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?

A Free Market for Fish. Can Read and Publish enable a free market for publishing?
Visualizing market competition. Hendrik Martenszoon Sorgh, Fish Market, Rijksmuseum

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?

California Efforts

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.

What Next?

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.

Roger C. Schonfeld

Roger C. Schonfeld

Roger C. Schonfeld is the vice president of organizational strategy for ITHAKA and of Ithaka S+R’s libraries, scholarly communication, and museums program. Roger leads a team of subject matter and methodological experts and analysts who conduct research and provide advisory services to drive evidence-based innovation and leadership among libraries, publishers, and museums to foster research, learning, and preservation. He serves as a Board Member for the Center for Research Libraries. Previously, Roger was a research associate at The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.


21 Thoughts on "Read and Publish: Is It Good for the Academy?"

If I read this correctly, what Read and Publish is doing is rearranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic. Thus, the quest for a free lunch continues!

Roger, I wonder if this statement you wrote is true:

“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. ”

The legacy publishers are indeed adapting as they must to European OA mandates, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that universities need to continue to do business with them. As you note later in the article, there are new entrants with alternative business models emerging that can handle the work of publishing (including rigorous peer review) that do not have the burden of being accountable to stock holders who have gotten used to very healthy profit margins. The big question, of course, is whether scholars can wean themselves from their addiction to high-prestige journals.

Hi Mike, thanks for the close read. My take at this point is that the national consortia in question still *want* a deal. I agree that things are moving quickly and it may be that before too long the universities will not *need* a deal. Indeed, perhaps that timene has already arrived.

Interesting comment. Of course the largest OA publisher is Elsevier with some 511 OA journals. As for new entrants with new models, it seems to me that if successful, someone like Elsevier will scoop them up. Thus, those profit margins will remain and the stockholders will remain happy. As for academics walking away from prestigious journals, well they haven’t yet and probably won’t so long as their grants (including money to publish in OA journals) are tied to publishing in prestigious journals. I notice that PLOs proudly publishes their IF.

I agree with you that there is a fork in the road, Roger. We reached much the same conclusion in a report last year on the European OA market: https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.401029. What is interesting in today’s announcement of Plan S is the extent to which (many) European funders have now agreed on shared objectives, given that what we’ve had up till now had been a very fragmented policy landscape. This undoubtedly changes the market dynamics, and the funders’ newfound willingness to curtail authors’ choice of publication venue for the good of the ‘the science system
as a whole’ marks a step change from what we’ve seen up till now (see Mark Schiltz’s preamble to the Plan: https://www.scienceeurope.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/cOAlitionS_Preamble.pdf).

Putting my independent society publisher hat on here, these Read and Publish deals done on a country/consortia level are likely to block out many of the smaller publishers that simply don’t have a seat at that negotiating table. As one society CEO said to me recently, “thank goodness we have Wiley as a partner so we can take advantage of these negotiations.” For societies and university presses that aren’t partnered with a commercial publisher, taking entire countries off the table is one way for libraries to ensure that they only have to deal with the commercial publishers (the rest of us will have been subsumed by them). As the collections of the commercial publishers grow to include most of the society and eventually UP publishers, the community based start-ups will be sunk.

As a former society publisher I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment. I do not see how the small publishers will survive without a big brother sheltering them from the oncoming storm!


I think what we used to call your observation was censorship!

Harvey, where do you see that PLOS promotes their IF? They have always had a policy of not promoting IF and I don’t see anything except for a statement in support of DORA on their journal pages.

There are so many assumptions about OA becoming driven by cost at the article level that seem to go against human nature, or more specifically the range of human behaviors. Some people are driven by wanting the best, while others are driven by price. Rarely can you get the best for the least cost. And busy people don’t often shop for the best price, especially when there is little price transparency. In the end, everyone is driven by their perception of what is best for themselves.
Prestige matters. It matters to funders. It matters to search, promotion, and compensation committees. Prestige has a value that owners of prestigious titles will protect. If funders and consortia are serious about having article-level competition, then they will need to modify their use of Impact Factor and other “quality” metrics for their assessments of the merit of individual researchers and research projects.
I have also heard from researchers (in the US) that funding for APCs is allowed within grants, but that paying APCs reduces funding for other activities such as sending students to conferences. So, the Institute/Country/Consortia level contracts are great for these researchers. Achieving article-level price decisions may require funders to provide grants with extra funding dedicated to APCs.

I stand corrected. But, if you google PLOs impact factor they are given by others. So I guess the IF is by proxy.

The new Plan S, states :
We acknowledge that ‘transformative’ type of agreements,
where subscription fees are offset against publication fees,
may contribute to accelerate the transition to full Open
Access. Therefore, it is acceptable that, during a transition
period that should be as short as possible, individual
funders may continue to tolerate publications in ‘hybrid’
journals that are covered by such a ‘transformative’ type
of agreement. There should be complete transparency in
such agreements and their terms and conditions should
be fully and publicly disclosed.

Thus R&P is still allowed within this policy … at least for a while (undetermined)

Actually, Harvey, there’s an important difference here. PLOS does not publicize or promote the IFs of its journals because we believe it’s a fundamentally flawed metric, and one which underlies many of the dysfunctions of scientific publishing. We’re a proud signatory of DORA and committed to furthering the goals of developing responsible alternatives and best practices in research assessment.

Harvey, this is uncalled for. Whatever you might think about PLOS or DORA, it’s wrong to impute to PLOS what others say about it.


I stated that I stood corrected. However, and I am not sure, does PLOs request that others should not state its IF and does it request that JCR no longer rate its journals. If memory serves one must apply to JCR in order to be considered in the rating system. For some reason, the position PLOs takes rings hollow.
I am rather neutral toward OA as I am toward the subscription model. We had OA when I started in the business only it was called page charges!

Sorry, again your information is not correct. One can apply for an Impact Factor, but often Clarivate (and Thomson Reuters before them) would provide an IF for any journal they considered significant. There is nothing inconsistent or hollow in the stance of PLOS, which has always very publicly railed against the problems and abuse caused by the Impact Factor (ditto for many other journals including eLife).

As I stated, if memory serves. I have been out of the game for some time now. I again stand corrected. Out of curiosity, have any of these journals formerly requested they be removed from the listing and if so, what was the response to the request?

Sorry, a mistaken cut and paste on the last response (too many browser windows open at the same time), now corrected below:

The other big thing is, we want to kill the journal impact factor. We tried to prevent people who do the impact factors from giving us one. They gave us one anyway a year earlier than they should have. Don’t ask me what it is because I truly don’t want to know and don’t care.


Thank you. It seems that the JCR is an entity onto itself. I recall applying for an impact factor and going through all sorts of hoops. However, if they choose you to have one well…..

This has been most enlightening.

Thanks to all.

Calling, or allowing Elsevier to call itself, an “OA publisher” is like calling Nestle a “Fair Trade” coffee provider. Having one brand of fair trade coffee doesn’t make your business practices fair or socially responsible. It is a fig leaf at best. The same argument applies to Elsevier’s commitment to OA.

There is nothing about OA that makes your business practices fair (Beall’s List, anyone?) or socially responsible. If the practices are fair or socially responsible, that is an aspect of the management.

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