Editor’s Note: Today’s post is by Roger Schonfeld and Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe.

Universities must abide by procurement policies, including for their library license agreements with scholarly publishers. Because each publisher’s content is exclusive to it, subscription license agreements typically fall under a sole source procurement model, and therefore are exempt from any kind of competitive bidding process. But open access publishing services are different — enabling a scholar to publish is not nearly as exclusively provided as a subscription. As a result, it may be desirable for universities to procure open access publishing services through a bidding process, and in some cases it might be mandatory to do so. How do the procurement implications for open access publishing services affect the transformative agreements that are all the rage today? 

Today’s piece has its origin in our debate about the implications of a rant by Gunther Eysenbach, an open access publisher, admonishing libraries to — among other things — employ “proper procurement/bidding processes.” Our piece today is the result of our struggle to understand if this aspect of his argument has any validity, focusing on individual universities but also recognizing that some consortia may face similar dynamics.

Gillot, The Sale of the Crown Diamonds, Musée Carnavalet, Histoire de Paris.

Procuring Reading 

At a high level, procurement processes are fairly simple. Typically, above a certain threshold, say $50,000, purchases must be bid in a competitive process through a request for proposals (RFP). The rationale is to ensure that the university is getting a fair deal in the marketplace. This does not necessarily mean that the university must select the lowest priced option; proposals can be reviewed and considered using a more complex rubric in which price is but one potential component. 

But there are certain categories of materials that may be acquired through a noncompetitive process. For materials that have only one exclusive provider, the university understandably will seek to purchase from that specific company. In such cases, the department making the purchase will typically apply to make what is called a “sole source” acquisition. That department will submit a justification to the procurement office, which will be reviewed and either approved or denied. If approved, a “sole source” procurement process commences. If denied, a bid process is used. 

A publisher’s journal bundle, offered under a traditional subscription, is a perfect example of justified sole source procurement. There is only one provider of that product — each publisher for its own journals. As a result, it is only possible to procure that bundle from that publisher and so there would be no advantage to using a bid process for procurement. A library would submit a sole source justification for each potential subscription contract above the bid threshold and have a high degree of certainty that it would be approved. Alternatively, for the same reason, some procurement policies may contain a standing exemption for content purchases and content licenses such as those a library frequently makes. Regardless, there can still be extensive negotiations around price and other terms (as many readers well know) in sole source procurement; however, there is no competitive bidding process. 

Procuring Publishing 

While journal subscriptions clearly are justifiable for sole source procurement, open access publishing services require their own analysis in order to justify noncompetitive procurement. It may be that acquiring open access publishing services requires a bidding process. 

By open access publishing services, we want to focus on the clearest example cases in order to bring clarity to the analysis before introducing additional complexities and considerations. Consider a situation in which PLOS, Hindawi, F1000, eLife, BioMed Central, JMIR, or another 100% open access publisher offers an unlimited publishing agreement to a given university or consortia. This is not just hypothetical; some of them do so already. 

For these service providers, the justification for procuring them via a noncompetitive sole source process is less strong than it is for subscriptions. For open access publishing services, each provider offers publishing services that result in placement in its own journals. This, however, may not be sufficient to justify a claim that it is an exclusive service because, unlike when a library is seeking to subscribe to a specific journal (and when a reader is seeking to read a particular article), any author can submit any manuscript to any number of different journals. As a result, a university looking to provide an array of reasonable publishing opportunities for its scholars can do so without having to provide access to any particular one of them, since there is competition among journals for article submissions. While one journal may provide somewhat better service and/or more prestige than another, the core service is the same. Differences in quality and prestige can be considered in the evaluation of bids. From this analysis, we must conclude that publishing services themselves are not exclusive to the same degree as journal subscriptions. As a result, the case to justify sole source noncompetitive procurement is severely weakened.

The nonexclusive nature of choosing a journal to which to submit is even more obvious when we consider the case of megajournals. Platforms like PLOS ONE or Scientific Reports offer undifferentiated services for articles from across a wide spectrum of fields. There is almost nothing that could be said to be exclusive about the competitive megajournal space and almost no imaginable reason that a sole source procurement could be justified for a contract that is above the bid limit. 

