New Licence Agreement with Elsevier

13th November 2023

It took seven years and involved tough negotiations that were even suspended for a longer period of time. Now, the new licence agreement between the German science organizations and the scientific publisher Elsevier has been signed and sealed.

Dr. Bernhard Mittermaier, head of Forschungszentrum Jülich’s Central Library (ZB), is a member of the DEAL consortium’s eight-person negotiation group, which negotiated the agreement with Elsevier on behalf of the German science community. In an interview Mittermaier speaks about the reasons for the long and hard negotiations as well as the changes the agreement with Elsevier will bring about for all Jülich researchers. He also explains why data tracking conducted by large scientific publishers can be a problem.

Bernhard Mittermaier standing in the Central Library
Dr. Bernhard Mittermaier, head of Forschungszentrum Jülich’s Central Library (ZB), was actively involved in the German science community’s successful negotiations with the publisher Elsevier. Copyright: Forschungszentrum Jülich.

Dr. Mittermaier, why are the successful negotiations with Elsevier so important for Forschungszentrum Jülich?

Well, Elsevier is the largest scientific publisher in the world and is therefore of great significance for the research community. It publishes a variety of renowned journals, for example NeuroImage, Nuclear Materials and Energy, Computers & Chemical Engineering, the Journal of the European Ceramic Society, the Journal of Power Sources, and many more. Having the best possible access to all these journals is very important for Jülich researchers.

At the same time, Forschungszentrum publishes more works with Elsevier than with any other publisher – almost 20 % of all Jülich publications. In the end, however, the successful negotiations are not only a great benefit for Jülich, but for all scientific organizations in Germany!

Let’s focus on Forschungszentrum Jülich: What are the concrete benefits for our researchers associated with the new agreement?

All Jülich scientists can now access around 2,500 Elsevier journals, including those that were published in the last five years, which means all issues from 2018 until today. At the same time, it is now possible for Jülich researchers to publish open access with Elsevier at no additional cost. This is an important success in further strengthening free access to publicly funded research.

Taken together, Jülich institutes will now save around € 100,000 per year on fees for hybrid open access that were previously paid to Elsevier. For Forschungszentrum Jülich as a company, the costs for Elsevier will even decrease by about 40 % than was the case under the former agreement, assuming publication figures remain the same. This corresponds to about € 300,000 per year that can be saved compared to 2018, the last year of our previous agreement with Elsevier. Elsevier’s fees per article are now much lower than they were in 2018 and similar to those charged by Wiley and Springer Nature. Compared to 2023, however, when hybrid open access, document delivery, and pay-per-view each cost around € 100,000, additional expenditure of € 200,000 will now be incurred.

„I’m proud that the Central Library, as part of Jülich’s infrastructure, actively helped achieve this great result for Jülich’s research institutes, Forschungszentrum Jülich as a company, and German science as a whole – and that we kept negotiating with a lot of perseverance over many years!“


Were there any other negotiation achievements?

Yes, we were also able to include the important opt-in option in the agreement. On the one hand, this means that all German science organizations can use the negotiated agreement, but they do not have to. On the other hand, this means, however, that only those who participate and pay can read non-open access Elsevier articles and publish them themselves.

This is a fair arrangement – in contrast to the “all-in principle”, where scientific organizations without an agreement can also publish their articles, but all research institutions with an agreement have to pay publication fees. One thing is crystal clear: something like this is a recipe for disaster. This “all-in principle”, which currently is part of the agreements with Wiley and Springer Nature, will no longer be included in future agreements with these two publishers, which are currently being negotiated. On the one hand, the five-year agreement period offers planning security and avoids having to negotiate again in the near future. Institutions, however, must also be able to respond to budget changes. Therefore, it is very important that institutions can withdraw from the agreement on an annual basis if there are financial restrictions.

What do Jülich researchers need to know now if they want to publish with Elsevier?

Not much at all, because the publishing process mostly remains the same – and articles are now automatically published open access. But what I urgently recommend is that Jülich researchers always select the CC-BY licence for all their publications. This is the only licence under which authors retain the rights to their own texts and images and do not transfer them to the publisher. Specifically, this means that only with CC-BY can authors reuse their own content without having to ask the publisher for permission beforehand. Other scientists also do not have to pay money to the publisher if they want to use Jülich data and content for further research. This is a real benefit for the reuse of valuable scientific findings!

The DEAL negotiations with the three publishers Elsevier, Wiley, and Springer Nature started in 2016 with kickoff meetings at about the same time. Agreements with Wiley were, however, signed in 2018 and with Springer Nature in 2019. Why did the negotiations with Elsevier take so much longer?

Bernhard Mittermaier standing in the Central Library.
As a member of the DEAL negotiation group, Mittermaier helped achieve the best possible conditions for Jülich’s researchers and all Jülich institutes when it comes to publishing and reading Elsevier articles. Copyright: Forschungszentrum Jülich.

