Earlier in the summer, Information Power published the report How to Enable Smaller Independent Publishers to Participate in OA Agreements. The report addresses some of the special challenges that smaller publishers face in terms of their lack of scale and the difficulties they can have in getting engagement with time-poor colleagues within libraries.
We were invited to speak at events that looked at some of these issues: Catherine at the London Book Fair and David as part of a panel at the 2021 Liber Conference. In preparation, we asked members of RLUK’s Open Access Publisher Processes Group (OAPP) what they do, and do not, like to see in OA transformative proposals from publishers. Since 2013, the OAPP has focussed on the challenges, barriers, and other issues in relation to publisher OA practices and provided feedback to publishers on new proposals and existing practices. Their views have informed this post, but the final interpretation is ours.
It is perhaps worth reiterating at the start that in general the library community wants to see diversity and competition within the journals market. Ideologically, we are supportive of small publishers – especially those closely aligned with academia, for example through societies. We are also very supportive of the principles of open access and are keen to help with the transition to full OA and the development of sustainable models for OA.
But, the reality is that the big publishers dominate and take up a lot of time and budget. Libraries have finite budgets and limits to the amount of time and resource that they can give to analysing and assessing deals. This can have the negative effect of putting a squeeze on the long tail of publishers.
Open access has become more and more complex, with different funders having their own policies, their own funding streams, and their own reporting requirements. Many institutions have their own OA budgets, again with conditions. Publisher policies vary between publishers and across journal portfolios. Large publishers have their own dashboards (and sometimes more than one) with little consistency in definitions of terms or data reported. And there are now at least eight types of transitional agreement. We realise that publishers are navigating this complex environment as well. We want to give some pointers towards what publishers can do to make it easier for libraries to say ‘yes’ to new transformative agreements.
What institutions want from a transformative proposal
The Information Power report is a great resource for understanding, and hopefully removing, some of the barriers to transitional agreements for smaller publishers. It includes recommendations for publishers, libraries, consortia, and funders. While libraries need to be open to new ways of working with smaller publishers, publishers in turn need to understand what libraries value in a successful agreement. Top of our wish list are:
Ideally any proposed transformative arrangement should be simple to model and not dependent on too many variables. An innovative new model that requires working through a wide range of scenarios, is based on hard-to-find or contested data, or results in widely divergent financial outcomes based on small fluctuations in input data will not be welcome. Libraries want to analyse the proposal quickly and accurately. It helps if it is presented in a predictable, common format.
The second consideration around simplicity is that the model should be simple to communicate to authors. Any model that requires complex flow charts or that initiate long email exchanges between the author and the library are not helpful.
Certainly within the UK, a significant driver for OA is compliance with funder mandates. With UKRI, Wellcome, and other funders all requiring some type of OA to the research outputs they fund this is a key point. Libraries are looking for proposals that will enable compliance, not work against it.
Over the past two decades we have seen a thousand OA business models bloom. But today we value a certain degree of consistency – both between publishers and within publishers’ outputs. A publisher who proposes model A for some of their journals/article types and model B for the rest will not be looked on favourably. Standardise – across the publishing portfolio and across publishers. Unless it makes their life easier, librarians are not going to want to see a publisher’s unique twist on a standard model or procedure!
Transparency and Predictability – in cost and in workflows
Libraries are increasingly looking for an approach to pricing that is transparent, equitable, predictable, and (at least) cost-neutral. And for deals across all models that incorporate a manageable approach to reallocating costs between institutions (e.g., for models where there is still an element of pricing based on historic print spend).
Workflows need to be transparent, predictable, and accurate as well. There needs to be clarity and consistency about which types of article are included in the deal and which are not. Publisher dashboards should accurately reflect in a timely manner a shared understanding of an institution’s publishing and spend with the publisher. Libraries appreciate that data flows can be problematical, and that there are issues with system interoperability and author affiliations, especially for authors with multiple affiliations. Small publishers may not be able to automate workflows at the outset, but that doesn’t matter. It’s more important to institutions that publishers communicate effectively, and provide comprehensive information about articles, authors and funding.
No Extra Charges
Many research-intensive institutions in the UK are able to pay for APCs and the publishing element of transformative agreements through block grants from funders. But these grants often explicitly exclude additional charges, such as page charges. So any additional charges are unfunded and agreements that don’t exclude them are difficult to adopt.
No caps on eligible articles
Some deals have a cap on the number of papers that can be published OA per year. This can lead to the ridiculous situation where a paper accepted for a journal one day can be made open access, while a paper accepted the next is closed. And all new papers for the rest of the year will be closed until the new year, when suddenly newly accepted papers can be open access. These caps are unpredictable, unfair, arbitrary, and difficult to manage. Fundamentally, they undermine the agreements by confusing the message to academics.
The bottom line
Transitional agreements have grown exponentially in the last couple of years. They are already driving openness and changing author behaviour, and institutions are keen to support smaller publishers. The report from Information Power provides a framework to help institutions and publishers work towards effective agreements. In the UK, Jisc has developed standard tools and formats for agreements that help small publishers engage with the library community and we encourage publishers to explore these.
RLUK and our OAPP Group are open to working with more publishers on streamlining and simplifying open access, and on making it possible for more authors to take advantage of transitional agreements in future. We are able to help spot potential bottlenecks in workflows and terms and conditions that will make it harder for libraries to say ‘yes’ to deals. By identifying and removing potential barriers at an early stage we can better continue the shift towards open access within a diverse publisher landscape.