But, even if sole source justification might be approved for some open access publishing services, the savvy library administrator may prefer to use a bid process. A bidding process allows marketplace competition to drive stronger options than might otherwise be presented. There is no requirement to apply for a sole source process. Libraries should be expected to protect their university’s interests in determining if sole source is truly necessary. And, of course, a university might want to secure such services from many different providers, and bidding processes can be structured to enable multiple winning bids. 


If universities were to use a bidding process for open access publishing services, it could have important implications in the scholarly publishing market. But, let’s first explore how bidding might work. 

In a bidding process, the university would issue an RFP for publishing services, seeking responses from an array of potential providers (this may be an open RFP or one that is targeted to a particular set of providers). The RFP could be open to responses from both pure open access publishers as well as traditional subscription publishers offering open access publishing services. Bids would be reviewed based on a set of criteria, likely including at least a combination of:

  • The mapping of disciplinary coverage of the open access outlets with the university’s research activity;
  • Estimated likely take-up by the university’s authors; 
  • The type and characteristics of publishing services provided (i.e., full service or lightweight models); 
  • Workflow support and integrations; 
  • Pricing models (e.g., unlimited, metered, etc.); and
  • Price.

Keeping the requirements relatively simple would be desirable to enable maximum competition rather than inadvertently privileging those publishers with the resources to engage in complex bid preparations. One or more publishing services providers would be selected from among the bids, based on the budget available, the RFP that was issued, and the bids that were submitted. 

A bidding process needn’t imply that only central funds are used to pay the costs of the agreement. Other options could include decentralized funds (e.g., department budgets, researcher grants, donor contributions secured through alumni fundraising, etc.) supplementing some central funding or decentralized approaches that involve no central funding but a central workflow and accounting.

By pursuing a competitive bidding process, universities would pressure publishers to provide the most competitive terms they are able to offer for their existing services. Publishers would have a strong incentive to strip unnecessary services and inefficient service models out of their offerings while also demonstrating the value of their contributions and possibly developing new services that would be desired by the market. In many ways, bidding could represent a next stage in moving scholarly publishing from an intellectual partnership to more of a commodified service. 

Some publishers may argue that a shift towards a bidded procurement model for publishing services is a nightmare scenario, not only for their bottom lines but also for their ability to maintain quality and provide strong credentialing. Other parties might see the hit to a publisher’s bottom line as a feature. But, it is not too soon to wonder if the lack of exclusivity will make this scenario inevitable, regardless of one’s preferences.

Implications for Transformative Agreements

Having considered the straightforward case of contracting for open access publishing services separately, we now turn our attention to the question of publishing services bundled with reading, as is the approach in transformative agreements. 

It is clear that bundling reading and publishing has been highly favorable to those publishers able to secure transformative agreements. It has enabled them to secure their open access market share, in effect crowning those major incumbent subscription publishers as the open access royalty. It has had the downside (or, perhaps for some, the intended benefit?) of freezing out pure open access competitors

Transformative agreements have had the desired effect of converting components of the scholarly publishing system from subscriptions to open access, especially in Europe. If they develop to become universal, as proponents would like, we should expect them to convert eventually to pure open access publishing services agreements. In such a scenario, we expect to see a shift to bidding as discussed above. If open access publishing services are not exclusively provided by any single publisher, it seems clear they either must or should be procured through a bidding process. 

In this transitional period, transformative agreements have thus far evaded the bidding process. Whether procurement offices will eventually disallow tying open access publishing services to reading access is unknown. It could be a possibility in some contexts. 

But, there is also the matter of how libraries can best strengthen their negotiating position and their approach to procurement. Specifically, rather than helping publishers prop up the value of the big deal, might libraries benefit by unbundling reading from publishing? That would allow libraries to focus their reading negotiations on leveraging the leakage that is carving value out of subscriptions, while enabling them to use a bidding process to gain the most advantageous offers for open access publishing services.

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.

Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe

Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe

Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe is Professor/Coordinator for Research Professional Development in the University Library and affiliate faculty in the School of Information Sciences, European Union Center, and Center for Global Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. lisahinchliffe.com


55 Thoughts on "Do Transformative Agreements Violate Procurement Requirements?"

If regulations like this come to pass, then does this weaken the value of transformative agreements? Unless there is a major upheaval in the hiring/tenure/funding process, researchers of means are going to publish their articles in the venue that offers them the most value on career advancement, regardless of whether a deal with the library is in place. If a high profile paper leads to a job or a grant, paying an APC out of your research budget is a sound investment. So a set of transformative agreements limited to the lowest bidder will see lesser uptake than targeting the journals in which authors at the institution wish to publish.

