Journal transparency – the new Journal Comparison Service from PlanS

As part of Maverick’s blog series on Sustainability, Senior Associate Jayne Marks explored the rising popularity of transformative agreements and the implications for small publishers, societies, and libraries in her post, “The road to Open Access is paved with unintended consequences – Part 1.” In Part 2, she explains the new Journal Comparison Service from PlanS and its role in providing greater transparency regarding the services publishers provide and their fees.

At a recent STM Association webinar, Robert Kiley, Head of Open Research at the Wellcome Trust, presented an informative overview of the new Journal Comparison Service from PlanS. He stated that the goal of this new tool is to meet the needs of the research community who “have called for greater transparency regarding the services publishers provide and the fees they charge. Many publishers are willing to be responsive to this need, but until now there was no standardised or secure way for publishers to share this information with their customers.” Publishers of scholarly journals are invited to upload data on their journals – one data set for each journal. The cOAlition S Publisher’s Guide  points out that the data is all information that publishers already have in some form, and it will need to be uploaded every year for the previous year.

There are two versions of data that can be supplied and I took a look at the version developed by Information Power (see for the details and an FAQ). There are 34 fields, including basic journal identifiers plus additional information in three broad categories: prices (APC data; subscription prices plus discount policies); editorial data (acceptance rates, peer review times, Counter 5 data); and costs (price and service information).

This last area is somewhat difficult to understand; these are the instructions in the guide for publishers:

“Section 3: Price and service information (columns AA – AH):
Overheads and profit/surplus should be distributed evenly across columns AA through AH, and the total of these columns should add to 100 (or zero for Diamond journals where no payments are received). All are required fields. For society-owned journals published by a partner, both organizations are likely to need to provide information. Be sure to factor in the percentage of price for each organization in columns AA through AH. For example, societies might receive payments for their development of the journal (column AA), their contributions to peer review (column AC), etc. Any one-off costs should be amortized over the lifetime of the agreement and the relevant portion for the reporting period included in the relevant column.”

When I first looked at the detail of the numbers that are required in some of these fields, it is clear that although publishers might have this data, it is highly unlikely to be disaggregated down to the level of the journal. And this challenge will get more complex for larger publishers. For example, Section 3 includes the costs for platform hosting and one-off development costs to quote just two. How are publishers to allocate these costs to specific journals?

And the sales and marketing section includes this request:

“Please include all sales and marketing activities (i.e., sales teams, sales administration, legal costs for contracts, negotiations with consortia and libraries, sales agents, invoicing, payments collection, debt recovery, bad debt write-offs, integration with and promotion on social media networks, sponsorship).”

As a previous publisher of a portfolio of journals, I know that allocating these kinds of costs back to a specific journal is at best a guesstimate and very unlikely to be accurate and comparable.

The webinar included a contribution from Rod Cookson, CEO of International Water Association (IWA) Publishing.  Rod has been an advocate for transparency and helped to create the tool kit for publishers who want to negotiate transformative agreements ( Rod reported that it had taken 6 people 2-3 months to gather the data to complete the 34 fields in the comparison tool.  IWA Publishing publishes 14 journals.

So, I reached out to Alicia Wise from Information Power for some guidance, and it seems that I was making this way more complicated than it is intended to be. For the price and service information, the form is not looking for absolute numbers but rather an indication of effort. As Alicia put it, “If there are 8 columns start by assigning 12.5% to each column and then adjust up and down by the amount of effort that you believe you are assigning to this journal in each area.” This was  much more simple than I had assumed and likely to be much easier to complete than you might think at first.  What is also helpful is that there is space to add commentary to explain what goes into each area.

There were a couple of key questions asked of Robert Kiley in the webinar. The first was regarding the security of the data that a publisher uploads. The group was assured that only librarians can access the journal comparison tool – researchers are barred as they might also be editors of journals. However, librarians can download data that they have searched for and we have to trust that signing an agreement to use the tool will be sufficient to prevent them from sharing the data with colleagues.  For example, it was made clear that in an organization that is both a library and a publisher – e.g., MIT – the nominated person for the data upload and searching cannot be the same for each side of the tool.

The second question was who is going to find all this data useful? And do we really need to provide all of the data points to provide a useable service? There are some optional fields, but I could not identify many of these.

So, I was left wondering who is going to take the time to upload all of this data, especially if they think it is a detailed financial exercise?  And once it is populated, who is going to use the service and to do what?  It is intended to give people the information to judge the value of a specific journal’s APC. But surely that is the author of the paper, and they will not have access to this data.  It may be that I have misunderstood the role of the librarian in guiding author choice so please let me know if you have started to use this tool and has it been helpful? If there are additional questions from publishers, then the JCS team is happy to answer them via

Maverick Publishing Specialists can help you navigate the complexities of transformative agreements. To schedule a free consultation, contact us.

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.