Why did Sweden cancel its agreement with Elsevier?
On June 30th, Sweden will officially cancel its agreement with Elsevier, one of the largest academic publishers in the world. No longer will new journal articles or books published by Elsevier be available in any Swedish university or library. Why is this happening? What’s behind the disagreement between Elsevier and Sweden?
Today Wilhelm Widmark, the Library Director at Stockholm University, joins me to talk about the state of academic publishing. Widmark serves as the Vice-Chair of the Swedish Bibsam Consortium steering committee, the group that negotiates agreements with publishers on behalf of universities and libraries across the country. Although he criticizes Elsevier for charging excessively high prices on academic publications, he places most of the blame on the academic system of meritocracy that is based on academic publications.
Citation: Widmark, Wilhelm, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 118, podcast audio, June 11, 2018. https://freshedpodcast.com/wilhelmwidmark/
Will Brehm 1:44
Wilhelm Widmark, welcome to FreshEd.
Wilhelm Widmark 1:46
Will Brehm 1:47
Can you explain to me what the Bibsam Consortium is?
Wilhelm Widmark 1:51
Well, the Bibsam Consortium is the biggest consortium in Sweden for all the universities and university colleges, libraries to make deals with the publishers, to buy information from the publishers like articles and databases and things like that.
Will Brehm 2:14
And how many universities are in this consortium?
Wilhelm Widmark 2:17
Well, we are 38 universities and then we have some governance agencies as well. All stately founded.
Will Brehm 2:27
And what percentage of universities is that in Sweden?
Wilhelm Widmark 2:31
It’s hundred percent of the universities in Sweden.
Will Brehm 2:34
Okay, so why is the consortium needed to bid for licenses with these different academic publishers?
Wilhelm Widmark 2:41
Well, I think in the beginning, when we started to buy e-journals together, we had to have more negotiation power to talk to the publishers. So, we got together to make the consortium. So, I think it’s mostly for the negotiation power. And in the same time, we have one administration instead of 38 administrations for this. I think you really need a consortium to get better deals, to get better clauses in the licenses, and better prices.
Will Brehm 3:17
So, I want to talk today about this consortium’s decision not to renew the contract with Reed Elsevier, which has made international headlines lately. So, can you walk me through this decision? Why did the consortium decide to not renew the contract with Reed Elsevier?
Wilhelm Widmark 3:36
Well, of course, we have had the contract with Elsevier for 20 years. And now we have had discussions with Elsevier for our negotiations for about two years. And we couldn’t get to the terms where we both Elsevier and the Bibsam Consortium, we couldn’t get an agreement. So, we said, “Now we’ll cancel the contract, because you won’t sell us what we want.”
Will Brehm 4:06
Can you tell me what were the points of disagreement?
Wilhelm Widmark 4:10
Well, I think the biggest point of disagreement is about we want to have 100% open access, and we like to both publish and read within the same contract. And it should be a sustainable solution for the future. And we don’t want to pay more than we paid today.
Will Brehm 4:32
And Reed Elsevier just said no to that?
Wilhelm Widmark 4:34
No. We have had discussions and with their latest proposal, it was the best proposal we have gotten from Reed Elsevier, but it wasn’t good enough. We didn’t think it was sustainable to reach 100% open access for the future. And as you maybe know, in Sweden we have a governance policy that in 2020, we should reach 100% open access on articles. So, we can’t take these where we don’t see that it will lead to open access in the future.
Will Brehm 5:09
So, Reed Elsevier is a for-profit company, so I would imagine open access would in many ways go against their bottom line.
Wilhelm Widmark 5:17
No, I don’t think that open access goes against the bottom line. I think they also provide open access, but they want to get paid both for the licensing and for the open access. So, it’s not sustainable for the future to pay that much money to one publisher. They want to keep two different business models, one for the licensing part for reading, and one for the publishing part. And if we should go that way with Elsevier, it will double our costs.
Will Brehm 5:48
Can you take me through that a little bit more in detail? So, what is the licensing agreement and the cost associated with that? And then what are the publishing agreements and fees associated with that?
Wilhelm Widmark 6:01
So, I think, if we take the licensing, we pay one amount for the whole consortium to read all the articles from Elsevier journals. So that’s the licensing part for reading. Then we pay, outside of the contract today, the APCs (article processing charges) to publish our output in open access with Elsevier journals. So, it’s two separate models. And we have counted on it in Sweden, if we should make all our output open access and pay the amount for the APCs, it would be nearly the same cost as the cost for the licensing. So, it will double our costs. So, we want to have a contract where you combine the reading and the publishing.