Also, does this set up a class system of authors, those that can afford to pick and choose and those (without their own funding) who can only publish in journals that have received libary/institutional approval, based not on their quality or reach, but solely on their financial offerings?

David, we repeatedly mentioned that price is only one criteria. And, that a library can connect w multiple publishers from a single RFP. While we should think about the effects, especially if adopted as strategy, let’s not adopt the rhetoric of implying low price = low quality. Universities also have every reason to contract on quality and reach. There’s reasons we see transformative agreements with the publishers we are seeing aamd it isn’t all about price alone.

Understood — we know that many not-for-profit and society journals are much lower priced than commercial journals and offer superior quality. But even if this is factored in, a university that selects a limited number of publishing partners via procurement rules will result in limited choices for authors without their own funding. The committee (or person) making those calls on what represents quality or reach may have a very different viewpoint than the postdoc about to hit the job market or faculty members seeking tenure. Those that can afford it, will work around these restrictions. Those that can’t will have to live with them.

But, that’s no different than the position those unfunded authors are in with TAs or if their library does no contracts at all?

Those authors can (at least for now) publish wherever they want without paying in subscription or hybrid journals. In a situation where that is no longer a choice, the flaws of the author-pays model of OA remain evident, even where transformative deals have been done (and particularly if as is suggested in your post above, the availability of those deals will be limited to a small number of publishers who are able to win the bidding process).

You seem to be suggesting that authors will be unable to publish in venues that do not have a contract. There is nothing about having a bid process that contracts for your large “pure publish” agreements that precludes one-off payments to smaller publishers.

Does that make sense though? You’d have a small number of contract deals at discounted prices, limited to the few publishers that won the procurement process. Then for everything else, you’d be paying full retail price. I would think it would make more financial sense to ensure discounts with as many publishers as one can (at least those publishers whose outlets your patrons use). But that would seem to contradict the procurement process which is meant to drive competitive bidding and a small number of winners.

Wouldn’t a workaround be a publisher selling the library a series of discounted packages throughout out the year that fall just below the procurement threshold?

Why do you say a “small number of contracts”? I mean, it will be a smallish number as the consolidation in the industry means there is a limited number of possibilities but this isn’t saying one would have PLOS but not SpringerNature. And, having bid the big contracts doesn’t preclude negotiating discounts with smaller ones that don’t reach the bid limits. As to “wouldn’t a workaround be a publisher selling the library a series of discounted packages throughout out the year that fall just below the procurement threshold?” – No because as those go through auditing/financial they would collectively hit the bid limit and trigger a hold until a bid is done (which would be really frustrating for authors!). Also, intentionally circumventing a requirement to bid is a serious offense!

Maybe I don’t understand the procurement process/requirements then. My read from your post is that the idea is to set up competitive bidding from suppliers and select a winner (or winners). If you’re going to still make a deal with every big publisher, then is there any pressure whatsoever on those publishers to offer a competitive bid versus other bidders? If you’re going to buy all the big contracts anyway, then what is being regulated here?

I’m not saying a library would necessarily make a deal with every large publisher. I’m saying it could out of a bidding process. Or, it might now. The reason for doing so is that it creates competitive pressure for efficiency and mechanisms to also insist on quality considerations being mantained (e.g., the provider must do copy editing – to reply to Joe’s comment elsewhere on this post). Here’s the thing though – we are talking about this only as if the library might have a choice re whether to bid. Which, as the piece argues, might be strategically the path to take. But, it is also the case that we could see requirement to send to bid – and in that instance it doesn’t matter what the library might prefer. Most librarians I know don’t really want to put out a bid for a library catalog system either – but they are required to.

The “rant” by Eysenbach also stated the following – “For example, we (smaller societies) are forced to discount DFG-funded research to less than 2000 EUR (which is the APC cap for DFG-funded research), while this APC cap does not apply to Wiley/Springer as a result of these contracts.” So self-imposed institutional rules are worthless — they are likely to be over-ridden when it suits. In this case the reason is likely that these are publishers with reputations for quality as a consequence of high IF journals. However, there is also the volume (“read” element) argument from these two publishers compared with smaller publishers.

