Shocking: France spends money to access the research produced by its researchers

That is pretty much the title of an news article published today in L’OBS avec Rue 89

La France préfère payer (deux fois) pour les articles de ses chercheurs

Au lieu de donner à tous l’accès aux travaux de ses scientifiques – qu’elle a financés –, la France choisit de verser 172 millions d’euros à un éditeur néerlandais. Rue89 dévoile le texte de cet incroyable marché.

The article has a few flaws, but over all, it is good. It clearly points out the incredible margins of publishers and the absurdities of the system in a way not too dissimilar to my recent blog post “Where to publish our next paper? Letter to a group member“.

Now this article has a few flaws. In particular, it puts all the blame on the state and suggests that other countries, in particular the UK, are doing much better. That is far from being the case. In fact, in many countries, including the US and the UK, negotiations with publishers do not happen at a national level which gives more power to the publishers to secure advantageous deals (and there was no transparency until some data were released thanks to freedom of information requests). [Update 11/11/2004: one of the author commenting below notes that their article did not cite the US or UK as positive examples, but the German and the Dutch]

The main error of the article though is in putting the blame squarely on ministers and politicians when researchers themselves have a huge responsibility for the continuation of this system.  This was immediately seen in the responses on twitter as illustrated on this thread (click to see the conversation, many more tweets) where colleagues appeared to rush to the defence of Elsevier’s profits [slight exaggeration/bait, which I hope may lead them to post some comments below].



  1. Hi, I’m one of the authors of the news article.
    On the whole, our paper only aims to stir the debate — and seems to have rightly done so. As the Elsevier national license remains the main topic in place, we did not have much room to put forward positive alternatives (but, that will come…).
    I’m only going to comment on one “flaw” tonight: “it puts all the blame on the state and suggests that other countries, in particular the UK, are doing much better”.
    1. We have never heralded the UK or the US as examples. I’m too well aware of the limits of Gold OA. The two international cases we make are the Dutch recent NO to Elsevier’s conditions (which proves an uncompromising stance was quite doable) and a recent german law that removes nearly all the publishers’ rights after a short period of exclusivity whenever the research is at least half funded by public spending. Besides, another suggestion we call for (reforming the evaluation criteria) would have a deep impact on the whole scientific publication system, be it proprietary or gold OA.
    2. Elsevier (and the whole oligopolistic editorial private sector) gets its fair share of criticism. We put rather the blames on one current French policy (and certainly not the State per se), which does not prevent in any way the enclosure of research by the main publishers, but, actually, reinforces it.


  2. Thank you very much for dropping by and I am very pleased that there will be follow ups to this article. You are completely right to point out that the examples you point to are not UK/US and that these are indeed significant moves towards a transition to a more open and sustainable system. It will be interesting to see what happens to the Dutch example in the next few weeks. During the negotiations, Couperin also publicly said no to Elsevier at one point, leading to a threat of loss of access loss of access , but eventually an agreement was found.

    I totally support your call for changes in evaluation criteria. I was not aware of this note excluding open access publications from evaluation. This is astonishing, shocking, absurd; words fail me. Shame on section 60 of the CNU.


  3. “colleagues appeared to rush to the defense of Elsevier’s profits” ->quite the opposite actually (e.g I’ve boycotted Elsevier for both my publications and their request for review for 3 years now). While I’m happy to see this topic addressed in a public media, the situation is enough complex to deserve precise explanations. We tried to point out what was approximate or wrong in the article, and the discussion escalated from there. Twitter is definitely not a good media to argue. I’ll post my thoughts on my blog.


    1. As @SylvainDeville calls me out without clearly doing so, I will briefly comment to clarify. Full disclosure: I am the other author of the article, with @Dorialexander who’s commented above already. FWIW, the piece is now available in English:

      What you dub “the situation escalated” is your (quite unjust to us) point of view. Basically, what your — and especially your friends’ — comments said: “you guys screwed it up, you have it all wrong, this makes no sense”. And you tried to convince me how wrong I was to have written what I wrote.

      This was unfortunate, to say the least. It is commendable that you took the time to address some points, this is undoubtful. Some of them were valid, we know it. Writing such a thing does not come in during a random coffee break. I guess you understand that.

      Yet, I would have preferred to see fellow colleagues slightly less shooting at us for these details. You pointed out to a few things you decided were wrong; I did my best to explain their choice. You still insisted I was saying nonsense. The flood that resulted from this ‘discussion’ (ou dialogue de sourds, devrais-je dire) left a bitter taste; basically you did not want to understand that this piece was aimed at:

      1) release, for the very first time, an actual contract with a predatory publisher;
      2) inform the *general* public as they are indirectly concerned by this since their money as taxpayers serve to nurture such an outrageous situation;
      3) convey the message that this is a society problem, not one that concerns only a subpart of the society (namely, people in labcoats), and that as such, anyone has to comprehend why we must fight this in the name of the right to read.

