Obstacles to open access

Josephine Scholten, director of the VSNU, sees a few roadblocks remaining along the route to open access. She shares three examples: the ownership rights of a publications that are surrendered to the publisher by the researcher; the current system of rewards in which a journal’s prestige is leading; and the possibilities for open access that are (as yet) too little-known.

Ownership rights

Open access increases the accessibility of a publication. The current system for dealing with ownership of intellectual property is a major roadblock to accessibility, Scholten feels. ‘As it stands now, ownership rights to an article are often transferred to the publisher at the time of its publication. That means that reusing the findings for other purposes, such as in teaching, isn’t entirely free from complications. Now that the technology for further digitalisation is no longer an impediment to dissemination, however, this long-assumed transfer of ownership rights has become outdated. And so, now, new agreements must be made – especially for publications involving research that has been publicly funded. Luckily, this has been effectively taken care of in the open access big deals so far. We need to carry on in this same direction.’


System of rewards

A second important obstacle is that, currently, a researcher’s academic career remains strongly dependent on the impact of his or her publications. In which journal do you publish; how renowned is that journal; and how often does your work appear in its pages? As it stands, the answers to these questions are deciding factors in an academic career, even though they do not necessarily reflect the research’s merit. ‘What we should be working towards, of course, is prestigious journals becoming open access journals. But so far, leading journals with major impact have shown themselves unwilling to take that step without drastically increasing the costs of academic publication.’

In order to realise lasting change, therefore, it will also be necessary to adjust the very foundations of the ‘system of scientific rewards’. Scholten: ‘In order to do so, we truly needn’t discard the entire system in which one journal is considered more prestigious than another. In the end, it is about rewarding solid research and the accessibility of that work. This requires attention to the merit of a study, on the part of research institutions. How to effectively determine that merit is a key question. References and citations remain important, as is a high quality of the article itself. I believe in a cooperative model in this regard, in which publishers will be able to retain a role in publications and peer reviews. And in such a way that we are working together towards the greater good.’



Lastly, Scholten says, the obscurity surrounding the agreements on open access that have already been made with a number of leading academic publishers is also a factor in the world of academia. ‘Through the combination of reader rights and open access publishing, we are in effect purchasing prepaid open access from these publishers. A department’s postdoc isn’t the least bit aware of the financial arrangements regarding journals. Luckily, he or she is primarily focused on the research.’

That obscurity is exactly what we need to do something about, Scholten asserts. ‘Not everyone understands that, as a result of the collective deals, they can often publish their work open access without any additional cost to themselves. It’s our job to help them understand it, as often as necessary. But it’s also down to us to demonstrate that the benefits of collective open access publishing will transcend mere individual benefit.’


What now?

Moving forward together, keeping our gaze fixed on the future and cooperating to keep the greater goal alive: these are the things Scholtens feels will be important in the coming period. ‘So that more of the scientific knowledge achieved thanks to public funds will become available to that public. After all, that’s the reason we’re doing all this in the first place.’

Keeping up with friends abroad

People abroad are following the Dutch with interest, and publications regularly appear in the international media about ‘The Dutch approach’.

Dutch lead European push to flip journals to open access’, Nature headlined on 6 January 2016. The article attaches great importance to the ‘big deals’ that negotiators have made with publishers. According to Paul Ayris, head of library services at University College London, the results of these deals can even be considered ‘a great step forward to an OA world’.


Dutch universities dig in for long fight over open access’, according to an article by Times Higher Education (THE) of 8 January 2015. The article pays ample attention to the principled stance and steadfastness of the Dutch negotiators: ‘Gerard Meijer, president of Radboud University and one of the lead negotiators for the Dutch universities, said that in addition to preserving access to their subscription journals, the universities wanted publishers to permit all future articles whose corresponding author has a Dutch affiliation to be published on an open access basis for no extra charge. He said universities were also unwilling to tolerate any more above-inflation price rises.’


Ample sharing of knowledge

Meanwhile, we can report extensive cooperation among various European countries and that the Netherlands has been busy amply sharing its knowledge. The European University Association (EUA) has designated a working group to focus on open access; expertise is being actively exchanged within the group. The group is also conducting joint talks with representatives from publishers, in order to further explore underlying questions about the business model. Representatives from the Dutch negotiation team are also travelling about, giving presentations on the Dutch approach to these negotiations and what the Netherlands has learned from the process so far. Meanwhile, similar steps are being implemented in the UK and Finland. We eagerly await the outcomes of these efforts.

