In a major announcement, the University of California this week announced that after months of negotiations, it has terminated its subscription to Elsevier journals. In a release, U.C. officials said Elsevier was unwilling to meet U.C.’s key goal in the negotiations: "securing universal open access to U.C. research while containing the rapidly escalating costs associated with for-profit journals."

As the world's largest scientific publisher, Elsevier is no stranger to tough negotiations, often clashing with university librarians, administrators, and faculty over the high cost of access to scholarly journals. But this time, it feels different: in terminating its subscription, U.C. officials aren't just haggling over price, but are staking out a bold position in support of open access.

"As a leader in the global movement toward open access to publicly funded research, the University of California is taking a firm stand by deciding not to renew its subscriptions with Elsevier," reads a February 28 release. "In negotiating with Elsevier, U.C. aimed to accelerate the pace of scientific discovery by ensuring that research produced by U.C.’s 10 campuses—which accounts for nearly 10% of all U.S. publishing output—would be immediately available to the world, without cost to the reader. Under Elsevier’s proposed terms, the publisher would have charged U.C. authors large publishing fees on top of the university's multi-million dollar subscription, resulting in much greater cost to the university and much higher profits for Elsevier."

In a statement, Elsevier officials expressed disappointment that the California Digital Library (CDL), which negotiates access on behalf of the U.C. system, had "broken off negotiations unilaterally," and expressed hope that the two sides could soon bridge the divide.

This issue does not just impact U.C., but also countless scholars, researchers and scientists across the globe—and we stand with them in their push for full, unfettered access.

Further, in a draft letter to U.C.-based editors of Elsevier journals, which was shared with PW, an Elsevier official said the publisher had proposed a deal with U.C. that involved "a unique model that supports CDL’s multi-payer open access request; provides a clear path that allows every researcher to choose to publish for free or open access; and provides a scaled path to reduce the costs for each campus library." In addition, the deal would provide "every U.C. student and researcher with access to all journal articles published by Elsevier; articles they download nearly one million times every month."

U.C.'s decision to walk away from Elsevier is the latest sign that after years of slow progress, researchers are determined to accelerate the flip from subscription to open access. Around the globe, a growing number of libraries and research institutions have been pushing back against expensive subscription deals. And in Europe, a coalition of major funders of scholarly research have backed an ambitious, controversial initiative, called Plan S, that aims to make open access a reality by 2020.

It's unclear how negotiations between U.C and Elsevier will continue, or what comes next for U.C. researchers in terms of accessing Elsevier content. But for now, the U.C. community appears united and committed to holding the line on open access. The U.C. Academic Senate this week issued a statement endorsing the university's position, as has the university administration.

“I fully support our faculty, staff, and students in breaking down paywalls that hinder the sharing of groundbreaking research,” said U.C. president Janet Napolitano. “This issue does not just impact U.C., but also countless scholars, researchers and scientists across the globe—and we stand with them in their push for full, unfettered access.”

Still, as some observers note, the negotiations, ultimately, do come down to money. "Elsevier has always been happy to publish things OA—for a fee," explains Brandon Butler, director of information policy at the University of Virginia Libraries, adding that U.C.'s decision to walk away from its subscription deal was likely not just about pushing OA, but "about containing exploding subscription costs," a concern all universities and research institutions share.

"That’s why things fell apart," Butler surmises. "That dynamic around unsustainable price is where I think the breaking point really is, more than any hypothetical flip to OA. Libraries are tired of giving away our budgets to Elsevier. We’d all rather support open access, but opinions on what that looks like are much more diverse."