Faustus pact with Lucifer or… How Open Science becomes sustaining Elsevier data infrastructure in exchange for open access papers


“On these conditions following:
First, that Faustus may be a spirit in form and substance.
Secondly, that Mephistophilis shall be his servant and at his command.
Thirdly, that Mephistophilis shall do for him, and bring him whatsoever.
Fourthly, that he shall be in his chamber or house invisible.
Lastly, that he shall appear to the said John Faustus at all times,
in what form or shape soever he please.

I, John Faustus of Wittenberg, Doctor, by these presents do give both body and soul to Lucifer, Prince of the East, and his minister Mephistophilis, and furthermore grant unto them, that twenty-four years being expired the articles above written inviolate, full power to fetch or carry the said John Faustus body and soul, flesh, blood, or goods,
into their habitation, wheresoever. By me, John Faustus.

Faustus
CCBY Bart Everson

The legend of Faust has known many versions, but that of Christopher Marlowe, highlighted above, is no exception to the common rule: it is the absolute thirst for knowledge that drives the scientist to conclude this pact, while the evil or deceptive nature of Lucifer does not play a major part in its making1. So to call this reference to the signing of an agreement between scholarly institutions, by definition producers of knowledge, and a publishing house, however powerful it may be, normally only responsible for disseminating it, may seem counter-intuitive. Yet, as we shall see, it is the one that is required, as the relationship between the two parties may be potentially inverted. With this new agreement, Elsevier will try to become the knowledge-producing entity, the one that will give these institutions and their authors what information they think they absolutely need.

From subscription to a Read & Publish pilot
to a full Publish & Read agreement

The relationship between the Dutch universities, represented here by SURFmarket B.V., and the publisher Elsevier is very old and has mainly consisted of the supply of journals in the form of paper subscriptions, then by electronic access from the end of the 20th century until 2015. In March 2016, if a new contract is signed, it contains not only subscription services but also provisions for the open access publication of a limited number of articles, originally 3600 over 3 years. This agreement was not necessarily as successful as expected, as for example 1300 articles were not “consumed” at the end of this first agreement. Nevertheless, from amendment to amendment – 7 in total, the contract was extended in terms of the journals concerned (Cell Press) and temporally until 20 April 2020.

In contemporary classifications, this agreement could therefore be considered as a Read & Publish, with a subscription fee, open access publications being produced without additional payment. The first parts of the new contract show a reversal of this logic by displaying a unified cost for all the services provided by Elsevier: reading is no longer separated from the publication in the pricing, even though the provisions of the former are much more complex and pages long than those of the latter

Indeed, as is often the case in subscription contracts, numerous provisions govern the rights to access and read content, but also the duties of the publisher in terms of document supply and the scope of services. But, as we saw in the case of the Springer/DEAL agreement, the provisions of publication services can be relatively complex. This is not the case here: no financial exchange linked to each publication, no limit on the number of articles, no separation between publication in hybrid and full open access journals, so only two pages define the conditions of publication. Beyond the description of the workflow, one article should be highlighted:

Both parties are committed to reach 100% Open Access during the term of this Agreement, In line with this joint ambition, Elsevier offers Corresponding Authors the possibility to publish Gold Open Access in the widest possible range of Elsevier journals under the Terms of this Schedule 4. As per the effective date of this Agreement 95% of the journal articles by the Corresponding Authors are eligible to be published Open Access. For the remainder of the journal articles, Elsevier will continue to strive for sustainable immediate open access options across its journal portfolio to support the 100% Open Access goal.

As in a large number of technologies, lack of success is not necessarily an obstacle. Whereas in spite of more than four years of possible publication under the previous agreement, only a fraction of Dutch authors had chosen this route, Dutch universities this time aim for 100% open access, and Elsevier promises them that almost all the journals it distributes will meet this end. While at the same time, authorizing authors to not chose Open Access (p. 45), pushing further away this objective of 100% OA for corresponding authors papers.

The whole scheme is close to the one signed by Elsevier and Bibsam, the Swedish consortia, after they spent almost 2 years with no deal. But the Swedes claimed they are actually paying less than before in total costs in a recently published article2 while signing an agreement where Swedish authors are almost mandated to go for an OA publication.

More services means more costs

On this OA publication part, the Dutch contract is therefore not just a continuation of the previous one since new journals are involved and technical provisions are made to publish “by default” in open access in CC-BY. Moreover, the volume of publishable articles – even if it was previously never fully consumed – is now unlimited. This expansion of the service is accompanied by a sharp increase in costs. If we take the amounts listed in the various amendments to the 2016-2020 contract and report the new amounts, we obtain the following graph, quite different from the Swedish one3 :

Over a “long period” (9 years), we therefore observe a 40% increase in costs, meaning an inflation of more than 4,3% every year. Far from the assertion of “cost neutrality” as in the OA2020 text of 2015 and the initial hypotheses of the Coalition S, the simply potential transformation of all Dutch publications into open access articles is therefore extremely costly in this case and renews the observations of serial crisis already made by SPARC 25 years ago. If the amount paid is constant between 2021 and 2024, there is no guarantee that it will not sharply rise again after the end of the current contract. Financial information was not surprisingly completly absent of the press release, Dutch institutions touting the new agreement objectives as if they were already realised:

NWO President Stan Gielen said: “Enabling Open Access to research results has been a core mission for NWO since 2003. This agreement is a giant step in our collective ambition to provide 100 percent Open Access for all publicly funded research in the Netherlands.”
NFU / CEO of Amsterdam UMC Hans Romijn, said: “This is definitely a game changing agreement in open access publishing in medicine from both national and international perspectives, considering the large impact and the volume of Elsevier journals. This will certainly contribute considerably to the advancement of research, and, most importantly, better treatments for our patients.”

