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Open access journals get a boost from librarians—much to Elsevier’s dismay

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A quiet revolution is sweeping the $20 billion academic publishing market and its main operator Elsevier, partly driven by an unlikely group of rebels: cash-strapped librarians.

When Florida State University cancelled its “big deal” contract for all Elsevier’s 2,500 journals last March to save money, the publisher warned it would backfire and cost the library $1 million extra in pay-per-view fees.

But even to the surprise of Gale Etschmaier, dean of FSU’s library, the charges after eight months were actually less than $20,000. “Elsevier has not come back to us about ‘the big deal’,” she said, noting it had made up a quarter of her content budget before the terms were changed.

Mutinous librarians such as Ms. Etschmaier remain in a minority but are one of a host of pressures bearing down on the subscription business of Elsevier, the 140-year-old publisher that produces titles including the world’s oldest medical journal, The Lancet.

The company is facing a profound shift in the way it does business, as customers reject traditional charging structures.

Open access publishing—the move to break down paywalls and make scientific research free to read—is upending the funding model for journals, at the behest of regulators and some big research funders, while online tools and the illicit Russian pirate-site Sci-Hub are taking readers.

Even Donald Trump’s administration in December began consulting on an executive order to “liberate” publicly funded research, according to people briefed on the process.

At risk is the profit powerhouse of Elsevier’s parent company, UK-listed Relx, Europe’s biggest media company by market capitalization, which reports its annual results on Thursday. The academic division’s £2.5 billion revenues are just a third of company turnover and grew at about 2 percent in 2018. But the chunky margins—roughly 37 percent—mean it accounted for 40 percent of Relx’s operating profit.

So far Elsevier has defied doomsayers who have claimed it is a structurally compromised business.

But only bad news, like cancelling the deals, seems to induce change.

But its willingness to experiment has increased markedly since Kumsal Bayazit, an Istanbul-born former management consultant, took over as chief executive last year. Admitting Elsevier’s transition to open access was too “slow,” she is now stepping up one of the big evolutions of the company’s history.

Several stalled negotiations over access to journals have been unblocked, including with Sweden’s Bibsam consortium of higher education and research institutions in November. One Bibsam member said “negotiations were dead” until Ms. Bayazit arrived and Elsevier’s team “received new directives from above.” “We understand the game—it was giving them bad publicity that we were managing without access to Elsevier journals,” the consortium member said.

Rivals such as German-owned Springer Nature and Informa’s Taylor Francis were quicker than Elsevier to experiment with different pay-to-publish models—the funding mechanism for open access papers. More than three-quarters of Springer Nature authors in Britain, Sweden, and the Netherlands now publish via free-to-read journals.

While Elsevier supported open access—for an additional article processing fee—it held out against demands from research institutions to bundle publishing rights with journal subscriptions for roughly the same overall contract price.

Jean-Claude Burgelman, the EU’s open access envoy, has noted “real U-turns” at big publishers of late. Recent draft deals, notably Elsevier’s with Dutch institutions in December, show how commercial value is moving from selling the end-product—the journal—to other services, such as data tools, offered to scientists during the research cycle.

“But only bad news, like cancelling the deals, seems to induce change,” he said at a conference last month.

Volunteers

Elsevier’s previous foot-dragging may be no surprise given the blessed commercial model of academic publishing. Typically scholars have submitted their research for free to publishers, who use volunteers to vet it, before selling the edited journals back, at a premium price, to the universities that footed the bill for the original scholarship.

While prominent funders such as the Wellcome Trust and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have backed moves to open access publishing, some academics have worried it could prevent their work appearing in the most prestigious journals, an important factor in career assessment.

One of the old system’s weak points was the university libraries. Elsevier executives note that their content budgets simply failed to keep up with the 3 to 4 percent increases in research funding, or the even bigger increases in Elsevier’s workload and output: it received 1.8 million submissions last year for 470,000 articles. “Tensions resulting from these issues have eroded trust between scholarly publishers and the research community that we serve,” said Ms. Bayazit last month. She even offered an extraordinary apology to librarians still angry over double-digit price rises in the 1980s and 1990s.

Ivy Anderson, co-chair of the University of California’s publishing negotiations team, which cancelled its $11 million contract with Elsevier in March, said at the time that academics were “getting fed up with high prices and paywall journals, they’re standing up and saying we are willing to bear the inconvenience [of not having journal access]”.

A “big deal”

Ms. Etschmaier’s “big deal” contract at FSU was by no means the largest of the 6,000 negotiated by Elsevier, nor the hardest; its disputes with the University of California and another with a consortium of 700 German institutions are more significant.

But FSU’s ability to cope is a vivid example of how the market is changing and eroding Elsevier’s pricing power. A study by Our Research, a non-profit supporter of open access publishing, found 31 percent of all journal articles in 2019 were outside of the traditional paywall.

Elsevier also tested a new approach in a draft deal with Dutch institutions, which potentially provides unlimited publishing rights and covers its analytics services and data tools for the first time.

