating access to content with the large publishers—it is only through the bold action of library collectives that change will happen" says Dan Laitsch, Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education and Co-Editor of the open access journal International Journal of Education Policy and Leadership. "Hopefully the leadership shown by the University of California Library system will galvanize action globally and rebalance content delivery in favour of the broader public interest."

"I deeply appreciate UC's willingness and openness in cutting ties with Elsevier," says Hazel Plante, Health and Life Sciences Librarian at SFU Library. "This outcome is part of an ongoing tug of war between Elsevier (and other academic publishers) and universities/libraries/researchers that includes the ongoing boycott by over 17,000 academics (known as the Cost of Knowledge), LSU suing Elsevier for breach of contract during its disagreement with Elsevier over contract negotiations, and recent negotiation breakdowns in Europe."

Other initiatives happening globally, such as cOAlition S in Europe, indicate growing awareness of and commitment to making the products of scholarly research publicly available and a move away from the traditional subscription-based publishing model.

“In an age of near-ubiquitous access to information through technology, we cannot afford to hoard the latest knowledge generated through scholarship," says Kris Magnusson, Dean of the Faculty of Education at SFU. "Open access democratizes knowledge by making access available to anyone who seeks it. When it comes to publicly-funded research, our goal must be to free the enterprise of knowledge, not to be bound by the profit orientation of free enterprise.” 

While pricing sustainability was key to UC's decision to cut ties with Elsevier, this news is indicative of a broader shift in the scholarly publishing landscape.

"When I explain how academic publishing works to undergraduate students, they are aghast," says Plante. "They don't understand how it could remain in place, how publishers are able to profit from research they don't fund, articles they don't write (and don't pay for), and a peer-review process that is done (for free) by researchers.  And, as UC has pointed out, Elsevier's profit margin is around 40%. (This is a far higher profit margin than Amazon or Apple.)

"I would love to see Elsevier (and other scholarly publishers) dial back their profit margins significantly, facilitate open access publishing, and offer terms that show a recognition that their profits (and their business model) would disappear if faculty members stopped contributing to (and peer-reviewing for) their publications."

How does SFU support open access?

Open Access Policy

SFU's open access policy calls upon SFU faculty, students, and postdoctoral fellows to share the products of their SFU research with the broadest possible audience. To satisfy the policy requirement in one easy step, SFU researchers can submit the finalized text of articles via the Summit deposit form on or after the date of publication. The Library will make the articles available to the public, taking into consideration requirements for access delay.

Open Access Fund

SFU Library also offers an Open Access Fund to cover up to $2500 CAD in Article Processing Charges for SFU authors who are publishing in qualifying open access journals. Each eligible SFU author can receive funding for up to two articles per calendar year. For questions about the Open Access Fund, please contact oa-fund@sfu.ca.

GSS Open Access Award

In recent years, SFU Library has provided funding towards the Graduate Student Society Open Access Award which rewards graduate students for publishing in fully open access journals. See the 27 recipients of the 2018 award by department.

Open Access advocates tell us: Open in order to...

Why Open access? We asked, and got answers from SFU scholars!

President's Dream Colloquium on Making Knowledge Public

The Fall 2018 President’s Dream Colloquium consisted of a series of public lectures on the theme of Making Knowledge Public, in addition to a seminar course where students were challenged to make their coursework openly available. Read about the Making Knowledge Public course from the perspective of some of the students in the class.

Further reading