Skip to Main Content
Skip Nav Destination

Transformative open-access deals spread to the US

10 July 2020

Springer Nature’s agreement with the University of California portends US adoption of a publishing practice that is becoming commonplace in Europe.

Powell Library at UCLA.
The Powell Library at UCLA. Credit: Rictor Norton & David Allen, CC BY 2.0

The University of California’s publishing deal last month with Springer Nature is the largest open-access (OA) agreement of its kind in the US. The university system, whose 10 campuses produce about 10% of the nation’s scientific, technical, and medical research, and Springer Nature, the second-largest STM publisher, agreed to move away from the pay-to-read subscription model to a pay-to-publish framework in which UC authors are encouraged to publish OA in Springer Nature journals.

The deal resembles those being signed by publishers with national research consortia in Europe, where Plan S, the OA mandate from European funding agencies, takes effect next year. But as the number of deals grows, publishers are questioning the sustainability of a system in which more and more of their content is offered for free and a greater portion of the cost is shifted onto research-intensive universities.

Breaking down the UC deal

Under the four-year “read and publish” agreement announced on 16 June, UC researchers will pay fees known as article processing charges (APCs) to publish in any of Springer’s 500 OA and 2200 hybrid OA titles. (Hybrids have both paywalled and OA contents.) The deal provides access for UC faculty and students to all those journals, including 1000 titles to which UC hadn’t previously subscribed, for a “reading fee” of $750 000 per year. That fee will be adjusted annually and could go away altogether as the total amount UC pays in APCs for its authors to be published in the company’s journals grows.

Notably, the agreement doesn’t initially include the prestigious Nature-branded family of journals. But the parties have agreed to work toward including those titles by 2022, beginning with a pilot phase next year. Nature publications’ high selectivity—more than 90% of submitted articles are rejected by the flagship, Nature—would make their APCs prohibitive to authors. In 2013, then editor-in-chief Philip Campbell said Nature’s per-article publishing costs were $30 000 to $40 000. Other estimates put that figure at $10 000 to $20 000.

The APCs for OA articles in less selective journals vary but are generally a few thousand dollars (see Physics Today, May 2017, page 24). The fees are paid by some combination of institutional libraries, the research sponsors, and part of the researcher’s grant. Under the Springer Nature deal, UC’s library system has agreed to pay the first $1000 of an APC, plus the remainder of what the article’s authors can’t obtain from other sources. The multiple-payer system for APCs is expected to defray part of the cost burden borne by UC and ensure that it won’t pay more to Springer Nature than it had been shelling out for subscriptions. The default publishing route for UC researchers will be OA, though they will be able to opt out and publish articles behind a paywall.

Though notable for its size, the Springer Nature deal isn’t the first for UC, which concluded a similar arrangement with Cambridge University Press in April 2019. Nor is it the first for Springer Nature, which in January signed the world’s largest transformative OA agreement with Projekt DEAL, a consortium of 700 German university and institutional libraries.

The action is in Europe

In Europe, national consortia of libraries such as Sweden’s Bibsam, Finland’s FinELib, and Hungary’s Electronic Information Service National Programme have entered into deals with various publishers. UC acknowledged learning from Projekt DEAL and other European agreements to shape its own negotiations with publishers. But the agreements are complex, and no two are exactly alike.

Elsevier, the world’s largest STM publisher, and John Wiley & Sons, the third largest, have joined Springer Nature in signing up European consortia. Although no national consortium exists in the US, some state- and regional-level combinations provide member institutions with buying power. The Virtual Library of Virginia, comprising 70 colleges and universities, and OhioLINK, with 89 higher-education institutions, both signed deals with Wiley last year to help authors gather the APCs they need to publish OA in the company’s journals.

Elsevier and UC broke off talks on a transformative agreement in 2019. The university system made an offer with terms similar to those of the Springer Nature deal. It maintained that Elsevier’s offer would have raised payments to the publisher by 80%, or $30 million over three years. The Dutch publisher, however, has signed such deals with Carnegie Mellon University and with the 23-campus California State University system. The CSU contract waives APCs for the universities’ authors. On 1 July Elsevier announced an agreement that will provide discounted APCs to University of Florida authors.