The march toward lower and lower editorial development continues, in the name of progress. Very sad, even if inevitable. Despite the claim that price is only one factor, these arrangements (if they come to pass) will be made on price. Where to slash costs? Hmmm. Let’s start with the copy editors. We can move on from there.

The savvy library would of course put any of those editorial priorities into the RFP. This is the kind of publishing services we expect. Indeed, it could be a mechanism to push those that don’t adhere to the kind of quality we’d like to see to step up their game.

But why would a library care about copy editing, especially if they are under cost saving pressure? At a blunt level, the uni doesn’t really pay for copy editing in most internal things. How many powerpoints by academics have you seen with typos or errors? How often has a professional copy edited a document or presentation you have done before it goes public? The uni assumes that a combination of spell checking, peers casting an eye over it and professional pride will handle most it. So why pay for it elsewhere?

Also, even assuming we did demand copy editing (for example), what would we ask for? A certain number of editors to be employed? A upper limit on published errors? A copy of everything one of our authors submits in Word format with track changes turned on so we could see it? And how would we police it? Could I pop into Wiley’s offices and ask to do a head count?

I cannot agree with you on this, Lisa. Who is the “we” in “we expect”? Many librarians disdain editorial procedures, knocking such metrics as impact factors and rejection rates. I am not fighting for those measures; as I have said before, I don’t have a dog in this hunt. My point is simply that a valuable part of the process is being squeezed out. People will always find a way to make money, but probably not by providing rigorous editorial services.

That was a rhetorical we. My point being that whatever services one wants – one puts them in the RFP.

And the decision, after much hemming and hawing, will be based on price. In any event, the expectation that it will be based on price will deter investment in editorial review. And if that’s the future? I’ll deal with it.

I can confidently assert that the decision is not necessarily or inevitably made on price. However, one has to justify to one’s procurement unit, and since it is a public process, to the other vendors and stakeholders, why the bid was awarded and what value the higher price provided. A lot of what the RFP requires can focus on pricing transparency, not necessarily low price.

Gwen, that is an intriguing observation re price transparency. Interesting to ponder how this transparency might be similar to/different from that being pursued by cOAlition S.

Replying to Lisa’s comment below —

The RFP and justification process on an individual campus can reflect more of the needs of that particular institution or organization within the institution when scoring responses. One of the challenges of a library consortium working within the fiscal agency of a single higher education institution (very common with many consortia which have a higher education focus) is the establishment of an understanding with the office of procurement that whatever the consortium is negotiating or acquiring has to meet the needs of all its members, and those requirements and value statements don’t necessarily match up with the requirements or value judgements of the fiscal agent. Pricing transparency and value perceived may have different flavors or dollar values as one goes up a network, and aren’t necessarily comparable. I think there’s a corollary to some of the pushback to cOAlition S from researchers — the bigger your network, the more nuance gets lost and/or the more use cases the RFP has to accommodate.

Transformative agreements are difficult to reach in the short term for many instituions, because you do have to follow a certain procurement process that requires the organization to be explicit about the services they wish to procure up front. Transformative agreements are unique and different enough, and if more than two companies can provide the services then one must go through a process. This can take a lot of time and resources. A simplified version of this process looks like this:

a. Understand the market. This usually takes the form of an RFI.
b. Review the responses from the RFI so you may develop an RFP that gets the organization what they need in terms of a service or a product.
c. Review the RFP responses to ensure that the potential providers can meet your requirements established in the RFP.
d. Work with procurment office to make sure you are following the correct process and procedures, all while making the procurment office comfortable that you are getting the best exposure that will eventually yield the best deal (not always based on price).
e. Begin negotiations with one or more of the respondants (one procurement can be awarded to multiple vendors).
f. Award the contract and start implementation process.

I probably missed a few steps in this process as I did try to simplify, or maybe I did not articulate well enough the time on task these activities require, but this process is labor intensive for both sides. My assumption is that for many smaller societies this is a process that requires too much of their time and may even be considered too risky.

My question is do smaller societies have a co-op or an agency that could pull them all together, to at least follow these procurment steps on their behalf? I do not think that they all have the time nor the resources to commit to these activities. Espcially if you are involved with more than one procurment at a time.

