Shortly before Christmas, the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU) announced that it had “reached an agreement in principle” with Elsevier “that marks a milestone in the Netherlands’ transition to Open Access scholarly publishing and provides Dutch researchers with continued subscription access to high-quality research.” The agreement ended a standoff between Elsevier and Dutch academics and politicians, who threatened a mass boycott of subscriptions to Elsevier publications unless their content moved towards open access.
The VSNU pushed Elsevier to reform its subscription agreements from late 2014, as Dutch universities negotiated renewal of their collective subscription package with the leading scientific and academic publisher. According to the Times Higher Education Supplement, at one point Elsevier sought a major fee increase from the universities – while academic publishing peers Springer and Wiley accepted the Dutch terms.
The new agreement, according to Prof. Gerard Meijer, VSNU chief negotiator and Chairman of Radboud University Nijmegen, “gives academics at Dutch universities subscription access to Elsevier journals and allows them to publish Open Access in a selection of these journals. The Dutch universities aim to make 30% of their researchers’ publications Open Access by 2018 this the agreement makes it possible to get there.” VSNU also stated that “the agreement is in line with the objective of Sander Dekker, State Secretary at the Ministry for Education, Culture and Science of the Netherlands, to transition Dutch scientific output towards an Open Access publishing model.” Dekker had previously pressed for 100 percent of Dutch research articles to be open access by 2024.
Jason Schmitt has broken down the backstory to this whole debate in a very long and detailed article on Medium.com, which contains such interesting nuggets as the fact that “according to its 2013 financials Elsevier had a higher percentage of profit than Apple,” with a quoted figure of around 35 percent. All of it, of course, ultimately funded by taxpayers, via the universities and researchers who pay for subscriptions – and in some cases, even for publication. And Schmitt further points out, using Springer as an example, that academic publishers are prize assets for private equity buyout firms, who swap these around in bids to squeeze as much profit out of each while they own them. Hardly the kind of owners likely to promote open access for the public good.
So does the Dutch agreement mark a forward or backwards step in the push for open access? Perhaps it doesn’t deliver on irrational and vindictive hopes – held by Yours Truly among others – that Elsevier’s pernicious and abusive business model will finally get the public drubbing it deserves. But it does perhaps go a fair way towards delivering its stated objectives, while giving at least some concession to Elsevier’s interests – deserved or not.