‘The Dutch Approach’

Josephine Scholten

Despite its relatively small size, the Netherlands is one of the fastest growing open access countries in the world. What is the secret of ‘the Dutch approach’? An overview of a number of success factors and some criticism.


‘Looking back on recent months and how the entire process took shape, I would like to identify four success factors’, said Josephine Scholten, director of the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU).


Unique bargaining model


‘The agreement is a great example of what can be achieved when all the universities work together and stand their ground.’


The above quote is from Gerard Meijer at Voxweb, shortly after the announcement of the significant agreement with Elsevier. Meijer, Becking and Winter had the privilege of being chosen to negotiate with the publishers on behalf of all research universities and universities of applied sciences in the Netherlands, all university libraries, and the National Library of the Netherlands (KB). That is, on behalf of the Netherlands as a whole.


Although there are also forms of collective negotiating by a consortium in other countries, it often takes a different form there. Sometimes consortiums negotiate by region, such as in Spain and America. In a country like France, for example, both the initial and the negotiations themselves take place at the government level. The United Kingdom and Austria, for instance, have chosen for collective bargaining by a representative organisation established for this purpose. The Dutch bargaining model made it possible to create momentum. This considerably strengthened the power and position of the negotiators at the negotiating table.




Clear political support


‘My goal is to complete the full transition to Open Access Gold Road in ten years, i.e., by 2024. To achieve this, in five years at least 60 per cent of scientific journal publications should be available through Open Access.’


The above quote is from State Secretary Sander Dekker, in his letter to the Lower House of the Dutch Parliament on November 15, 2013. More than two months later, the Netherlands reveals plans for the EU presidency in the spring of 2016, and open access is made a focal point. The aim is to give open access a boost during that period, both nationally and internationally. On March 23, 2015, the State Secretary also wrote a non-paper with his British counterpart Greg Clark to appeal to other European education ministers to also commit themselves to open access. The two ministers state that it will only be possible to force publishers to move to an open access publication model with cross-European coordination. This political support is a boost for the negotiators.


Political support for open access is also clear in a European context, as reflected in the Joint Statement of Commissioner Moedas and State Secretary Sander Dekker.


A powerful delegation


Contrary to normal practice, the VSNU and UKB (a consortium of thirteen Dutch university libraries and the National Library of the Netherlands) took negotiations to the highest administrative level. Whereas normally, the boards of the libraries are expected to meet with the publishers, this is now done by a number of Executive Board Presidents of universities, who negotiate through the VSNU, with the mandate of all universities and university libraries, and with the support of SURF. This means that there is attention for the subject at the highest administrative level from the outset. This strong foundation has made it possible to negotiate at a different strategic level.




Fidelity to principles


‘We are willing to pay publishers for the work they do, but Elsevier’s profit margin is approaching 40 percent, and universities have to do the (editing) work and pay for it. We aren’t going to accept it any longer. I think from the fact that Elsevier is not willing to move much, they simply still don’t believe it. Well, they got us wrong.’


This quote from VSNU negotiator Gerard Meijer (President of the Executive Board of Radboud University) in an article by Times Higher Education (THE) illustrates the steadfastness of the Dutch efforts during the sometimes difficult negotiations with eight major scientific publishers. Or, as Times Higher Education put it: ‘Professor Meijer insisted that Dutch universities were determined not to bend’.


The principles of the Dutch negotiating team were as clear as glass from the outset, and these principles will not be compromised. For example, in the eyes of the Dutch Universities, the transition to open access should be budget neutral. ‘This means that we do not want to pay extra for open access publishing’, Robert van der Vooren, open access project coordinator at the VSNU, explains the Dutch standpoint.


Where Research Libraries UK came no further than a compromise during similar negotiations with Elsevier in 2011, the VSNU negotiators got what they set out to achieve as a result of their steadfastness. ‘The percentage of open access publications published in Elsevier journals is increasing annually by ten per cent. And this is at no additional cost to universities or the Netherlands for open access.’



Critical voices


Besides all the praise for the Dutch approach, there are also critical voices. For example, on the question of why the Netherlands has opted for gold and not for green. NRC Handelsblad noted that apart from the Netherlands, no other country has expressly opted for the gold route. Countries like Germany, Denmark and the US, but also the large EU research programme ‘Horizon 2020’, have chosen for ‘green’. Also, according to some people, the gold route is more expensive. Moreover, the prepayment model would result in ‘a storm of ghost journals, luring researchers to publish (i.e. pay) but offer nothing in return’.


Other critics point to the need to increase the Dutch scale. ‘I sincerely applaud the courageous leadership role played by the Netherlands in this discussion, but at the same time I urge the country to prioritise an international, preferably European, strategy wherever possible. With its Horizon 2020 budget of over 70 billion euros, the EU is capable of a much stronger stand than we can take alone. It is also important that not just governments, but the large research organisations as well, make as concerted an effort as possible, said Hans Clevers, in his farewell address at the KNAW.



All eyes on the Dutch


People abroad are following the Dutch with interest, and publications regularly appear in the international media about ‘The Dutch approach’.


Dutch lead European push to flip journals to open access’, Nature headlined on 6 January 2016. The article attaches great importance to the ‘big deals’ that negotiators have made with publishers. According to Paul Ayris, head of library services at University College London, the results of these deals can even be considered ‘a great step forward to an OA world’.


Dutch universities dig in for long fight over open access’, according to an article by Times Higher Education (THE) <  > of 8 January 2015. The article pays ample attention to the principled stance and steadfastness of the Dutch negotiators: ‘Gerard Meijer, president of Radboud University and one of the lead negotiators for the Dutch universities, said that in addition to preserving access to their subscription journals, the universities wanted publishers to permit all future articles whose corresponding author has a Dutch affiliation to be published on an open access basis for no extra charge. He said universities were also unwilling to tolerate any more above-inflation price rises.’


‘Publishers should work together with academia’


Liam EarneyLiam Earney is director of Jisc Collections, the British not-for-profit organisation for digital services and solutions for higher education. How does he view ‘the Dutch approach’?


How do you see the role of the Netherlands in the fight for open access?

‘The Netherlands is certainly a pioneer on the path to gold open access. Not only because there is strong support from the government and other relevant authorities in the Netherlands, but also because it is clearly aiming to achieve open access within a certain period. In particular, the emphasis on obtaining open access as an essential part of a subscription to scientific journals, at little or no additional cost, means that the Netherlands is in the forefront of countries choosing this approach as one of the routes to open access.’


How would you define ‘the Dutch approach’?

‘I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it is a typical Dutch approach, as there are many similarities with the approach in countries like England and Austria. I do believe that this is the first time that all stakeholders (government, funders of scientific research and universities) are on the same page at the highest level when it comes to the specific approach of aiming for gold open access within existing subscription agreements with publishers. This commitment is warmly welcomed by anyone who believes that open access is part of the core mission of universities.’


What is the next step on the international level?

‘Although there is already considerable support for open access at the European level, I would still like to encourage all scientific publishers to work together with the European academic community and make agreements regarding open access as soon as possible. I encourage them to do so in such a way that the key features of research communication remain protected and where new technological opportunities are exploited. For example, text and data mining are very cost effective, transparent and provide a new landscape for scientific research in Europe.’

The following steering committee coordinates the process towards open access:


Gerard Meijer

(Radboud University)


Marcel Levi

(AMC Amsterdam) on behalf of the NFU


Jaap Winter

(VU University Amsterdam)

Koen Becking

(Tilburg University)


Maria Heijne

(University of Amsterdam) on behalf of the UKB


Jan Bakker



Josephine Scholten