France signs a five-year national deal with Elsevier

Update : I have published a much detailed account of the Elsevier-France deal on Rue89 with Rayna Stamboliyska. It has also been translated in english on the blog of the OKFN

This is a disturbing parallel. While the Dutch proudly rebuke Elsevier and contemplate embracing a 100% open access policy, France has just signed a € 172 millions national check with the leading scientific publisher.

This agreement is official… well not really in fact. Some universities echoes the agreement. But the website of the French Ministry of research and Higher education remains surprisingly silent.

There is actually nothing to be proud of. According to some leaked sources, the whole agreement costs almost 172 millions (171 697 159 € 27 c., to be accurate). For each year, the cost will vary from 33 to 35 millions.

That’s a lot of money. Granted, the agreement covers several hundred of universities and hospitals. Granted, this is probably comparable to to the expenses of the previous national license with Elsevier (so far, the deals remaining confidential, there is no way to know).

Yet, French research is in disarray. Some universities are on the verge of bankruptcy. Others anticipates four meager years. Strangely enough, money is not the problem. The French State actually gives away several billions each year in the form of tax incentives so that private companies fund research (the « Crédit impôt recherche »). This policy has proven dramatically ineffectual : it is actually nothing more than a tool for tax optimization, that does little if nothing to encourage research.

Rejecting the agreement (as the dutch seems to dare), would not only save a lot of money. It would have forced the universities to impulse a radical change. Creating new editorial models (like the collaborative, autonomous, researchers-owned journals), reforming bygone evaluation criteria, adopting a german-like law to partly remove the publishers’ right after a short period of exclusivity: all theses much-needed evolution would have become unavoidable. We had a great opportunity to change a system that breaks apart in every possible way. We have just missed it.

The France Ministry of research can be held directly responsible. While we have heard a good deal of open access hocus pocus for the past few years, the real program was quite different. In a private exchange with the French Academy of Science, the Minister of Research, Geneviève Fioraso, specified her three top priorities : developing a national open repository, HAL (that’s the nice part), concluding a national license with Elsevier, developing the Istex project (that requires one additional national license with Elsevier). That’s right : Elsevier is at the very center of two of the tree main priorities to favor the development of French research.

Everything was already decided, even before the negotiation began. The French negotiator, the Couperin consortium, was forced to play a game with loaded dices. It has not managed so badly. The new deal is actually 15 millions euros cheaper (partly because some institutions, like the French National Library leaved the national license to negotiate directly with Elsevier). And the wording of the agreement is, to some point, witty. For instance, the data mining license (that draws from the terrible Elsevier license) states that « researchers can do text and data mining mainly through Elsevier API ». This adverb, « mainly » (« notamment » in French) changes a lot of thing : it means that French researchers could retrieve data from the Elsevier database using other technique than the limitative API.

You can already read the text and data mining agreement of this blog. I have received other leaked documents. I will probably disclose them by the next few days.

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