Academic journals have long worked on the “subscription model”, where print subscribers pay to read articles that, for the most part, authors submit for free.  With the advent of digital content, the same model has been used – subscribers pay and author provide content for free.  There is a shift to “open access”, which typically means that the authors pay upon submission, and readers view for free.  Among the first quality journals adopting this model is PLOS One.  Other quality journals are moving in this direction, and we are currently in a mixed model paradigm shift, where authors can pay for non-subscribing readers to have free access (“Open Access”).  This is not to be confused with “predatory journals” – technically open access journals – but ones that are of low quality.

Universities, through a special application of the subscriber model, pay a subscription fee to allow their faculty and staff to have access to many journals, including those from Elsevier, Wiley, etc.  Academic researchers find this tool of high value. For decades, there has been a symbiotic relationship.  UC’s researchers contribute quality research for free to quality journals, which in turn publish the “peer-reviewed” paper, key to academic prestige.  UC has paid for subscriptions. However, in the paradigm shift, academic authors are starting to have to pay fees – and thus universities are caught in a financial bind.  There’s no increase in income for the Universities – yet universities are paying for both subscriptions and author fees for open access.  In particular, this has been an issue for the University of California and one of the largest publishers of medical literature, Elsevier. In short, Elsevier’s view of the fees to be paid by the University of California in this transition phase were greater than what UC thought they should pay.  This came to a head in January 2019, when it became public that the two were not able to come to a resolution (as discussed in a piece by University of California, Davis, University Librarian, MacKenzie Smith.

Throughout this period, University of California researchers still had access to Elsevier publications.  That changed in early July, with Elsevier announcing that they are now stopping that access.

The impact of this decision has yet to be felt or fully comprehended.

(Disclosure – I am an alumnus and professor of the University of California, serve on the UC Davis Library Leadership Board, and an author, reviewer and on the editorial board for Elsevier journals).