How transformative agreements are enabling the open access transition

A small group of open access publishers recently posted a collective statement on the Frontiers platform making a number of assertions and recommendations with regard to transformative agreements. A close reading of the statement reveals an understandable, if misdirected, level of frustration among the signatory publishers, likely fomented by a lack of first-hand knowledge of the legal, financial and operational aspects of how transformative agreements work. This text is therefore written with the open access publishers in mind, but aims to raise the understanding of all stakeholders in the scholarly communications ecosystem around transformative agreements and the specific context and evidence-based assessments of the institutions and consortia that are negotiating them.

The institutions and consortia that are currently negotiating transformative agreements can only vehemently echo the sentiment of the Frontiers statement reiterating that libraries that are committed to the principle of open access have the duty to negotiate central agreements with fully open access publishers whose platforms fit the needs and expectations of their researchers.

Consistent with this conviction, virtually all of the institutions with agreements logged in the ESAC Transformative Agreement Registry have entered into central agreements with open access publishers—some as early as well over a decade ago—fully subsidizing their authors, through a variety of OA business models, to publish in their journal portfolios (for example, see here, here and here). These central agreements reflect institutional and library policies that prioritize openness and, in the case of financial strain, protect funds supporting open access over closed venues.

Yet this strategy, alone, is simply not enough to supplant the subscription system; even as fully open access journals and venues have taken root over the past two decades, subscription journals have continued to thrive, in parallel, behind paywalls. It is with this realization that national and institutional strategies have been broadened to foster multiple pathways to open access, including approaches aimed at delivering the scholarly journals now behind paywalls from the subscription system. The early ‘offset’ agreements may have succeeded in counterbalancing the costs of open access publishing in ‘hybrid’ journals against subscription fees, but it is their evolution—the many varieties of transformative agreements initiated by libraries and consortia—that hold the potential to dismantle the subscription business model from within, triggering the developments required for real transformation in scholarly publishing.


What makes an agreement transformative?

Transformative agreements are a temporary and transitional instrument of change proposed by the academic and research community, motivated by the political will to make open the default in scholarly communication and the financial need to substantially reduce the costs that currently characterize journal publishing under the subscription business model. Responding to the first objective, transformative agreements increase the proportion of new articles published open access, the benchmark being 100% of affiliated authors’ manuscripts accepted for publication in the journals covered by the agreement. Simultaneously, transformative agreements address the second objective by bringing the two current transactional realms of scholarly journal publishing—institutional subscriptions and author-facing open access publishing fees—under the oversight and control of one central agreement in which the payment structure substantially shifts fees previously paid for subscriptions to cover open access publishing.

How do transformative agreements change the status quo?

The subscription system which currently dominates scholarly journal publishing is characterized by opaque pricing and agreements hidden by non-disclosure clauses, lump-sum annual pre-payments for subscription packages that do not take into account the actual value that individual journals therein may or may not hold for an institution’s researchers, and annual price increases that have continued to outpace standard inflation rates for more than a decade; in this context open access publishing of articles comes at an additional cost, via the ‘hybrid’ option offered to authors who, as individuals, hold no bargaining power to negotiate economic terms and conditions with the publisher.

While some might see a simple solution in cancelling subscriptions outright and diverting former subscription funds to support other fully open access publishing venues—be they commercial or academy led, this option may not always find support from researchers who value scholarly journals that represent their communities or who, because of the research assessment criteria applied in their institution or country, may be compelled to publish in them. Other libraries and consortia focus efforts on negotiating discounts on their subscription fees and/or the article processing charges (APCs) that their authors are obliged to pay, but while this tactic may introduce some cost savings, it does not introduce improvements to the current system or market dominance of subscription publishers.

Transformative agreements mark a clear departure from the status quo and move scholarly journals forward on a realistic pathway toward a fully open access landscape, one agreement at a time. They are iterative in nature, reflecting the specific challenges, context, and leverage of each negotiating entity, and many have already succeeded in introducing some or all of the immediate and consequential improvements they are meant to bring along the way:

