Finland takes steps in the openness of academic journal pricing

(The title is a riff on my 2016 post announcing the efforts of Finnish open science activists to obtain pricing information through the courts.)

Edit 1: I gave a comment for a Times Higher Education article on Elsevier's negotiations.

Edit 2: on Feb 2, 2018, FinELib released more details, including the level of total price increases and the full text of the agreement (apart from some important financial details). While completely open agreements are possible and arguably should had been part of the negotiations from the start, I do concede that FinELib has made a significant effort to increase transparency – thank you.

Although I have not lived in Finland since 2013, I've kept in touch with the open science community there as well as with current open access discussions. On January 17, I got a rather unpleasant birthday present in the form of an announced three-year, 27 M€ deal between FinELib, a consortium of Finnish research institutions, and Elsevier, perhaps the most egregious of the big publishers. The deal was reached after two years of hard negotiations, supported by almost 3000 Finnish researchers who had committed in the #nodealnoreview boycott to refuse reviewing for Elsevier if the negotiations fail.

The glowing press release, seemingly written purely by Elsevier, compounded with an almost complete lack of details, left an immediate bad taste in my mouth. My opinion did not much improve through discussions in the Finnish Open Science Facebook group, and with journalist Richard Poynder whom I urged to try and get more details. He just published his Q&A with FinELib, which I warmly recommend you read. I have two principal concerns with the deal: the lack of transparency over the actual terms, and the hybrid OA discount option — especially as it was immediately implemented at the University of Helsinki.

Firstly, FinELib told me on Twitter that the deal does not include an NDA, and they have publicly committed to LIBER's principles of transparency. Regardless of this, and despite calls from people who had joined the boycott (I find this tweet by Panu Halme particularly poignant: "[...] For example I gave up an editor position to help you and now I have no idea was it worth anything"), they have not released any detail. Both in Richard's Q&A and on Twitter, they ignore explicit questions by reiterating the same basic facts. This is obfuscation, pure and simple, and particularly hypocritical in light of their stated commitment.

That brings us to the second problem: the hybrid OA discount. As part of the negotiations, Elsevier agreed to provide a 50% discount on ACPs for participating institutions to many Elsevier titles (though not all, and apparently not including flagships such as Cell), mainly for hybrid OA. Immediately after this, the largest Finnish institution, the University of Helsinki, announced a policy that they would cover the remaining 50% of the fees, effectively making publishing hybrid OA with Elsevier "free" for its researchers.

It is really hard to see a scenario where the University of Helsinki ends up paying less to Elsevier, which would be the whole point of an offsetting agreement. Further, this is exactly the opposite to what would be needed to introduce real price sensitivity to the market, and against the stated position of both the Academy of Finland AND the University of Helsinki itself! The latter contradiction is particularly glaring in their library's Finnish-language blog post defending the policy while reiterating that they do not support hybrid. They also claim that paying the fees centrally was the only way to gather data on uptake for future negotiations, but obviously they could had simply asked Elsevier to provide this for all affiliated authors as part of the deal.

Some of the people behind the boycott have been more positive about the deal than me, and I appreciate their position. However, as I have no real ties to Finland I can perhaps be a bit less politic about this and emphatically state: unless FinELib releases the full details of the deal voluntarily, they have truly let down the Finnish research community.