Transformational OA agreements: help or hindrance?

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Many say open access funding agreements will tip the balance of publishing output. But not everyone, reports Rebecca Pool

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Covid-19 has been something of a double-edged sword for open access (OA). While the pandemic has highlighted the importance of all things open, its relentless virus continues to swallow up more and more of the community's scholarly budgets, making affordable routes to paying for OA as important as ever.

Liam Earney, executive director, digital resources at Jisc, couldn't agree more. Pointing to the swift deposits of the very latest virus research from Imperial College London into its repository, he says: ‘This is just one example of how the pandemic has demonstrated the importance of open access, open science and more. We've seen a strong restatement of universities' commitment to open science in response to the pandemic.’

But, as he also highlights, institution budgets have been extraordinarily stretched during this time. ‘Beyond a loss of international student funds, [universities] have had to deliver online and offline learning experiences, ensuring for example, textbook access, digital learning and software applications – all institutions have had to respond to any number of pressures,’ he adds.

Given this, the ongoing Elsevier contract negotiations with 157 UK universities clearly come at a critical time. Overseen by Jisc since February this year, UK universities started negotiations with Elsevier to reduce costs to levels they can sustain and to provide full and immediate open access to UK research.

Elsevier is the world's largest academic publisher and is the biggest venue for UK scholarly publishing. Negotiations precede the end of the UK's largest subscription deal – the Elsevier ScienceDirect Journals agreement – a five-year contract that ends on 31 December 2021 and only has a small OA component. Indeed, as Earney says: ‘It's probably fair to say that we would have liked a much larger open access component at the time.’

In the meantime, key UK publishers, including Springer Nature, Wiley, Taylor and Francis, SAGE, Oxford University Press and IOP Publishing have been busy signing so-called read-and-publish contracts. In these 'transformative agreements', publisher payments for reading and publishing are bundled into a single contract rather than being addressed ad hoc by the author choosing OA publishing. As such, transformative agreements should make publishing processes easier and more financially viable, and help both institutions and authors tip the balance of publishing output towards open access.

At the time of writing, Elsevier is the only remaining UK publisher not to have signed a transformative agreement in the UK. According to Earney: ‘Negotiations are constructive and hard... We have a very ambitious set of objectives and are under no illusion that these will be easy to achieve.’

However, the recent landmark, four-year open access deal between Elsevier and the University of California (UC) bodes well. Back in February 2019, the mammoth ten-campus system boycotted Elsevier over high journal costs and open access fees. Come July 2020, negotiations returned and in March this year, a four-year deal was signed in which all research with a UC lead author published in Elsevier's hybrid and open access journals will be open access, by default.

Elsevier CEO, Kumsal Bayazit, described the agreement as a 'real win for world-class researchers across the UC system... we can test and learn from author choices and enable a sustainable transition to universal open access to UC research.'

Only time will tell if the UK sees a similar result. But as Earney points out: ‘Building on other agreements we've seen in Northern Europe and now in California, Elsevier's position on open access seems to have changed. The University of California is research intensive and is a big consortium to reach such an agreement with – this is telling and gives us a degree of optimism.’

Earney is also keen to highlight how during their negotiations, Jisc and partners are not asking Elsevier for anything that other publishers haven't already committed to. ‘From our perspective we are seeking to bring our Elsevier agreement into alignment and consistency with other agreements we have in place with major publishers,’ he says. ‘If we can't reach an acceptable conclusion by the end of this year we will continue to push until we do have an acceptable arrangement.’

If Elsevier signs an agreement, then alongside the existing UK university read-and-publish deals, around 80 per cent of UK research output will be covered by a Jisc negotiated OA agreement. ‘We’ve now got to the point where we have agreements with most of the big publishers and now we can push on to work with that large number of smaller but equally important publishers,’ says Earney. ‘The finishing line will be in sight, and we can start to actively plan for a fully open access future from a UK perspective.’

Still, not everyone is keen on the recent raft of read-and-publish agreements. Founded in 2007, Frontiers is an open access publisher of peer-reviewed scientific articles. According to its website, as of 2020 it had published 185,000 articles across 103 journals, had one billion article views and downloads, and Scimago statistics indicated it was the fifth most cited publisher.

However, as Fred Fenter, executive director, says: ‘A lot of the time, Read-and-Publish deals have very little true transformative potential but are often wrapped in the language of Plan S. I remember hearing about Plan S [with colleagues] and we were all saying, “Yes, there's finally a movement, a systemic shock”,’ he adds. ‘But Plan S has largely been derailed and distracted by all the discussion around transformative agreements.’

For his part, Fenter believes transformative agreements are concentrating the market with publishers that are able to negotiate such agreements while libraries and researchers are not receiving real cost-savings. At the same time, he reckons costs are becoming less transparent with 'complicated' Read-and-Publish agreements obscuring the detail behind the deals.

