November 2019

Transformative Agreements Report

I recently attended two meetings as a representative for the Big Ten Academic Alliance and the University. These meetings related to negotiating “transformative agreements” in academic publishing, and I found myself surprised by the progress of work in this area–sufficiently surprised that I thought it would be helpful to initiate discussions here about the implications of this progress. 

I know that many of you will wonder what a transformative agreement is. There’s a growing amount of information online about these agreements, including an excellent primer by our own Lisa Hinchliffe, so I won’t provide much detail here. At their core, as Lisa notes, these agreements are designed “to shift the contracted payment from a library or group of libraries to a publisher away from subscription-based reading and towards open access publishing.” In the case of the two meetings I attended, the focus was on a particular variety of transformative agreement, a “publish & read” or PAR agreement, where our institutional funds are shifted from funding subscriptions and APCs to funding publishing by our authors, and where reading is a benefit conferred by the publisher in recognition of the commitment to fund publishing. From an access and cost perspective, things may not look very different to those of us at the University of Illinois. Also, for our authors, the publishing venues remain the same: an agreement with a publisher like Wiley confers these rights and terms to the same journals where we would have published in the past. On the other hand, the ecosystem of publishing and access begins to change because a growing body of material is published open access, typically with a Creative Commons license.(1) The publisher is compensated in ways that help fund the publishing process, and readers everywhere have access to a growing body of publications that are not behind paywalls. I hope you appreciate that this very brief synopsis simplifies many issues, and I’ll again refer you to Lisa’s “primer” and the growing body of literature on these agreements for more information.

The two meetings were intended as working meetings to advance our collective interests in the area of PAR agreements. Along with Andy Suarez, one of our faculty and the head of the Evolution, Ecology and Behavior Department, the first meeting I attended was organized by the University of California and held in Washington, DC. That meeting was designed as a status check for institutions actively involved in negotiations and an effort to identify specific challenges. Then, in mid-October, I attended a Berlin Summit of Chief Negotiators (I serve in that role in the BTAA), “to discuss the very latest developments in our negotiations with commercial publishers and share practical insights on implementation of Transformative Agreements ….” Representatives included delegations of stakeholders from around the world, including key participants from government and research funding organizations, national rectors’ conferences, university and research administration, academic assemblies and networks, libraries and licensing consortia. It was telling that most of the delegations were national, and that US representatives included only the Big Ten, the University of California, Carnegie Mellon University, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

I learned a great deal at both meetings, but the thing I want to convey to you is the remarkable rate of progress with implementing these agreements. The contrast between Europe and the US is notable: work in other countries, often at a national level, is resulting in large-scale adoption of PAR agreements, as well as progress by publishers in shifting to this model. Now, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if you read my last statement with skepticism, a skepticism I would have shared prior to these meetings. In the US, to the extent we’ve paid any attention to these developments, our focus has been on California’s negotiations with Elsevier, which in turn could lead us to see these discussions as yet another chapter in the endless Open Access wars. Outside of the US, however, funder pressures have been greater and institutional resolve has been strong. In the DC meeting, Andy Suarez and I saw this trend emerging. In Berlin, the preponderance of non-US institutions helped shape a strikingly different picture, one with much more rapid progress. For example, in a few months, well over 50% of the agreements in Germany will be PAR agreements, and in smaller countries like Hungary, the rate will be over 80%. This was also true for most of the Scandinavian countries. 

Equally surprising to me was the shift in perspective by some publishers. We have heard from Wiley that they’re eager to find a path to shifting to a PAR model, although they acknowledge many challenges to doing so.(2) Other publishers like Cambridge University Press and the Microbiology Society, on the other hand, have a less complicated path and have begun to offer PAR agreements as a preferred model going forward. For example, a representative of the Microbiology Society spoke frankly about their work to shift to this model while sustaining their ability to serve society members, and laid out their costs and proposed model in a paper that you can find online. Two other major publishers who attended the meeting described such agreements as inevitable. Elsevier, despite the high-profile dust-up with California, has signed some significant PAR agreements, and CMU will soon announce a PAR agreement with Elsevier that actually reduces costs to CMU.(3) And perhaps the most significant example of a publisher shift is Wiley, where they have negotiated a country-wide agreement, Projekt Deal, with over 700 institutions in Germany.

I want to be very careful here: my point is not to issue a call to arms or to convince anyone of the value of these agreements, but to signal to you a rate of change that surprised me and may surprise many of you. By some estimates, 82% of research is still published behind paywalls. The rapid progress in securing PAR agreements outside of the US is bound to have an impact on our licensing environment, even if we are not actively pursuing such agreements. The kind of “crisis” we see with California and Elsevier creates a degree of visibility that may not exist when a publisher offers a PAR agreement as a standard offering. In that sort of instance, the switch for our authors may come as a surprise, even if it’s a welcome surprise. And, to be clear, I do think this switch is a good and valuable one for a whole host of reasons, including the value of reaching larger audiences using existing publishing venues. The point I’m making, however, is that we may soon see changes in our licensing, and those changes should cause us to have conversations in the Library and on campus to help others understand the shift from subscriptions and APCs to OA publishing through PAR agreements. 

John Wilkin
The Juanita J. and Robert E. Simpson Dean of Libraries and University Librarian

(1)In the case of Germany’s deal with Wiley, the agreement will result in about 8% of Wiley’s publishing output being made available under a Creative Commons license. A similar deal with the BTAA would add another 8%.

(2)Wiley has noted that the significant number of learned society journals in their portfolio, and their relationship with those societies, complicates the path for them.

(3)The cost of a PAR agreement should reflect an institution’s rate of publishing, among other things, and while Elsevier is an important publisher for CMU, their authors are more likely to publish in venues like IEEE and ACM. The reduction in cost is probably in part a recognition of this fact.