With Elsevier cutting off access to its licensed content products at dozens if not hundreds of German and Swedish universities as a result of contract lapses, the European dynamics are taking another interesting turn. On Elsevier’s side, its financial performance for the first half of the year is apparently not impacted by the contract lapses, suggesting that it will be prepared to dig in for a long dispute if necessary. As for the negotiating consortia in the two countries, there is thus far no evidence that their researchers are causing libraries to scramble for access, suggesting that they too are preparing to dig in. Lines of communications between German negotiators and Elsevier remain open, so it should surprise no one if at least one major Read and Publish agreement is eventually reached.
But the fascination with the tactical back-and-forth of this negotiation is masking the curious nature of the underlying dispute. After all, both Elsevier and its near-peer commercial publishers on the one hand, and the European universities and their negotiating consortia on the other, in the end want the same thing: a deal that allows them to take advantage of the shifting European policy mandates. Ultimately, the parties are lashed to one another by a shared need to enable greater amounts of publishing through open access (OA) mechanisms. In pursuit of this shared goal, both parties have focused on Read and Publish — the “Big Deal” license that bundles together access to a publisher’s subscription content with the ability to publish openly through its journals without paying individual APCs. In their efforts to pursue a transition to open access through Read and Publish models, the publishers and universities are separated only by a disagreement about its price, and its value. This is why I suspect the odds favor an eventual deal. But against this seeming common perspective, perhaps it is apt to wonder, is Read and Publish even good for the academy?
Crowning the Royalty
In recent years, there has been an explosion in the resources directed from the university sector to publishing. Some of this has been through individual APCs, often funded through grants, which has introduced new forms of competition in the marketplace. PLOS and several other new entrants have grown up on the promise of APC-driven competition. And the gold promise has long been that APCs would ensure scholar-driven article-level price competition among journals. But Read and Publish threatens to put a lid on this competition.
This summer, I observed that Read and Publish deals have the effect of crowning the OA royalty. To advance ambitious (and possibly unrealistic) OA goals, consortia have decided to try to leverage the publishing capacity of the major publishers. But by proposing to transition the existing Big Deals from pay-to-read towards pay-to-publish, these deals stand to lock in, at a minimum, the current resources allocated to traditional publishers. Will Read and Publish agreements make it harder for new competition to emerge and for recent entrants to compete?
If true forms of market competition are allowed to develop at an article level for “Gold” OA, we should expect price competition to drive us towards competitive equilibrium prices. As Joe Esposito has pointed out, increasing publisher scale should drive down costs. So the largest publishers already have a major cost advantage, along with substantial brand recognition, going in. And yet Read and Publish seems almost specifically designed to avoid price competition. A pure form of Read and Publish will provide unlimited publishing services for authors for given platforms, eliminating the possibility of competition based on APC price. This stands to reinforce all the same defects that have made the subscription-based Big Deal so problematic to the academic community.
So if the university sector is looking to accelerate the transition to open by working with the major publishers, but the models that have emerged threaten a form of lock-in no less problematic than the Big Deal, is there a way out?
I have been watching the University of California carefully in recent years. Its centrally allocated collections budget is among the largest of any North American consortium, and it is commensurately influential, but it has had trouble aligning on its strategic direction. A split between Berkeley’s Jeffrey Mackie-Mason and UCLA’s Virginia Steel spilled out into public view. These differences appeared to have been papered over when both campuses and a number of their peers signed on to OA2020, a notable outcome not least because the Pay It Forward research seemed to advise caution. But, even the exact parameters of what they agreed upon has been called into dispute. California has an enormous amount of potential as a strategic interlocutor on scholarly communications and OA, for example in the strong principles it recently issued. It has been extremely influential but has been going through a period of internal misalignment.
At the SSP Annual Meeting earlier this summer, I had the opportunity to hear the University of California’s chief negotiator, Ivy Anderson, speak about some directions California plans to pursue. She described California’s efforts not only to advance models like Read and Publish that leverage existing publishers in the drive towards open, but in doing so to contribute to the development of some kind of article-level competitive market. Intrigued, I reached out, and I had the opportunity to interview Anderson a few weeks ago.
When we spoke, Anderson summarized the key point that caught my ear at SSP: “Many of the Read and Publish models that are being negotiated at a country or large consortial level are replicating a large bulk spend without the authors seeing that cost or participating in a market mechanism.” As a result, rather than a true market mechanism where price equilibrium can be sought, there is a risk that universities will find themselves negotiating against oligopolies. “We don’t want to be in a position where a university is just trying to negotiate the best price we can get.”
Given this situation, the University of California is grappling with how to carry forward an open agenda, and that means redeploying its licensed content investments towards open objectives. As Anderson explained, “We are also looking to deploy our institutional funds in a way that can accelerate the move towards open dissemination. That means redirecting subscription funds to support open access.” Given the perceived need to leverage existing publisher capacity in pursuit of open objectives, California will be looking, at least in part, to change the nature of its deals with existing providers.
California hopes to pull resources out of subscriptions and repurpose them to APC subsidies, leveraging existing research grant funding for APCs to drive a more coherent transition to open publishing models. California is looking to pilot a model that will at least bring some price transparency to authors. In such a model, authors would see the full price of the APC at the point of article submission, even while they are only responsible for paying a portion of this themselves, typically through some combination of grants they have received and subsidy provided by the university through its libraries. An author could presumably back out of an article submission if the APC price caused sufficient outrage.
California hopes to accelerate the transition while at the same time allowing at least some demand signals to enter through authors. Whether the approach they have in mind will work out remains to be seen. Certainly, having the price appear only at the publisher site rather than as a menu of many options is one limiting factor. Introducing subsidies is another way in which the California thinking may limit the ability to reach an equilibrium price.
Beyond California, are other libraries or consortia looking at opportunities to introduce market signals into Read and Publish deals? Are any such deals already in place? Please add any information in the comments or to me directly.
As Elsevier has insisted and even MIT has acknowledged, Read and Publish will cost more than traditional bundled subscription licenses, at least until all-open publishing can emerge. Without authors’ price sensitivity as part of the model and by instead crowning the OA Royalty, there is every reason to believe that the Read and Publish Big Deal will be just as problematic for academia as has been the traditional Big Deal. To those European librarians who might say that their Read and Publish deals are merely transitional, I would note that publishers are taking these models seriously as the future of their business. Without market mechanisms, universities risk becoming just as locked in as they had been to the traditional Big Deal.
Perhaps recognizing some of these challenges, a group of European funders is just today coming together to try to remove hybrid journals from eligibility as “open” channels for the research they fund. Will that take legacy publishers out of the picture in favor of new entrants and open platforms, as some would hope? Or will we see some very simple adaptations to enable publishers to sidestep this effort?
California’s efforts raise an underlying question: can a university invest institutionally in publisher-driven OA while at the same time enabling a free market to develop at an article level? And if not, don’t we face a fork in the road: speeding towards OA or finding ways to contain publishing expenditures? Universities will need to make decisions about scholarly communications objectives, since Read and Publish will not achieve them all.