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Dutch universities agree ‘new way of working’ with Elsevier

Image: EM Karuna, via Shutterstock

Analytics and publishing services deal hailed a ‘breakthrough’ by negotiators, but some commentators ‘apprehensive’

Dutch research organisations have provisionally concluded what they say is “a completely new kind of agreement” with the academic publisher and data analytics company Elsevier, while seeking to address “concern in the community” over the deal.

Under the agreement, which focuses on making research more open, researchers in the Netherlands would be able to publish an unlimited number of papers with open access in Elsevier’s journals, and would be able to read all of the publisher’s subscription content.

More radically, “a range of pilots will be undertaken to develop tools and services in support of (open) science and research intelligence”, according to a 19 December announcement from the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU).

There will be two types of these tools and services, the participating organisations explained in a fact sheet: an “open knowledge base service” and “services for research intelligence and workflow”. 

Pilot services will look at increasing the discoverability of research publications and data, fostering the sharing of data under open principles, providing insights into research performance and impact, and supporting new ways of recognising and rewarding researchers who help to make Dutch research more open.

The services will break “new ground for all partners involved”, the organisations said, adding that more time is needed to work out the details.

“This is the beginning of a new way of working for science,” said VSNU’s chief-negotiator Tim van der Hagen. “We will be in the driving seat of what’s important for science in the future and the applicable rules of engagement and services needed in this context.”

Recognising that rumours about the deal reported prior to the announcement had caused some concern among the research community, the organisations stressed that they had agreed an initial set of principles to address these fears.

The principles are: interoperability, with researchers and institutions being free to use their own tools; future proofing, enabling flexibility for different setups and agreements; vendor neutrality; and researcher and institutional ownership of their research data.

But some commentators remain concerned. Bianca Kramer, a scholarly communication specialist at Utrecht Library, said on Twitter that she was “apprehensive” about the deal. She said that the terms for services agreements should be set before deals are negotiated, not during the negotiations, suggesting “Elsevier is already the winner here.”

Participating organisations said they think the agreement is in accordance with the open-access initiative Plan S, in which funders will require the researchers they support to make their work openly available immediately in approved outlets from 2021. The Dutch Research Council (NWO) is participating in the agreement and is signed up to Plan S.

NWO said the agreement is compatible with Plan S in that it would move subscription money to open access, make significant progress towards 100 per cent open access, allow authors to retain copyright, offer a CC-BY licence and be transparent because the contract would be published.

Robert-Jan Smits, the former European Commission chief R&D official who was the lead designer of Plan S and is now president of Eindhoven University of Technology—a Dutch university that will be included in the scope of the deal—hailed the agreement.

“It’s great to see that this innovative open-science deal is fully in line with the principles of Plan S and that as such the Dutch are continuing their role as open-access champions,” he told Research Professional News.

“My fear has always been that as regards our scientific data, we would repeat the mistake that we made for our scientific publications: allowing the big commercial publishers to get hold of them and lock them behind expensive paywalls. The deal which the Dutch have now signed prevents this from happening.”

A working group will finalise the deal during the first quarter of 2020, including defining the rules and governance structure for the analytics services. Under the provisional agreement, researchers will be able to publish in and read Elsevier journals from 1 January to 1 May 2020, and pilot analytics services will be provided “under embargo” during this time.

The terms of the final agreement will be published on a public registry that helps open-access customers compare publishing prices. The value of the deal has not yet been revealed.

Talks could still collapse, the parties warned, but said they are “working in good faith” and have “confidence” they will find agreement. All institutional members of the VSNU and the NFU Netherlands Federation of University Medical Centres will be included in the deal.

A version of this article also appeared in Research Europe