Cone of Silence
All agreements to be negotiated under the cone of silence. Image via Michael Cote.

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.

David Crotty

David Crotty

David Crotty is a Senior Consultant at Clarke & Esposito, a boutique management consulting firm focused on strategic issues related to professional and academic publishing and information services. Previously, David was the Editorial Director, Journals Policy for Oxford University Press. He oversaw journal policy across OUP’s journals program, drove technological innovation, and served as an information officer. David acquired and managed a suite of research society-owned journals with OUP, and before that was the Executive Editor for Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, where he created and edited new science books and journals, along with serving as a journal Editor-in-Chief. He has served on the Board of Directors for the STM Association, the Society for Scholarly Publishing and CHOR, Inc., as well as The AAP-PSP Executive Council. David received his PhD in Genetics from Columbia University and did developmental neuroscience research at Caltech before moving from the bench to publishing.


14 Thoughts on "What Should We Make of Secret Open Access Deals?"

David: I would guess that most if not all have access to a spread sheet. Thus, each company figures out how and what works best for them. Is a public model really needed? As you mention there is not a public model for the “big deal”.

I would guess that OA regardless of its stripe or color will only go so far and then like page charges will become an anachronism.

The limited numbers available as these deals are announced suggest the large commercial publishers are just absorbing a small price concession here and there over a long enough time period to more than make up for it with negligible APC or subscription price increases elsewhere (or even in the same market).

These deals may be “feel good” deals for libraries and administrators, but the fundamental issues around the costliness of administering the Gold OA model, the increased volume of scientific papers needing to be published, trends benefiting large commercial publishers over small non-profit publishers, and the expenses of technology migration and upkeep just can’t be ignored or avoided.

As you point out, deals like these likely accelerate a few of these trends in exchange for a passing PR moment. Meanwhile, the system dynamics tilting the commercial tables toward consolidation roll on, and maybe gain a little momentum.

“Institutions argue that their total cost should remain flat” – really? On what basis? They are getting everything they had before PLUS their authors’ articles are being made free to the world – if they have a lot of research output, costs should go up under any rational scheme. Hey, I have an idea – how about instead of free to the whole world, we just make those articles free to read only at institutions that have made these deals? That seems fair, right? We could call it “subscription OA” 🙂

I absolutely agree, Arthur. Local offsetting has never made sense to me. It’s surely more logical to take the OA content out of the subscription price equation (as it’s already been paid for) and then price globally based on the non-OA content alone. As you say, the institution or funder paying APCs is doing so to make their research OA, precisely so that others do not have to pay to access it. So why not take this into account when setting everyone’s prices?

If the institution is being forced to pay APC fees they have little incentive to be altruistic. Nor need they value the purchased openness that highly.

Does Alexandra Elbakyan’s SciHub get into this conversation? Or the notion that we authors all put our stuff on arXiv and then just have the journals review and certify?

Full disclosure: With support of some publishers I introduced Bionet.journals.note circa 1994 as a forum for discussion of issues such are currently dealt with by Scholarly Kitchen.

If we stand back, the idea of making secret deals with consumers is nothing about open access (as a mode of publication), but about market transparency. Over the past fifty or so years, publishers have moved from a model of no price discrimination (every subscriber pays the same price) to third-degree price discrimination (libraries pay more than individuals, students get a discount, those in developing countries get free), to second-degree (bulk discounts based on consortial deals), to first-degree, where each consumer pays a unique price set based on their willingness and ability to pay. For this to happen, secrecy is required, or our deep notions of fairness push the market back towards second and third-degree price discrimination.

As the global market for scientific journals is very diverse, publishers can make a lot more money segmenting the market, even down to individual consumers. The end result is that libraries are losing (or in many cases, lost) any remaining surplus to purchase other types of materials and competition among those fighting in this first-degree pricing market is heating up.

Some libraries have make declarations that they will not sign NDAs with publishers–see Cornell University Library as an example–but as David notes, these proclamations have no teeth if everyone else is signing NDAs, and libraries are known to reneg on their own promises when faced with a sweet deal.

A constructive approach would be to look for a solution in which the needs of authors, libraries, funders, and readers are all aligned. Unfortunately, I don’t see that in a producer-pays OA model.

We should point out that most, if not all, commercial publisher non-OA ‘big deals’ have rigid non-disclosure agreements already.

Yes, as noted in paragraph 4 above:

Most seem to be happening under the same sorts of non-disclosure terms that commercial publishers require of their big deal subscription customers.

As you point out, David, many of the largest article producers are showing no interest in gold OA mandates. The US for sure, plus China and Japan as far as I know, perhaps the majority of articles. This suggests that the transition will be toward some sort of hybrid equilibrium. This equilibrium should include pure subscription and OA journals, as well as hybrids. It is the system that becomes hybrid, not all the journals.

Local deals, of multiple forms, make both the progress and the possibilities very complex. Sounds like a good opportunity for some economic modeling. There is no way to work this problem in one’s head. Secrecy makes data difficult, but not impossible.

As for smaller publishers, some form of standard local deal may emerge, or perhaps not. If the fractional flow of APC payments is relatively stable then a fair hybrid model without local deals is not that complicated. But this too is a big if.

One of the cardinal “wants” of the library community is to minimize year-to-year subscription pricing volatility. It seems to me factoring local publishing activity into the subscription pricing discussion (in the form of offsets, vouchers or other models) runs the risk of upsetting that applecart, especially for smaller single-discipline publishers. We all know different labs run hot and cold, with wide annual variations in published output – and no-one, I hope, wants publishers to start factoring in “How much did we publish from UniversityX last year?” into their acceptance criteria. Similarly if an institution decides to expand new research groups in a particular area (or open up a new institute) they are likely to see a rise in publishing activity: the publisher (and library) is largely absent from that decision Trying to turn APCS into a zero sum game with subscription fees seems like a road that will make no-one happy.

It also seems to me this line of argument comes a cropper when encountering new Gold Open Access only journals that never were part of a publishers subscription bundle. How can they offset fees that they never charged?

Like much in the Open Access world – the polemicists are out in front of the practical application of policy. (See David’s earlier mention of the under anticipated institutional costs of Open Access administration)

I do not understand how governments can agree to non-disclosure.

Regardless this should be a wake-up call for the non-commercial publishers to unite and negotiate their own big deals. We are slowly being squeezed by the scale of the large publishers and should not expect governments to have the subtlety to realize that their feel-good deals exclude an entire vibrant ecosystem. It is especially ironic that through our memberships we are the indigenous publishers and more worthy of their support and consideration.

The case needs to be made for the non-profits to form a separate industry group that represents our interests. It is a matter of survival.

I agree with Phil Davis that it is all about market transparency. For that you need a market place to begin with. Now, there is such a market place: QOAM ( This market place includes the publication fees resulting from the current Dutch OA licences. So, a Dutch author visiting QOAM may learn that publishing in a Springer journal is free because his library is subsidizing Springer. If, however, he wants to publish in a BioMed Central or PLoS journal he will be charged. What will these latter publishers do against this distortion of the market? Require that this will be stopped or try to negotiate their own big deals, as Bruce Gossett suggests. I guess they will go after their own big deals and as long as our institutions are rich enough they will get it, I am afraid.

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