Will Brehm 6:59
And why do you think Elsevier doesn’t want to do that?
Wilhelm Widmark 7:02
Well, I understand they want to earn money, of course. And they want to keep their business models separate. And what they are saying to us, is that “Okay, you could handle it in Sweden, but we are company for the world. And it’s only North Europe that wants open access.” So, they say they can’t change the system if not all the countries will join in the whole world. And we say, “Okay, you have to start with pilots in Northern Europe, where we have policies from the governments; the EU said that we should be open access in 2020 and we think that you shouldn’t lock in science behind paywalls. All science should be publicly free.”
Will Brehm 7:52
And that’s what the EU is saying by 2020?
Wilhelm Widmark 7:55
Yes, by 2020.
Will Brehm 7:57
And so, Elsevier is saying, “Well, unless the whole world does it, we can’t do it.” Is that sort of the gist of it?
Wilhelm Widmark 8:03
Yes, and I understand their position on it, because they have a market where they just … is built on licensing. And then they have a market in Northern Europe, mostly, or the whole Europe, who demands open access as well, and want to pay for publishing instead, or pay for reading. But it’s really an important question within EU, so I think that Elsevier has to listen to us and has to in some way … I think they are listening to us, of course, but they don’t today want to change their business models.
Will Brehm 8:41
Have other countries or other universities or library systems also canceled their licensing agreements with Elsevier over similar issues?
Wilhelm Widmark 8:52
Yes, one country and you have heard about it. It’s in Germany, they cancelled I think one and a half years ago. They said to Elsevier, “We won’t renew our contract if we won’t get a hundred percent open access. We could read everything anyway.” So, Germany is the first country and now it’s Sweden as well. Then other universities have canceled their big deals, their big licensing deals and started to buy separate journals instead.
Will Brehm 9:22
So, let’s put Reed Elsevier in the context of the other publishers. Have you had similar issues with other publishers?
Wilhelm Widmark 9:30
Well, within the consortium, we have made a strategic direction, of course, that we should, in all our contracts, we should have some sort of agreement for open access where we combine the open access and licensing. And then we have discussed that with all the publishers, and we have some agreements that are … I don’t think that you can say that they are good, but they are much better than Elsevier has offered us.
Will Brehm 10:00
So, looking at all of the different licenses that the consortium sign, how expensive is Elsevier compared to the other publisher?
Wilhelm Widmark 10:10
Well, Elsevier is the biggest publisher and it’s a lot of quality in the things they do, so it is also the most expensive publisher. So, I think, for the consortium, it’s about one third of the amount spent is with Elsevier. And then we have eBooks and databases and everything, so we spent a lot of money with Elsevier, and then we have the APCs on top of that.
Will Brehm 10:36
Wow, wow. Okay. So, it really adds up quite quickly. And like you said, they’re a big publisher. How big? Like how many volumes? How many databases? You know, what percent of the library system is the content coming from Reed Elsevier?
Wilhelm Widmark 10:51
I can’t say in person, but if you think it’s about 2000 journals within the big deal, and then we have a lot of big databases. For instance, Stockholm University has all Elsevier’s eBooks as well so it’s a big part of the articles we have with Elsevier, of course.
Will Brehm 11:14
So, when you do cancel this license agreement with Reed Elsevier, does this mean that universities in Sweden would not have access to any of this content?
Wilhelm Widmark 11:28
No, it’s not really true, because in our licensing deal today, we have a post-termination clause that says that we have archival rights to everything we have had before. So, from 1996 until we cancel, we will have all the articles. Then we won’t have the new articles from … it will be the first of July this year. So, we will have from 1996 until the first of July 2018.
Will Brehm 11:58
That’s going to free up a lot of money, I would imagine, for the consortium, right. What are you going to do with all of that extra money? Are there other publishers that you will be able to find additional content from?
Wilhelm Widmark 12:10
Well, I don’t think, today we are still negotiating with Elsevier; I don’t think we will go away and spend the money directly. But I think every university has to decide how they will use the money, but I think you should use them on gold open access in that way. But that will be a decision for each university how you handle that money.
Will Brehm 12:36
Oh, really? Okay, so at that point the consortium wouldn’t have the power to sort of negotiate future deals with that money.
Wilhelm Widmark 12:42
No, as the consortium functions, it’s separate money for each university. We have the deal and then we pay for the deal together. So, no money owned by the consortium.
