(Bloomberg Opinion) -- For almost two decades, a battle has been raging over access to scholarly research. On the one side have been scholars, librarians, funders and others arguing that in an age of near-costless global communication, research findings and the data that underlie them should be shared freely and openly. On the other side have been publishers, led by Elsevier, a (very large) unit of under-the-radar London-based media giant RELX Plc,(2) fighting to maintain the remarkable profit margins that paywalled scholarly journals can provide.

That’s the simple version, at least — things have always been a little more complicated than that. But it was still jarring to observe this week in Berlin how much the battle lines have shifted.

An executive with Wiley, the third-largest academic journal publisher by revenue, got up in front of the room at the APE (which originally stood for Academic Publishing in Europe) 2020 conference to extol his company’s commitment to “open access, open data, open practices, open collaboration, open recognition and reward.” A counterpart from Springer Nature, the No. 2 publisher, proudly reeled off the paywall-free share of the papers published in Springer journals by researchers from various countries — Sweden was the champ, at 90%. And Kumsal Bayazit, who took over as chief executive officer of Elsevier last February amid tense standoffs between the company and pro-open-access university systems in Germany, California and elsewhere, declared that “Elsevier fully supports open access, as I think is the case for all scholarly publishers today.”

What happened?!? Partly it’s the forward march of digital progress (or disruption, or destruction), which Michael Mabe, the recently retired CEO of industry trade association STM, predicted will render “subscription models and content control by copyright ... untenable by 2030.” Partly it’s the European Union’s Plan S, which will require research funded by public grants to be published without paywalls starting next year. But it’s also that some universities and other research institutions in Europe came up with a plan for taking down subscription paywalls but continuing to pay publishers for what they do. “The key idea was to detach spending flows from subscriptions and reattach them to publishing services,” said Ralf Schimmer, the director of scientific information provision at the Max Planck Digital Library in Munich since 1999.

The Max Planck Digital Library serves the Max Planck Institutes, a network of government-funded research centers in Germany that has played a central role in the open-access movement, starting with a 2003 conference in Berlin that resulted in a declaration that has since been endorsed by 648 universities and other research organizations from around the world. At 12 subsequent “Berlin conferences” (not all of them in Berlin), university administrators, librarians, nonprofit publishers and others honed their approach.

This approach did not involve, as some open-access fans advocate, doing away with publishing middlemen and putting scholars in charge of the process. “I say open and clear that we want to destroy the subscription system, but I’ve never said we want to destroy the publishers,” Schimmer told me. “I find the idea that the research community could do the publishing itself to be utterly naive. Why should libraries or academia do a better job than publishers?”

Adherents of the Berlin approach have aimed instead to flip university library subscription contracts for academic journals into “publish and read” or “transformative” deals in which approximately the same amount of money finances both (1) paywall-free publication of articles by that university’s faculty and (2) access to still-paywalled articles. Berlin-based Springer was the first of the big publishers to agree to a deal tending in this direction, with the Dutch university system in 2014. Since then it, Wiley and other publishers have signed dozens more. Elsevier has agreed to a few such deals, too, most recently with Carnegie Mellon University and the Dutch universities. It has been most notable, however, for its negotiation breakdowns with the Max Planck Institutes, Germany’s universities and the University of California system, among others. The UC system let its Elsevier subscription agreement lapse early last year when it couldn’t agree with the company on the pricing of a publish-and-read deal, and has been making do without access to new Elsevier publications ever since.

Bayazit, a UC Berkeley graduate who is new to academic publishing but not to RELX, has been making the rounds of universities and clearly signaling that Elsevier is dialing down its confrontational approach. It did not escape notice at the APE conference that three of the four biggest academic publishers — Elsevier, Wiley’s research-publishing arm and No. 4 Taylor & Francis, a division of Informa Plc — are now run by women with no background in academic publishing. A new era seems to be dawning for the industry, and it has been reshuffling its leadership to meet it.

That this new era may end up being dominated by the same big publishing companies that dominated the previous one is, of course, not going to be met with universal acclaim in academia. The turn to open access may well squeeze publishing profit margins, as those who don’t produce much research but do read it (lower-tier colleges and universities, practitioners) find they can do without subscriptions. But Elsevier in particular has been gearing up for years to reposition itself as a data analytics provider. A report prepared last year for the pro-open-access Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition speculated that these efforts could reap big profits and give the company even more influence over universities than it wields now. When I ran these concerns by Schimmer, he nodded and said, “They are too good, and the academic community is just too divided.” In other words, getting to open access was hard enough. Completely reinventing the relationship between universities and the companies that profit from providing services to them was a bridge too far.

(1) RELX has a market capitalization of about $50 billion, almost six times that of, just to name one example, Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.

To contact the author of this story: Justin Fox at justinfox@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.