As I watch how the open publishing landscape is evolving, I worry that we are approaching a new status quo and need to step back for a moment, and consider the impact on the ecosystem of funders, institutions, societies, publishers and academics (in their roles as both authors and readers).

I worry that in seeking openness, we are serving a blow to equity. It is a reality that in a time of a COVID-19 pandemic, institutions are suffering financially. Indeed, all participants of the research ecosystem are suffering. In this post I argue that funders, be they national or private, should consider directly funding their field through funding societies and institutions, with a focus on equitable distribution of funds across scholarly communities. Such an approach would temper the impact of the new status quo — the inexorable rise of the transformative agreement, which systematically disadvantages scholars at less wealthy institutions.

stacked coins in different amounts

In a transformative agreement, such as a publish and read deal, the institution/consortium is paying for the ability of its authors to publish papers without paying article processing charges (APC), or in some cases paying lower APCs.

This worries me from an equity perspective. An author from a participating institution has it made. Essentially, they will face no APCs and can publish openly in the publisher’s journals; they can also feel good that their work is available at no cost to readers. This works for large institutions, and large publishers where significant numbers of academics will find a suitably prestigious home for their papers at the publisher in question. But what do authors from institutions not capable of participating in a transformative agreement do? Do they just have to hope that their fees will be covered by waivers, or will they find themselves limited to publishing in venues they can afford? Is it possible that wealthy institutions will, over the long-term, support those who are not as wealthy or of significant scale so that less wealthy institutions of smaller scale can benefit from access provided by others?

Transformative agreements in some ways are beneficial for all. As long as the larger institutions keep paying up, journal articles from that institution are made open to all, regardless of your host institution, or country – we all benefit from open access to this scholarly content. On the other hand, smaller institutions suffer from an inability to scale sufficiently to strike such agreements for their own faculty, limiting their ability to publish. What happens if you are the one mathematician at a small liberal arts college? Will your college invest in a transformative agreement with a math publisher?

In a time when we are necessarily focusing on issues of diversity, equity and inclusion, I worry that we are introducing a new set of barriers that will, in effect, hurt those who are not in those privileged positions and able to participate in transformative deals.

Many have thought about this equity issue with respect to scholars from less developed countries. One can argue, successfully, that many publishers who focus on gold open access (OA) address this issue by offering waivers to authors from such countries, which may, for example, be included in the Research4Life program.

A waiver approach becomes more problematic if one considers that many scholars work in a wide variety of institutional structures. In fields such as mathematics, we do not see large concentrations of mathematicians at R1 institutions. Rather, mathematicians are spread across universities, liberal arts colleges, HBCUs, and four-year colleges. What happens to authors from these institutions when they realize that they are not able to fund an APC? Will publishers sustainably roll out waivers for these authors? Will the poor get poorer and the rich get richer, in terms of academic productivity, reflecting the overall trend in our society – winner takes all? In a field where, perhaps, the spread of excellence is more diverse, I am struggling to understand how a few wealthy institutions will sustainably allow a publisher to provide authorship at no cost with scale.

Some publishers are trying to address issues of equity head on. The Association of Computing Machinery (ACM), for example, (see Rick Anderson’s post “ACM’s New Open Access Agreements: A Q&A with Scott Delman“) has introduced a transformative model that includes “unlimited read access” and “unlimited OA publication” based on historical publication history, for a single fixed annual fee regardless of actual publication activity during the term of the multi-year OA license. One of the primary goals of their model is to rebalance a longstanding inequity in licensing fees, which has benefited the larger more well-funded institutions, and placed a disproportionately large financial burden on a long tail of smaller “poorer” institutions. ACM’s new model, called “ACM Open”, will result in a rebalancing of the fee structure for institutions, which will increase fees from the larger institutions over the long term (roughly the top third). There will be lower fees for a long tail of the smaller institutions around the world (roughly the bottom two-thirds). However, because the success of this model relies heavily shifting the payment burden to a smaller number of wealthy institutions, sustainability is (in my view) a very real concern, so we will have to see how their model progresses.

In a recent discussion with Scott Delman, ACM’s Director of Publications, says:

“…ACM’s model was developed in close collaboration with the University of California, Carnegie Mellon University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Iowa State University, and the University of Minnesota with a number of high-level goals or principles, including Sustainability, Transparency, Equity, & Fairness, and all aspects of the model, including pricing flowed directly from those core principles.”

I am intrigued by other models, as well. Subscribe to Open (S2O) is a model that has equity baked in; it is a transparent, overtly mission-driven approach to providing support for reasonably priced subscriptions, resulting in openness for all — if a critical mass of relatively wealthy institutional subscribers continues to support it. While this model still relies on these wealthy institutions to subsidize openness, the model is at least transparent in its approach to equity. One problem for publishers — and here I struggle some — is that there is no room for growth with S2O; at best, it maintains your position in the market. Another model is the PLOS Community Action Publishing (CAP) model. In this model, the cost of publishing is distributed more equitably across representative institutions, and revenues exceeding community targets go back to members at renewal time. But this model also relies for its success upon the willingness of larger institutions to cover the majority of the costs, and it remains to be seen whether PLOS can reliably generate the increased levels of revenue needed for this model to be sustainable.

