UK national negotiations with Elsevier: it seems we’re not messing around.

June 7, 2016

A confidential internal email has come into my hands, from Bristol University, regarding the UK’s national negotiations with Elsevier. I think it’s of general interest.

(I should say that, although my own affiliation is also with Bristol, this is a complete coincidence: for avoidance of doubt, the person I received this from is not at Bristol.)


Date: 7 June 2016 at 09:00
Subject: Fwd: Elsevier ScienceDirect Negotiations – Briefing for Schools

To: Heads of Schools, Faculty Managers
Topic: Elsevier Negotiations – Confidential within the University

Dear Colleagues,

This email is to advise you that the UK university sector has entered national negotiations with the publisher Elsevier for renewal of the subscription journal package ScienceDirect.

This is the largest and most costly journal agreement which universities in the UK subscript to, accounting for roughly 40% of annual spend by sector on major journal agreements. ScienceDirect journals are most heavily used by STEM/M subjects, but also has relevance to some subjects in the social sciences and arts. Many Bristol authors are active on Elsevier editorial panels and peer review process. The cost of above inflation journal price rises is an issue that affects all library users as it impacts on our purchasing power for all subjects. For this reason, we have provided a briefing on the negotiations below and ask you to circulate this to staff in your School for information.

If you or your colleagues have any questions, please contact your Subject Librarian in the first instance. Further updates will be circulated at significant milestones in the negotiations.

With good wishes,

Jess (Jessica Gardner, Director of Library Services) and Stuart (Stuart Hunt, Deputy Director)


Briefing for Schools: Elsevier ScienceDirect Negotiations

The UK university sector has entered national negotiations with the publisher Elsevier for renewal of the subscription journal package ScienceDirect.

Why this negotiation is important

The Elsevier ScienceDirect agreement is the largest journal agreement which universities in the UK and globally subscribe to, accounting for roughly 40% of annual spend by the sector on major journal agreements. The number of libraries and level of expenditure means that this is likely to be one of the biggest single contracts that Elsevier negotiates with an individual consortium anywhere in the world. The current UK agreement runs to the end of December 2016.

Universities in the UK use ScienceDirect material heavily but:

  • We also make very substantial cash and non-cash contributions to Elsevier across the sector
  • Confidentiality contract clauses mean there is no price transparency for public funds
  • The lack of transparency means there is disparity of pricing across the sector based on historic print spend dating back to 1999

Negotiation process

There is a national negotiation process in place with a negotiating team that includes experienced JISC Collections staff, senior Library Directors from UCL and Liverpool and two Vice Chancellors (Professor Sir David Eastwood, Birmingham, and Professor Sir Ian Diamond, Aberdeen).

The negotiating team have clear objectives on price, transparency and open access offsetting practice set in consultation with Library Directors across the UK. The initial proposal from Elsevier in May 2016 was for a 5% per annum increase on the cost of ScienceDirect and no off-setting costs for Gold open access expenditure. This has been rejected by the negotiating team.

Contingency plans will be used to offer access to essential research materials in the event we are unable to reach an acceptable agreement with Elsevier.

Contextual information on price

The UK academic sector makes a very large cash contribution to Elsevier, at £38million equivalent to about 3% of the Hefce quality-related (QR) grant allocation and 1% of the entire Hefce grant allocation to universities. The sector as a whole is paying 12.5% more for ScienceDirect than it did in 2012 as a result of price increases of between 1%-4% year on year.

At the same time, the UK makes substantial non-cash contributions to Elsevier, providing about 6% of the editorial board members for Elsevier and a significant contribution to peer-review estimated to be equivalent to as much as £25million.

Elsevier has a profit margin of 35% (£700million) and is the only one of the 5 big academic publishers not to have put in place any arrangements to limit the additional cost of Gold OA in its hybrid journals for UK academics.

Future Updates

We will provide future updates for academic Schools when key milestones in the negotiation are reached.

If you require further information, please contact your Subject Librarian. A full list of subjects and Subject Librarians is available at:


To me, the most significant part of this discussion is the statement “Contingency plans will be used to offer access to essential research materials in the event we are unable to reach an acceptable agreement with Elsevier.” That suggests to me that the UK is serious about this negotiation. We are not just going to Elsevier cap in hand begging for mercy; we are going in hard, prepared to reach no agreement at all rather than a bad agreement.


12 Responses to “UK national negotiations with Elsevier: it seems we’re not messing around.”

  1. rw Says:

    Really glad to read this – bodes well! I will be fascinated to see any further updates that happen to come into your possession!

  2. Stuart taylor Says:

    Well, this is most welcome. Although one wonders what “Contingency plans will be used to offer access to essential research materials” means. Sci-Hub, perhaps?

    But “subscript to” ? Really? And this from two members of university staff? Dear oh dear!

  3. Andrew Stuck Says:

    Contingency plan = covertly promote the heck out of Sci-Hub? ;)

  4. Mike Taylor Says:

    I can’t believe the UK national strategy would be “promote the heck out of Sci-Hub”, however covertly. I am not privy to any of the discussions — if you read the post, you know all that I know — but my guess would be that contract failure would lead a massive push for Green OA, including retroactively publishing the peer-reviewed manuscripts of even quite old Elsevier papers. (Which would be a very good thing — perhaps the very impetus the Green route needs.)

  5. > retroactively publishing the peer-reviewed manuscripts of even quite old Elsevier papers.


  6. protohedgehog Says:

    Reblogged this on Green Tea and Velociraptors and commented:
    Some important information here regarding the future of the UK universities relationship with Elsevier. Also emphasises some key points about why academics perhaps aren’t best pleased with this publisher.

  7. James Says:

    Contingency planning: ‘Access on demand’ rather than a collection development. For this, read inter-library loans / document delivery services.

    Yes, green open access may be pushed if no deal is reached, but given that for most Elsevier journals this would still mean access was not available to current research for 6-36 months post-publication, this would be unlikely to be seen as a reasonable contingency plan to meet research needs. Any push for green OA is more likely be to meet HEFCE REF requirements, and a general push to make content open access and more open to text and data mining, rather than to provide access to content lost through failure to secure a deal with Elsevier.

  8. Huzzah! Contingency plans from the library side could include something like rapid ILL too. That’s what we had to do here at Florida State when we cancelled our Springer big deal last year.

  9. Expanding on that quote, the mathematician Peter Michor has detailed instructions, from a while back, about how to get good scans of old articles etc to host online, including metadata. I posted about this here: (public post with links). Would be good to see some more modern takes on this, for instance with newer markup languages.

  10. UK “going in hard”? I hope so!
    Though I have no direct personal stake here, I strongly back the principle of Open Access. I think transparency of spending of public funds is essential, and a non-negotiable matter on which Elsevier must be obliged to backtrack – or ‘no deal’.
    5% year-on-year increase in cost sounds like (no, is) an extortion racket.

  11. Nima Says:

    Indeed, it is.

    Given how powerful they are, it may be pertinent to ask, how much of an investment (if any) ‘Dodgy Dave’ has in Elsevier or ThompsonReuters. Given Elsevier’s past affiliation with the global arms trade, it’s certainly possible.

  12. […] these trends cannot be expected to be effective in the short term. While British universities have renewed their subscription contracts, despite rising costs, a consortium of their German counterparts has […]

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