A quiet revolution is sweeping the $20bn academic publishing market and its main operator Elsevier, partly driven by an unlikely group of rebels: cash-strapped librarians.
When Florida State University cancelled its “big deal” contract for all Elsevier’s 2,500 journals last March to save money, the publisher warned it would backfire and cost the library $1m extra in pay-per-view fees.
But even to the surprise of Gale Etschmaier, dean of FSU’s library, the charges after eight months were actually less than $20,000. “Elsevier has not come back to us about ‘the big deal’,” she said, noting it had made up a quarter of her content budget before the terms were changed.
Mutinous librarians such as Ms Etschmaier remain in a minority, but are one of a host of pressures bearing down on the subscription business of Elsevier, the 140-year-old publisher that produces titles including the world’s oldest medical journal, The Lancet.
The company is facing a profound shift in the way it does business, as customers reject traditional charging structures.
Open access publishing — the move to break down paywalls and make scientific research free to read — is upending the funding model for journals, at the behest of regulators and some big research funders, while online tools and the illicit Russian pirate-site Sci-Hub are taking readers.
Even Donald Trump’s administration in December began consulting on an executive order to “liberate” publicly funded research, according to people briefed on the process.
At risk is the profit powerhouse of Elsevier’s parent company, UK-listed Relx, Europe’s biggest media company by market capitalisation, which reports its annual results on Thursday. The academic division’s £2.5bn revenues are just a third of company turnover and grew at about 2 per cent in 2018. But the chunky margins — roughly 37 per cent — mean it accounted for 40 per cent of Relx’s operating profit.
So far Elsevier has defied doomsayers who have claimed it is a structurally compromised business.
But its willingness to experiment has increased markedly since Kumsal Bayazit, an Istanbul-born former management consultant, took over as chief executive last year. Admitting Elsevier’s transition to open access was too “slow”, she is now stepping up one of the big evolutions of the company’s history.
Several stalled negotiations over access to journals have been unblocked, including with Sweden’s Bibsam consortium of higher education and research institutions in November. One Bibsam member said “negotiations were dead” until Ms Bayazit arrived and Elsevier’s team “received new directives from above”. “We understand the game — it was giving them bad publicity that we were managing without access to Elsevier journals,” the consortium member said.
Rivals such as German-owned Springer Nature and Informa’s Taylor Francis were quicker than Elsevier to experiment with different pay-to-publish models — the funding mechanism for open access papers. More than three-quarters of Springer Nature authors in Britain, Sweden and the Netherlands now publish via free-to-read journals.
While Elsevier supported open access — for an additional article processing fee — it held out against demands from research institutions to bundle publishing rights with journal subscriptions for roughly the same overall contract price.
Jean-Claude Burgelman, the EU’s open access envoy, has noted “real U-turns” at big publishers of late. Recent draft deals, notably Elsevier’s with Dutch institutions in December, show how commercial value is moving from selling the end-product — the journal — to other services, such as data tools, offered to scientists during the research cycle.
“But only bad news, like cancelling the deals, seems to induce change,” he said at a conference last month.
Elsevier’s previous foot-dragging may be no surprise given the blessed commercial model of academic publishing. Typically scholars have submitted their research for free to publishers, who use volunteers to vet it, before selling the edited journals back, at a premium price, to the universities that footed the bill for the original scholarship.
While prominent funders such as the Wellcome Trust and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have backed moves to open access publishing, some academics have worried it could prevent their work appearing in the most prestigious journals, an important factor in career assessment.
One of the old system’s weak points was the university libraries. Elsevier executives note that their content budgets simply failed to keep up with the 3 to 4 per cent increases in research funding, or the even bigger increases in Elsevier’s workload and output: it received 1.8m submissions last year for 470,000 articles. “Tensions resulting from these issues have eroded trust between scholarly publishers and the research community that we serve,” said Ms Bayazit last month. She even offered an extraordinary apology to librarians still angry over double-digit price rises in the 1980s and 1990s.
Ivy Anderson, co-chair of the University of California’s publishing negotiations team, which cancelled its $11m contract with Elsevier in March, said at the time that academics were “getting fed up with high prices and paywall journals, they’re standing up and saying we are willing to bear the inconvenience [of not having journal access]”.
Ms Etschmaier’s “big deal” contract at FSU was by no means the largest of the 6,000 negotiated by Elsevier, nor the hardest; its disputes with the University of California and another with a consortium of 700 German institutions are more significant.
But FSU’s ability to cope is a vivid example of how the market is changing, and eroding Elsevier’s pricing power. A study by Our Research, a non-profit supporter of open access publishing, found 31 per cent of all journal articles in 2019 were outside of the traditional paywall.
Elsevier also tested a new approach in a draft deal with Dutch institutions, which potentially provides unlimited publishing rights and covers its analytics services and data tools for the first time.
This potentially creates a path for the company to recreate its indispensable position as a journal publisher in the business of providing academic research, from idea generation and funding to data collection and publication.
Thomas Singlehurst, an analyst at Citi, who recently upgraded Relx’s shares to a buy, said the big question was whether Elsevier’s conciliatory tone would extend to accepting cut-price offers on its journals to encourage use of tools and services. “In short we think it might be necessary to concede defeat on some battles to win the bigger longer term war,” he said.