Update Swiss Elsevier R&P Agreement - June 2021

A second look at the Swiss Elsevier Agreement after 18 months

After a first disillusioning analysis of the Swiss Elsevier Read & Publish Agreement (2020-2023) in August 2020, it is time for another update after 18 months of contract duration.

77% utilisation of the 2020 quota

The concern that the quota of 2850 OA articles would not be nearly exhausted has meanwhile diminished somewhat, but is not yet off the table. Currently (June 2021), 77% of the 2020 quota has been used up, and 9% of the 2021 quota.

It turns out that the turnaround time from submission to publication at Elsevier can really take a long time. In May 2021, for example, 283 publications were published as part of the Swiss Agreement OA. Slightly more than half of these are still submissions from 2020.

This means that until all publications submitted in 2020 have either been published or rejected, and the status of the quota can be conclusively assessed, it is likely to be several months or longer.

Many Swiss Corresponding Author Papers remain Closed Access

The low degree of exploitation is not due to the fact that Swiss authors publish less with Elsevier. Rather, many publications that could/should actually be Open Access by agreement remain Closed Access. My monitoring now shows 560 such Swiss Corresponding Author Papers, whose total APC list price amounts to €1.5 million. Publications for which Elsevier does not publish the submission date and therefore the eligibility cannot be determined with certainty are not even included in this number. Example: 10.1016/j.cagd.2021.102003

Why so many papers are closed access seems to have several reasons. I have received feedback from two authors that the option to OA was not displayed in the submission process, leading to suspicion that the affiliation identification at Elsevier is not working reliably.

Other authors apparently deliberately chose not to use the OA option because they feared hybrid costs. Since the Swiss OA community (and the SNSF) has been making researchers aware of hybrid and double-dipping for the past 15 years, this is actually good news.

Eligible closed-access articles can still be reported to Elsevier for opening. However, this seems to be possible only up to a certain period of time, and for an effective change, the authors must also become active, which they unfortunately do not always do (similar to depositing in a repository with Green OA).

Relevant for the agreement is the submission date from 1.1.2020. This means that the impact is delayed and can only be properly assessed starting in 2021. Of the 3437 publications published in 2021 with an affiliation from a participating institution, one third (1118) are OA through the Swiss R&P Agreement. This corresponds to 54% of all Swiss corresponding author publications.

This means that the agreement does not live up to its own claim, namely to ensure at least the OA status of all local corresponding authors. It should be noted, however, that this would not be possible, especially given Elsevier’s conditions. On the one hand, a number of Elsevier journals are explicitly excluded from the Swiss Agreement (e.g. Cell Press, various society journals). On the other hand, the possibility that an article has several corresponding authors, and an author can have several affiliations, already leads to the effect that articles become OA via other institutions.

Therefore, if one looks at the OA status (via Unpaywall) of Swiss publications, things look a little more comforting. After all, 61% of all corresponding and non-corresponding publications from 2021 are accessible in one form or another.

Distorted cost-benefit ratio

An increase to 61% OA is without doubt a clear improvement over subscription-only. But the cost of this step is extremely high. Currently, the PAR fee for 2020 is over 6000€. If the quota is fully utilised, the PAR fee will come to 4500€ EUR.

As expected, looking at the individual institutions, one can already see large differences between the historical subscription price and the price according to the publication behaviour of their local authors.

It will be interesting to see how the libraries will renegotiate the price distribution within the consortium for the third and fourth year of the contract.

International comparison

How does the Swiss Elsevier Agreement compare internationally? Whereas 10 years ago the ETH Board capitulated inconclusively on this question, today we fortunately have better possibilities for comparison. I have now applied the approach I started for monitoring the Swiss Agreement to other countries (Netherlands, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Poland, Hungary, Austria and Denmark). The result is accessible at https://oa-monitoring.ch/elsevier_monitor/

I hope I can go into detail about the international comparison in a later post. It is striking that the phenomenon that publications that could or should be open access are not freely accessible is evident in all countries. In Sweden, for example, there are over 700 such articles. This must be unsatisfying because Sweden actually has an “all you can publish” deal and has also explicitly defined a procedure with Elsevier in the agreement on how to proceed in the case of such unrecognised publications.

The situation looks better in the Netherlands, where also many corresponding author papers remain closed access, but massively more OA publications are included for a similar price.

If you compare Switzerland with the Netherlands and Sweden, you can see this difference clearly:

Since Elsevier does not assign publications to a specific year in the case of agreements without a limit, and sometimes the relevant submission date is not public, the distribution per year can be inaccurate. The comparison becomes more accurate when looking at the entire agreement period, i.e. 2020 to the present:

Since the submission date is relevant for all 3 countries, the PAR fee will continue to move downwards for both 2020 and 2021. But it is already apparent that the Swiss pay practically twice as much as the Dutch.


Unfortunately, my conclusion from last year does not change much. Those responsible for this deal have quite unnecessarily embarked on something half-baked that no one can really be satisfied with (except Elsevier). It is true that the increase to 61% OA is positive, but only as long as one does not know the price. When I also learn that Swiss OA responsibles now have to chase authors when the submission did not work out with OA, we are actually at the point where we could have reached the 61% via Green Road OA without embargo with the same effort, but much less money. The millions could have been put into more worthwhile alternatives.

At least swissuniversities has recognised that it has neglected Gold OA by focusing on R&P agreements and has recently announced national negotiations with pure Gold OA publishers, as well as the strengthening of institutional Gold OA funds. There is a CHF 2500 cost cap for Gold OA. Where was this cap when the most expensive Swiss deal ever was made with Elsevier?