Editor’s Note: Today’s post is by Peter Barr. Peter is Head of Content & Collections at the University of Sheffield Library.
At the beginning of May 2023, Jisc announced that UK Universities had agreed a new 3-year read and publish open access deal with Springer Nature (SN). This combines the previous read-only Nature Journals agreement with the existing Springer Compact Open Access agreement, and means that of the major publishers of UK research outputs, all but IEEE now have some form of Transformative Agreement (TA) through Jisc. However, while the announcement of the 2022 TA with Elsevier was celebrated as “unique both in the level of savings and the access it delivers and… a major step in the transition towards full, equitable and affordable… open scholarship”, the tone of the SN announcement was notably more muted. It was highlighted that a large number of UK institutions only accepted the agreement with significant reservations. Chief among these was the failure to get SN to move from a very high calculation of its publishing costs (the controversial €9,750 APC) or even to provide an explanation, in context, as to how it is justified.
The inability to achieve truly transformative terms was predicted and comes against a backdrop where a group of UK campaigners were calling for rejection of anything that fell short of the ideal. Yet libraries, who are chiefly responsible for the administration of such agreements, find themselves continuing to sign TAs while becoming increasingly convinced that they do not represent the desired transformation. Therefore, some explanation of why this has happened — and keeps happening – is necessary. It is worth considering what more could have been reasonably achieved via library-publishing negotiation, and whether – with existing systemic limitations – academic libraries would be in a position to take risks without clearer expressions of support from their institutions and communities.
The limits of negotiation
Those unhappy with the SN deal, I would argue, are unhappy with TAs as a mechanism for transition, but the frustration often manifests as criticism of the negotiation. By the criteria set for them by UK Academic Libraries, Jisc have been successful negotiators. The complexity of addressing the needs of institutions that vary vastly in size, resources, and focus should not be underestimated. Where Jisc have failed to achieve their negotiating aim that “agreements must be transparent”, it is perhaps because the kind of transparency demanded is an existential problem for commercial publishers seeking a competitive edge over their rivals. A rational critic must accept that the nature of a negotiation means that it is unlikely any side will achieve all its aims. An ability to succeed in negotiations is based on the leverage available. SN, in possession of probably the most prestigious academic journal brand and a queue of UK academics who want to publish in its titles, had the better leverage. The conclusion should be that we have reached the limits of what might be achieved through formal negotiation with the major commercial publishers.
If there is disappointment that UK academic libraries did not walk away from these negotiations, it is perhaps because it was never a feasible prospect — politically and practically — in the current climate. Research assessment in the UK is bound up with the REF, which consequently is hugely significant in an institution’s ability to attract future research funding. Therefore, the institutional imperative is to ensure that research outputs become ‘REF-able’ which for journal articles mandates that they should be immediately open access. TAs are an effective way of ensuring this in the short term, and with the REF currently operating on 7 year cycles, institutional leaders can often only think within that time period. During a REF cycle, there would be a tension between the disruption a ‘walk away’ would cause to the submission process, and any longer term transformation it might achieve.
It is also worth considering what a walk-away is designed to achieve. Is it to gain greater leverage in a negotiation? Is it to reset terms with the commercial publishers? Or is it to take back resources to build a non-commercial future? There have been notable examples of journal editorial teams leaving to launch new non-profit open access publications (Lingua, and more recently Neuroimage) but normalizing this kind of move and funding the resulting journals at scale will require the budget currently swallowed up by the major TAs.
The reality is that there are deep structural constraints on how academic libraries operate. Libraries are fundamentally intermediaries. They have traditionally handled the complexities of negotiating access to content with publishers. In so doing, they have shielded their users from the consequences of their choices of reading, notably the price. This situation has been supercharged with the addition of publishing services to the negotiation. In an environment where “UKRI supports TAs… [as a means to] raise the level of immediate open access to UKRI funded research and to manage costs”, UK libraries feel obliged, through Jisc, to negotiate read and publish deals with the publishers with whom researchers choose to publish (accepting that these choices occur within a well-entrenched system of prestige and academic reward). The problem of moving away from TAs is one of collective action — both for libraries and researchers. Once signed, libraries can feel that they cannot move away from the major TAs until researchers move away from big publishers, but while these negotiated agreements facilitate this kind of publishing, and academic careers depend on these outlets, why would anyone move? This dulls the impetus, with libraries unsure whether they can, should and would be supported if they made the first move towards cancellation.