      The piece made its way in an incredible way: I have heard from much more non-scientists than from scientists; science/research people were cognisant of the possible shortcuts as they asked me for clarification/rationale behind writing this or that, in private and offerred to help future write-ups.

      Thus, instead of acknowledging this, sharing positive thoughts, pushing the message forward, deciding to help and thus sustain a collective action against such practices, even supporting us into this (Elsevier won’t sue you after all, right), you came along aggressively telling us how meaningless the piece was because we used shortcuts to express a few things…

      I said many times that this was solely an intro: in case you haven’t noticed, the piece mentions Annexes to the contract, but the document we leaked has none — no, it is not that we forgot them. This did not jump in the otherwise very (too) detail-inquisitive eyes you and your friends pointed to us that late evening.

      Yet my explanation changed nothing as you and your friends went on telling me how little sense the piece makes. I would like to ask you: do you think we would have claimed what we claimed without prior checks with lawyers and people versed in the area of public procurement? Did it cross your mind that, if we stand our ground on this, there is a good reason for this? Perhaps we are not able to say why in too many details, publicly, for the moment. But no — we were mega wrong 🙂

      Lastly, this whole exchange does exactly what Elsevier & co. want to see: lack of union. Rather than supporting each others, there is a great desire to showcase how many lil thingies were incorrect or simplified which simply diverts the attention from the main topic: we leaked a secret contract, FFS. What are people waiting for to reach out to their librarian, to various national institutions incl. the judiciary and to just bootstrap a real movement? Apparently, telling me how stupid we are, on Twitter, is the most important thing to do instead. This is really sad.

      Do not get me wrong: I am not hurt or anything, I am clarifying. If the message sounds tense, it simply shows the tension I felt when you refused to understand, when “the situation escalated” 😉

      The backlash is yet to begin. But I would like you, your buddies and other readers to see things a bit beyond the very nitty-gritty stuff, to put it in context and perspective. Your reactions are the only negative (and quite unpleasant on the personal level) reactions we faced thus far. Thankfully, the overwhelming majority of scientists, researchers, librarians, students, etc. from all over the world feel re-energised and are back on track pushing forward for greater openness, transparency — and for the right to read. You are more than welcome to help out and contribute — constructively and positively, without animosity and bashing as it is immensely counterproductive.


      1. I’l re-state it here again: I am happy that this brings a debate, that has been already occurring for some time in academic circles, one step closer to the general public. Yet, it is important that this is done so with care, conveying its crucial points and not oversimplifying the problem. I happen to agree with many of the things said: they are not new, but saying them again in a semi-mass media is a good thing. I asked questions on the points that seemed to me unclear or wrong.

        As for the contract, I understand you (the article’s authors) have a feeling that it is very unusual and/or dubious with regards to the exclusivity clause, but I do not (and others have said the same): the exclusivity (avoiding “mise en concurrence”) for accessing wholly-owned content is the logical step to make, if you are going to buy access to Elsevier’s papers. Again, one can say that the state shouldn’t buy access to those (NL’s current bargaining position), but if it was decided to buy access, I don’t think there is another way to do it.

        Please accept critique, especially when it’s constructive (asking for clarification on things that are unclear can only make your point stronger), especially if you are yourself very vocal about the things you denounce.


  4. It is complex. As @dorialexander states, Gold OA has its problems too, including double dipping. Characteristically, because in the UK and US universities are independent of the state politically, the ball is firmly back in the court of the universities, while government places various “selection pressures”, e.g., OA for all articles published from 2016 to be submitted to the next UK REF.

    It gets even more complex when one works across labs, across borders – though I personally have instituted the same boycott as @Sylvain Deville, I cannot and would not wish to enforce this on papers co-authored with colleagues working in other countries, who are under a much less benign metric evaluation than I am in the UK, e.g., IF. Similarly with students who look to building a career in these countries.

    Allied to OA are open data and peer discussion (often called “post publication peer review”. Even if all papers were from tomorrow OA, we would not have solved the underlying problem, which is to make data accessible to all. This happens in some fields, but is not the norm; it should be.

    I agree that the Dutch move is the one to be applauded and one hopes that there will be imitators. Going into the unknown is part of the excitement of science and pushing the process of dissemination and discussion of results into new spheres may frighten some, but is somewhere we have to go and explore.


  5. Glad to be considered as a “colleague” still – 2y after leaving academia…
    I just thought I should make this point, which is a common misconception, but ultimately, I think, as you guys allude to, this is a question that the research community has to answer, and publishers will adapt, in the same way they’ve already adapted to mandates from major research funders… I’m not sure the message in the “article” is the best way to get this discussion started – beyond potential mistakes and misconceptions.


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