Bibsam, for which Wilhelm Widmark, Stockholm University’s head librarian, is the vice chair and I am the chairperson, is charged with signing licensing agreements for electronic journals and databases on behalf of Swedish higher educational institutions, governmental agencies and research institutes.

But why do something so capricious, you might ask? There is of course a risk that on 1 June, the contract termination date, the library will immediately be stripped of its access to many of the world’s best scholarly journals. Articles published before that date will remain available, however, and researchers can continue to publish and review articles in Elsevier’s journals.

The answer is simple: negotiations have broken down because the business model that Elsevier (and many other big publishing companies) have, and which leads to academic institutions paying three times, is completely infeasible.

First, our researchers offer their articles to the publishers for free. Then they make themselves available for peer reviews of articles and editorship, again without pay. The latter is itself the lynchpin for assuring the high level of quality for which the publishers would like to be known. But this quality guarantee wouldn’t exist without the researchers’ reputation and unpaid work. The benefit to the researchers is that it is laudable to publish in journals where other researchers also publish outstanding research. Finally, the publishers expect universities to pay dearly for the licenses so that those same researchers and students can read the articles. This intrinsically absurd model has long prevailed.

An additional factor has now emerged. Sweden and the entire EU have decided to move to a system of open access for scholarly publications. In this kind of system the author pays a publication fee, usually covered by their research grant, which allows the article to be made freely available for anyone to read. In essence this is a good, democratic notion that has support from the scholarly community. The idea is that there will be a transition to the new cost model, making license fees superfluous. The publishers have instead decided to keep the license fees and to raise them at their previous rates, in addition to taking authors’ fees (often with additional fees for researchers to submit their articles and even, when applicable, fees to proofread their writing). This commercial model uses public research funds to line the pockets of these for-profit publishers, for which profits of 30–40 per cent are not uncommon. The problem is growing because many universities don’t have an overview of all of the costs: the publishers do not want to disclose their profits on authors’ fees, which are often paid for by an individual researcher’s grant money, while the licensing fees are paid centrally. Stockholm University has taken the initiative of accounting for these costs across all Swedish universities. The Bibsam Consortiums’s yearly total cost in 2017 was €12,925,065 for journals and €1,080,137 for databases (an agreement renewed until 2020). In addition to this, around €1,3 million in writers’ fees were paid in 2017.

Now, the community of researchers, national and international, has finally begun to wake up and realise that this situation is unsustainable. SUHF (the Association of Swedish Higher Education Institutions) has given its support to ending the agreement. In Germany the agreement has already been terminated, though negotiations continue. Many other countries will soon have these same discussions, with the Netherlands and Norway next in line. Today, Bibsam’s negotiations team will meet Elsevier again. We don’t know where it will lead, but we do know that a change is needed to create a long-term, sustainable scholarly publication model.