What are transformative agreements?

“Transformative agreement” is an umbrella term describing those agreements negotiated between institutions (libraries, national and regional consortia) and publishers in which former subscription expenditures are repurposed to support open access publishing of the negotiating institutions’ authors, thus transforming the business model underlying scholarly journal publishing, gradually and definitively shifting from one based on toll access (subscription) to one in which publishers are remunerated a fair price for their open access publishing services.

These agreements are a significant departure from the previous standard in subscription license agreements, as they bring the two transactional sides of subscription-based journals, reading access (subscription fees paid by libraries) and open access publishing (“hybrid” APCs predominantly paid by authors), under one centrally negotiated agreement. The dual aim of the negotiations is to bring institutional investments in scholarly journal publishing under oversight and control, with an eye to cost reduction, and to drive a transition of scholarly journal publishing to open access.

Transformative agreement negotiations are based on the understanding that the money paid globally in subscription fees is more than enough to cover the costs of open access publishing of today’s scholarly journals. Consequently, institutions are using the leverage of their current financial investment in scholarly publishing, to negotiate TAs in which their former subscription expenditures are repurposed to cover the costs of open access publishing of, ideally, 100% of the articles produced by their researchers (and reading access to content still behind the paywall).

In this way, the scholarly publishing services and journals valued by authors are preserved, enabling authors to publish their articles immediately open access in the journals of their choice, omitting or, at least, significantly reducing the need for authors to use their grant or institutional research funds to cover open access publishing costs. At the same time, TAs offer the negotiating institution and publishers a framework in which the logic, operations, and financial streams of the subscription paywall system can be re-oriented around open access.

In the context of the current scholarly publishing landscape, and in line with the objectives of the Open Access 2020 Initiative, transformative agreements—together with other transitional frameworks, such as those in which ongoing annual fees of institutions are used collectively to convert paywalled journals to open access (e.g. Subscribe to Open)—are an important strategy that preserves the academic freedom of authors, while accelerating the transition to open access.

How do they work?

Today, under the predominant yet outdated subscription model, libraries pay lump-sum fees for read access to journal packages, and authors wishing to publish open access in an otherwise closed subscription, or “hybrid”, journal pay Article Processing Charges (APCs). In transformative agreements hybrid publishing costs are reined in and the revenue flows are shifted: authors no longer pay APCs and, instead, their institutions (via their libraries) repurpose former subscription expenditures to remunerate publishers for their editorial services associated with the open access publication of accepted articles.

While they share a common goal, each agreement is unique and context-specific, taking into consideration the current level of subscription spending, largely based on historical print expenditures, and the relative volume of publication that an institution or consortium has with a given publisher. They may also vary based on the publisher’s capacity to adjust internal administrative processes and production workflows. In this period of transition, some portion of the fees may be paid to a publisher are designated in “reading” fees to acknowledge the access given to the remainder of the publisher’s journal portfolio still behind the paywall, but in all such agreements a substantial portion of the contract fees are attributed to open access publishing services. In recent iterations, fees have been fully converted to open access publishing and are even paid in direct proportion to the number of articles published, showing a clear development of transformative agreements toward systemic change.

Why should institutions implement transformative agreements in their open access strategies?

Recognizing that there are multiple pathways to open access, none of the strategies implemented to date has succeeded in shaking the market dominance of the paywall system in scholarly publishing; today, more than 15 years after the Berlin Declaration, more than 80% of the world’s scholarly outputs are still locked behind paywalls, inhibiting the full impact of research and putting enormous strain on institutional budgets. At the same time, subscription publisher revenues stemming from hybrid publishing increase year after year.

Transformative agreements offer institutions a framework to take immediate action and address the subscription paywall system (and hybrid publishing) head-on. As the vast majority of scholarly publishing and expenditure of any given institution tends to be concentrated in journals/packages of a relatively small number of publishers, implementing transformative agreements with these publishers, especially, constitutes a high-impact strategy: many institutions and consortia find that by negotiating such agreements with fewer than 10 publishers, they can achieve immediate open access for the vast majority of their outputs.

At the same time, transformative agreements can have an equally significant role in transitioning the portfolios of Societies and small to mid-sized publishers, and they have a variety of models (not merely APC-based) that reflect the diverse and fluid landscape of scholarly communication.

What impact do they have at scale?

Already a number of national and regional licensing consortia and individual institutions, through their libraries, have succeeded in negotiating cost-neutral transformative agreements with publishers that enable 100% of their outputs to be published open access. As other research-intensive organizations and national consortia follow suit, the impact becomes immediately apparent.

In the Final Statement of the 14th Berlin Open Access Conference, participants from 37 nations and five continents, representing research performing and research funding institutions, Ministries of Innovation, Research and Education, higher education associations and rectors’ conferences, and other umbrella organizations unanimously affirmed their commitment to accelerating the transition to open access through transformative agreements and, together, called upon publishers to engage with any individual institution or consortium who wishes take such action. Get in touch with the ESAC Initiative to learn what steps you can take to initiate such a strategy.

In what way are they transformative for scholarly communication?

Besides the immediate academic and societal benefits that come from making the latest peer-reviewed research available for scientists and citizens of the world to read and build upon, transformative agreements create the preconditions necessary for systemic change in scholarly communication. While revenues may still flow to the dominant publishers during this period of transition, by transparently articulating fees at the article level or at the service level, a number of advances are set in motion.

While subscription pricing has been largely sheltered from the forces of market competition, hidden by non-disclosure clauses and rising from historic print expenditures, transformative agreements introduce cost transparency and place value on service levels rather than access. In this way, the playing field of scholarly publishing is opened to cost comparison and market competition—economic forces that drive innovation.

By unlocking lump-sum fees for big deal packages, or even journal subscriptions, and shifting to an “article economy”, funds will be able to follow authors as they determine the publishing venues most appropriate for their work—a necessary step on the path to a diverse ecosystem that reflects the needs and preferences of each discipline.