Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Germany vs Elsevier: a puzzling maneuver

In the tense negotiations between the German consortium DEAL and Elsevier, there is a new twist: on February 13th, Elsevier announced that it was restoring the access of the affected German institutions to its journals.

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:
  1. performing a revenue-neutral switch from subscriptions to gold open access,
  2. trying to block access to Sci-Hub.
Restoring access would obviously be consistent with option #1. This would be the signal that Elsevier may be renouncing making people pay to read, in favour of making them pay to publish. In this case, Elsevier would be ready to accept DEAL’s demand that future articles from the consortium’s members be made openly accessible. This would however be dangerous for Elsevier: while journals hardly compete with each other for readers (who can seldom substitute an article for a different one), journals do compete for authors, and gold open access journals in particular compete on price. But Elsevier would need to charge 5-10 thousand dollars per article for the switch to gold open access to be revenue-neutral, and would not be competitive with PLOS, let alone PeerJ. The challenge would then be to lock institutions into deals that would make such costs invisible to authors. For a small-scale example of such a deal, see the recent agreement between the Gates Foundation and the publisher of Science.

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.)