An unused cancellation plan
It is clear that in terms of read access, academic libraries could survive without comprehensive big deals for journals. Various US institutions have sought to unbundle their big deals for budget savings (for example UNC). While these have not been without service implications, in reality they represent a calculated cancellation of underused resources so their effect is within the variation of access users might accept. Equally, the experience of the University of California library system shows that a library can survive a walk-away, at least in the short term. The extensive scenario planning that was done to support the Elsevier and SN Jisc negotiations built confidence that UK academic libraries could manage a similar walk-away. These scenarios envisage read access facilitated through a combination of existing OA articles, accumulated archival access shared via existing (and improved) inter-lending networks, and strategic unbundled resubscription, and publishing attempted by testing the limits of rights retention statements. While the UK plan was never put into practice, an optimist might argue that the fundamentals could be extended and used as a basis to support a longer term project to repurpose subscription payments elsewhere in the research process. A temporary walk-away in the (relatively) cordial context of an ongoing negotiation is very different from a longer term cancellation seeking to reset the debate, in that eventuality libraries must be prepared for the tactics of the publishers to become more overtly aggressive in ways their scenario-planning may not have contemplated. Nonetheless, if many libraries are practically prepared, and confident they could manage a walk-away, it would appear that the current situation should be partially attributed to a lack of animus from beyond the library.
It is unreasonable to expect libraries to take the lead when they do not have an explicit mandate from the research community and endorsement of the risk by wider university leadership. Unfortunately, because the existing markers of ‘Research Excellence’ are underpinned by the commercial infrastructure of scholarly publishing, it has created a risk aversion amongst institutional leaders. UK higher education is sometimes portrayed as a marketplace, but it does not function as a free market where you might expect variations in approach designed to gain the competitive edge. The breadth of regulation means that institutions are unable or unwilling to act differently from their peers. Our experience at the University of Sheffield is that while there is a general support for open science as a principle, attempts to engage with researchers, or seek tangible feedback, about attitudes to specific negotiations are often met with apathy. Open letters, and grassroots campaigns, are useful for consensus building, but they are not building the confidence within institutions to support a cancellation. Something official is required. Practically, what libraries need are firm statements of support or, ideally, an instruction not to engage in negotiations. This could be built up internally through departmental and faculty committees to institutional level, and supported by resolutions from scholarly societies and, ultimately, research funders. It would involve institutions that are happy to move first publicizing this to boost confidence in others. With this clarity libraries could act; without it how can they be sure of the risk they are being asked to take?
Currently, the UK situation is working to two incompatible timescales. There is a cry for urgent and immediate change from earnest advocates of open research. Yet significant change can only become a reality once it is embedded in policy – specifically the REF – and, it would appear, the policy process can never move quickly enough not to be lobbied into submission by the existing power of the major publishers. This could be expedited and disrupted by the strategic use of walk-aways and cancellations by academic libraries but for this to be achieved we need to alter the dynamic of how decisions are made.
Changing (institutional) behavior
Libraries will find it difficult to take risks if they do not detect any broad appetite in their communities for these risks to be taken. Open letters and grassroots campaigns are too vague to be actionable, an acceptance of the risk needs to be articulated within the procedural framework of the university. Research committees need to proactively endorse a course of action rather than wait to be consulted upon a negotiation. Meanwhile, they can seek to transform the system of recognition and reward that pushes researchers towards legacy publishers. Behavior needs to change in where researchers choose to publish but also in how researchers act collectively within the governance of their institutions. This bridges the gap that libraries are often expected to bridge alone. Thus enabled, I do believe that academic libraries have the theoretical and practical measures in place to manage a cancellation and post-cancellation landscape, and the transformation of scholarly communication.