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South Korean universities reach agreement with Elsevier after long standoff

Sogang University joined hundreds of other schools refusing to renew database access contracts with Elsevier.

Portland Seminary

By Dennis Normile

After a months-long standoff, a consortium of hundreds of South Korean universities has reached a new deal with scientific publisher Elsevier for access to ScienceDirect, a database containing content from 3,500 academic journals and thousands of electronic books. The agreement, which includes price hikes between 3.5% and 3.9%, was concluded shortly before 12 January, the day Elsevier had threatened to cut access to ScienceDirect. The publisher had pushed for a 4.5% increase.

The universities believe Elsevier, headquartered in Amsterdam, is abusing its market leverage and balked at the compulsory inclusion of many little-read journals in ScienceDirect’s package deal. And they will be seeking more concessions in future negotiations. “We want Elsevier to abolish the minimum flat rate system, in which our universities have to pay for digital content that nobody reads,” says Lee Chang Won, secretary general of the Korea University & College Library Association, which together with the Korean Council for University Education (KCUE) leads the consortium. 

Elsevier has typically renewed its contracts with individual South Korean universities in December. In previous years “we accepted whatever [rate increase] request Elsevier made,” says Hwang In Sung, research analysis team director at KCUE. But with library budgets being continually squeezed, “we can no longer afford [its] excessive demands,” says Hwang.

Last May, the association, the council and other groups formed a consortium to represent 300 university and college libraries in negotiations with 42 database providers. The group took a hard line on Elsevier’s proposed rate hike and also sought concessions on charges for open access publications and little-used journals included in the database. When talks hit an impasse at the end of the year, the group organized a boycott under which the schools refused to renew their contracts. Elsevier agreed to provide access while negotiations continued.

Individual universities will now have the option of a one-year renewal at an increase of 3.9% or a three-year contract with yearly increases of 3.5%, 3.6%, and 3.7% above the 2017 baseline, says Kim Eun Sung, a librarian at Sogang University in Seoul. Schools are expected to start concluding contracts with Elsevier this week; the publisher has agreed to continue to provide access to ScienceDirect until documents are signed.

“We want Elsevier to abolish the minimum flat rate system, in which our universities have to pay for digital content that nobody reads.”

Lee Chang Won, Korea University & College Library Association

The two sides will continue talks about pricing and other details for 2019 contracts; Sogang’s Kim says further concessions the company makes might also be extended to institutes that now opt for a multi-year deal. “We know our negotiated [increase] of 3.5% to 3.9% with Elsevier is above the international level of 2%,” Hwang says.

Sogang University has already decided to renew. “Even though we are not entirely happy with the proposed rate increase, we must still consider the importance of ScienceDirect journals for our professors’ research,” she says.

Singapore-based Elsevier spokesperson Jason Chan confirms that the publisher reached an agreement with the Korean consortium for access to ScienceDirect through 2020 and has agreed to continue to discuss future access options. He declined to provide further details.

For most university librarians, ScienceDirect represents the highest annual bill, says Lee. The library association reports that 123 members who responded to a survey in total spend about $140 million each year on digital database subscriptions, of which $33 million goes to Elsevier for ScienceDirect.

In a similar dispute with a German academic consortium early last year, Elsevier temporarily cut off electronic access to their journals at more than 60 institutions that had let their subscriptions expire at the end of 2016, but restored it a few weeks later. Negotiations with the German consortium are still ongoing. In the meantime, more than 200 German institutions have let their contracts with Elsevier expire, but the company is still allowing uninterrupted access while talks continue.

The Korean consortium is still holding off on renewing agreements with two Korean database providers that are also seeking rate increases.

With reporting by Ahn Mi-Young in Seoul and Gretchen Vogel in Berlin. 

Source: Science Mag