Open, Equitable, Affordable, and Transparent: Progress on the Road to True Open Access: A Talk by Ginny Steel

On Friday, Sept 13, UBC had the pleasure of hosting Ginny Steel, University Librarian at UCLA, who presented a brief review of the history of the Open Access movement, the latest developments, the implications for libraries and the academy, and answered several questions from the audience. Earlier this year, Steel and her colleagues at the University of California joined the ranks of several academic institutions in making a decision that has the potential to change the world of academic libraries forever: they ended negotiations with Elsevier (one of the largest journal subscription providers) and did not renew their contract. The issue? Lack of open access and rising costs. During her visit to UBC, Steel revealed that the University of California (UC) had been paying roughly $10 million a year in subscription fees, plus an additional $1 million from authors paying for their work to be published. During negotiations, UC asked for lowered subscription costs and more materials made Open Access. Elsevier responded by proposing to increase fees by 80% and agreeing to make some (very little) material open access. According to UC’s statement on the cancellation,

We are determined to make published research by UCLA authors as accessible as possible, but not at such a steep price. We cannot spend more taxpayer dollars on one academic publisher when it significantly reduces funds available to spend on all our other collections, which UCLA students, faculty, and staff rely on daily for teaching and research. (University of California, 2019)

In July 2019, Elsevier finally cut off access to any publications published from that date (UC was guaranteed access for everything until 2019 that they had already paid for). Steel spoke about the preparations that UC was able to make so that when the cutoff time came, the transition was relatively smooth; UC looked into alternate access points and open sources, and set up licensing agreements for commercial printing services. Most importantly, Steel stressed, they secured the support of their faculty members who were included in internal discussions and external negotiations. So far, despite Elsevier’s scaremongering predictions, UC hasn’t had much trouble providing resources for their students and faculty.

This is not a new issue.

The University of California is not the first university to walk away from Elsevier and other journal subscription services. Way back in 2012, academics were signing petitions about paywalls and the need for more open access and Harvard University published a memo on the “untenable situation” and suggesting alternate options for faculty and students. The Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC)’s list of negotiations and cancellations lists 53 institutions that have cancelled their “big deals”, going back as far as 2008 (and providing a handy further reading list for those who want more information).

What’s the big deal?

The Big Deal refers to the beginning of online subscription bundling in 1996. Subscription prices to individual journals had increased to a point where libraries were unable to afford them, which caused publishers to increase the prices further to make up for lost sales. Cindy Sjoberg’s literature review of the Big Deal and the current e-journal cancellations points out that in 2001 Kenneth Frazier warned libraries against signing the Big Deal by invoking game theory. Frazier “predicted that this model would create indispensability of these products, allow large commercial publishers to control pricing, shift work traditionally done by serials vendors to library staff, and increase libraries’ vulnerability to content changes”  (Sjoberg, 2017, pg.1). Sound familiar?

However, Ginny Steel is focused firmly on the future and the progress that institutions have made away from these “insidious publishers” and towards Open Access. In Europe, several funding deals and mandates are being negotiated, such as Plan S Europe-wide, Project DEAL in Germany, and a new Open-Access Deal between Norway and Elsevier. The MIT Open Access Task Force released a white paper “examining efforts… to make research and scholarship openly and freely available.” The University of California has signed an open access agreement with Cambridge University Press. More faculty are interested and aware of Open Access options, and more Open Access content is available than ever before. If you’re curious about how to make your own work Open Access, check out UBC’s Scholarly Communications page!


“Big Deal Cancellation Tracking” (n.d.). The Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition. Retrieved from

Frazier, K. (2001). The librarians’ dilemma: Contemplating the costs of the “Big Deal.” D-Lib Magazine, 7(3). DOI:10.1045/march2001-frazier

Harvard University, The Faculty Advisory Council. (2012, April 17). Faculty Advisory Council Memorandum on Journal Pricing [Public Statement]. Retrieved from

Jha, A. (2012, April 9). Academic spring: how an angry maths blog sparked a scientific revolution. The Guardian. Retrieved from

MIT Open Access Task Force. (2018). Open Access at MIT and Beyond: A White Paper of the MIT Ad Hoc Task Force on Open Access to MIT’s Research [White paper]. Retrieved from

Sjoberg, C. (2017). E-Journals and the big deal: A review of the literature. SLIS Student Research Journal, 6(2). Retrieved from

University of Califormia. Waugh, S.L., Bristow, J.E., and Steel, G. (2019, February 28). UC Ends Elsevier Negotiations [Public Statement]. Retrieved from