The same assertions have been made over the last 10 years about the agreements signed by different consortia, highlighting the open access part of such deals. They are however very different from the “revolutionary idea” proposed by Elsevier in Automn 2019 about data. In fact, it was so revolutionary that it leaked out :

As Sarah de Rijcke, a distinguished science and technology studies scholar, underlines it, Elsevier then tried to directly exchange open publications for data, continuing Big Publishers strategy in investing scholarly infrastructures in order to maintain their profits while adopting open access for publications4. That led to a public discussion of ongoing negociations and a VSNU communication that denied “selling” metadata and research data to Elsevier. In December 2019, a press release reaffirmed that data remained the propriety of universities and that some principles were taken to avoid vendor lock-in. Let us now see how it has been dealt in the final agreement.

Elsevier as a data company
and how you will be willing to pay for it

Apart from the introduction pages, one has to reach page 102 to deal with data and “Open Science Services for Research Intelligence and Scholarly communication” that are part of the agreement. The first and second page of this section describe the collaborative principles that were quoted in the December 2019 press release, which look very consensual.

  1. interoperability and vendor neutrality
  2. transparency, inclusion and collaboration
  3. access to research data and metadata
  4. data portability

If we add to this the common governance structure specified in the last pages and the fact that each party retains its data at the end of the agreement, this part of the agreement can be considered as a true joint collaboration. Nevertheless, Mephistopheles drapes itself in detail, and a full reading of the articles on page 104 underlines how Elsevier now considers itself a data company. Firstly, by default, everything belongs to Elseiver, except what is directly “provided” by the institutions. Secondly, under no circumstances can intellectual property resulting from the development of services be shared. Thirdly, if a common intellectual property were to be created, a new agreement would be needed in which Elsevier would have ownership and the institutions a free but non-exclusive right of use. Fourthly, all existing openly licensed data provided by the institutions are directly reusable by Elsevier. Fifthly, even in the absence of such data, Elsevier may develop equivalent or similar services with other partners. Finally, sixthly, if sensitive data or data belonging to third parties were to be at included in the services, the responsibility would of course only be that of the signatory institutions.

The contrast is therefore striking: on the one hand, Elsevier is (finally) ready to release the publications of all its journals under Publish & Read agreements in return for a fee; on the other hand, the publisher locks all the data and does not wish to share them under any circumstances, thus underlining how much they are now considered to be the real valuable object of the academic world5.

But what pilot services are implemented in the agreement? For the time being, and contrary to the subscription and open access publication services, none are specified. These are simply examples that are given in a table on page 103, reproduced in the FAQ and below:

USE CASE DESCRIPTION
Aggregation and deduplication service based on CRIS systems Improves findability and visibility of NL research outputs by aggregating and deduplicating separate CRIS systems into a Pure Community module available to all institutions which can serve as a building block to a NL open knowledge base.
2. NL Research data Link research data from member institutes affiliated researchers in subject or domain specific repositories into Dutch knowledge base
3. Funding information Link NL research outputs to grants and funders (EC, ERC, NWO, RVO, ZonMw), to allow for improved tracking / assessment of impact of funded research.
4. Health Data Management Link NL health ‘data silos’ in a secure HDM platform
5. OA compliance as a service A proposed service to better use knowledge base OA publication reminders, meet funder requirements, collect assets + reporting
6. Fair recognition and reward A proposed service to integrate a wider array of metrics and success stories for a better, wider recognition of academics. Inclusion of teaching, society outreach, management, etc.

This list contains extremely different objects: some of them look like pure IT services that could be provided by companies operating outside of the academic world, with the building of shared data infrastructures. Others are based on the crossing and enrichment of very specific data of the academic world, and therefore likely to feed even more the Elsevier databases, for example to build its own Open Science Monitor for diverse institutions. Finally, the last item on the list is quite staggering since it is no more or less the project of delegating to Elsevier a service for the individual evaluation of researchers, including of course open science dimensions.

Whether these pilots come true or not, this last part of the agreement underlines the extent to which it embodies a dystopian vision of Open Science, portrayed by Philip Mirowski as an extension of platform capitalism6. It strengthens Elsevier’s position as owner of scholarly infrastructure, provides the company with potential models for new services and organizes digital labor to enrich the data it already owns. All that while continuing to pay huge sums for access to its publications and in exchange of the “liberation” of some thousands open access articles which will of course drive web traffic to its servers. Maybe the new services will never see the light of day and this agreement will just be another Publish & Read. But if not, Faustus will have not only increased its dependence on the publisher, but will have empower it to the point it becomes the real information provider in their relationship, as publications would be reduced to “raw data”.


  1. this post was cowritten by Quentin Dufour []
  2. Olsson, L., Lindelöw, C. H., Österlund, L., & Jakobsson, F. (2020). Cancelling with the world’s largest scholarly publisher: lessons from the Swedish experience of having no access to Elsevier. Insights, 33(1), 13. DOI: http://doi.org/10.1629/uksg.507 []
  3. EDIT: part of the rise could also be attributed to the inclusion of new Dutch institutions in the agreement []
  4. see this wondeful conference paper Posada, Alejandro, and George Chen. “Inequality in knowledge production: The integration of academic infrastructure by big publishers.” 2018 []
  5. On a side note: It remains unclear whether article metadata will be released on a CC0 license in Crossref, continuing or not the anti-open citations Elsevierpolicy []
  6. Mirowski, Philip. “The future (s) of open science.Social studies of science 48.2 (2018): 171-203. []