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UC/Elsevier Open Access Agreement: Some Thoughts for HKUST Researchers

The University of California and the publisher Elsevier drew a landmark contract for open access publishing. The agreement costs about US$11 million per year. What does it mean for us at HKUST?

When the news about the agreement came out earlier this year, it attracted a lot of attention and interest among librarians. In this post, I try to share some analysis and thoughts of my own. To get a view of the bigger picture, I used to find various counts of journal articles to build estimates. All searches were conducted on April 11, 2021.


In 2019, the University of California terminated their subscriptions to Elsevier journals. As a result, the UC community lost access to over 2,000 journals. In 2021, the two parties eventually came to an agreement, one that supports UC researchers to publish OA articles at Elsevier titles as well as resuming access to their journals.

This agreement is groundbreaking. Elsevier is the largest academic publisher; the agreement covers almost all of their 2,600 journals, including Cell and The Lancet. On the other hand, UC system is a major research conglomerate in the USA. According to journal paper counts in lens, UC published over 50,000 articles in 2020, which represents over 8% of the country’s article output. Among them, about 15% were published with Elsevier. As a comparison, here is the picture with HKUST: in 2020, we published over 2,600 journal papers; Elsevier also was the top publisher with us, carrying 27% of our article output.

Apart from the large number of journals and articles involved, the agreement was a pioneer because of the way it enables open access publishing. In short, the agreement provides: 

  • Reading access for Elsevier journals
  • Open access publishing in Elsevier journals: 
    • A 10-15% discount in article processing charge (APC)
    • Partial or full support on the APC by the UC library

Under the coverage, open access is the default option for UC corresponding authors, although authors may also opt out.

UC pays about US$11 million per year to Elsevier for this 4-year contract. Depending on how many articles are published, and with complex calculation under the UC Multi-Payer model, the final cost will only be known at the end of the term. Interested readers may find out more through these links:

A Boost for OA Content?

How many more articles will become open access because of this arrangement? This agreement anticipates about 4,400 articles to be published open access annually. In my estimate using lens data, Elsevier published over 715,000 papers in 2020, about 72,000 were “gold open access”, composing about 10%. Using the 2020 volume as a base, 4,400 is about 0.6 percentage point. However, in no way can we claim that the agreement could bump Elsevier’s OA content by 0.6 points; this would be over-simplifying things.

In fact, this eye-catching agreement is only one of many that bundle subscription and publishing costs. Many institutions worldwide have negotiated or are negotiating similar arrangement with publishers, often called Transformative Agreements. UC has completed other open access agreements, covering 35% of the articles that list a UC affiliate as a corresponding author. In Europe, Plan-S has also taken effect this year. In Hong Kong, we entered a transformative agreement with Cambridge University Press, giving APC waivers for authors affiliated with HKUST.

In sum, although this UC agreement is big and costly, it will not suddenly bump up the number of OA articles in Elsevier journals. Yet, it is a noteworthy development among the many other similar effort worldwide. We will definitely see the rise in OA articles as a collective effect of transformative agreements.

Co-Authorship with UC Researchers

Can HKUST researchers benefit or be affected by this agreement when they collaborate with UC authors? In recent years, there are around 100 papers every year that are co-authored by researchers from HKUST and UC (Figure 1).

Figure 1: UC-HKUST co-authorship

If your UC collaborator is the corresponding author of the paper, then it will be eligible to get the APC discount as well as a US$1,000 subsidy from UC library. However, your team will be expected to come up with the balance under their Multi-Payer model. If you happen to contribute using your research grant, make sure you keep a record for your future reporting.

Whichever way your paper becomes open access, you should make note of it; because in the near future, likely you will need to report OA status and OA path of your research output according to UGC/RGC requirements.

Elsevier Relaxes the Use of Accepted Version

Apart from supporting authors making the published papers OA via payment, UC has been using their Open Access policies to guide authors to archive the accepted versions of their works in the UC repository. However, Elsevier used to forbid authors retaining the right to use the accepted versions in repositories. With this new agreement, Elsevier changed this policy; it would allow authors to follow their institutional requirements to archive accepted versions for open access. This change is not only for UC, but for all authors worldwide.

This is a good news for us in Hong Kong too. Some universities in Hong Kong already have open access policies similar to the one at UC. In fact, RGC does require fund grantees to archive their publications in institutional repositories. See paragraph 36 in this RGC document.

Does it Affect Library’s Negotiation with Publishers?

Does this agreement inspire university libraries in Hong Kong to form similar deals with publishers? Our Library, together with our sister institutions in Hong Kong, has been active in exploring transformative agreements. As I mentioned earlier, we entered an agreement with Cambridge University Press in 2021 to enable HKUST authors to publish open access articles.

From a broader view, this agreement reminds us the collective effort worldwide that is transforming the academic publishing market. With more agreements and institutional policies facilitating open access publishing, we expect the open access portion of research literature will go up. Would that help libraries to drive down journal subscription costs? That is something we still need to wait and see. To find reference points, I pulled out some quick numbers from lens (Table below). The number of OA papers at publishers’ sites (so-called Gold OA) have been rising for major publishers. I would expect the rise will speed up with the push of agreements like this UC/Elsevier one. It is reasonable for libraries to anticipate lower subscription costs when journals contain mostly open content.

“Gold OA” Articles: counts in thousands and portion (%) 2018 2019 2020
All Journals 1,233 (28%) 1,491 (32%) 1,681 (34%)
Elsevier 46 (7%) 56 (8%) 72 (10%)
SpringerNature 20 (7%) 23 (8%) 29 (9%)
Wiley 15 (6%) 18 (7%) 23 (8%)
Oxford Uni Press 11 (15%) 14 (20%) 16 (20%)
IOP 38 (65%) 64 (76%) 72 (76%)
IEEE 8 (15%) 17 (26%) 20 (25%)


An Afterthought

While I was taking a longer-term view, pondering how the OA content will increase either at publishers’ sites or in open repositories, or both, I also thought about what it might mean for authors who keep their work behind paywall. Many studies already showed that OA articles can get more citations; when more papers become openly accessible, readers have even higher chance to find relevant literature from OA pool to support their research. Wouldn’t that make those papers behind paywall even less visible? When academic publishing flips towards having OA as the norm, perhaps this “visibility peer pressure” will kick in, urging more authors to make their work OA. At HKUST, roughly 20% of research output is open access.

Open Access is a complex subject. An agreement such as the UC/Elsevier one that involves big organizations, large number of researchers, journals and journal articles, are bound to be very complicated. This post only shares some of my personal thoughts, with simplistic analysis. I welcome comments, questions and corrections.

— By Gabi Wong, Library


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published April 14, 2021
last modified March 11, 2022

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