As pandemic-weary U.S. colleges face strained library budgets, many seek creative ways to lower costs and preserve access to scholarly content. That shared goal brought 44 colleges in Texas together to negotiate a deal with Elsevier, the behemoth publisher of over 2,500 scientific journals, including The Lancet and Cell.
The consortium—known as the Texas Library Coalition for United Action—announced last month that it had reached a deal with Elsevier that is expected to improve access to scholarship, afford researchers greater control over their work and save the member institutions millions. Some laud the agreement as historic. Others say it falls short of long-sought-after goals. If nothing else, the deal offers one example of how a collection of colleges is moving forward in a tense academic publishing ecosystem.
“If you want open access to become the universal model of access to scholarship, then [this deal] … is going to feel like a real setback,” Rick Anderson, university librarian at Brigham Young University, said, referring to the set of principles and practices in which research articles are available online free, without barriers. “But if you’re OK with the subscription model in principle and just want to see it work better for all parties, then this deal provides what may be a very useful template.”
The Elsevier–Texas coalition agreement is based on a subscription model, which means that the colleges will pay the publisher a recurring fee to access journal articles. Also, anyone who is interested in reading the work of researchers affiliated with institutions in the consortium must either pay for access or gain access through an institution that has paid for access.
Colleges in the Texas consortium will receive up to 30 percent discounts on Elsevier journal subscriptions while maintaining broad journal access, which represents a combined savings of over $4.75 million annually, according to the press release.
“It is historic,” said Elaine L. Westbrooks, Carl A. Kroch University Librarian at Cornell University, adding that no deal is perfect but this one affirms transparency and the importance of copyright. “To get 44 places to agree on a set of principles, priorities and values is miraculous … It’s also noteworthy that it’s Elsevier. Elsevier is a tough negotiator, and they were able to reach an agreement.”
Lower Costs, More (Though Not Open) Access
In the agreement, Elsevier said it will cap annual increases at 2 percent, which is lower than the industry standard—“startlingly low,” Anderson said. That near-term cost certainty will allow member institutions to budget responsibly, according to Charles Weaver, associate dean for sciences 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 project in which article copyrights revert to authors “after a period of time that will be collaboratively determined” by consortium members and Elsevier, according to the news release. In addition, authors affiliated with the consortium who publish open access will pay discounted author publication charges.
“Cost savings and access were my priority,” said Kelly R. Gonzalez, assistant vice president for library services at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, who served on the negotiating team and whose institution is part of the coalition. “Everything else—author publication charges, nondisclosure agreements and the copyright workshop—was icing on the cake.”
But some, including some consortium members, see some shortcomings.
“Our institution would have liked to see more increased focus on open-access publishing,” said Catherine Rudowsky, dean of university libraries at Texas A&M University at Corpus Christi, who served on the steering committee and whose institution is a coalition member. “We appreciated the reduced author publication charges, but at the end of the day, we are still paying Elsevier to read and to publish. We will not solve the world’s biggest problems by limiting access to research and by controlling information.”
Still, Rudowsky acknowledged a need to “strike [a] balance between open access and a sustainable business model for publishers.”
Strength in Diversity
The coalition, which includes large, small, public, private, research-oriented and teaching-oriented colleges, began the process by identifying a shared set of values, according to Jeffrey Spies, the coalition’s lead negotiator, from 221B Consulting.
“A lot of times, we think, ‘We must be unique. We have different challenges than others,’” Spies said, speculating that the coalition was crucial to gaining leverage. “Our members were surprised to find how quickly we knocked out our common values and priorities in a negotiation.” Those common values included improved access to scholarship, greater control over faculty content and sustainable pricing models.
During the negotiation, Elsevier compiled a shared list of titles that accounted for 80 percent of usage across participating institutions. But the list was skewed in favor of large institutions and disciplines, Rudowsky said.
“As a midsize regional university along the coast, our marine and coastal studies programs are critical and account for a good bit of our research,” Rudowsky said. “However, marine and coastal studies journals were not represented in that 80 percent overall usage.”
The coalition, seeking equity across member institutions, negotiated journal swaps that would accommodate niche programs or needs.
“Our large schools benefited by having the small schools in the coalition,” Spies said, referring to the journal swaps. “We got swaps not only for [smaller institutions] but for everybody.”
Because institutions tailored the agreement to suit 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 2021 deal between the University of California system and Elsevier, open-access publication became the default for all UC authors. The university must still pay thousands of dollars for every article its authors publish open access, though the fees are discounted by 15 percent from the list price, except for publications in The Lancet or Cell Press, which are discounted by 10 percent.
Some hailed that agreement as successful in achieving a long-sought “fundamental goal” of open access. Others, such as Chris Bourg, director of MIT Libraries, who spoke to Inside Higher Ed at the time, worried that pay-to-publish systems foster a culture in which “scholars from less privileged institutions or less-well-funded institutions [would] be left out, and where academic voices that have too long been silenced will remain marginalized and under-represented in the scholarly conversation.”
Open access again made news last summer when the White House released guidance mandating free, immediate access to research produced with federal grants, beginning in 2026. The mandate upended a 2013 compromise that allowed a 12-month embargo on article sharing that has been key in sustaining publishers’ subscription-based business models.
“What’s happening in the States is the tail end of what’s already swept through Europe,” said Mark McBride, associate director for libraries and scholarly communications at Ithaka S+R, a nonprofit focused on improving access to knowledge and education. McBride speculated that the nature of transformative agreements in the United States may ultimately differ from those in Europe, where national consortia of colleges have negotiated contracts with publishers. The United States is too big and lacks a logical central negotiating body for such agreements, leaving that landscape to university systems and consortia within states.
“It is interesting, and not all that surprising, to see a new negotiation vehicle forming,” McBride said of the Texas-Elsevier deal. “That might be the most interesting piece, and we’re likely going to see more and more and more of this in the future.”
But achieving the goal of providing broad access to recent scientific developments advancing environmental justice, cancer research, clean energy technologies and more requires more than goodwill or wishful thinking.
Since the White House’s 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 such as the one between the Texas Library Coalition for United Action and Elsevier will be scrutinized. Many are eager to see examples of how opposing sides may innovate—or stall—on goals the two sides hold dear. Indeed, news of the agreement was welcomed but also elicited questions.
“The devil’s in the details,” Westbrooks said of the Texas-Elsevier agreement. “How long is this pilot going to last? How long will it take before the author gets the rights to the article back? How much is the total cost of the deal? Is this a three-year deal or a five-year deal?”
No End in Sight for Ongoing Tension
Academe is eager to make progress on open (or at least enhanced) access to scholarly materials. But publishers remain interested in preserving their profits.
“Costs have gone up, even when things moved to digital and PDF, when they should have dropped,” Spies said.
That both sides appear to need each other presents challenges.
“Publishers have made a considerable amount of money out of the published word of many of our faculty researchers,” McBride said. “But on the other side, the library community needs to reconcile the fact that publishers charge this level of funding for the published word because it costs a lot of money to publish quality journals. It just does.”
Historic or not, the Texas coalition’s agreement with Elsevier offers an example of one effort to address ongoing tension.
“The historical piece will be when the library community and the publishing community can see each other as partners again in the scholarly communication ecosystem,” McBride said.