Is the German DEAL negotiation with Elsevier good news or bad news?

If you follow these things, you'll know that negotiators from Germany have reached an impasse with Elsevier. That is because instead of accepting that any new deal should be a small modification of whatever they had already, they have decided to go all out for significant change.

Instead of buying subscriptions to specific journals, consortium members want to pay publishers an annual lump sum that covers publication costs of all papers whose first authors are at German institutions. Those papers would be freely available around the world; meanwhile, German institutions would receive access to all the publishers' online content.

Removing paywalls from a lot of papers has to be good news doesn't it? Well, perhaps, but in a subject like mathematics it doesn't make too much difference, since nearly all sensible mathematicians put their work on arXiv. So I want to know about the price that the Germans hope to pay. Here's what the article says about that.

The German delegation is guided by a simple formula: Take the number of papers with first authors at German institutes put out by a publisher and multiply that by a reasonable fee per paper. That's what Germany should pay the publisher—and the total is likely to be much lower than current spending on subscriptions.

So the idea is to pay a lot less and remove a lot of paywalls. That is certainly good news. But I still have two concerns. The first is this:

Now the parties need to agree on an acceptable fee per article. The lower bound is the average article processing fee charged by existing OA journals, somewhere around €1300. The German Research Foundation, the country's main science funding agency, has set an upper limit of €2000 per published article. "We won't be able to get to [€1300], but we need to start on a path of lower prices that gradually brings us closer,"

What I would prefer to see is a proper estimate of what it ought to cost to process a paper, and for that to be the basis of what is paid. This isn't a huge concern for me, since they estimate the cost for a subscription article is more like €4000-€5000, so this would still be a very large drop in what Elsevier receives, and getting from the current system to an ideal system in one go is an unrealistic aim.

My main concern is the idea of paying an annual lump sum to a publisher that then makes it free for academics in your country to publish with them. To see what's wrong with that, imagine that a new super-efficient publisher comes along that can process articles for €500. Universities will be unwilling to pay this when their academics can publish with Elsevier for no charge. (Of course, there is a charge, but it has been paid as a tiny part of a huge lump sum.) So a big deal like this has the effect of perpetuating the current dominance of the big commercial publishers.

This second concern is not a concern if the proposed deal really does multiply the number of papers by a charge per paper, rather than, say, estimating the number of papers that will be published and paying a lump sum based on that estimate. In other words, I see the following two features of a deal as critically important, to avoid serious market distortion. The second implies the first.

(i) The marginal cost to the German academic community of each paper published by a German researcher should be roughly equal to the average cost. (In particular, it definitely shouldn't be zero.)

(ii) The marginal cost to each individual institution of a paper published by a researcher in that institution should be roughly equal to the average cost per paper of the whole deal.

The importance of the second principle is that if the cost of each paper is spread out over all the institutions, then that again removes any disincentive for individual institutions to publish with Elsevier. Of course, the principle can easily be satisfied: just make sure that individual institutions contribute to the big deal in proportion to how much they publish with Elsevier.

I've slightly oversimplified here, because of the additional demand that Germans should all have access to Elsevier papers, which may be used in different amounts by different institutions. But it is still very important for institutions not to be shielded from the cost of the deal.
Günter Ziegler (Free University of Berlin) on negotiating with Elsevier:

It's like you're at a car dealer trying to buy a car, but the salesperson keeps trying to sell you a carriage....You tell him "I don't want a carriage, I want a car." And he says: "Well if you buy this carriage, we'll give you this horse for free."

#oa #openaccess #elsevier
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