A thought provoking article indeed. But I would not lay this at the feet of transformative agreements. Markets shift from time to time. I think we may be going through a transition again.

The “co-op or agency” you are looking for can be found at the large commercial publishers, which aggregate the publications of the many societies. That is how the economy solved this problem.

But is it working? It sounds like some of the smaller societies are concerned it isn’t always working in their interests.

Yes and no. It depends what question you ask and whom you ask it to. If the question is, What is the LEAST expensive way to provision a very large number of journals with high editorial procedures, the big aggregations are a roaring success. If the question is, How can I spend even less? then the answer would be different.

My question wasn’t if it was working for instutions or not (I’ll wait for the next post 🙂
My question is do the smaller societies feel that procurement process makes it increasingly difficult for them to adjust in the marketplace. If the larger aggregators are acting as jobber on their behalf that’s one thing, but if they wish to participate in a transformative agreement, who acts on their behalf?

I think it comes down to how we develop our RFIs/RFPs. As Lisa said, “The savvy library would of course put any of those editorial priorities into the RFP.” It really is a mush different way of doing business. Or at leats, different than what we were seeking from these providers in the past.

Mark, I think it would depend very much on the publishing profile at a particular institution and the size of the publisher. RFP and bid processes are meant to address large purchases or bulk purchases. If the publishing activity from an institution during a year with a particular journal or publisher (and that might be an interesting distinction) never reaches that bid threshold of say $50,000, there is no requirement to bid. The institution could pay a certain number of APCs at $5000 per year as long as those don’t add up to the bid threshold. Smaller publishers are likely to have a much smaller footprint of “publishing services” on campuses unless the campuses are very large, or there is a pronounced speciality.

If transformative agreements are struck with very, very large publishers on campuses and systems with very high publishing activity in those packages, and the deals are struck with a single entity (the library) instead of, say, individual departments or divisions or labs, then the bid process may be invoked. But even a very productive group of researchers may never get near the annual threshold if the publisher has a small group of journals or the “buying” is intermittent and distributed across many units. That “buying in small amounts across many units” is what drives campus procurement offices crazy, btw, but sometimes trying to control that is counter productive and not cost effective.

Roger, you make an interesting argument. However those factors that make journal subscriptions single source, such as journal brand, makeup of editorial board, editorial focus, the choice of editors, Impact Factor, speed to publish, etc., still apply in the market for APC-based publications. If all publishers/journals are fungible in an author paid world — which is what would need to be true to move away from sole source — then universities will only need to enter into one agreement with one publisher, and ultimately that will be whoever is the cheapest one to provide a minimum level of service. This does not reflect the market today, and would, in the long term, dis-incentivize investment in new, unique author services that would get lost in the race to the competitive bidding bottom. As long as “publishing services” are tied to specific titles offered by a specific publisher, sole source will prevail. This is of course different from when publishers and others offer platform services to institutions to, e.g., host library owned journals. In that case, competitive bidding is appropriate.

However those factors that make journal subscriptions single source, such as journal brand, makeup of editorial board, editorial focus, the choice of editors, Impact Factor, speed to publish, etc., still apply in the market for APC-based publications. </blockquote

In the subscription realm, it’s not the organizational or editorial characteristics of a journal that make it unique. What makes a journal single-source is its monopoly control on the content: if an article is published in a Wiley journal, you can’t get that article from anyone but Wiley. (Though you may be able to get a different version of the article from a repository.) That’s why there wouldn’t be any sense in putting subscription offers out to bid; the journal is usually a sole-source provider of (legal) access to its content.

In the APC realm, the makeup of the editorial board, editorial focus, etc., don’t create a single-source situation because there’s nothing particularly unique about the service provided by that constellation of staff and services. Most journals have an editorial board, and all editorial boards do roughly the same thing. Some may be more prestigious than others, but a high-prestige board doesn’t make your journal unique any more than high-quality finish and engineering make an expensive car unique. Ten different journals can all fulfill roughly the same fundamental function for an author; the same isn’t true of two different journal articles.

This reality is why an idea like Lisa’s and Roger’s is even worth discussing. An individual journal offers something genuinely unique to readers, but competes directly for authors with other publishing-services providers who are offering roughly the same thing.

