University of California: Goodbye Elsevier

On July 10, 2019, the University of California gave up its access to Elsevier journals. According to Elsevier,

The contract ended in December 2018. Since then, while working to find a solution, we have continued to provide access without payment to University of California campuses. Unfortunately, we've been unable to come to an agreement.

The University of California with its ten campuses is one of the latest universities to cancel their Elsevier subscriptions. Others that have cancelled part of all of their subscription include Louisiana State University, Université de Strasbourg, and the Max Planck Society.

I think we're seeing a turning point in the way science is published. Universities are realizing that they no longer need academic publishers to continue the peer-review process for the creation and dissemination of published works. The NSF, who is a major funding source in the United States with a budget of 7.8 billion USD in 2018, has also enacted a public access policy, which has the following terms:

NSF requires that either the version of record or the final accepted manuscript in peer-reviewed scholarly journals and papers in juried conference proceedings or transactions (also known as "juried conference papers") be deposited in a public access compliant repository designated by NSF (the NSF Public Access Repository; NSF-PAR); be available for download, reading and analysis free of charge no later than 12 months after initial publication[.]

This is in line with the idea that publications funded by taxes should be made available to the public for the public good. The website Sci-Hub, which provides free access to many scientific papers, is also lowering the value of journal subscriptions so that more universities will face less opposition to subscription cancellations, and hasten the demise of traditional publishers and their model.

Paper publishing vs other types of publishing

Why is scientific paper publishing so different than other types of publishing?

A classic example is a bookstore: when you go to a bookstore, books cost money and most people still buy books from traditional publishers, although even that is changing a little. Authors of books only get a small percentage of the price of the book. Even though that model is not perfect either, there are some real services provided by traditional publishers: printing, marketing, cover design, copy-editing, and getting the book into major bookstores.

None of those services are provided by traditional scientific publishers like Elsevier:

  • Printing: print journals do exist, but are largely unnecessary due to the internet and people printing articles themselves if they really want a paper copy
  • Marketing: nonexistent
  • Cover design: nonexistent
  • Copy-editing: some journals provide some editing, but that is rare and mostly unnecessary. The peer-reviewing is done by other scientists without compensation
  • Getting your paper out there: done by authors

The one thing journals do provide is formatting services for most fields. Typically this is translating a bunch of random Word documents into something that looks reasonable. An exception is math, where mathematicians do pretty much all the formatting themselves because they use LaTeX. However, if formatting is the main hurdle to overcome, it can certainly be done more cheaply than paying Elsevier.

That universities are cutting off their subscriptions means any hurdles can be overcome, and more of them are starting to realize that. Hopefully more scientists will also follow by avoiding major publishers and creating their own solutions for the dissemination of their papers.

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