France Prefers to Pay (twice) for Papers by Its Researchers

France may not have any money left for its universities but it does have money for academic publishers.

While university presidents learn that their funding is to be reduced by EUR 400 million, the Ministry of Research has decided, under great secrecy, to pay EUR 172 million to the world leader in scientific publishing Elsevier .

In an exclusive piece published by the French news outlet Rue89 (Le Monde press group), Open Knowledge France members and open science evangelists Pierre-Carl Langlais and Rayna Stamboliyska released the agreement between the French Ministry and Elsevier. The post originally appeared here, in French.

Des fioles (Erlenmeyer), dans une classe de science (Lokesh Dhakar/Flickr/CC)


The Work of Volunteers

The scientific publishing market is an unusual sector, those who create value are never remunerated. Instead, they often pay to see their work published. Authors do not receive any direct financial gain from their articles, and the peer review is conducted voluntarily.

This enormous amount of work is indirectly funded by public money. Writing articles and participating in peer review are part of the expected activities of researchers, expected activities that lead to further research funding from the taxpayer.

Scientific publishing is centred around several privately-held publishing houses who own the journals where scientific research is published. Every journal has an editorial review board who receive potential contributions which are then sent to volunteer scientists for peer review. It is on the basis of comments and feedback from the peer review process that a decision is made whether an article is to be published or rejected and returned to the author(s).

When the article is accepted, the authors usually sign their copyright over to the publishers to sell access to the work, or can choose to make their work available to everyone, which oftentimes involves paying a given sum. In some cases journals only receive income for the service of publishing an article which is henceforth free to the consumer, but some journals have a mixed ‘hybrid’ selection so authors pay to publish some articles and their library still pays to purchase the rest of the journal. This is called ‘double dipping’ and while publishers claim they take it into account in their journal pricing, the secrecy around publisher contracts and lack of data means it is impossible to tell where money is flowing.

Huge Profit Margins

This is important because access to these journals is rarely cheap and publishers sell access primarily to academic libraries and research laboratories. In other words, financial resources for the publication of scientific papers come from credits granted to research laboratories; access to the journals these papers are published in is purchased by these same institutions. In both cases, these purchases are subsidies by the public.

The main actors in scientific publishing generate considerable income. In fact, the sector is dominated by an oligopoly with “the big four” sharing most of the global pie:

  • The Dutch Elsevier
  • The German Springer
  • The American Wiley
  • The English Informa

They draw huge profits: from 30% to 40% annual net profit in the case of Elsevier and Springer.

In other words, these four major publishers resell to universities content that the institutions themselves have produced.

In this completely closed market, competition does not exist, and pre-existing agreement is the rule: subscription prices have continued to soar for thirty years, while the cost of publishing, in the era of electronic publishing, has never been lower. For example, the annual subscription to Elsevier’s journal ‘Brain Research’ costs a whopping 15,000 EUR.

The Ministry Shoulders This Policy

The agreement between France and Elsevier amounted to ca. EUR 172 million for 476 universities and hospitals.

The first payment (approximately EUR 34 million of public money) was paid in full in September 2014. In return, 476 public institutions will have access to a body of about 2,000 academic journals.

This published research was mainly financed by public funds. Therefore in the end, we will have paid to Elsevier twice: once to publish, a second time to read.

This is not a blip. The agreement between Elsevier and the government is established policy. In March 2014, Geneviève Fioraso, Minister of Higher Education and Research, elaborated upon the main foci of her political agenda to the Academy of Sciences;two of which involve privileged interactions with Elsevier. This would be the first time that negotiating the right to read for hundreds of public research institutions and universities was managed at national level.