But as pretty much every survey has shown in recent years, the brand of the journal is still the most crucial reason why authors choose them to publish in. And competing on that is difficult, and hard to overcome. This has been the problem with OA for 20 years, and this won’t fix that problem either.

The assumption that researchers prefer to publish with large / legacy publishers because they have a stronger brand may be correct in some instances but it is not universally the case. This is perhaps the underlying bias here – do librarians / consortia _assume_ that pure OA publishers are always “predatory” and researchers want to publish with with large strongly branded publishers, hence no competitive process to encourage researchers to publish with A but not B is required? What if this is not the case? What if a independent OA publisher or self-publishing scholarly society has a better brand, at a lower price point, with better services than a large publisher, in a specific field? Why would libraries help to direct manuscripts to lower ranked more expensive journals / publishers without looking closely at the competition, the competition they are hurting with TAs or sole-sourced contracts?
I am campaigning for a #OAfirst policy: If we as society want a shift to open access, we need to fund/support the existing open access offerings first (or at least consider them!), and at least look at the offerings from small and independent publishers and innovative peer-review platforms. Otherwise this emerging ecosystem is destroyed before it has the chance to fully blossom. Guess that was one of the central points of my blog, and I thank the chefs for putting my “rant” into a more readable piece.

Your blog was indeed a rant. It’s a sign of the times that you don’t see that as a disqualifying negative. In any event, while it is indeed true that scholars do not “universally” seek publication in the highest ranked publications, you write as though “not universal” means “totally unimportant.” Substitute “most of the time” for “universal” and you will get closer to the truth. In any event, “we” as a society are emphatically NOT fighting for open access. It’s just one of many options. Please don’t overstate the case or imagine that there is an army marching behind you.

Am a little surprised by the assertion that “the makeup of the editorial board, editorial focus, etc., don’t create a single-source situation because there’s nothing particularly unique about the service provided by that constellation of staff and services”.

It would seems to me that it is precisely those features that differentiate one journal from another, and why most researches have a fairly strong hierarchy of the “journals I want to submit to”. The editorial filtering that determines a journal’s selection criteria, along with the the manner in which the peer review is conducted, is unique based on each editors’ interpretation of their scope, quality, and innovation brief as well as how they are resourced. While the mechanics of the publication are important (the platform, the copy editing, the workflow), the ultimate value of publication is in the validation of a researcher’s work by a respected and reputable brand recognized by the community as convening authority. If the article gains secondary/tertiary distribution via Open Access, that may help in discovery and distribution…but I believe the originating publication’s DOI will be of unique importance (at least to the author/purchaser).


There are many cases of individual journals, published by competitors, that are each quite strong, but equally strong places for an author to place a publication. If there is more than one journal — into which an article can reasonably be submitted and through which an author can receive essentially similar services and ultimate distribution — then we are not in sole source territory at a journal level on the supply side. We attempted to illustrate this situation especially vividly with the megajournals as an example, but the same logic holds true for many, many topically discrete journals as well.

On the reader side, these journals become exclusive providers of the articles they publish. On the author side, they do not have that level of exclusivity. Some amount of differentiation? Absolutely. But almost certainly not the level of exclusivity that would force a single-source procurement.

I’ll be the first to admit the I am not a procurement expert entrenched in this area and may be technically over my head (not the first time!).

However, I think a lot depends on how one defines what an Article Publishing Charge purchases, and what’s the goal of the author. Authors, I believe, have specific goals of which journals they want to publish with – and the value they derive from being published there.

I recognize there are journals that are viewed as near peers within their segment. However, by many publisher’s ethical guidelines, an author only submits to one journal at a time – and only upon rejection /withdraw is permitted to submit the MSS to another. So there’s only one active journal acceptance per article at a given time. And thus when one purchases an Article Publishing Charge (or similarly commits to publication on acceptance), its not to be published by Wiley or IEEE in general etc, but to enable publication in a specific journal. That sounds like sole source to me.

Nor do I really buy your point on mega journals – except to acknowledge that field is young and evolving. If mega journals proliferate, I would expect that there will be some mega journals viewed as better/more desirable (or more appropriate to certain disciplines) than others, and authors will be selective as to which mega they engage with and in what order.