‘I cannot help but think some of these transformative agreements are a commercial tactic to extend the status quo of maintaining revenue streams of the large publishers for another five years,’ he adds. ‘And when this time is over, they may shrug and say, “well five years wasn't realistic for a full transformation to open access”.’

Fenter's colleague, Stephan Kuster, head of institutional relations, concurs, and highlights how institutions, funders and academic institutions need to adhere to the Plan S principles. ‘If a transformative agreement is considered to be compliant to Plan S as a transition of four years, then you just don't need to renew that agreement after those four years,’ he says. ‘Swedish libraries [have already said] they are doing this.’

Kuster also believes that more agreements with fully OA publishers that are already compliant with Plan S need to take place to balance the OA landscape: ‘If these two things happened then we could reach the tipping point – maybe not by 2024 but in the next five to six years. Otherwise... it's more kicking the can down the road for another five years.’

Both Kuster and Fenter believe that pure OA publishers, as well as smaller publishers, are being side-lined when it comes to negotiating agreements as libraries are devoting resources to larger players. ‘I’ve heard other publishers say that when they contact a library to discuss an agreement, [that library] says their mandate is to negotiate with the five largest publishers,’ says Fenter. ‘We all feel that we need to get a seat at the table so we can negotiate these deals with institutions.’

Fenter's sentiments on the struggles of publishers beyond the big five are not a world away from those of Alicia Wise, director of Information Power and co-author of the recently published How to Enable Smaller Independent publishers to Participate in OA Agreements. The report looks at the challenges faced by smaller independent publishers when negotiating and implementing OA agreements with consortia/libraries. Since its publication, seven key stakeholders including Jisc, cOAlition S, LYRASIS and the Center for Research Libraries, have signed an agreement to support the transition of smaller independent publishers to sustainable, equitable and immediate open access publishing models.

As Wise and colleagues point out, these publishers lack the resources and scale of the largest publishers. They also suggest more care is needed from libraries and consortia to ensure independent society publishers and university presses are not irreparably damaged.

'[Smaller publishers] sometimes struggle to get the time with libraries and consortia because consortia in particular have always prioritised the largest publishers for understandable reasons,’ says Wise. ‘But now OA agreements are bundling together subscription spend and open access expenditure, it's getting critical for smaller players to get that time with consortia.’

Wise also highlights that this will raise challenges from each side: ‘Consortia are pretty tightly run ships and there's a huge long tail of publishers for them to work with while smaller publishers haven't got experience of selling directly to library consortia. Our report recommends that some standards work could be done between consortia and publishers... and tools could be designed to help them.’

The report also recommends that funders could take steps to enable OA funding to be aggregated through universities and libraries, rather than disseminating OA funds to individual researchers via grants. ‘This would bring greater transparency and accountability of how funds are spent and would also enable more universities and libraries to enter into OA agreements with publishers of all sizes,’ points out Wise. ‘All publishers are vital in the transition to open access... if we want a worldwide transition to OA, we need to carry all authors, all publishers, all libraries and funders with us into the future – everyone has an important role.’

Room for many models

Oxford University Press started to fully embrace open access research back in 2005, when it converted its hybrid journal, Nucleic Acids Research, to a fully open access publication. Since this time, the publisher, recognised as the largest university press in the world, has seen gold OA grow dramatically, both through hybrid journals and fully open access journals. 

Recently, OUP has signed 20 read-and-publish deals, including a contract with the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 2020. But as Lucy Oates, senior publisher in OUP's OA Strategy team highlights: ‘I certainly don't see a one size fits all approach to open access – we see a collaborative approach as the way forward.’

‘We know that there are different approaches to publishing open access, and I think this is an area where it's important to be aware of the sensitivities of different market players,’ she says. ‘The more options there are for authors to have access to funding and the more options there are for authors to comply quickly and easily with an OA policy, the more this will help support the whole complex research ecosystem.’

However, Oates does see read-and-publish deals as an important stepping stone to open access , and believes the agreements open a door to researchers that may not have had access to OA in the past. ‘read-and-publish deals are complex but hopefully for an author they are a simple proposition and enable [easier] compliance to open access publishing,’ she says. ‘I think the degree to which a Read-and-Publish deal can help individual institutions will vary... but transitional agreements in general can provide the ability for more institutions to switch to open access.’

In a similar vein, Jisc's Earney, while embroiled in negotiating read-and-publish deals with large for-profit publishers, asserts the need for a balanced approach to achieve open access. Highlighting how 'it's not just about these big read-and-publish' deals, he wholeheartedly agrees that a diverse set of publishing arrangements with a variety of publishers is critical for the community's diversity and a sustainable transition toward OA.

‘One of the main reasons for transitional agreements and bringing costs under control is to free up OA funds that can then be used to support a broader range of publishers,’ he says.

‘I do think relationships with the big publishers will continue to be important for many of Jisc's members,’ he concludes. ‘But these will be more sustainable and equitable, and less like “here's last year's bill plus three per cent”.’