While the UK and the Netherlands have led the charge toward Gold open access (OA) publication for scholarly research, both nations have been confronted with the economic realities and increased costs brought on by their progressive policies. Through various agencies and libraries, each has reached out to publishers in hopes of finding some help in offsetting those significant additional costs, including last week’s announcement of a deal between the Netherlands and Wiley. Unfortunately, that arrangement, like nearly every other such deal, appears to have been done under terms that forbid disclosure of the specifics involved. This lack of transparency makes it impossible to understand who benefits from such deals and prevents progress, as no new models are available for others to follow.
As was made clear in the Finch Report, the initial years of a transition to Gold OA bring added expense. Anyone choosing such a policy must be ready to spend extra to pay article processing charges (APCs) for the rest of the world to access one’s own research, while still paying subscription fees to access research from the rest of the world. The increased administrative burden of compliance was initially underestimated, further straining budgets. While this transition period was projected to require a short term increase in spending, the fact that most of the world has instead opted for Green OA policies has left those choosing Gold without a clear vision of when, if ever, that “initial” period of higher expenses will end.
Some funders support relatively small numbers of researchers and have significantly deep pockets, allowing them to readily cover the extra costs (e.g.,Wellcome Trust, Gates Foundation). Those with more limited funds or larger pools of researchers are less able to cope, particularly those dependent on taxpayer support in an era of belt-tightening and economic hardship. Libraries and governments have asked publishers for help.
And so we are seeing an increasing number of multi-year subscription/OA big deals being made with particular universities, groups of institutions, or countries (more examples here, here, here, and here). Whereas every deal brings with it a triumphant set of press releases, public details on the financial mechanics of these deals are non-existent. Most seem to be happening under the same sorts of non-disclosure terms that commercial publishers require of their big deal subscription customers. This, on its surface, seems to fly in the face of the increased transparency and openness that lie at the heart of the OA movement.
Without further information, it is impossible to know whether these deals represent a victory for OA advocacy or an advantageous lock-in for status quo publishers. Are the governments and libraries receiving significant cost-savings through these deals or are they just spending more to get more and saving face by claiming victory without having to provide any numbers to back it up? It’s impossible to say.
It is perhaps not surprising to see these deals being made by the largest of publishers, so often the main beneficiaries of OA policies. The large commercial publishers have both the market clout to drive a deal in their own favor or if they are indeed offering significant cost offsetting, they have large enough margins to enable weathering such a strategy. This leaves the smaller, not-for-profit publishers in a difficult position. Many would readily work with libraries to help alleviate budgetary strain and further their mission, but lack the same financial wiggle room. Losing a few percent of revenue could mean the difference between profit and loss for a small publisher.
Because the deals are all done in secrecy, there are no clear pathways to follow, no “best practices” to emulate. Each publisher is essentially starting from scratch in every negotiation.
These deals may represent a shift from global offsetting to local offsetting. Avoiding “double dipping” has been a requirement for publishers with the rise of OA. When an author pays for an article to be made OA, subscription prices are expected to be reduced a proportionate amount, as subscribers should not be made to pay for free content. The added revenue from the author is “offset” by globally reducing the revenue a small amount from all subscribers. But local offsetting deals seek to keep the savings at the institution paying the OA fee. Institutions argue that their total cost should remain flat, so the added APC revenue from the author’s institution should be offset by a reduction in that institution’s subscription price. Offsetting is thus “local”, rather than spreading the savings around to all subscribers.
To avoid double dipping, a publisher then has to offer something of a double discount (a reduction in APC prices for those covered by the agreement and a resulting reduction in subscription prices for everyone). But, because these agreements are made secretly, we have no idea if they include both types of offsetting. While each of these localized deals will certainly result in increased numbers of OA articles, I have yet to see any mention of how, or if, those increases will be reflected in reduced subscription prices for everyone else.
Universities and governments acting in a self-interested manner are not unreasonable. Putting new, expensive requirements on already-strained library budgets without providing sufficient additional funding has left many libraries between a rock and a hard place. Individual solutions like these, however, do not bode well for utopian plans for a global “flip” to Gold OA, where each stakeholder must act for the good of the entire community, rather than in its own economic interests. If the strongest proponents of OA have indeed shifted to a “me-first” mindset, then global collusion requiring sacrifice from so many self-interested entities seems increasingly unlikely.
That’s a big “if”, but for now, the secret nature of these offsetting deals makes it impossible to know either way.