Given that the academy is obsessed with ranking systems – from where their own universities sit, to how their outputs are counted & judged vs their peers – I doubt a system that sought to commoditize or restrict the reputational benefit of publication based on being the low cost bidder would get much truck within the scholarly community. Plus of course there’s that pesky notion of ‘Academic Freedom’

It is a troubling aspect of Open Access dogma that in order to provide readers with the benefit unfettered access to content services, authors should be institutionally controlled as to their choice of publication venue and editorial association.

Brandon, As someone that deals with procurement rules in the federal government (but is not a lawyer or contracting official nor have I asked them for their opinion), I doubt that the things like the makeup of the editorial board, focus, and impact factor would make it qualify a sole source bid for article publishing if it met price thresholds. They would certainly be legitimate factors to include in a bid although some of them would be very difficult, but perhaps not impossible, to craft such as editorial board prestige. It may very well be that in some cases only one publisher could prepare a successful bid. However in the scenario for open access publishing Roger describes I am not confident it would meet all the requirements for sole-source that is written into the various laws, rules, and regulations that many public institutions need to follow.

This is an interesting comment, which gets to the heart of the matter. The differences in editorial review *is the essence of publishing.* The fact that this would be pushed aside in favor of price-based decisions (which seems all but certain to me) means that the distinctive nature of publishing would be pushed aside, resulting in an ongoing lowering of the quality of the editorial process. I am not taking sides in this matter; I really am not. I am simply making the observation that when you commoditize something that is not a commodity, you get a commodity. It is fatuous to believe that these new developments will not undermine editorial efforts. But no one cares about that any more, so let’s forge ahead.

Edward, Thanks for weighing in on this and confirming that the scenario I described in my comment (really just reiterating what Lisa and I outlined in our post) probably would not meet the sole-source requirements. While this may not be the case in every jurisdiction, I agree with you that it will hold in many.

Joe, thanks for your comment as it gives an opportunity to further this discussion a bit more. Yes, as Roger and I alluded to in the post, we are moving towards a commodification of publishing services – but this is true whether those services are acquired through sole source or bidding (or by direct one-off purchase because the spend limit isn’t reached with a particular publisher). That’s the path we are on with the shift from paying to read to paying to publish. In light of that, what libraries will smartly be considering is how to best acquire these publishing services. But, it really does a disservice to the bid process to characterize it as solely concerned with price and not quality. Indeed, as Roger and I detail, there are many considerations that could be built into an RFP in addition to price (and pricing models). I would particularly call attention to our identifying “type and characteristics of publishing services provided (i.e., full service or lightweight models)” and “workflow support and integrations” as examples.

Commodities of course still vary in quality. Some white t-shirts are of greater quality than others to take a very quotidian example. So, in fact, bidding could be a mechanism for shoring up quality issues as well as specific frustrations that authors have. In an RFP, a library/university indicates what it places priority upon. Whichever publishing services are of importance, they would be detailed in the RFP and a rubric developed for assessing the bids. So, for example, an RFP could require a platform to provide evidence of average (and ranges of) time from submission of manuscript to it being sent for review, the expectation for open citation deposit, meeting specific metadata standards, etc. One could imagine a number of other key metrics being identified as indicators of the quality of author experience and quality of service. Some of these might be show-stoppers … e.g., if you don’t do DOIs, no chance of a contract. Others might have minimum and preferred levels. We might also see other demands like a report of the platforms scores from the emerging “transparency index” (https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/journal-transparency-index-will-be-alternative-impact-scores).

In other words, as Gwen Evans said in another comment, bidding can be a very useful mechanism for transparency, which lets a library/university assess the value of what it is contracting for. Personally, I think librarians are rather interested in editorial quality; we are no fans of typos, bad metadata, or frustrated authors. But, we want to see value for spend.

Finally, something that hasn’t been emphasized as much in the discussion but is a very important consideration: bidding publishing services opens the market to all open access publishing services players, not just those who can strike transformative agreements (read+publish bundling). I realize though, of course, that not everyone reading this will be particularly enthused to have competition from additional players.

Sorry, no disrespect meant to coauthor Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe, whose name I inexcusably neglected to mention in my comment!

I accept your apology – thank you for acknowledging your error.

