Sunday 25 February 2018

Couperin vs Springer and Elsevier: towards less extortionate deals?

Historically, the French consortium Couperin has obtained poor results in negotiating with predatory publishers, mostly consenting to their high and increasing prices. This is not necessarily Couperin’s fault, although it does not help that Couperin’s leadership appears weak and ill-informed. Rather, this is a consequence of the basic economics of scientific publishing, with publishers systematically abusing their strong position. Even the Finnish consortium FinELib, which was determined to seek a good deal and enjoyed a fair amount of support from researchers, recently consented to one more extortionate deal with Elsevier.

However, recent developments suggest that Couperin could fare better in current and upcoming negotiations:

The availability of most articles via the pirate site Sci-Hub makes subscriptions less necessary, and the German consortium DEAL has shown how research institutions can take the upper hand in negotiations, while working towards a radical reform of scientific publishing. But is Couperin really prepared to emulate DEAL? Fran├žoise Rousseau-Hans, head librarian at CEA, and responsible for prospective at Couperin, gave me some information on the issue.

The librarian’s tale


Fran├žoise Rousseau-Hans and her colleagues are doing much detailed technical work in tracking journals’ prices, article downloads from users, publishers’ commercial practices, etc. For example, they are able to compare subscription prices with what articles would cost if accessed via pay per view.

This also allows them to understand when publishers are trying to trick them. For example, here is a basic publisher’s trick: while subscriptions are to bundles rather than to individual journals, journals still have list prices, and these prices are used in negotiations as a basis for the bundle’s price. When a journal is due to exit the bundle, for example because it will become part of a different deal such as SCOAP3, the publisher anticipates this by decreasing its list price, and bringing it close to zero. The publisher indeed knows that after the journal exits the bundle, subscribers will ask for a corresponding decrease of the bundle’s price.

Much of this information, and in particular how much each academic institution pays to each publisher, is typically kept private, although librarians share such information with one another. The reason for not publishing such information is to prevent publishers from comparing prices with one another.

In the ongoing negotiation with Springer, Couperin is asking for a price decrease of the order of 10%, arguing that this corresponds to articles that are already available because they were published in the Gold open access mode. The previous deal expired at the end of 2017, so negotiations are running late. As is common practice, subscribing institutions have formally asked for access to Springer journals to be cut off when the deal expired, so as not to be accused of tacitly agreeing to a contract extension. And as is common practice, Springer has declined to cut off access while negotiations are ongoing.

In the case of Elsevier, a big deal that covers all of France for five years is set to expire at the end of 2018. Negotiations for a successor deal should begin in a few weeks. Given Elsevier’s usual practices, and Couperin’s resolve to save as much money as possible, a clash is likely. Now the current deal allows perpetual access to articles dated 2018 or earlier. So even if France enters 2019 with no new deal, only access to articles published in 2019 will be lost, with the rest remaining available via ISTEX.

The resilience of French academic institutions in case of a clash with Elsevier would also depend on the attitude of the researchers. Attitudes can vary widely among disciplines and institutions. Researchers whose work have commercial applications, such as chemists and biologists, tend to be the least unhappy with the current practices of commercial publishers.

Couperin still has to announce its strategy: does it want to progressively shrink its budget for subscriptions and support new publishers with the saved money, or to more aggressively force a transition to a Gold open access system like the DEAL consortium?

The blogger’s reaction

I am impressed by the librarians’ technical work of tracking the details of journals’ prices and usage. However, I wonder how much this work affects the outcome of negotiations. The list prices of journals are largely arbitrary, and subscription prices have little to do with publishers’ costs. Predatory publishers may politely listen to librarians’ technical arguments, they may consent to face-saving symbolic rebates, but what prevents them from asking for as much money as they can squeeze out of subscribers?

On the other hand, the librarians’ work could be useful in convincing researchers to take Couperin’s side in negotiations, which would mean not complaining when losing access to journals, and possibly even boycotting a recalcitrant publisher. But it looks hard to motivate researchers by just showing that prices are increasing well above inflation, for two reasons:
  • If the problem is framed in purely budgetary terms, the risk is that researchers view Couperin’s attitude as part of a squeeze in research budgets, and effectively take the side of publishers. After all, if money is saved on subscriptions, will it go to research?
  • The problem is not that prices increase by 5% each year when they should increase by 2%, but that legacy journals cost more than newer nonprofit journals by an order of magnitude. (Legacy journals effectively sell each article for about 5000 euros in Germany, whereas SciPost’s costs are about 300 euros per article.) Researchers are more likely to be mobilized by crude order-of-magnitude calculations, than by fine analyses of price evolutions.
The DEAL consortium’s approach is to publicly discuss not only money, but also the quality of research publishing, for example when they question Nature’s editorial practices. And DEAL’s negotiating positions explicitly take into account such qualitative issues, including of course open access.

To summarize, my impression is that Couperin’s work is focussed too much on negotiating with publishers, and too little on exchanging with researchers. Couperin would probably do well to publicly release more information, rather than assuming that publishers do not talk to one another. For a start, Couperin’s negotiating aims should be made public as early as possible. Researchers are unlikely to join a fight against a publisher if they do not know what they are actually fighting for.

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