    1. Cost neutrality and cost savings. Transformative agreements are grounded in the understanding that the large-scale transition of subscription journals to open access is possible within the current global subscription spend. Based on this principle, many institutions and consortia find that aiming for cost-neutrality with respect to former subscription expenditures in their negotiations is a fair and reasonable approach. In the example of Slovenia’s agreement with the American Chemical Society (ACS), the cost-neutral agreement has given Slovenian authors the ability to publish virtually all of their articles fully open access in ACS journals at no cost to them; their libraries’ subscription budgets have been repurposed to cover the open access publishing costs—as well as full reading access to the publisher portfolio. In line with expectation of cost-neutral transformative agreements, this actually represents an overall savings to the research system, as any former ‘hybrid’ APCs paid by authors ‘in the wild’ (which came on top of their institutions’ subscription fees) are obviated.
    2. Price transparency and eliminating lock-in. Already shrouded by non-disclosure clauses, subscription pricing becomes even more opaque when measured with the outdated value-for-money criteria of cost-per-access that has lost relevance in our digital era. Shifting the object of agreements from subscriptions to open access publishing services raises the market to a first new level of transparency, as the costs of transformative agreements are generally assessed against a quantifiable number of articles published. Of course, the per-article costs under transformative agreements cannot be equated with APCs, as they also cover reading access of paywalled content still required during the transition, and, indeed, they are destined to go down as open access content in subscription portfolios continues to increase (as more transformative agreements are negotiated and, elsewhere, as authors continue to publish in an uncontrolled ‘hybrid’ setting), diminishing the reading component of costs. This principle is clearly illustrated in Germany’s Projekt DEAL-Wiley agreement in which all costs are expressed in a fixed per-article ‘Publish and Read’ or PAR fee. A particular advantage of the PAR model is that the lump-sum payments that characterized subscriptions are disaggregated and payments are made in direct relation to the articles published; this eliminates publisher lock-in and allows funds to flow freely where authors choose to publish their articles.
    3. Driving open access standards, processes and workflows. As manifested by the slow uptake in central agreements with fully open access publishers, as well as the challenges to financing community initiatives and infrastructure, academic and research institutions are, by and large, unprepared for a fully open access environment from an administrative perspective. Mechanisms to track and fully understand the publishing activity of authors—and the relative costs—have yet to be put in place. Institutional funding streams related to scholarly communication are not yet coordinated, allowing the ‘double-dipping’ of ‘hybrid’ publishing to thrive. Library budgets, processes and workflows are currently organized around annual pre-payments of subscription packages, and will need to be adapted to support article-level services. In their agreement with Cambridge University Press, the University of California (UC) introduces a transformative model that brings institutional funding streams, i.e. former library subscription fees and author grant funds, together in article-level transactions that enable a sustainable, transparent, fair and efficient transition: authors participate financially and thus retain ‘skin in the game’—a step which can only increase their ability, as ‘customers’, to apply market pressure on pricing and make informed decisions on where to publish their articles; library subscription funds that were previously monopolized by expensive STM resources can now flow more evenly and support open access publishing in fields where less grant funding is available; and the particular financial challenge of research-intensive institutions whose library subscription budgets would not be sufficient to cover a shift from subscriptions to open access publishing can be mitigated by coordinating research and library funding streams, with the added benefit that such a comprehensive strategy for repurposing subscription expenditures has allowed the UC to channel library funds to support other open access strategies—including, for example, central agreements with fully open access publishers, such as PLOS.

While transformative agreements with the dominant subscription publishers represent high-impact opportunities to curtail ‘hybrid’ spending and disaggregate subscription fees, libraries and consortia are experimenting a variety of models with diverse scholarly publishing partners, such as the Jisc and CAUL agreements with learned societies and the MIT Libraries agreement with Association for Computing Machinery (ACM). In this phase of transition, it is wholly appropriate to test a variety of transformative models that aim to withdraw support from paywall publishing and ensure full and immediate open access to scholarly research publications.

Who says an agreement is transformative?

Transformative agreements, in their many iterations, are defined, determined and assessed by the academic and research institutions and consortia who negotiate them, informed by significant data analysis and in accordance with their stated principles. They are characterized by contractual language referring to their transitional nature and scope of shifting scholarly journals to full open access over time. As changing the business model underlying a journal portfolio is a financial operation that any publisher would have to assess at a meta-level, it would be naïve, unreasonable, and legally impractical for individual libraries or consortia to demand a binding commitment to a full transition within a specific timeframe. Rather, the negotiating institutions and consortia have established their own oversight mechanisms to monitor and assess the progress of their agreements in achieving their goals and the community’s vision for an open scholarly publishing system characterized by a cost structure that is transparent and equitable.

Transformative Agreements are one of the key strategies of the research performing organizations united in the global Open Access 2020 Initiative (OA2020), validated and embraced at the 14th Berlin Open Access Conference. While continuing to support new and improved forms of open access publishing, participants in OA2020 aim to transform the bulk of today’s subscription journals to OA publishing by converting resources currently spent on journal subscriptions into funds to support sustainable OA business models in accordance with community-specific publication preferences.

The international community of library and consortium practitioners directly involved in the implementation of transformative agreements come together in the ESAC Initiative. The ESAC Initiative acts as a network and information hub, promoting transparency through the ESAC Registry of Transformative Agreements, providing community guidelines for Transformative Agreements to assist libraries and consortia in developing their own principles and objectives, and establishing standards to ensure that the legal, financial and operational aspects of transformative agreements continue to progress on a common trajectory toward an open access scholarly publishing landscape characterized by cost transparency and market competition.

Recognizing their effectiveness and viability as a means for research performing organizations to rein in ‘hybrid’ costs and drive growth in open access dissemination of research, the research funders of cOAltion S acknowledge and encourage those transformative agreements which embody the ESAC guidelines.

What outcomes are transformative agreements producing?

Through their individual transformative agreements, institutions are bringing the previously unmonitored and uncontrolled ‘hybrid’ costs into check and repurposing subscription funds to support open access rather than paywalls. Individual agreements may not always achieve all of the goals set by the negotiating entity nor fully align with every one of the community’s aspirations, but their success is evident in the growing uptake, proliferation and continuous evolution of transformative agreements, as new benchmarks are achieved.

More importantly, they are delivering to authors the opportunity to openly license their works with financial support deriving from repurposed subscription funds. In this way, entire swaths of institutional and national research outputs, in the form of scholarly articles in peer-reviewed journals, are made immediately and freely available in perpetuity to the world, in turn maximizing its impact. These results, alone, are evidence of the viability and importance of transformative agreements in driving the open access transition. Together, the sum of transformative agreements is pushing the needle on subscription journal portfolios.