Insight into scope of the Dutch market

In light of confidentiality clauses included in the contracts, information on the content and scope of the agreements between the publishers and the Dutch universities has not been made public. In connection with the Government Information (Public Access) Act, a request to make this information available to the public was submitted to the universities in summer 2016. Following a careful procedure, the universities in the Netherlands (with the exception of the Open University) released figures on the scope of the market for academic publications. The data and an additional explanation are available via this link.

‘The Dutch Approach’

Despite its relatively small size, the Netherlands is one of the fastest growing open access countries in the world. What is the secret of ‘the Dutch approach’? We spotlight four enduring factors for success, along with a few challenges.

Unique bargaining model


‘The agreement is a great example of what can be achieved when all the universities work together and stand their ground.’


The above quote is from Gerard Meijer at Voxweb, shortly after the

announcement of the significant agreement with Elsevier. Meijer, Becking and Winter had the privilege of being chosen to negotiate with the publishers on behalf of all research universities and universities of applied sciences in the Netherlands, all university libraries, and the National Library of the Netherlands (KB). That is, on behalf of the Netherlands as a whole.

In other countries, we note that although collective negotiations are held through a consortium, they are usually run very differently. The United Kingdom and Finland, for instance, have also chosen for collective bargaining by a representative organisation established for this purpose. The Dutch bargaining model made it possible to create momentum. The importance of this is clearly in evidence in a study published by Shulenburger this summer as well. This considerably strengthened the power and position of the negotiators at the negotiating table.

Clear political support


‘My goal is to complete the full transition to Open Access Gold Road in ten years, i.e., by 2024. To achieve this, in five years at least 60 per cent of scientific journal publications should be available through Open Access.’

The above quote is from State Secretary Sander Dekker, in his letter to the Lower House of the Dutch Parliament on November 15, 2013. On March 23, 2015, the State Secretary also wrote a non-paper with his British counterpart Greg Clark to appeal to other European education ministers to also commit themselves to open access. Since that time, this base of political support has increased. The promotion of open access and open science has been added to the agendas of nearly all political parties in the Netherlands. This political support gives negotiators a helpful boost.

Political support is clearly visible in the European context as well, as illustrated by the joint statement released by European commissioner Moedas and State Secretary Sander Dekker. In the spring of 2016, open access was announced as a policy spearhead during the Dutch presidency of the EU. In the course of formal meetings with European ministers, but also during a special conference held on 4 and 5 April, open access has received a boost both nationally and internationally. At a European level, the Open Science Policy Platform (OSPP) was established in September 2016. Through this platform, countries are encouraged – at a European level – to take concrete action to further both open access and open science.

Fidelity to principles


“We are willing to pay publishers for the work they do, but Elsevier’s profit margin is approaching 40 percent, and universities have to do the (editing) work and pay for it. We aren’t going to accept it any longer.

I think from the fact that Elsevier is not willing to move much, they simply still don’t believe it. Well, they got us wrong.”


This quote from VSNU negotiator Gerard Meijer (President of the Executive Board of Radboud University) in an article by Times Higher Education (THE) illustrates the steadfastness of the Dutch efforts during the sometimes difficult negotiations with eight major scientific publishers. Or, as Times Higher Education put it: ‘Professor Meijer insisted that Dutch universities were determined not to bend’.


The principles of the Dutch negotiating team were as clear as glass from the outset, and these principles will not be compromised. For example, in the eyes of the Dutch Universities, the transition to open access should be budget neutral. ‘This means that we do not want to pay extra for open access publishing’, Robert van der Vooren, open access project learder at the VSNU, explains the Dutch standpoint. Time after time, these principles have been affirmed in meetings between the boards of Dutch universities, in which a mandate is defined for each deal.

A powerful delegation


Contrary to normal practice, the VSNU and UKB (a consortium of thirteen Dutch university libraries and the National Library of the Netherlands) took negotiations to the highest administrative level. Whereas normally, the

boards of the libraries are expected to meet with the publishers, this is now done by a number of Executive Board Presidents of universities, who negotiate through the VSNU, with the mandate of all universities and university libraries, and with the support of SURF. This means that there is attention for the subject at the highest administrative level from the outset. This strong foundation has made it possible to negotiate at a different strategic level.