Pre-determined Negotiations

One could argue in favour of the Ministry’s benevolence vis-à-vis public institutions to the extent it supports this vital commitment to research. Such an argument would, however, fail to highlight multiple issues. Among these, we would pinpoint the total opacity in the choice of supplier (why Elsevier in particular?) and the lack of competitive pitch between several actors (for such an amount, open public tendering is required). The major problem which prevents competition is the monopolistic hold of publishers over knowledge – no-one else has the right to sell that particular article on cancer research that a researcher in Paris requires for their work – so there is little choice but to continue paying the individual publishers under the current system. Their hold on only expires with copyright, which is 70 years from the death of the last author and therefore entirely incompatible with the timeline of scientific discovery.

Prisoners of a game with pre-set rules, the negotiators (the Couperin consortium and the Bibliographic Agency for Higher Education, abbreviated as ABES) have not had much breathing space for negotiation. As aforementioned, a competitive pitch did not happen. Article 4 of the Agreement is explicit:

“Market for service provision without publication and without prior competition, negotiated with a particular tenderer for reasons connected with the protection of exclusive distribution rights.”

Therefore, a strange setup materialises for Elsevier to keep its former customers in its back pocket. The research organisations already having a contract with the publisher can only join the national license providing they accept a rise of the costs (that goes from 2.5 to 3.5%). Those without previous contract are not concerned.

How Many Agreements of the Sort?

To inflate the bill even more, Elsevier sells bundles of journals (its ‘flagship journals’):
“No title considered as a ‘flagship journal’ (as listed in Annex 5) can be withdrawn from the collection the subscribers can access” (art. 6.2). These ‘flaghip journals’ cannot all claim outstanding impact factors. Moreover, they are not equally relevant acrossdisciplines and scientific institutions.

The final price has been reduced from the estimation initially planned in February: “only” EUR 172 million instead of EUR 188 million. Yet, this discount does not seem to be a gratuitous gift from Elsevier. Numerous institutions have withdrawn from the national license: from 642 partners in February, only 476 remain in the final deal.

Needless to say, the sitation is outrageous. Yet, it is just one agreement with one among several vendors. A recent report by the French Academy of Science [http://www.academie-sciences.fr/presse/communique/rads_241014.pdf] alluded to a total of EUR 105 million annually, dedicated to acquiring access to scientific publications. This figure, however, comes out as far below the reality. Indeed, the French agreement with Elsevier grants access to publications only to some of the research institutions and universities in France; and yet in this case, the publisher already preempts EUR 33-35 million per year. The actual costs plausibly reach a total of EUR 200-300 million.

An alternative exists.

Elsewhere in Europe…

An important international movement has emerged and developed promoting and defending a free and open access to scientific publications. The overall goal is to make this content accessible and reusable to anyone.

As a matter of fact, researchers have no interest whatsoever in maintaining the current system. Copyright in scholarly publication does not requite authors and thus constitutes a fiction whose main goal is to perpetrate the publisher’s rights. Not only does this enclosure limit access to scientific publications — it also prevents the researcher from reusing their own work, as they oftenconcede their copyright when opting in to publication agreements.

The main barrier to opening up access to publications appears to stem from the government. No action is taken for research to be released from the grip of oligopolistic publishers. Assessment of publicly funded research focuses on journals referred to as “qualifying” (that is, journals mainly published by big editors). Some university departments even consider that open access publications are, by default, “not scientific”.

Several European Countries lead the way:

  • Germany has passed a law limiting the publishers’ exclusive rights to one year. Once the embargo has expired, the researcher is free to republish his work and allow open access to it. More details here.
  • Negotiations have been halted in Elsevier’s base, the Netherlands. Even though Elsevier pays most of its taxes there, the Dutch governement fully supports the demands of researchers and librarians, aiming to open up the whole corpus of Dutch scientific publications by 2020. More details here.

The most chilling potential effect of the Elsevier deal is removing, for five years, any possible collective incentive to an ambitious French open access policy. French citizens will continue to pay twice for research they cannot read. And the government will sustain a closed and archaic editorial system whose defining feature is to single-handedly limit the right to read.