This potentially creates a path for the company to recreate its indispensable position as a journal publisher in the business of providing academic research, from idea generation and funding to data collection and publication.

Thomas Singlehurst—an analyst at Citi who recently upgraded Relx’s shares to a buy—said the big question was whether Elsevier’s conciliatory tone would extend to accepting cut-price offers on its journals to encourage use of tools and services. “In short, we think it might be necessary to concede defeat on some battles to win the bigger longer-term war,” he said.

Copyright © 2020 The Financial Times Ltd. All rights reserved. Not to be redistributed, copied, or modified in any way.

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As Florida punishes schools, study finds masks cut school COVID outbreaks 3.5X

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Enlarge / A second-grade teacher talks to her class during the first day of school at Tustin Ranch Elementary School in Tustin, CA on Wednesday, August 11, 2021.

Schools with universal masking were 3.5 times less likely to have a COVID-19 outbreak and saw rates of child COVID-19 cases 50 percent lower in their counties compared with schools without mask requirements. That’s according to two new studies published Friday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The new data lands as masks continue to be a political and social flash point in the US. And children—many of whom are still ineligible for vaccination—have headed back into classrooms.

In one of the newly published studies, health researchers in Arizona looked at schools with and without mask policies in Maricopa and Pima Counties. Together, the counties account for more than 75 percent of the state’s population. The researchers identified 210 schools that had universal masking requirements from the start of their school years. They compared those to 480 schools that had no mask requirements throughout the study period, which ran from July 15 to August 30.

The researchers tallied 129 school-associated COVID-19 outbreaks in all of those schools during the study period. About 87.5 percent of the outbreaks were in schools without mask requirements. The researchers then ran an analysis, adjusting for school sizes, COVID-19 case rates in each school’s zip code, socioeconomics measures, and other factors. The researchers found that the odds of a school-associated COVID-19 outbreak were 3.5 times higher in the schools without mask requirements compared to those with universal masking.

In a separate study, CDC researchers tried to assess if schools’ mask policies have broader impacts for their communities—and they do. The researchers looked at county-level data on the rates of pediatric COVID-19 cases in 520 counties around the US. They compared rates of child COVID-19 cases in the week before and week after schools started their terms.

Though all counties generally saw increases in pediatric COVID-19 cases after schools started up, the counties with universally masked schools saw smaller bumps. For counties with school mask requirements, the average increase in case rates after schools started was 16.32 cases per 100,000 children per day. Counties without school mask requirements saw an average rate increase about twice as high—34.85 cases per 100,000 children per day.

Mask safety

The US continues to see a patchwork of mask use and other protective measures in schools as the 2021-2022 school year gets underway. Many schools in many states do not have universal masking requirements even though the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics both recommend universal masking in schools. In some states state leaders have prohibited schools from issuing mask requirements—and even penalized them for requiring masks.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is among the leaders who have banned mask mandates in schools. And, although the ban is being challenged in court, DeSantis is withholding money from school boards that have issued mask mandates anyway.

On Thursday, the US Department of Education announced that it had granted the school board of Florida’s Alachua County $147,719. The money is intended to “restore funding withheld by state leaders—such as salaries for school board members or superintendents who have had their pay cut—when a school district implemented strategies to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 in schools.”

In a statement, Alachua County Public School Superintendent Dr. Carlee Simon: “I’m very grateful to [US Secretary of Education Miguel] Cardona, President Biden and the federal government for the funding. But I’m even more grateful for their continued support and encouragement of our efforts to protect students and staff and to keep our schools open for in-person learning.”

Alachua is the first county in the nation to receive such funding, provided through the new Project to Support America’s Families and Educators (Project SAFE) grant program.

In a separate statement, education secretary Cardona said: “We should be thanking districts for using proven strategies that will keep schools open and safe, not punishing them. We stand with the dedicated educators in Alachua and across the country doing the right thing to protect their school communities.”

Public health experts say that masks are a critical tool to help protect children, teachers, and staff from the spread of the pandemic coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. Masks are intended to be one key layer of a multi-layered approach that also includes vaccination for those eligible, physical distancing when possible, improved ventilation, testing, quarantining, improved hygiene, and disinfection and cleaning.

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NASA seeks a new ride for astronauts to the Artemis launch pad

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Enlarge / NASA first began using the 1983-model Airstream for space shuttle missions in 1984.

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NASA has asked industry for ideas to develop an “Artemis Crew Transportation Vehicle” that will take its astronauts from suit-up facilities to the launch pad on launch day.

The space agency, of course, has not launched its own astronauts on a NASA-built vehicle since the end of the space shuttle program in 2011. From 1984 through the end of the shuttle era, the agency used a modified Airstream motor home, known as the “Astrovan,” to ferry crews to the launch pad. This iconic vehicle had a shiny, silvery exterior but a fairly spartan interior. “The current vehicle’s appeal is rooted in its tradition rather than its décor,” the agency acknowledged in 2011.

