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.
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.
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
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.