Contracting in the Age of Open Access Publications. A Systematic Analysis of Transformative Agreements
The “socioeconomics of scientific publication” Project, Committee for Open Science
Final report – 17 December 2020
Contract No. 206-150
Quentin Dufour (CNRS Postdoctoral fellow)
David Pontille (CNRS senior researcher)
Didier Torny (CNRS senior researcher)
Mines ParisTech, Center for the Sociology of Innovation • PSL University
Supported by the Ministry of Higher Education, Research and Innovation
This study focuses on one of the contemporary innovations linked to the economy of academic publishing: the so-called transformative agreements, a relatively circumscribed object within the relations between library consortia and academic publishers, and temporally situated between 2015 and 2020. The stated objective of this type of agreement is to organise the transition from the traditional model of subscription to journals (often proposed by thematic groupings or collections) to that of open access by reallocating the budgets devoted to it.
Our sociological analysis work constitutes a first systematic study of this object, based on a review of 197 agreements. The corpus thus constituted includes agreements characterised by the co-presence of a subscription component and an open access publication component, even minimal (publication “tokens” offered, reduction on APCs, etc.). As a result, agreements that only concern centralised funding for open access publishing were excluded from the analysis, whether with publishers that only offer journals with payment by the author (PLOS, Frontiers, MDPI, etc.) or publishers whose catalogue includes open access journals. The oldest agreement in our corpus was signed in 2010, the most recent ones in 2020 – agreements starting only in 2021, even announced during the study, were not retained.
Several results emerge from our analysis. First of all, there is a great diversity of actors involved with 22 countries and 39 publishers, even if some consortia (Netherlands, Sweden, Austria, Germany) and publishers (CUP, Elsevier, RSC, Springer) signed many more than others. Secondly, the duration of the agreements, ranging from one to six years, reveals a very unequal distribution, with more than half of the agreements (103) signed for 3 years, and a small proportion for 4 years or more (22 agreements). Finally, despite repeated calls for transparency, less than half of the agreements (96) have an accessible text at the time of this study, with no recent trend towards greater availability.
Of the 96 agreements available, 47 of which were signed in 2020, 62 have been analysed in depth. To our knowledge, this is the first analysis on this scale, on a type of material that was not only unpublished, but which was previously subject to confidentiality clauses. Based on a careful reading, the study describes in detail their properties, from the materiality of the document to the financial formulas, including their morphology and all the rights and duties of the parties. We therefore analysed the content of the agreements as a collection, looking for commonalities and variations through an explicit coding of their characteristics. The study also points out some uncertainties, in particular their “transitional” character, which remains strongly debated.
From a morphological point of view, the agreements show a great diversity in size (from 7 to 488 pages) and structure. Nevertheless, by definition, they both articulate two essential objects: on the one hand, the conditions for carrying out a reading of journal articles, in the form of a subscription, combining concerns of access and security; on the other hand, the modalities of open access publication, articulating the management of a new type of workflow with a whole series of possible options. These options include the scope of the journals considered (hybrid and/or open access), the licences available, the degree of obligation to publish, the eligible authors or the volume of publishable articles.
One of the most important results of this in-depth analysis is the discovery of an almost complete decoupling, within the agreements themselves, between the subscription object and the publication object. Of course, subscription is systematically configured in a closed world, subject to payment, which triggers series of identification of legitimate circulations of both information content and users. In particular, it insists on prohibitions on the reuse or even copying of academic articles. On the other hand, open access publishing is attached to a world governed by free access to content, which leads to concerns about workflow management and accessibility modalities. Moreover, the different elements that make up these contractual objects are not interconnected: on one side, the readers are all members of the subscribing institutions, on the other, only the corresponding authors are concerned; the lists of journals accessible to the reader and those reserved for open access publication are usually distinct; the workflows have totally different objectives and material organisations, etc. The articulation between the two contractual objects is solely a matter of a financial distribution formula which, in addition to particular combinations between one and the other, makes it possible to assign distinct labels to the agreements (offset agreement, publish & read, read & publish, read & free articles, read & discount).
Beyond this distribution, the study of financial arrangements shows a range of provisions from total budgetary predictability, thus identical to previous subscription agreements, to uncertainty about the volume of publication or the final amount of the sums exchanged. The concrete methods of calculating the amounts associated with open access publication are relatively varied. While there are indeed recurrent formulas (volume of articles multiplied by an individual price, taking the average of the total APC sums from previous years, etc.), the calculation of the sums involved is always the result of a singular negotiation between a consortium and an academic publisher, and sometimes leads to original and complex formulas. As such, the space of possibilities in terms of financial formulas is never completely closed. Furthermore, the willingness of consortia to “transform” their agreements towards publication at constant cost refers to diversified definitions of “cost” (whether or not to include pre-existing APC expenditure) and stability (whether or not to allow for “inflation” of 2 or 3%). Furthermore, we have not observed any contractual provisions that would allow us to anticipate the sums involved beyond the time horizon of the current agreement.
The great diversity of the agreements stems, on the one hand, from the initial conditions of the relations between consortia and academic publishers – the sums spent on subscriptions being the starting point for the new agreements – and, on the other hand, from the objectives of each party. Even if this study deliberately excluded negotiations, the agreements bear traces of these objectives. Thus, many agreements are explicitly experimental in nature, while some aim at strict budgetary control, or others aim, in the more recent period, at publishing as many articles as possible in open access. It is in the latter case that we reach the ambiguity of general expectations about transformative agreements. Indeed, for consortia, the transforming dimension essentially consists in transferring the sums traditionally allocated to subscription to open access publication. But the goal is never to transform the economic model of journals, i.e. to shift from subscription or hybrid journals to fully open access journals. Moreover, no clause aims at such an end – with the exception of the model agreement proposed by the publisher ACM. On the side of the publishers, and in particular Springer, the cumulative nature of the national agreements concluded is aimed at projecting a world of publishing in which open access becomes de facto quantitatively very dominant, without changing the economic model of their journals.
Our study shows that the current transformative agreements do not provide for a sustainable transition of the publishing economy towards open access, as they do not guarantee control of expenditure or the sustainability of open content. The future of the relationship between consortia and publishers remains largely undetermined.