South African universities and government agencies have banded together against international academic publisher Elsevier’s new hosting and sharing regime, which they argue “curtails scientific progress and places unnecessary constraints on delivering the benefits of research back to the public”.
They join thousands of other institutions around the world – including Oxford and Yale universities – in signing the Confederation of Open Access Repositories’ petition against the new regulations that extend republication embargoes for up to three years.
It is expensive for South African libraries and nonacademics to get access to knowledge that is generated by South African tax money if they have been published in international journals, with library bills for academic journals often running into millions of rands. It is difficult to quantify how much South Africa’s universities and institutions pay to publish research, and to get access to research by local and international colleagues.
Glenn Truran, director of the South African National Licensing Consortium, which handles some of the universities’ licensing agreements, says there are many budgets involved – such as those of university libraries, research departments and institutions as a whole – across a variety of institutions, so “we do not know … what the total annual South African spend on journals is”.
He refused to be drawn on how much different journal subscriptions cost, saying that in a number of instances they had to sign nondisclosure agreements with the publishers.
At the heart of the issue is long-running tension between researchers and publishers: academics need to publish journal articles for their careers, and getting their research published in prestigious journals increases the research’s citations, visibility and effect. But journals are making a lot of money out of this research while restricting access to it.
Further, peer review – the process by which academics review articles to ensure accuracy and good science – is done by academics for free. As one senior academic in South Africa put it: “We do it because it’s an accepted part of our career process, the major driver for our careers. And because we expect to have our work peer-reviewed [by others when we publish], we do it for others [for free]. They [the publishers] are just making shitloads of money out of it.”
Research out of the University of Montreal this month shows that five publishing houses, one of which is Elsevier, published more than 50% of academic articles in the world.
“Overall, the major publishers control more than half of the market of scientific papers both in the natural and medical sciences and in the social science and humanities,” says the study leader, Vincent Larivière, who holds the Canada research chair on the transformation of scholarly communication.
“These large commercial publishers have huge sales, with profit margins of nearly 40%,” he said.
There are broadly two forms of open-access publishing used by major publishers, in which articles are made freely available to the public:
- Gold open access, where the full cost is borne by the institution and the article is available immediately; and
- Green open access, where an embargo is placed on when the content can be made available to nonsubscribers.
Elsevier’s vice-president of global corporate relations, Tom Reller, says that green open access is “where accepted manuscripts are made openly available after an embargo period sufficient for the publisher to recover publishing costs through library subscriptions”.
Usually, versions are put on university repositories that are open to the public, but the new regulations will strangle the ability of repositories to put research into their databases, universities say.
Green open access
Springer Nature, which publishes the prestigious scientific journals Science and Nature, offers green open access to academics. Its Nature suite of publications has an embargo of six months.
Eric Merkel-Sobotta, Springer Nature’s executive vice-president, says: “The vast majority of articles published by journals owned by the group have 12-month – or shorter – embargoes for green open access.”
He notes that social science and humanities articles can have an embargo of up to 18 months.
The latest instalment in the battle to make academic knowledge more widely available has seen librarians entering the foray. The petition against Elsevier’s updated regulations has been signed – at an institutional level – by the universities of Pretoria and Cape Town, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, the National Research Foundation, which is South Africa’s main research funder, the Library and Information Association of South Africa and the South African National Licensing Consortium among others. A number of individual librarians have also added their voices to the outcry over the regulations.
Robert Moropa, director of the department of library services at the University of Pretoria, has described the move by Elsevier as actively “working against the open access movement”.
“[These] policies will have an impact of up to 25% of the materials that we upload to [our institutional] repository, meaning that 25% of the University of Pretoria’s research outputs, in post-print version, will be embargoed for at least 12 months but could go as high as 36 months.
“This will influence our visibility, citations, rankings and the moral obligation we have to make research accessible to the general public that supported this research being conducted by paying their taxes,” he said.
Elsevier’s Reller says “the majority of publishers use green open access embargo periods that range from 12 to 24 months and Elsevier’s embargo periods are in line with this practice”, and notes that “only 1.1% of our journals have the longest 48 month embargo periods”.
But these explanations do not placate academics, who believe that their research should be made available as soon as possible.
Denise Nicholson, a scholarly communications librarian and copyright expert, who signed the petition as an individual, said: “What difference does it make whether a manuscript version is put on a personal website or on a repository? … Why should our research be held over for an embargo period that they decide on? Research needs to get out there as soon as possible so it is up to date and not a year old when scientists need the information or data.”
Asked to comment on the outcry over the updated regulations, Reller told the Mail & Guardian: “You may be hearing from some people who either don’t appreciate or don’t fully understand the policy update.
“The reality is that we have also had a large number of positive and productive discussions with our communities both before and after the announcement. The key concern we are hearing is related to the lengths of the embargo periods themselves, although these are neither new nor unique to Elsevier.”
He said there would be a planned review of them later this year.