open access, publishing

The cost of transforming scholarly publishing in the UK

Dan Croft

[10 minute read]

Many transformative ‘read & publish’ or ‘publish & read’ deals are being signed around the world with scholarly publishers. There are many variables in what a transformative agreement might contain, but essentially they combine the previously separate services of reading, publishing, and Open Access into one contract.

Jisc, the national negotiator for UK universities, have stated their aims for new transformative agreements with scholarly publishers in the UK. One notable aim is that these new deals should cost universities “a similar total cost to that being paid previously to the publisher under the [previous ‘read-only’] subscription model” and then “continually reduce the cost of access to subscription content…[and] commit to constraining price increases for all elements of the agreement, including [fees for making articles Open Access]”. 

It’s a big ambition: where does it come from, and will it be successful?

The ‘serials crisis’ and Open Access

The attempt to control the costs of a transition to Open Access through these transformative deals is largely stimulated by what is called ‘the serials crisis’. The history of the serials crisis is long, but basically the largest of the scholarly publishers started bundling up their journals in packages that became known as ‘the big deal’.

Libraries were first very happy about this as they got ‘extra’ journals in the big deal for a small amount more than they were previously paying for their combined single subscriptions. However, the cost of the big deal escalated year on year at a rate consistently and significantly above inflation.

Publishers justified this by adding more and more newly created journals into the big deals, arguing that the big deals were still good value for money as the cost per article was improving.

But the bottom line for libraries was (and still is) that the cost of the big deals increase year on year (above inflation) whilst the library budgets stayed the same or reduced.

The effect is something of a cliff edge for libraries, or (to adapt the metaphor slightly) they are standing atop a growing paywall trying to decide which side it would be the least painful to jump off: either they reduce spending in all other areas of the library (e.g. by cancelling the journals from smaller publishers and dramatically reduce spending on books) so they can continue paying for the big deals or they cancel one or more of the big deals and put their users on the wrong side of paywalls so big they can be seen from space.

Libraries have tended to jump on the side of continuing to pay for the big deals, as demonstrated by the cancellation of a big deal being a matter of international interest.

This dilemma has been described as libraries being (or at least feeling) ‘locked in’ to the big deals, and largely it is smaller publishers and book budgets that have been squeezed as a result.

Meanwhile, the great success of the UK in moving towards Open Access in their scholarly publishing since the publication of the 2012 Finch Report has largely been achieved through the payment of Open Access Fees (also called Article Processing Charges). These are additional one-off payments mostly going to the big publishers and on top of the ‘big deal’ subscription fees and – a familiar story – the cost of Open Access Fees has been rising well above the rate of inflation.

Indeed, some Open Access advocates argue that the Finch Report pushed the sector into the Open Access Fee model at the expense of other routes to Open Access, that Open Access Fees transparently reflect a journal’s prestige rather than publishing services, and that the Open Access Fee model is inherently flawed and unsustainable.

Either way, for many people a reduction in the cost of scholarly publishing to the research ecosystem (and particularly the amount of money going to the big publishers) is a significant aim of the Open Access movement, and one that Jisc has evidently taken on board.

Transformative isn’t necessarily cheaper

There isn’t an obvious reason for why a transformative agreement should necessarily lead to a reduced cost for universities when a similar amount of scholarly research still needs to be published with all the same services as before.

Instead, in a moment of change, it seems like a good opportunity to address an obviously over-inflated financial cost and the excessive profit margins of the largest publishers. Or, if you are a market-forces type of person, perhaps we are at the point where the market is reaching or has reached the limit of what it will pay and is pushing back.

Indeed in Europe new transformative agreements have been struck between Wiley and Germany’s Projekt Deal, and Elsevier and Norway that are ‘cost neutral’ for the research institutions, and even this can be considered a triumph. This financial stability during an otherwise significant transformation in the nature of the agreements seems to be palatable for the big publishers and universities alike.

Advantages for Jisc in negotiating transformative agreements

Although the first transformative agreements might be cost neutral, in the longer term Jisc may hope to negotiate the cost of ‘read and publish’ deals downwards. This might be successful because transformative deals significantly change the power balance between research institutions and publishers.

Previously each publisher had a monopoly over the research they published: either you paid the subscription fee or you got no access (and obviously you can’t just replace the content of journal collection x with the cheaper content of journal collection y). But in ‘read & publish’ agreements the universities are moving much closer to choosing between the actual publishing services offered by the big publishers, which are largely interchangeable. This might lead to an actual market in scholarly publishing where research institutions feel able to say to a publisher that if they don’t drop their price then they will channel their research to a different scholarly publisher.

