Universities Step Up the Fight for Open-Access Research

Five years ago, when Jeffrey MacKie-Mason first joined the University of California team that negotiates with academic publishers, he asked a colleague what would happen if he failed to strike a deal. What if, instead, he simply canceled their subscription? “I was told I would be fired the next day,” the UC Berkeley librarian says. Last year, he tested out the theory. The university system had been trying to negotiate a deal to make all of its research open-access—outside of a paywall—with Elsevier, the world’s largest academic publisher. But they were too far apart on what that would cost. So MacKie-Mason’s team walked away.To his surprise, the army of UC researchers who depended on that subscription were willing to go along with it. They’d lose the ability to read new articles in thousands of Elsevier journals, sure, but there were ways to get by without a subscription. They could email researchers directly for copies. The university would pay for individual articles. And yes, unofficially, some would just probably download from Sci-Hub, the illicit repository where virtually every scientific article can be found. To MacKie-Mason, it was clarifying: The conventional wisdom that had weakened his negotiating hand was thoroughly dispelled.
Since then, progress towards open access has crept along. More deals of the kind UC wants have been struck, especially in Europe. But in the United States, progress has been especially halting. Then, last week, MIT officials announced that they too had stepped away from the table with Elsevier, saying they couldn’t agree to a deal. And now, University of California officials have announced their intention to make a deal with Springer Nature, the world’s second-largest publisher, to begin publishing the university system’s research as open-access by default. The deal starts in 2021 for a large number of the company’s journals—and puts UC on the path, at least, to do so for all its journals within two years, including its most prestigious ones, like Nature.The deal is, in many respects, an agreement to keep haggling. But in the open-access research world, it’s a sign of long-awaited changes. Ivy Anderson, associate executive director of the California Digital Library, notes that the deal is poised to be the largest of its kind yet in the United States. Carrie Webster, vice president of open access at Springer Nature, calls it a “blueprint” for other US-based institutions.
Lots of institutions—community colleges, research universities, city library systems—pay so their members can read paywalled journal research. But only a few actually publish the bulk of it: big universities like MIT and the University of California. (The UC system alone contributes about 9 percent of published research in the United States.) Increasingly, researchers at those places want their work to be accessible to anybody—for the good of scientific inquiry, to be sure, but also because they increasingly receive grants from funders that require it. (Plus, it doesn’t hurt that open-access work is more likely to be seen and cited by other scientists—an important measure of status and influence.) But since journals can’t charge people to access those studies, they charge researchers an extra fee to publish them. Often, the cost runs into the thousands of dollars.In recent years, universities have pushed to flip that equation. Under so-called “pay-to-publish” models, like the one the UC system is entering with Springer Nature, the university negotiates the cost of making every piece of research it publishes open access. (That’s opposed to the old “pay-to-read” subscription model.) Universities like UC and MIT are making slightly different demands in how that works. But they share common principles, says Roger Levy, a professor of brain and cognitive sciences at MIT who leads the university’s library system committee. “We should not be paying for content from publishers that aren’t in the business of producing that content,” he says.