It is remarkably easy to complain. Indeed, complaining without providing a solution is the preserve of the grumpy white male – and I am quite conscious that I am that guy.

Is there a more equitable model we can turn to? For us at the AMS, we are fortunate in being able to provide diamond open access for a major new journal across all of mathematics, Communications of the AMS. This was fortunately funded in its initial stages directly by a donor, who will endow the journal in perpetuity once the journal has demonstrated academic success. I completely understand that a donor funded model is a rarity, and virtually impossible to scale.

Are there alternative approaches to achieving openness in a way that is equitable? For us, currently, we are trying to achieve equity through a balanced portfolio of publications. On the one hand we offer a diamond model, while on the other we offer reasonably priced subscriptions – indeed, we also offer gold OA for a couple of journals, with waivers applied if you are an AMS member, and any author may publish in a non-OA journal, if their work survives peer review

A critique of this approach is that not all content will be rendered open in a mixed portfolio – and this is a valid criticism.

So, what could the next level of openness look like – a model that truly addresses issues of equity? My view is that we need to work on achieving balance in the publishing ecosystem. For many fields (not so much mathematics, of course) academic work is supported by grant funds, which enable recipients to conduct research and publish it in the most appropriate journals. For fields such as mathematics, where around 75% of authors are not directly funded for their research, but are perhaps salaried at teaching institutions (this is also generally true in the humanities and some social sciences) — is there a way that funders, be they national or private, can support institutions and societies directly, targeting them with funds that enable open publishing?

We must understand that funders have a responsibility to fund research, and that open publishing is but a part of that mandate, and perhaps not the main part. If institutions and societies receive direct funding, could they transform their publishing programs to an open environment? In return, institutions and societies can continue in their role of fueling the community of research — in our case mathematics — providing programs, prizes, scholarships, travel grants, fellowships, and so forth. In addition, societies and institutions may then continue to grow their support for communities in a wide range of disciplines and academic levels — from undergraduate to Department Chair. Is it possible that funders could focus their efforts in different ways? I am not arguing for a “one size fits all approach”, and there is clearly room for a transformative agreement approach, but there is room for a range of models that may serve our academic communities more fully. Directly funding societies and institutions may well be a route to preserve both the integrity of the society ecosystem, the ability of institutions to be deeply involved with their subject communities, and be a braking force on the inexorable push of societies relying on commercial partnership to survive and continue to serve their communities.

Under this proposed model, new issues of equity will arise, of course, as funders consider the distribution of funds among institutions and scholarly societies – the devil is always in the detail. Some indeed may say, that societies need to ask themselves if there are other ways to raise revenue, but from where I sit at a scholarly society, this is an empty argument. If one accepts that societies play an indelible role in academic life, and that their journals, and indeed book programs are part of their mission (as well as being their revenue source) then perhaps it is time for funders to think seriously about a third way.

Robert Harington

Robert Harington

Robert Harington is Chief Publishing Officer at the American Mathematical Society (AMS). Robert has the overall responsibility for publishing at the AMS, including books, journals and electronic products.


2 Thoughts on "Transformative Agreements, Funders and the Publishing Ecosystem: a Lack of Focus on Equity"

Well said. I’ve often wondered what was really so bad about the present hodgepodge of publishing with diversity of traditional subscription-based journal, green and gold OA or hybrid journals when you have the money. Yes, as a reader, getting a pay-walled journal article is a minor hassle that takes a few days via library requests, writing to the author, or a green version. If I can’t get it, I won’t cite it. Not like there aren’t good other choices, for there are very few must-have articles. However, as an author, dropping $3000 on an APC means hard choices about foregoing samples, student hours, or attending a conference, if it’s even an option. The OA or nothing loud crowd seems to think that some benefactors somewhere will take care of APCs, or that research=biomedical research with large budgets that can absorb it.

It’s hard to see transformative read to publish types of agreements taking off. Sure, it’s worth doing for the big publishers with countries with centralized research support or large university consortia. But as the recent post by the venerable International Water Association pointed out, no libraries are lining up to work out deals with small publishers, nor are large publishers going to bother with the all the decentralized small colleges and universities. Maybe the status quo hodgepodge should be re-embraced? Babies and bathwater.

I am an editorial board member of one of the AMS’s subscription journals, and I wonder what launching a space-rationed, prestige-leveraging competing journal has to do with equity — or with courtesy to the volunteers spending enormous amounts of time working out how to reject 90% of submissions because the AMS will not address how to scale their publishing.

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