Saturday, 27 October 2018

CNRS rejects Couperin's claimed victory in Springer big deal

After long and tortuous negotiations, the French consortium Couperin has claimed victory in its recent agreement with Springer, after having secured price decreases. This claim seems reasonable, as prices of big deals with publishers tend to increase steadily. Of course, critics can still point out that Springer remains very expensive compared to smaller, more efficient publishers. But at least Springer seems amenable to some compromises in negotiations. And one should not forget that the greediest and most obnoxious publisher remains Elsevier, who even refused to join the Initiative for open citations.

I was therefore surprised when CNRS announced its rejection of the Springer deal, although CNRS takes part in Couperin and was actively involved in the negotiations. The email announcement came from Alain Schuhl, a CNRS official who is also a member of Couperins’ governing council. (See the email and its English translation below.) This email was a warning to CNRS researchers that access to Springer journals was now cut off. However, articles from 2017 and earlier are still available, as they are coverd by the previous subscription.

The explanation for the rejection is that the deal’s price was too high according to the Ministry’s open science plan. This explanation makes little sense for two reasons:

  • The plan was announced in July 2018, whereas the Springer negotiations were supposed to be concluded by the end of 2017. The negotiating mandate and strategy could therefore not take the plan into account.
  • The plan says much about open science, but nothing about costs. The email is all about costs, and does not mention open science.
The email also alludes to the ongoing negotiations of Couperin with Elsevier for a 2019-2021 deal, suggesting that the main reason for the rejection might be to show determination to Elsevier. But to survive without a Springer subscription tells little on CNRS’s ability to survive without an Elsevier subscription, for several reasons:
  • CNRS researchers often work in institutions such as universities, where they can access publications without resorting to CNRS’s subscription. Elsevier tries much harder than Springer to prevent this kind of double-dipping from subscribers.
  • In some subfields of medicine, chemistry and engineering, Elsevier journals are hard to ignore.
Nevertheless, when it comes to Elsevier, the best deal is no deal, as the German and Swedish examples demonstrate. Recent experience suggests that Elsevier will not consent to a deal comparable to Springer’s, let alone accede to the more ambitious demands of the Couperin consortium. (These demands include much about open access, not just price.) The only way to have some hope of a tolerable deal, is actually to prepare for a no deal scenario. This would imply warning researchers about the likely suspension of access to Elsevier journals. But CNRS is not doing this at the moment. Surely it would be pointless to make a show of symbolic and painless determination towards the relatively reasonable Springer, while preparing to accept a less palatable deal with the tougher Elsevier.

The rejection of the deal by CNRS also raises the issue of Couperin’s usefulness. The reconfiguration, or even disappearance, of the consortium might actually not be a bad thing, as the consortium’s large size makes it less able to withstand a no deal scenario, and to agree on a strategy. Agreeing on a strategy can be difficult: for example, having authors pay (rather than readers) would move costs from some institutions to some others. But having a strategy that involves open access is probably necessary, even if the aim is only to lower costs.

Email announcement: English translation

 

Dear colleagues,

As you may have noticed, access to 2018 issues of Springer journals has been partly suspended on the BibCNRS portal by Springer. This suspension affects all institutions that did not (or not yet) renew their subscriptions in 2018, following Springer’s offer [to the Couperin consortium] for the period 2018-2020. These institutions include CNRS.

Two weeks ago, Couperin’s negotiations with Springer have led to an offer by Springer that includes, for the first time, a steady decrease of subscription costs over 3 years, but covers a slightly reduced list of journals. CNRS acknowledges the negotiatiors’ work.

However, CNRS has decided to reject Springer’s offer, and has asked for a new offer. Springer’s offer indeed comes in the context of a transformation of scientific publishing’s economic model. (Scientific publishers’ yearly revenues for France are almost 100 million euros.)

For several years, scientific communities have been involved in an endeavour to make scientific publications accessible at a “fair price”. Moreover, the French minister of Research has announced a plan for “open science” on July 4th, 2018. This plan aims to reduce the budgets for contracts with publishers. We believe that Springer’s offer is still too expensive for being compatible with this plan’s goals.

We are fully conscious of the difficulties that are caused by this suspension. But we are convinced that a firm stance towards publishers is needed for bringing costs back to reasonable levels. This is all the more important now that difficult negotiations with Elsevier have just started.

Email announcement: French original


Chères et chers collègues,

Comme vous avez pu le constater, les accès aux titres Springer 2018 ont été partiellement coupés sur le portail BibCNRS par l’éditeur. Cette interruption concerne l’ensemble des établissements qui ne renouvellent pas leur abonnement en 2018 ou qui n’ont pas encore confirmé le renouvellement, suite à la diffusion de l’offre Springer couvrant la période 2018 à 2020. C’est le cas du CNRS.

Les négociations de Couperin avec Springer ont abouti il y a quinze jours à une offre de l’éditeur qui comprend, pour la première fois, une baisse continue du coût des abonnements sur 3 ans, concernant toutefois un périmètre légèrement réduit de titres de revues. Le CNRS salue le travail des négociateurs.

Cependant, le CNRS a décidé de refuser l’offre de Springer et demande à l’éditeur de lui faire une nouvelle proposition. En effet, cette offre de Springer arrive aujourd’hui dans un contexte de transformation du modèle économique de l’édition scientifique, marché qui pèse, en France, près de 100 millions d’euros.

Depuis plusieurs années, les communautés scientifiques sont engagées dans une démarche visant à rendre accessible les publications scientifiques « au juste prix ». De son côté, la ministre de l’Enseignement Supérieur, de Recherche et de l’Innovation a présenté le 4 juillet dernier un plan national pour la « science ouverte ». Ce plan vise, entre autres, à réduire sensiblement les budgets dédiés aux contrats avec les éditeurs. Le coût des abonnements proposé par Springer reste selon nous trop élevé au regard des objectifs fixés par ce plan.

Nous avons pleinement conscience des difficultés induites par cette interruption. Mais nous sommes convaincus que seule une position ferme vis a vis des éditeurs peut nous permettre de ramener le coût des publications scientifiques à un niveau raisonnable. C’est d’autant plus important au moment où viennent de s‘engager des négociations difficiles avec Elsevier.

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