Will Brehm 12:55
And do you think that canceling the contract with Elsevier will have any negative effects on research coming out of universities of Sweden?
Wilhelm Widmark 13:06
Well, if this will continue for a very long time, it could be problems. It is very important for the researchers in Sweden to have the articles from Elsevier. But when we made the decision, it was the presidents of all the universities that said that “Now, we can’t take this deal. We have to cancel, and we have to really try to help our researchers to get the articles through the libraries, by interlibrary loans and other ways where you have articles in green open access and things like that.” But if we won’t have the material for a long, long time, it could be problems for some researchers. But we have also talked to many researchers, and they say, “We will get the material.” So, they’re not afraid now.
Will Brehm 13:55
And do they tell you how they’re going to get the material?
Wilhelm Widmark 13:58
Well, they say that in science it’s scholarly sharing. So, if you need an article from one author, you can write an email to the author and say, “Okay, can I get your article?” And they will send the article and that’s legal, of course. You can scholarly share, but it will take a little bit longer time for the researchers to get the articles maybe.
Will Brehm 14:19
Right. So, are you hopeful that the consortium will come to an agreement with Reed Elsevier in the future?
Wilhelm Widmark 14:25
Yes. That’s the mission. To get an agreement. But it would be a sustainable agreement for the future that is based on publishing and reading. Hopefully, Elsevier has to talk to us again, and we are still talking with each other.
Will Brehm 14:45
And can you tell me a little bit about that process? I mean, I know you might not be able to go into all of the details, but you know Reed Elsevier is this massive global company. I looked up their revenue from last year, and it’s something like 2.5 billion pounds; I would imagine they have teams of lawyers that are working on these agreements with different countries and universities and library systems. So, the consortium, from my understanding, has six or seven full-time staff members. So, what is it actually like to negotiate with such a large company?
Wilhelm Widmark 15:24
Well, I think we have had the consortium in Sweden for about 20 years. And it’s based on the National Library. So, the administration is within the National Library. Then we have a steering committee for the consortium that is from the Swedish universities. So today, the president of Stockholm University is the head of the steering committee, and I am the vice head of the steering committee. So, it’s not just the administrative people from the National Library. So, with Elsevier now, we have a negotiation group from the consortium; I’m within it. And then we have another library director, and we have the president of Stockholm University, and then two people from the National Library as well. So, we are a good team that have made a lot of negotiations before. So, I don’t think it’s harder to negotiate with Elsevier than any other publishers. The problem is that the people we are negotiating with, they don’t have that much mandate to say anything. They have their mandate, and then they have to go back and talk to their management and talk to the lawyers, and then they come back to us. So, it takes really long time. It’s not like if you’re negotiating with someone that really has the power to say “Yes” or “No” to anything.
Will Brehm 16:53
So, no wonder it’s taken two years to this point.
Wilhelm Widmark 16:55
No, not at all. But I say we have had really good discussions with Elsevier. One year ago, we said to Elsevier, well now nothing is happening. So, we invited them to a really top meeting with the president of Stockholm University, one … people from the Department of Education, and the Research Council and the National Library, just to talk to them to say, “Hey Elsevier, we want to make a deal with you. But these are our conditions. We stand for this in Sweden.” And after that, we have had really good discussions, but it didn’t lead that far that we wanted to.
Will Brehm 17:40
So, stepping back slightly from sort of this one instance of a negotiation that’s currently taking place, you know, how would you describe sort of the state of scientific or academic publishing? You come from … you know, many listeners probably work in universities, and maybe are writing journal articles, or writing monographs, and being published by publishing companies like Elsevier. But I would imagine a lot of people haven’t really thought about it from more of the library side. So, in your opinion, how would you describe the state of academic publishing?
Wilhelm Widmark 18:18
Well, I think the state of academic publishing, I think, we need the publishers, of course. Today, we have all the researchers writing their articles, and make a submission to different publishers. Then the publishing company make the quality of the article by reviewing it. But it’s still the researchers from the universities that are reviewing it. And then we have editors that help to make the journal and put in the articles, and also the editors are from the universities. So, the whole process, for without the technical side, is made by researchers from the universities, and then the library buys it back. And that’s a big problem. I think we need the publishers; we need a technical system and a quality system to get all the articles outside. We need the peer review, of course, but today it is too expensive for the universities to do all the work and then buy it, but we are the libraries.
