They said it would never happen — but it just has
May 4, 2012
The speed that things are happening at the moment is astonishing.
Whenever we talk about the economics of open access — when I argue that it costs the community eight times as much to publish a paywalled article with Elsevier as it does to publish it as open access with PLoS ONE — I always hear the same argument in response. And it’s a good argument. It goes like this:
Yes, the total cost to libraries around the world of an Elsevier article may be eight times the cost to the author of publishing an open-access article that is free to read. But you can only expect to save that money if libraries cancel their Elsevier subscriptions and plough that money into funding open-access publications instead. And no library will ever do that, because the researchers that they serve need the subscriptions.
Well, it turns out — somewhat to my own surprise, I’ll admit — that libraries will cancel their Elsevier subscriptions. The Department of Mathematics at the Technical University of Munich has just voted to do exactly that:
Because of unsustainable subscription prices and conditions, the board of directors of the mathematics department has voted to cancel all of its subscriptions to Elsevier journals by 2013.
So what does this mean? A lot of things.
1. This is no idle far-in-the-future threat: 2013 is only one year away! So this is an actual policy. Something that they’re going to do.
2. Universities are not messing about. When Harvard say they can’t afford subscriptions, they probably mean it — it’s not just a negotiating tactic.
3. Where one university department leads, others will probably follow. Maybe initially it will be mostly maths departments in other universities; maybe it will be other departments of the Technical University of Munich; maybe it will be all of Harvard.
4. So far, this announcement is only about cancelling subscriptions and says nothing about open access. If that’s all they do, it will be a mere cost-saving exercise and a missed opportunity. To be truly transformational, the department needs to channel a significant chunk of its subscription savings into funding Gold OA publications.
5. Publishers who are paying attention will surely start to realise that they have pushed their exploitative prices too far, and that they don’t hold libraries in a steely grip any more. I wonder how this will play into investment advice regarding Elsevier?
This isn’t the kind of problem that can be fixed by hiring a PR person. I’ve argued this before, but if Elsevier are going to survive, they’ll need to be much clearer in the their communications, eliminate practices that alienate authors, and ultimately change their business model entirely.
For more on the Munich development (interesting more for the comments they may generate than for carrying much additional information):