Toward a New Kind of ‘Big Deal’

University librarians and some academic publishers are optimistic about the possibility of reaching new agreements to make more academic articles fully open, but they acknowledge many challenges ahead.

August 30, 2019
 

WASHINGTON -- Making the transition from paying to read to paying to publish academic research won’t be easy for universities or publishers. But it is possible, attendees at an open-access-publishing event were told Thursday.

The University of California, which canceled its “big deal” with publisher Elsevier earlier this year after negotiations to establish a new agreement broke down, hosted a public forum discussing how libraries, publishers and funders can support a system where all research articles are made free to read at the time of publication -- a standard known as gold open access.

So-called transformative agreements, which increase gold open access and shift payments away from the traditional subscription model, will be essential to accelerating the progress of the open-access movement, said Jeff MacKie-Mason, university librarian at UC Berkeley.

“The open-access movement has been around for 25 years, and still just 15 percent of articles are fully open at the time of publication,” MacKie-Mason said at the event. But transformative agreements offer an opportunity to “tip the scales towards full open access in our lifetime,” he said.

An increasing number of university librarians have expressed interest in pursuing transformative agreements, but what can and can’t be sustainably achieved is still being explored, said Kellie O’Rourke, head of library sales for the Americas at Cambridge University Press.

In the past year, Cambridge Press has reached half a dozen new agreements with institutions, including the University of California, said O’Rourke. “Our leadership has embraced an open research future. The question is, how are we going to get there?”

Who should pay for open access is a perennial question in discussions on this topic. In the humanities and social sciences, less financial support is available from research funders to cover open-access publishing costs than in the sciences, said O’Rourke. There are also questions about how to support long-form content such as monographs, she said. While wealthy institutions may be able to shoulder the cost of making articles open access, several audience members questioned how smaller institutions globally would pay to publish their research.

Ivy Anderson, director of the California Digital Library, said research funders, institutions and publishers can work together to find solutions to these challenges. At the University of California, money that was formerly used to pay for subscriptions will cover article-processing charges and be used to support open-access publishing initiatives.

“We’re devoting a lot of resources to make this work. A lot of systems need to be tweaked to support the model we’re interested in,” said Anderson. “We’re setting a foundation for the future, and we have to invent as we go along. This is exciting, but very intense, work.”

Complex Negotiations

Judy Verses, executive vice president of research at publisher Wiley & Sons, said negotiating a transformative deal can’t happen overnight. The publisher’s agreement with Projekt Deal -- a consortium of research institutions in Germany -- was a “three-year journey,” she said.

“It’s not because we were moving slowly -- these are highly complex negotiations,” she said. Shifting the way payments are made necessitates significant changes in workflows and processes not only on the publisher side but on the institutional side. “There are different flavors of deals -- there is no one-size-fits-all.”

Reaching boutique deals with every single institution, or multiple consortia, is something that concerns Verses. “The current system isn’t scalable,” she said.

Both O’Rourke and Verses said it has been interesting to see how their relationships with institutions have changed since they started to work on these transformative deals. “We already aimed toward a partnership interaction, but now we’re really working together to make this happen,” said O’Rourke.

Keith Webster, dean of university libraries at Carnegie Mellon University, said he is currently engaged in “productive conversations” with Elsevier. The two parties are making positive progress toward a transformative deal, which he hopes to announce soon.

When negotiations between Elsevier and the UC system broke down, Webster said he worked quickly to accelerate his negotiations with Elsevier and communicate to the campus that if discussions with the publisher didn’t go well, they too could end up in a “no-deal situation” -- a prospect that concerned many on campus, he said.

Robert May, chair of the UC Academic Senate, said that frequent communication between the library, administration, faculty and students had prepared them for the possibility that no deal would be reached.

“We had to really boil down the message,” he said. “We would say things like, 'OA is when you pay to publish, you don’t pay to read.' Then we could get down into the details of how this works financially, the contract, etc.”

Both the UC system and Elsevier have pointed fingers at each other for failing to reach an agreement. Earlier this month, Elsevier wrote a letter to the UC Board of Regents that pushed back on “several inaccuracies and incorrect statements” made by UC library leaders about the company’s negotiating position, including that the publisher wanted to charge the library substantially more than it is already paying.

“This is simply untrue,” said the letter. “Notwithstanding a 5 percent annual increase in published scientific output, Elsevier agreed to hold prices flat, accounting for inflation over any multiyear term, and to fully subsidize a five-fold increase in open-access publishing for the UC. We did not ask to charge more.”

MacKie-Mason said the UC library calculated and reported correctly how much the library would have to pay to reach 100 percent open access, which is what they wanted to achieve from the outset. Elsevier did make the offer it describes in the letter, but this was based on only 30 percent open access, he said. The UC Library published a statement addressing the details of the negotiation earlier this month. 

Both parties have said they are willing to re-enter negotiations.

Consolidation on the Horizon?

Several representatives of society publishers at the meeting raised concern about how shifting to a model of paying to publish, rather than paying to read, would impact their business.

Scott Delman, director of publications for the Association for Computing Machinery, said that his organization publishes a large number of articles from a relatively small pool of institutions, which would need to pay substantially more under a pay to publish model. “We have a basic business problem,” he said.

Kamran Naim, director of partnerships and initiatives at Annual Reviews, said that shifting to a pay to publish model wouldn’t work for his organization, as they invite authors to write reviews for them. “Asking an author to write for you and then asking them to pay would seem like bad manners,” he said.

Instead, Naim is spearheading a campaign called Subscribe to Open, which asks libraries to support open-access publication. Content is only made open if enough libraries subscribe, he explained. The case to make articles open access is clear -- usage of the Annual Review of Public Health doubled in one month after it secured a grant to make its articles open access, said Naim.

Curtis Brundy, associate university librarian for scholarly communications and collections at Iowa State University, said that finding a path for smaller publishers to a fully open-access model is a “big challenge.”

“A lot of the focus of this discussion had been on big publishers,” said Brundy. But he worries many smaller publishers and society publishers could end up teaming with big publishers to stay in business.

“We don’t want to minimize diversity in the publishing landscape.”

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