The fact that the negotiations with Elsevier were so tough was mainly due to the publisher’s longstanding reluctance to include open access in the agreement. From Elsevier's point of view, further charges for open access should be paid in addition to the regular agreement. From the perspective of our DEAL negotiation group, the extent of these charges was completely utopian. Starting from 2017, almost all German research organizations have therefore decided not to renew the Elsevier agreement. In 2018, DEAL then suspended negotiations – even though for Jülich, for example, this meant that we would no longer have access to Elsevier publications for a longer period of time starting in January 2019, when the agreement expired.

In retrospect, this extraordinarily drastic struggle with Elsevier also accelerated the negotiations with Wiley and Springer Nature. These two publishers absolutely wanted to avoid the German scientific community taking a similar approach as with Elsevier and not renewing licence agreements with them. As a result, they made us a fairly good offer much earlier, which they probably wouldn’t have done otherwise.

The DEAL consortium

DEAL is a consortium initiated in 2014 and financed by the Alliance of Science Organizations in Germany. Its task is to conduct licensing negotiations with the three major scientific publishers Elsevier, Springer Nature, and Wiley. Dr. Bernhard Mittermaier, head of ZB, was significantly involved in these negotiations. Mittermaier also actively helped carry out the necessary preparatory work, including a nationwide data collection and analysis.

How did Forschungszentrum Jülich manage to get through almost five years without an Elsevier agreement?

Of course, we all had to prepare well for this at first: In autumn 2018, for example, scientific institutions from all over Germany met at Jülich for a workshop on how to successfully deal with the then upcoming period with no agreement.

It was also clear from the beginning that this situation would not be ideal for our researchers. After all, they need the best possible access to scientific articles for their work – including Elsevier articles. In those years, the Central Library has therefore ensured that Elsevier articles could still be accessed via document delivery and pay-per-view. This initially led to increased costs, but in the end they were much lower than under the previous Elsevier agreement.

Were Jülich researchers able to publish with Elsevier at all during that period of time?

The option to publish with Elsevier was not affected. Some scientists, however, asked me whether a publishing boycott would make sense in view of the fact that many editors from Germany – including Prof. Wolfgang Marquardt – had discontinued their work for the publisher with reference to the stalled DEAL negotiations. In fact, Elsevier’s share of all Jülich publications decreased from 26 % in 2018 to 18 % in 2022. Across Germany, there was a decline from 19 to 15 %. This may also be a reason why Elsevier returned to the negotiating table.

What was decisive for the success of the negotiations in the end?

It is clear that we have negotiated hard and have repeatedly said and demonstrated that the German science organizations can continue without an Elsevier agreement if necessary. During the four-year period without licence agreements, Elsevier realized that we all pull together with confidence, keep calm, and won’t give in. We in turn waited patiently until the publisher contacted us, and then finally re-entered negotiations in autumn 2022 with clear demands. In retrospect, this tactic was the key to success in this “negotiation thriller”.

How satisfied are you with the new Elsevier agreement?

Overall, I’m very satisfied. And I’m proud that the Central Library, as part of Jülich’s infrastructure, actively helped achieve this great result for Jülich’s research institutes, Forschungszentrum Jülich as a company, and German science as a whole – and that we kept negotiating with a lot of perseverance over many years.

Does the agreement also have any “weak points”?

There are at least three downsides. For example, we now have access to most – but not all – of Elsevier’s journals. The reason for this is that behind some of these Elsevier journals are actually scientific societies, which in some cases are not willing to include their journals in such agreements. So the next aim of DEAL is to convince those responsible at the journals in question to join the agreement.

With regard to open access, the agreement will bring about extensive progress at the level of individual articles from Germany. Unfortunately, however, it does not help to ensure that the respective journals are also transformed into gold open access journals. This is the actual goal of the “transformative agreements”, which is also requested by more than 150 science organizations worldwide – including the Helmholtz Association – in the “OA2020 Expression of Interest”: “We aim to transform a majority of today's scholarly journals from subscription to OA publishing.”

It is true that the topic of data protection was included in such a licence agreement for the first time ever. When it comes to data tracking, however, we did not achieve as much as we wanted to: Elsevier is still allowed to conduct data tracking – the collection, processing, and reuse of researchers’ personal and scientific data. We’re still not satisfied with that at all.

What exactly is the problem with data tracking?

To put it in a nutshell, large scientific publishers such as Elsevier are increasingly acting as players in the business area of data analysis. We don’t know, however, what they actually do with researchers’ various personal data. Therefore, we will meet again with Elsevier within one year as part of a joint workshop to follow up on this issue.

The topic of data tracking is very important to me. To this end, even greater vigilance in science is required at Forschungszentrum. By the way, every scientist can take some steps to limit data tracking with little effort – reject tracking cookies when visiting the Elsevier website to read open access articles, for example. As a research center, we already pay for all of the publisher’s services and therefore do not need to pay extra with our data.

Apart from that, Jülich’s researchers can now take advantage of the new licence agreement. The agreement runs for five years – so for now, we are fine.

Thank you for your time!

Interview by Hanno Schiffer


Dr. Bernhard Mittermaier

Leiter der Zentralbibliothek

  • Central Library (ZB)
Building 04.7 /
Room 254
+49 2461/61-3013

Last Modified: 14.11.2023