Now, NASA is gearing up for a new era of deep space exploration, and it plans to launch four astronauts at a time inside the Orion spacecraft, on top of a Space Launch System rocket. The first human flights on these vehicles could occur in late 2023 or early 2024, NASA administrator Bill Nelson recently said.

While it has taken literally decades and tens of billions of dollars to develop the spacecraft and rocket, NASA is hoping its launch pad ride can be furnished a little more quickly. In its solicitation, released Friday, NASA says its “Artemis CTV” should be delivered no later than June 2023.

NASA is considering three different options for the new vehicle. A provider can custom-build a vehicle, modify a commercially available vehicle, or repair and refurbish the venerable Astrovan.

As part of its solicitation, NASA has a lengthy list of requirements for its Artemis transport vehicle. Among them:

  • It must be a zero-emission vehicle, such as battery-electric, plug-in hybrid electric, or fuel cell electric
  • It must have a carrying capacity of eight passengers, including four fully suited astronauts
  • It must have extensive capacity for equipment, including large bags for helmets, ice-based cooling units, and more
  • Have sufficiently wide doors of 24 to 36 inches for ingress and egress by suited astronauts

According to Ars automotive editor Jonathan Gitlin, it is unlikely that any existing zero-emissions vehicle meets these requirements, even with modifications. Ford’s forthcoming electric Transit Van may come close, Gitlin added.

NASA astronauts Doug Hurley, Chris Ferguson, and Sandy Magnus inside the Astrovan in 2011.
Enlarge / NASA astronauts Doug Hurley, Chris Ferguson, and Sandy Magnus inside the Astrovan in 2011.

NASA

The best option, in fact, may be renovating the old Airstream. This is because the vehicle will not be called upon for particularly long journeys—it’s only a few kilometers to and from the launch pad—and this demand would be well within the capabilities of a couple Tesla drive units and a slab of batteries.

With the Artemis program, NASA is going back to the Moon like it did in the 1960s. It’s using a capsule design, not dissimilar to Apollo, and a large rocket with space shuttle main engines designed in the 1970s. So, why shouldn’t astronaut transport be retro, too?

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CDC director overrules experts, allows Pfizer boosters for health workers

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Enlarge / CDC Director Rochelle Walensky testifies during a Senate committee hearing in July 2021.

Just past midnight last night, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention overruled a committee of independent advisers, allowing for use of a Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine booster dose in people with increased risk of occupational and institutional exposure to the pandemic coronavirus. That includes health care workers, front-line workers, teachers, day care providers, grocery store workers, and people who work or live in prisons and homeless shelters, among others.

Hours earlier, the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) concluded a two-day meeting on booster recommendations—and voted 9-6 against recommending boosters for this group.

“As CDC Director, it is my job to recognize where our actions can have the greatest impact,” Director Rochelle Walensky said in a statement. “At CDC, we are tasked with analyzing complex, often imperfect data to make concrete recommendations that optimize health. In a pandemic, even with uncertainty, we must take actions that we anticipate will do the greatest good.”

She further noted that the inclusion of people at high risk of COVID-19 from occupational and institutional exposure “aligns with the FDA’s booster authorization.” The Food and Drug Administration last Wednesday issued an amended Emergency Use Authorization for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, which allowed booster doses for people 65 and older as well as people ages 18 to 64 who are at high risk of COVID-19 either from underlying medical conditions or occupational and institutional exposures.

Though the CDC’s advisory committee was torn over endorsing that use, they ultimately decided that the need was not there—vaccine effectiveness against severe disease and hospitalization remains very strong in those under age 65. And recommending boosters for anyone with a conceivable occupational or institutional risk could create a booster free-for-all.

By taking the unusual move to overrule the ACIP’s decisions, Walensky puts the booster efforts more in line with the Biden administration’s preliminary plans to offer booster doses to all vaccinated adults, starting this week.

Still, the current recommendations only apply to the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine and those who received that vaccine for their two-dose “primary series.” Those who initially received two doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine or one shot of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine are advised to wait for further booster data and recommendations.

For now, here are the CDC’s official recommendations of who should get a Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine booster—to be given at least six months after the primary Pfizer/BioNTech series. (Emphasis added by CDC).

  • people 65 years and older and residents in long-term care settings should receive a booster shot of Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine at least 6 months after their Pfizer-BioNTech primary series,
  • people ages 50–64 years with underlying medical conditions should receive a booster shot of Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine at least 6 months after their Pfizer-BioNTech primary series,
  • people ages 18–49 years with underlying medical conditions may receive a booster shot of Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine at least 6 months after their Pfizer-BioNTech primary series, based on their individual benefits and risks, and
  • people ages 18-64 years who are at increased risk for COVID-19 exposure and transmission because of occupational or institutional setting may receive a booster shot of Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine at least 6 months after their Pfizer-BioNTech primary series, based on their individual benefits and risks.
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