The road to Open Access is paved with unintended consequences

Maverick recently kicked off its new blog series on the topic of Sustainability in scholarly publishing with the post, Planning for the Future with Maverick’s Sustainability Program. In it, Maverick CEO, Rebecca Rinehart, explains how the concept of sustainability should be built into all aspects of the organization and at all levels of operations, including supply chains, accessibility standards, and workflows. A forward-looking sustainability strategy equips publishers with the tools to make data-driven decisions that allow them to adapt and have some control over the future. In this newest post in the series, Maverick Senior Associate, Jayne Marks, explores the rise in popularity of transformative agreements and the implications for small publishers, societies, and libraries.

There are clear guidelines published by CoalitionS for the implementation of PlanS. These provide the framework for so-called transformative agreements, which are designed to move journals from the current hybrid model to full open access. The agreements are negotiated between publishers and library consortia and aim to cap the spending on the traditional subscription portion of a journal whilst allowing the authors in that consortium to publish their journals open access for no charge, so they are often called “read and publish deals.”

An alternative model takes this one step further and places the whole cost of the deal on the articles to be published by the institutions’ authors while the subscription element of the content is provided for free. These are typically called “publish and read” deals and can be particularly challenging for publishers who have content areas not typically funded for open access publishing, such as humanities, mathematics, or nursing for example. The overall goal of both models is to support publishers as they move to fully open access and give librarians clarity about costs.

So how are they working? The large commercial publishers have undoubtedly embraced the opportunity to engage with large consortia and barely a day goes by without another transformative deal being announced. However, there are no standard models and deals sometimes include just a sub-set of the publisher’s journals; sometimes they include a collection of Gold OA journals for which the library pays author processing charges (APCs) and sometimes these charges are excluded or uncapped. Some deals include only a set number of open articles for consortia authors so there has to be a payment approval mechanism and close monitoring.

As a consequence of this complexity, new systems have been developed and are being integrated into the publishing system to manage the implementation of each transformative deal with the unique terms of each deal having to be set up individually. And the negotiation process between publisher and consortium requires the provision of a lot of data which then has to be validated and agreed upon. For example, the number of previous papers published by authors in those institutions – corresponding authors or all authors? – with their funder ID’s if possible, the kind of article and where were they published.

It is perhaps not surprising that the larger publishers are well ahead in signing their transformative agreements with smaller publishers and societies finding it increasingly difficult to keep up.  Simply getting to the negotiating table to talk to most consortia is a challenge because consortium managers have a priority list to secure all of the big deals first.  And then there is the provision of the data and the ability once a deal is done to manage the complex implementation.

In the light of these challenges many smaller publishers and societies have decided to postpone working on these deals for the time being. The danger here is that they then start to lose out. Some societies have shared with us their worries that in regions covered by major transformative deals with the larger commercial publishers they are now starting to see the submission of articles to their journals decline. It is easier and less costly for an author to choose a journal where their APC is going to be covered, even their billing process is seamless, rather than in a society publication where they might have to fund the cost of an APC.

What can be done to help mitigate these challenges?  ALPSP and CoalitionS have developed a set of principles and a tool kit. These have been developed by a group of smaller independent publishers and librarians and are designed to help facilitate the conversation between the two sides. The tool kit comprises a template license and a spreadsheet with all of the data that a librarian might need to review an offer from a publisher. This includes the usual data about subscriptions held but also includes a suite of data points about the previous published papers from that institution’s researchers, such as title and type of paper, Orcid ID of author, and funder ID.

Looking at the volume of data required suggests this will still be something of a challenge for smaller publishers, particularly as the data required comes from multiple publishers’ systems.  Even with all the required data, smaller publishers can find that they just don’t have enough published content from a specific institution to make an offer attractive and the deal will fall back to a traditional subscription deal.

The way forward for smaller publishers seems to have three possibilities. One is to push hard to grow the volume of content being published as open access to become more attractive to do a deal.  Secondly, being prepared to put an attractive offer on the table to at least secure a deal even if that means a lower revenue return to the publisher. And lastly to abandon the idea of a transformative agreement and pursue other models such as the Subscribe to Open model being promoted by Annual Reviews.

These challenges are leading some independent societies to rethink their strategy of staying self-published and they are starting to explore the option of moving to a commercial publisher. But there are implications for societies who are part of commercial publishers, and we will explore these in Part 2 of this spotlight on transformative agreements.

To learn more, download Maverick’s Sustainability Program service sheet.


By Jayne Marks, Maverick Senior Associate

Jayne Marks brings over 40 years of scholarly publishing experience to Maverick.  She has worked at senior levels in a variety of companies helping to devise and deliver on business strategies tailored for different markets.  Throughout her career Jayne has responded to ever changing market environments by developing new product, sales, or content strategies to maximize new opportunities. Jayne’s primary focus has been on understanding the needs of the customers and markets that her products serve and ensuring they evolve to meet changing needs.