Will Brehm 19:33
It’s really unbelievable, in a way. It’s like these companies are just getting so much free labor. And then on top of that, they’re asking libraries to buy back the work. I mean, it’s just absurd in a way.
Wilhelm Widmark 19:48
Well, I can’t blame them, because we have let them do this. We have made the system from the universities; we have accepted to do this. But now when it really has the crisis of the journals when they went electronic, and it got more and more expensive, and many of the universities, even in Sweden, can’t have all the information they need, because the state can’t afford it. So, then we had the discussion about open access. And then the publishers found a way to make open access and get revenue for that as well. So, we have both the licensing system and the APC system where we pay for the articles. So, they have done it really good. And we have accepted it so far. That’s the problem, I think. You can’t blame the publishers; they are companies that want to make money as well. So, we have accepted it, but I don’t think we should accept it anymore in that way.
Will Brehm 20:52
Yes. I was doing some googling earlier and trying to look at who’s in charge, who are the CEOs of some of these big publishers. And I didn’t look up Reed Elsevier, but I looked up Routledge, which is owned by Informa, and I’ve also looked up Wiley & Sons. And these CEOs make something like 4 million US dollars a year in salary. I mean these are huge companies. And like you said, universities have just allowed this to happen. It’s not necessarily the publishers’ fault. We’ve let them do it.
Wilhelm Widmark 21:28
Yes, we have let them do it. I think that is the most important thing in Sweden now that all the presidents of the universities have said, “Now it has to stop. We can’t continue doing this in this way.” Of course, we have to pay to get help with the publishing process. We have alternatives today. But we can’t take out the publishers today and say, ” Okay, we’ll let the market flow free.” But I think it’s very important … the only ones that can stop this is the academics, not the libraries and anything like that. So, it’s the academics.
Will Brehm 22:08
So, what advice would you give to academics, you know, particularly young academics like myself, who are preparing monographs, preparing edited volumes, writing journal articles. You know, what advice would you give to us about how we can help change this system that obviously hurts academics and hurts libraries and hurts the idea of knowledge as a public good?
Wilhelm Widmark 22:33
Well, I think the major problem with the system today is the merit system. If you want to get a new job within the universities, they look at where have you published, and it is with the big publishers that you get the biggest merits. So, you really have to change that system. But as a young researcher, you should look who are you publishing with, and what is this company doing, and where will you get your best quality. But in the same time, you have to decide, “How can my career be in the best way? And where should I publish then?” So, I think that’s the major obstacle, that we are in the merit system, we are looking so much at JIF factors and things like that. So that is really something that has to change.
Will Brehm 23:27
Are you hopeful that it is going to change?
Wilhelm Widmark 23:30
Yes, otherwise I wouldn’t be working within this. We have talked about this for 15 years, and now it start happening things. I was talking with the Swedish presidents four or five years ago about this. How could we handle big publishers in negotiations? Can we say no to big publishers? And they said, “No, you can’t. You have to have the contracts.” And now, today, they say, “Okay, let’s stop it now.” We have to do something. And we have to talk to our academics, and we have to have discussion about the future of scholarly communications at the universities. I think the most important thing is this has been a library question about open access. And now it’s on the tables of the university management in Sweden. And that’s a big change, because it’s only the academics that can change the system.
Will Brehm 24:30
And why do you think that change happened? Where before you weren’t even allowed to say no to the publishers? And now it’s sort of on the tables of management in universities? What actually changed over those 15 years?
Wilhelm Widmark 24:44
Well, I think everything takes a lot of time. And I think one of the most important things here in Sweden is when we have from the government, you should publish in open access. And when you look at the figures, it will cost if we both had the licensing and the publishing costs, then the presidents understand this isn’t sustainable. So, I think it’s a lot of things that had happened on the same time. And then in Europe, when EU is really strong on the open access and the transparency and open science, we are working for that. Then you really have to start the discussion. So, I think it’s time now to change the system, and I’m hopeful it will happen. And hopefully, we have got a lot of tension from this from the whole world. And I had talked to researchers from both North America and Asia about those things. I don’t think this will only be a movement in Europe. I think it will start in the whole world to discuss open science and open access to all scientific research and publishing.
Will Brehm 26:02
Well, Wilhelm Widmark, thank you so much for joining FreshEd. I wish you the best of luck in your continuing negotiations with Elsevier and hope to see some of these movements cropping up in North America and in Asia, as you said.
Wilhelm Widmark 26:16
Yes. Thank you.