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Germany Turns the Table on Elsevier, as a De Facto Country-Level Transition to Open Access Puts Pressure on Publishers

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FU-Uni Bibliothek, Berlin, Germany, December 3, 2009 | © Courtesy of makotokam/Flickr.

The case of Elsevier’s inconclusive subscription contract negotiations in Germany shows that it is the involvement of scientific communities and organisations, such as research universities and institutes, at all stages of article publishing and access that creates journal impact and value. Digitization and file sharing, thus, can create conditions for a coordinated transition to Open Access, as has de facto occurred in Germany, while significantly reducing the bargaining power of large publishers.

A Blog Article by Pablo Markin.


Germany may be blazing the trail for other countries toward large-scale transitions to Open Access, as its association of around 180 universities and institutes has been refusing to sign journal subscription contracts with Elsevier, a global, Netherlands-based publisher of circa 2,500 journals with 2016 revenues of 2.3 billion and profits of 830 million Euros, for over a year. Though South Korea and Finland have concluded deals with this publisher earlier this year, German academic institutions have maintained their uncompromising negotiations stance vis-à-vis Elsevier as concerns a comprehensive transition to Open Access, whereas the publishing house has extended their free of charge access to its scholarly articles databases until further notice apparently.

This not only has lead to multi-million savings in subscription fees to the members of the Project Deal, a consortium of German research universities and institutes, but also has demonstrated that journal publishers depend as much on academic institutions and scientific communities for maintaining the relevance and reputation of scholarly journals as do the academic libraries on publishing houses for their access to the recent results of scientific research. As an increasing number of German scientific organizations join the Project Deal, as a country-level negotiations counterpart of Elsevier and other big publishers, or refrain from formally renewing their contracts and as a growing number of German scholars resign from their editorial positions at Elsevier-published journals, Germany can be said to be in the throes of a de facto transition to Open Access.

The flip to Open Access promises significant long-term cost savings, as funds will only need to be allocated toward covering one-time article processing fees rather than to yearly renewed and increasingly expensive subscription contracts, such as with Elsevier. While France, Austria and Switzerland may also attempt to renegotiate their contracts with large publishers, in a push for a wider adoption of Open Access, a consensus seems to be emerging that largely publicly supported academic institutions do not necessarily have to funnel via non-transparent deals taxation-derived funds into privately-owned publishing houses with profit performance that can reach as much as 30% of yearly growth.

In this respect, Open Access demands of German institutions appear to be gradually breaking the monopoly of large publishers, such as Elsevier, Springer Nature and Taylor & Francis, on access to scientific articles. As the impact of illicit file sharing on the journal publishing industry continues to unfold, the economic logic behind the traditional subscription-based publishing models begins to crumble, the balance of power relations between academic libraries and publishers appears to be tipping in favor of the former, while accelerating the rate of either gradual or Big-Bang-style transitions to Open Access internationally.

By Pablo Markin


Featured Image Credits: FU-Uni Bibliothek, Berlin, Germany, December 3, 2009 | © Courtesy of makotokam/Flickr.

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