Joseph Esposito, a consultant to academic publishers and libraries, says Springer Nature and Wiley have been taking financial risks on transformative deals in a bid to grab market share from Elsevier. With the most journals, and with prestigious titles such as The Lancet and Cell, Elsevier has more to lose from making OA deals, he says, and it wants to hold on to the revenue it gets from smaller institutions that don’t publish much research. “Springer’s gamble—and Wiley is placing the same bet—is that it can grow rapidly using this model before Elsevier can fully respond, and that the growth will offset subscription losses at smaller institutions,” Esposito says.

An Elsevier spokesman says the company “is firmly committed to open access to knowledge,” citing its European and US agreements. Elsevier continues to engage with UC, he adds.

Universities’ growing impatience with the high prices of journals, together with the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, is also motivating transformative deals. Esposito estimates university library budgets will shrink by 20% next year, accelerating an ongoing trend for nonprofit society publishers to form partnerships with commercial firms, he says. “It’s easier to cancel a publisher that has a total of $10 million in sales than it is to cancel a publisher that has $1 billion in sales. The big publishers have huge packages with tremendous usage and wonderful tools associated with them.”

Many noncommercial publishers also have made transformative agreements, mainly in Europe. The American Chemical Society (ACS), one of the largest nonprofit publishers with 53 journals, has OA agreements that cover more than 350 institutions in 17 countries. Its most recent read-and-publish agreement, announced on 29 June, is with Norway’s Directorate for ICT and Joint Services in Higher Education and Research.

The American Physical Society (APS) announced its first read-and-publish agreement on 7 July, with Germany’s Max Planck institutes. The deal allows researchers at 88 Max Planck institutes to publish OA in both APS hybrid and fully OA journals and to access all APS content. Subscription charges and APCs are combined in a single “institutional license fee.” It’s unclear how the arrangement will be accommodated under Projekt DEAL, of which Max Planck is a consortium member.

With so many publishers eager to make deals, some European consortia, such as Projekt DEAL, have been putting off overtures by ACS to negotiate. “They’ve said hold off; we’re not ready. We’re still absorbing the impacts and trying to figure out what is the deal we’ve done with some of the larger publishers,” says Brandon Nordin, ACS senior vice president for marketing, sales, and innovation.

“Counting the holes in Swiss cheese”

One issue common to the recent read-and-publish agreements is that substituting APCs for subscriptions shifts the burden of journal financing onto the relatively small fraction of subscribing institutions that are research intensive. Of the 6000 institutions subscribing to ACS’s journal packages, between 300 and 500 produce 85% of published papers, says Nordin. “In a pure OA world, the cost of scholarly publishing is borne by the universities that do research.”

“It remains to be seen whether ‘publish’ institutions will be able and willing to accept the radical reallocation of costs logically implied by transformative agreements,” notes a report by the OA advocacy group Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC).

As the number of OA articles in hybrid journals increases, universities and libraries that haven’t negotiated transformative deals question whether to continue to subscribe when much of the content is free. “I call this counting the holes in Swiss cheese,” says Esposito. “Every deal signed lowers the value of ‘read’ subscriptions at all other institutions,” the SPARC report says.

Nordin claims that read and publish is essentially publisher-funded OA. Libraries, he says, “don’t want to pay for subscriptions and pay more for open access, or to pay for open-access articles buried in subscription publications.” But transformative deals, he adds, “are actually library-favorable double-dipping, because [the libraries] use the same money both to get access to all subscription content and to advance their ability to publish open access.”

Undermining the long-standing academic reward system that values publication in Nature, Science, and other high-impact-factor, high-cost journals has been a goal of OA advocates. OA supporters will maintain that the UC–Springer Nature deal will increase the number of highly regarded authors publishing in those journals, thereby elevating their prestige, Esposito says. “The other argument is that in the congestion of the marketplace, more and more authors are going to be saying, ‘I really want to attach my name to one of the prestigious journals, and I’ve got a better shot now because so many papers are going over to the lower-ranked journals at Springer.’ Stay tuned, and come back and look at [the deal] in 48 months.”

Close Modal

or Create an Account

Close Modal
Close Modal