I am late to the discussion, but it seems to me the librarians are the ones trying desperately to change the publishing process. It has been my experience that the researchers and or faculty still are submitting manuscripts to the journal that they think will do the most to advance their careers and lead to tenure. Faculty hiring is still very much influenced by their publication record. Look at the submission rates of subscription rates in the STM field. There has been no decline in manuscripts submitted. Open access journals are often in the bottom tier of acceptability. Libraries buying journals or publishing services via RFP does little to change traditional publishing practices.

At the latest OASPA conference, Nina Schönfelder (OA2020-DE) presented a proposal for such bidding process (for full OA publishers) by a library/institution consortium, in turn based on the SCOAP3-tender.
(slides here: https://oaspavideos.org/media/3.%20german%20consortium%20for%20publishing%20in%20open%20access%20journals%202019-08-27.pdf#page=8)

I think the discussions on what a tender process would aim to accomplish and what the effects could be (e.g. better securing support for full OA publishers and controlling of costs vs. potential further consolidation of the (full) OA landscape and implications for price/cost transparency) are indeed very interesting.

One other thought regarding TAs and potential unbundling of reading and publishing: there’s an opposite development towards bundling not only reading and publishing, but also other research workflow tools and services, as in Elsevier’s recent framework agreement in the Netherlands. I really hope institutions will think carefully about all this… also in relation to procurement.

Bianca, Thanks for sharing this, very good to know about the OA2020/OASPA proposal. I strongly agree that all parties should think carefully not just about the short-term benefits of bundles but also, as Lisa and I argue, their longer-term implications, and as you suggest not only for content but for services as well!

I think I am seeing an opportunity for organizations to provide open access publishing services (including covering the APCs) much like many libraries use a vendor to purchase their serials through instead of negotiating themselves with each journal or publisher.

The commenting system wouldn’t let me leave this in direct reply to Lisa’s acknowledgment that publishing is being commoditized. My follow-up question: In such an environment, what scale of headcount reductions should we anticipate–and plan for–for library staff? 50% 75%? I am not a librarian, but this won’t be a library decision (of course) anyway. This is what the administration will be asking.

As far as I can tell, managing publishing services contracts is currently more labor intensive than managing subscriptions so I wouldn’t really anticipate any. Might even result in staff expansion — see the staffing up at MPDL Services GmbH to handle the Wiley and SN deals with DEAL.

Well, we shall see. My own view is that OA is going to put a lot of librarians out of work, and the thin support libraries get from their administration today will look like the fat years ten years from now. Librarians should look at the fate of the university press as the ghost of Christmas past. Everybody always thinks that disruption comes for the other guy.

Yes, we have discussed your view on this in the comments on other posts. And, just as I have said previously, I believe that libraries exist to serve their institutions. We don’t exist to spend money on subscriptions, we don’t exist to answer questions, we don’t exist to manage catalogs, etc., etc., etc. We do those things for the reason we exist – which is to serve the needs of our communities. Serving the community is central and lasting as the mission; the actions to do so change over time. If our communities needs are best served by open access, that is what we need to be working on. If they are best served by something else, we should work on that. To me, being firmly situated in serving the institutions priorities and communicating that is the best budget defense.

Are libraries being disrupted? Absolutely. Is every institution/organization/entity that is disrupted destroyed? Not at all. Indeed, we shall see.

And none of that is inconsistent with my point that it represents an expansion of people working on the library side, not a contraction?

For now, with a few common deals and lots of individual deals still extant. But if one assumes that these bulk publishing deals are the inevitable outcome, doesn’t it make sense that this handful of professionals will eventually substitute for all the time spent working on such things at individual libraries? Wouldn’t that increased efficiency and centralization result in fewer personnel needed to do the task?

Those folks at MPDL Services GmbH are just handling the payments to publishers/from libraries as far as I know. On campuses there are also people managing integrations with publisher workflow systems, ensuring that authors are actually affiliated, managing campus financial systems/payments, moving metadata into faculty CRIS systems to populate online CVs, etc.

Think about the UC model where the libraries are paying $1000 and then asking the researchers to pay the top-off, unless they can’t, then the library will, etc. Massive amounts of communication with faculty and publisher workflow to support. Or, think of UNC-CH with SAGE and managing the rebates – who gets to access the free publishing under the rebate, who reviews faculty requests, etc.

Sure, we’ll see systems developed to support the people managing this, but that’s the key word, support.

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