Elsevier’s two explanations for this maneuver fall short of being convincing. The first explanation, given to Nature, is that “it is customary [...] to retain access to content after a contracted period is concluded and as long as renewal discussions are ongoing”. Why then cut off access in January, and restore it in February?
The second explanation, from Elsevier’s own announcement, is that Elsevier “supports German research and expects that an agreement can be reached”. But Elsevier’s usual way of supporting research is locking articles behind paywalls, and siphoning as much money as possible from research. And expecting an agreement to be reached soon is optimistic, given that negotiations are not scheduled to resume before March 23rd.
By unilaterally restoring access, Elsevier is relieving the pressure on DEAL to reach an agreement, and apparently ruining its traditional extortionate negotiating strategy. Such an admission of weakness also makes it less likely that the extortionate strategy will succeed with other consortiums in the future. The maneuver however makes sense, because DEAL has not been made more accommodating by losing access. Elsevier must be afraid that academics migrate to other means of procuring article, and realize that they fare well without a subscription.
Still, how does the maneuver fit in Elsevier’s strategy? I have argued that the (mostly) Sci-Hub-induced threat of the demise of subscriptions leaves the publishing industry with two options:
- performing a revenue-neutral switch from subscriptions to gold open access,
- trying to block access to Sci-Hub.
Nevertheless, it is still possible that Elsevier is clinging to the subscription model, and pursuing option #2. Elsevier would then be preparing a politico-legal fight to have Sci-Hub, and other unofficial ways to get articles, blocked in Germany. In such a fight, Elsevier would not want to appear as an extortionist, or be accused of abusing its dominant position. This could explain the maneuver of restoring access, as a gesture not towards DEAL or academics, but towards the authorities that would decide the outcome of this fight. (A more brutal variant of option #2 would be to have higher authorities take over the negotiations and impose a deal on Elsevier's terms, as happened with the latest agreement between Elsevier and the French consortium Couperin.)