Statement from University Librarian Elaine L. Westbrooks on the UC System’s Termination of Elsevier Subscriptions

March 20, 2019
Portrait of Elaine Westbrooks, University Librarian and Vice Provost for University Libraries

Elaine Westbrooks, Vice Provost for University Libraries and University Librarian, UNC-Chapel Hill

Dear members of the Carolina community: 

On February 28, the University of California (UC) system cancelled their $50 million subscription deal with publishing giant Elsevier and terminated subscriptions to more than 2,500 Elsevier journals.  

This move followed months of negotiation and it has attracted a great deal of attention, for very good reason. Elsevier is the world’s largest commercial publisher of scholarly journals and the UC system is the largest U.S. entity to walk away from so much Elsevier content at once. 

In making this decision, UC helped to expose the runaway journal costs that are breaking university and library budgets everywhere. Moreover, UC tied its negotiations to systemic reform: the need to increase open access to research, rather than locking it behind steep and rising paywalls. 

I support and applaud the UC system for taking this bold step to transform scholarly publishing.  

At Carolina, we soon will have our own decisions to make. Our Elsevier Science Direct subscription—which bundles titles of significance with those of less value to our campus—is set to expire December 31, 2019. Other publisher agreements will soon follow. 

Unless Elsevier and other publishers change their negotiating position, we will face difficult choices. Renewing these packages is unaffordable and unsustainable. Rather than curbing runaway costs, renewing will increase them. If we instead continue only selected subsets of titles, we will face massive cancellations, both now and year after year as costs outpace inflation and budgets. Either option risks perpetuating a broken marketplace that shortchanges the University. 

In recent weeks, I have begun meeting with deans, administrators, academic departments and faculty groups to talk about the true costs of journal access, the paths that are open to us and the broader need to reclaim control of scholarly information from publishers who profit by impeding access to it. My staff and I will continue these important conversations into the fall, sharing updates as we have them, listening carefully to understand the information needs of our community and working toward the best solution for our campus. 

As members of the Carolina community, we are united in our commitment to a university “of the public and for the public.” That spirit motivated the Faculty Council in 2015 to adopt an open access policy designed to “allow the fruits of faculty research and scholarship to be disseminated as widely as possible.” 

Now is a moment for us to determine how best to make good on that commitment. I believe that any publisher agreements we sign must prioritize transparency, affordability and sustainability. And I believe equally that we should chart a path toward more open access, so that the work of Carolina’s researchers can be available to all who benefit from it, and not only those few who can afford it.  

Please do not hesitate to reach out to me or to my colleague, Nerea Llamas, associate University librarian for collections strategy and services, with your questions and concerns. We and members of our team would be pleased to speak with you individually or to meet with you and your colleagues as we move forward. 

Sincerely, 

Elaine L. Westbrooks 

Vice Provost for University Libraries and University Librarian 

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