This has a doubly damaging effect on the publishers: if a nation successfully channelled their research away from a particular publisher then it would be denying them one income stream and devaluing that subscription in the eyes of other nations. This is particularly true of the UK where 1% of the world’s researchers produce 15% of the highly-cited articles – losing the UK’s research articles from their offering would be a significant problem even for the biggest scholarly publishers.

Advantages for publishers in negotiating transformative agreements

One advantage for scholarly publishers is that they will continue to hold a paywalled monopoly over their archive of past publications (albeit mitigated by post-cancellation rights some institutions will have) and the ‘frontfile’ of all the new publications that aren’t published Open Access.

An attempt was made by Elsevier to leverage this monopoly during recent acrimonious negotiations over two separate ‘read & publish’ deals when they turned off access to the frontfile for hundreds of German universities and the University of California. As such, it is not surprising that Jisc also aim to reduce the value of the monopoly on the archive and frontfile (“The proposal should: extend and provide improved post cancellation access rights to guarantee access to the publisher’s historical and frontfile paywalled content”).

Also, publishers’ could counter a tough negotiating stance by claiming that if the cost of a transformative Open Access deal is negotiated too low then it would be financially unsustainable for them and that they would be forced to stick with (or return to) the subscription model, which of course means the raising the paywalls again.

A different factor that might count in the publishers’ favour during negotiations is that individual researchers may continue to send their manuscripts to publishers blacklisted by national negotiators like Jisc. However there were signs of solidarity in both Germany and California in the Elsevier negotiations. Also, if the intention of decoupling the perception of research quality from the venue of publication (signalled by the signing of declarations like DORA) results in genuine action at institutional level, then the value for researchers of having a big name publisher associated with their latest manuscript may be greatly reduced.

Jisc might not be supported by institutions and researchers

A significant challenge for national negotiators like Jisc is that these ‘read & publish’ deals – even if cost neutral overall for the nation – can dramatically change how much each individual institution is paying. This is because the new transformative deals tend to link the costs for institutions to the amount they publish, and whilst all institutions are big research readers not all are big research creators. This is anticipated to be the case in Germany through their deals with Wiley and Springer Nature.

The risk for Jisc is that research intensive institutions in the UK might not be willing to accept the extra financial burden of ‘read & publish’ deals and opt out altogether. Meanwhile institutions that don’t publish significant amounts of research may perceive there is little benefit from paying into the national deal as they will get access to the latest research anyway because it will be Open Access. 

If too many UK institutions opted out then Jisc’s negotiating position would be undermined and the entire idea of a transformation to Open Access through ‘read & publish’ deals would be in jeopardy. 

How might Jisc succeed?

The big question is how Jisc could be successful in their aim to control the costs of transformative deals in the UK when their best efforts to negotiate on behalf of a large and complex higher education section to control the cost of the ‘big deals’ during recent decades have not averted the continually rising costs that created the serials crisis?

One answer would be if all parties recognised they exist in an ecosystem and were willing to accept a necessary level of financial or reputational self-sacrifice. Unfortunately that seems unlikely to occur. The big scholarly publishers will almost certainly push for the highest amount of money they can extract from the market, irrespective of any other consideration. Research institutions may seek competitive advantage against other research institutions and ‘freeload’ on the new deals, or squeezed budgets may result in opting out of deals when there is little to be lost from cancellation. Meanwhile individual researchers might prioritise freedom of publication venue (and the reputational rewards that can bring) over addressing structural problems in scholarly publishing.

Instead the necessary solidarity of UK institutions and researchers with tougher – potentially adversarial – negotiations with scholarly publishers may have to be incentivised from higher up in the research food chain. 

UKRI is the coordinator of research funding in the UK and is a signatory of cOAlition S, the controversial multi-national initiative that kicked off the move towards transformative deals. The draft version of UKRI’s new Open Access policy (which will be influenced by the policy of cOAlition S, though not necessarily identical to it) is expected before the end of 2019 and, for obvious reasons, the policies of research funders have a strong influence on the behaviour of research institutions and researchers. 

If UKRI’s new policy puts their support explicitly behind a vision of Open Access that can be readily delivered through transformative deals, then Jisc will feel emboldened in their negotiations and confident in the on-going support of institutions and researchers alike. But if UKRI has a different vision of Open Access, or leaves the door open for multiple visions, then Jisc may find institutions and researchers working privately and publicly against them, and transformative deals in the UK may end up being just another step in the on-going development of the serials crisis.

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