As pandemic-stricken US colleges face strained library budgets, many are looking for creative ways to cut costs and maintain access to scholarly content. This shared goal brought 44 Texas colleges together to broker a deal with Elsevier, the giant publisher of over 2,500 scholarly journals, including The lancet and cell.
The consortium – known as the Texas Library Coalition for United Action – announced last month that it had reached an agreement with Elsevier that aims to improve access to grants, give researchers more control over their work and save member institutions millions. Some are hailing the deal as historic. Others say that it falls short of long-awaited goals. Last but not least, the deal offers an example of a cluster of colleges moving forward in a strained academic publishing ecosystem.
“If you want open access to become the universal model for access to science, then then [this deal] …will feel like a real setback,” said Rick Anderson, associate librarian at Brigham Young University, referring to the principles and practices that make research articles freely available online without barriers. “But if you basically agree with the subscription model and just want to see it work better for all parties, then this deal offers a potentially very useful template.”
The Elsevier-Texas coalition agreement is based on a subscription model, meaning colleges pay the publisher a recurring fee for access to journal articles. Also, anyone interested in reading the work of researchers affiliated with institutions in the consortium must either pay for access or obtain access through an institution that paid for access.
Colleges in the Texas consortium will receive up to 30 percent off Elsevier journal subscriptions while maintaining broad access to journals, representing a combined annual savings of over $4.75 million, according to the press release.
“It’s historic,” said Elaine L. Westbrooks, Carl A. Kroch University librarian at Cornell University, adding that no deal is perfect, but this one reaffirms transparency and the importance of copyright law. “Getting 44 places to agree on a set of principles, priorities and values is a marvel… It’s also remarkable that it’s Elsevier. Elsevier is a tough negotiator and they were able to reach an agreement.”
Lower cost, more (though not open) access
In the agreement, Elsevier said it will cap annual increases to 2 percent, which is below the industry standard — “appallingly low,” Anderson said. This near-term cost certainty will allow member institutions to budget responsibly, according to Charles Weaver, associate dean of science and professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University, who served on the consortium’s negotiating team. Baylor is a consortium member.
The deal also includes a pilot in which copyrights to articles revert to authors “after a period of time to be determined jointly by the members of the consortium and Elsevier,” the press release said. In addition, authors who are members of the consortium and who publish open access pay reduced author publication fees.
“Cost savings and access have been my priority,” said Kelly R. Gonzalez, associate vice president for library services at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, who was a member of the negotiating team and whose institution is part of the coalition. “Everything else – author publishing fees, non-disclosure agreements and the copyright workshop – was icing on the cake.”
But some, including some consortium members, see some shortcomings.
“Our institution would have liked a greater focus on open access publishing,” said Catherine Rudowsky, dean of university libraries at Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi, who served on the steering committee and whose institution is a member of the coalition. “We appreciate the reduced publishing fees for authors, but at the end of the day we’re still paying Elsevier to read and publish. We will not solve the world’s biggest problems by restricting access to research and controlling information.”
Nonetheless, Rudowsky recognized the need to “strike [a] Balance between Open Access and a sustainable business model for publishers.”
Strength in diversity
According to Jeffrey Spies, chief negotiator for the 221B Consulting coalition, the coalition, which includes large, small, public, private, research-oriented, and teaching-oriented universities, began the process by identifying common values.
“Often we think, ‘We have to be unique. We have different challenges than others,” Spies said, speculating that the coalition was crucial to gaining influence. “Our members were surprised at how quickly we thwarted our shared values and priorities in a negotiation.” Those shared values included improved access to grants, greater control over faculty content, and sustainable pricing models.
During negotiations, Elsevier assembled a common list of titles that accounted for 80 percent of usage at participating institutions. But the list is skewed in favor of large institutions and disciplines, Rudowsky said.
“As a medium-sized regional university along the coast, our marine and coastal studies programs are vital and make up much of our research,” said Rudowsky. “However, marine and coastal studies journals were not represented in that 80 percent total usage.”
The coalition, seeking equity among member institutions, negotiated journal exchanges that would accommodate niche programs or needs.
“Our big schools benefited from the fact that the small schools were in the coalition,” Spies said, referring to the magazine exchange. “We don’t just have swaps for [smaller institutions] but for everyone.”
Because the institutions tailored the agreement to their needs, the final agreement consisted of 44 individual contracts – one for each member institution – rather than one for the consortium.
A publishing landscape changing in real time
In a high-profile deal between the University of California system and Elsevier in 2021, open-access publishing became the standard for all UC authors. The university still has to pay thousands of dollars for every article its authors publish open access, even though fees are discounted 15 percent off list price, except for publications in The lancet or cell presswhich are discounted by 10 percent.
Some hailed this agreement as successful in achieving a long-awaited “fundamental goal” of open access. Others, like Chris Bourg, Director of MIT Libraries, who spoke to him Within the Higher Ed concerned at the time that pay-to-publish systems encourage a culture in which “scientists work from less privileged institutions or less well-funded institutions [would] are left out, and where academic voices that have been silenced for too long remain marginalized and underrepresented in scholarly discourse.”
Open access made headlines again last summer when the White House released guidelines mandating free, immediate access to research produced with federal grants beginning in 2026. The mandate turned on its head a 2013 compromise that allowed a 12-month embargo on article sharing, which was crucial in supporting publishers’ subscription-based business models.
“What is happening in the States is the end of what has already swept through Europe,” said Mark McBride, associate director of libraries and scholarly communications at Ithaca S+R, a nonprofit organization focused on improving access to knowledge and education focused. McBride speculated that the nature of transformative deals in the United States may ultimately differ from those in Europe, where national consortia of universities have negotiated deals with publishers. The United States is too big and lacks a logical central negotiating body for such agreements, leaving that landscape to the university systems and consortia within the states.
“It’s interesting and not too surprising that a new bargaining tool is forming,” McBride said of the Texas-Elsevier deal. “This might be the most interesting piece and we’ll probably see more and more of it in the future.”
But reaching the goal of providing widespread access to cutting-edge scientific developments to advance environmental justice, cancer research, clean energy technologies and more takes more than goodwill or wishful thinking.
Because the White House open access plan for federally funded research did not specify who would pay for public access, future agreements between publishers and universities in Texas and beyond may need to consider federal policy.
As the academic publishing landscape changes in real-time, agreements like the one between the Texas Library Coalition for United Action and Elsevier come under scrutiny. Many are eager to see examples of how opposing sides can innovate or falter on goals both sides care about. In fact, news of the agreement was welcomed, but questions were also raised.
“The devil is in the details,” Westbrooks said of the Texas-Elsevier agreement. “How long will this pilot project last? How long does it take for the author to regain the rights to the article? What is the total cost of the deal? Is that a three-year deal or a five-year deal?”
No end to the ongoing tensions in sight
Academe strives to make advances in open (or at least improved) access to scholarly materials. But publishers remain keen on preserving their profits.
“Costs have gone up even as things went digital and PDF when they should have come down,” Spies said.
The fact that both sides seem to need each other presents us with challenges.
“Publishers have made a significant amount of money off the published word of many of our faculty researchers,” McBride said. “But on the other hand, the library community needs to reconcile the fact that publishers are charging this level of funding for the word published because it costs a lot of money to publish quality journals. It just does.”
Historic or not, the Texas coalition’s agreement with Elsevier is an example of an attempt to address ongoing tensions.
“The historic piece will be when the library community and the publishing community can once again see each other as partners in the scholarly communication ecosystem,” said McBride.