Transformative agreements: what effects on the economics of academic publishing?

News from committee
03/05/2021

Blog post written by Quentin Dufour, David Pontille and Didier Torny, Project Socio-Economics of Academic Publications”, The Committee for Open Science.

The study Contracting in the Age of Open Access Publications. A systematic analysis of Transformative Agreements focuses on a contemporary innovation related to the economics of academic publication: the so-called transformative agreements, which emerge in 2010 and grow rapidly from 2015 onwards. These agreements explicitly seek to organize the transition from the journal subscription model to that of open access, by reallocating library budgets. How do they fit into the current division between major scientific publishers who own or distribute journals on the one hand, and university libraries, often gathered in national consortia, who pay subscriptions to access journal content on the other? What financial transformations do they intend to bring about in the relationship between publishers and consortia?

Funded by the Committee for Open Science, this sociological analysis is the first systematic study of transformative agreements. It was conducted by researchers from the Center for the Sociology of Innovation (CNRS/Mines Paristech) between February and December 2020, as part of a larger project which analyzes the changing economy of academic publication in the open access age.

Methodologically speaking, this study is based on two main steps. First, we drew up a systematic list of the 197 transformative agreements that were signed between 2010 (year of the first agreement identified) and 2020. We coded each agreement according to different variables (duration, type of journals, publisher, etc.). After a long period of secrecy in the relationships between consortia and publishers, we were able to count 96 agreements available for reading (on web pages), which is less than half of the corpus. Second, we conducted an in-depth work of reading, coding and analysis of 64 available agreements. Therefore, this is the first study carried out on this scale, on a type of empirical material that was not only unpublished, but was also previously subject to confidentiality clauses.

Among the important results, three are particularly noteworthy. First, the corpus we constituted allows us to depict the development of transformative agreements: between 2010 and 2020, the 197 agreements were signed between 22 national consortia and 39 publishers, more than half of them for a three-year period. The number of agreements has rocketed since 2015 with 47 signatures in 2020. Secondly, while the analysis makes visible the general organization of the agreements, it simultaneously shows the great diversity gathered under the term transformative agreement. A detailed examination of the contractual texts sheds light on the morphology of the agreements, the forms and modalities of articulation between subscription and open access publication, and the complexity and variety of financial formulas negotiated by the parties. Third, this study highlights the consequences of these new types of agreements on the economics of academic publication: despite their bold name, the transformative agreements do not in themselves guarantee a transformation of the journal publishing model in favor of open access, particularly because no contractual clause explicitly aims at this end.

Two sets of data associated with this report are available for consultation: the list of the 197 agreements and the table of changes in financial amounts, which covers only those agreements for which information was available.