Will the Germany V Elsevier situation herald a new model for publishing?

It is currently popular to give something up in January. Here in the UK the Charity Alcohol Concern have created the Dry January event to promote the health benefits of giving up alcohol for 31 days.  This year I have recently seen a similar campaign running around on Twitter and Facebook that urges you to give up sugar for January. Personally I have to relinquish eating the lovely, rich, stodgy Christmas food before I start looking like a Christmas Pudding.

Christmas pudding (11927643275)

However, Research Institutions across Germany are starting the new year giving up something else in order to make a stand about open access to research. Around 60 institutions have chosen to cancel their contracts with Elsevier because they claim that the publisher’s offer of a nationwide contract will “not comply with the principles of Open Access” and contribute to rising prices for access to research articles. In consequence, all access to Elsevier by the participating institutions ceased on 1st January 2017. The situation has arisen because of a project aimed to negotiate deals with all large scientific publishers for a Germany wide licence which would reduce institutional costs and increase access to scientific literature.

Project DEAL is negotiating on behalf of  the Alliance of Science Organisations in Germany who are attempting to ensure that German research institutions can provide current literature for teaching and research at a price that they can afford. The Alliance believe that large scientific publishers are wielding too much market power and earning too great a profit on the backs of unpaid work done by academics: for example, authoring, journal editing and peer review. They are making a stand at this point because costs have recently risen so steeply that library acquisition budgets have not been able to keep up and therefore have not met the needs of their researchers.

Negotiations with publishers Springer Nature and Wiley are due to begin this month.  It will be interesting to find out the results of this situation. The problem for the German researchers will be lack of access to Elsevier published papers until the dispute has been resolved. One wonders how many of the researchers will turn to open access journals, for information gathering and for publishing their own work. Alternatively, will they search open access institutional repositories to read pre-prints or send emails around the globe to get information at first hand from authors. I do hope that someone is doing research about this. (If not, Evidence Base staff are available at a moderate fee!)

In fact, is this all a portent that a different model of publishing is needed? Perhaps there is room for a duel approach to dissemination of research; publishing the work in two forms, at least one of which being Open Access and another in a top rated journal – whether that journal is Open Access or not. In the UK there is already a requirement that any university authored article published from April 2016 has it’s twin deposited into an Institutional Repository (normally a pre-print) to comply with Hefce  (Higher Education Funding Council for England) policy, for the 2021 REF which relates to the funding of universities. Pushing the boundaries even more, one of the journals in the Public Library of Open Science (PLOS) group has adopted an unusual approach. PLOS Computational Biology is asking researchers to write a Wikipedia article which is then converted into a review paper in the journal. The subject matter is dictated by a gap of knowledge in Wikipedia such as a lack of article or undeveloped article on an important topic, and the review paper is published under the Topic Pages section of the journal. Admittedly this is only possible because PLOS computational Biology is already Open Access and published under the same sort of creative commons licence as Wikipedia and edits and contributions to the article in Wikipedia can be counted as a form of open peer review. You can read more about this here: Creating an efficient workflow for publishing scholarly papers on Wikipedia.

At present, this is only conjecture on my part, but new models for publishing in the true sense, that is putting your work out into the public domain, are developing. For example, open access repositories, research blogs and websites, adding presentations to Figshare and data repositories.  The choice of dissemination route is growing. Is Elsevier therefore being unwise to prevent access to its articles if researchers can find the information they need by another route? It really depends on how long the dispute continues and the lengths to which researchers are prepared to go to discover information and to publish their own work.