Officials at Louisiana State University say leading scientific journal publisher Elsevier is wrongly blocking students in its veterinary school from accessing the main library’s Elsevier digital subscriptions. And they say the Dutch publisher is refusing to accept service of a lawsuit that seeks to restore access.
Elsevier officials, meanwhile, are characterizing the contract dispute as a negotiation, and say they hope to settle it commercially.
News of the suit was delivered Tuesday, via a detailed release from the Association of Research Libraries (ARL).
In the release, ARL officials say the dispute arose after LSU library officials realized that the school did not need a separate contract for its veterinary school to access most Elsevier Journals, and that the 600 or so users associated with the veterinary school were contractually included in, and could access Elsevier journals through the main library’s subscription (which can service up to 35,000 users). Upon expiration of the veterinary school’s contract, LSU last year asked to add access to 19 additional journal titles requested by the veterinary school to the main library’s subscription, a request which Elsevier initially seemed to agree to. But then, LSU officials say, the publisher reversed course.
LSU says Elsevier is now blocking a range of campus IP addresses used by the vet school from accessing Elsevier journals. After requests by LSU to restore access were not responded to, LSU filed a breach of contract suit on February 27, 2017, claiming that the IP addresses being blocked were explicitly covered in the library’s main Elsevier contract.
And in the most surprising twist in the case, the Netherlands-based Elsevier—despite having numerous corporate offices around the world, including New York—is said to be refusing to accept service of the suit under Louisiana’s long-arm statute. LSU is now seeking to effect service at Elsevier headquarters in Amsterdam, through the Hague Service Convention, which observers say could take months.
But Tom Reller, Elsevier V-P of Corporate Relations told PW that Elsevier is not refusing service. “The point related to accepting service is mischaracterized, as we never refused service,” he told PW. “For starters, LSU does not need us to accept service, they were free to serve us formally any time they wanted to. But for them to do that would entail extra time and expense on their part. To help them avoid that time and expense we would be willing to accept service, but we wanted first to seek a commercial resolution. These types of discussions are quite common.”
Indeed, in an April 22 letter to LSU library director Stanley Wilder, the company did not explicitly acknowledge the suit, but did attempt to negotiate a new deal, proposing that LSU "add a minimum of $170,000 of additional 2017 subscriptions to their existing contract" and pay an additional $30,000 in fees for the 2017 subscription period. LSU’s existing Elsevier contract is said to be worth more than $1.5 million.
In its suit, LSU officials claim Elsevier is in clear breach of contract, and that it is using its size and market power to force the school into an expensive and unnecessary contract.
“Elsevier is well aware that LSU, like other universities, is heavily reliant upon the various types of research and educational content for which Elsevier enjoys monopolistic market powers,” the suit states, “and Elsevier is unfairly abusing its leverage to coerce LSU into paying additional and unnecessary subscription fees for research and educational content that LSU has already contracted for.”
In a statement, Reller told PW that Elsevier sees the matter differently.
“What is happening is that LSU is asking us to add a previously separately-contracted school, along with its associated users, into an existing contract without having to pay for it,” he said. Reller says that the current LSU central campus contract "does not include the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine," nor was any "merger" negotiated.
"LSU informed Elsevier that it didn't want to renew the Vet Med contract as of January 2017, to which we obliged," he told PW. "We then offered a commercial option to combine the contracts, and the figure we offered to add more users and content to the central campus represented a substantial discount from the prior fee, but LSU declined. We regret this hasn't yet been settled commercially, but look forward to further discussions to resolve the matter.”
In her release, ARL's Krista Cox points out that LSU, as a public university, is simply trying to be a good steward of public resources.
“All LSU is trying to do in the present case is ensure that it is not unnecessarily duplicating subscriptions for its campus and using state resources in a responsible manner,” she wrote. “In a time where states are facing enormous budget deficits, public universities must ensure financial responsibility of scarce public resources. LSU is attempting to exercise sound judgment and stewardship of limited resources, but its only reward has been Elsevier blocking access to faculty, researchers and students at the university.”