MacKenzie Smith, University Librarian and Vice Provost of Digital Scholarship at the University of California, Davis, provides the following commentary on UC’s recent transformative agreements with Elsevier and other publishers.

Since its announcement in March 2021, UC’s open access agreement with Elsevier has sparked discussion around the world. To understand why, it’s important to know how we got to this point. 

Open access is in the University of California’s DNA. As a public land grant university, funded primarily by tuition and taxpayers, it is our mission and mandate to share our research with the world to advance knowledge and benefit society. 

Grounded in our commitment to the dissemination of knowledge, the UC libraries use a range of strategies to advance open access — working with UC researchers to add 20,000 articles each year to our open access repository, eScholarship; helping researchers create new open access journals in their disciplines, sometimes in place of existing commercially published journals1; and establishing open access agreements with scholarly publishers of all stripes. 

As one of the top research-producing institutions in the world, each open access agreement reached by UC — whether with large commercial publishers like Elsevier and Springer Nature, or with smaller university-based, not-for-profit or society publishers — represents tangible progress toward the goal of making more research freely available to everyone.

What UC set out to achieve

Let’s begin by recapping what UC set out to accomplish. At its most fundamental level, the UC Libraries aim to make the greatest possible impact on the global transition to open access with the resources we control — primarily our budget for journals. For our publisher agreements, we identified the following goals for which our actions could make a real difference:

1. Make UC research freely available to everyone, immediately upon publication.

UC researchers publish nearly 10 percent of all research papers in the U.S. By making that body of research open access, we help level the playing field for researchers around the world, particularly for institutions and scholars that lack funding to subscribe to increasingly unaffordable scholarly journals. Fifty percent of published research is still locked behind subscription paywalls that severely limit the ability of researchers around the world, particularly in low and middle income countries (LMIC), to build on that knowledge. If those researchers have access to UC’s research, their ability to create and publish their own high impact research improves — and this benefit multiplies with each research institution and consortium that opts to make its research open access, as well.

Transformative agreements are a key step in advancing the goal of making more research freely available. About 30 percent of UC research can now be made open access under such publisher agreements; 15 percent through UC’s deal with Elsevier alone. 

2. Stop paying twice for the same journals.

We are deeply concerned about how much universities are paying publishers. In the past, like most research-intensive institutions, UC paid millions of dollars both to read and to publish, often for the same journals. In 2018 — the last year before UC began negotiating for open access agreements — UC authors paid at least $2.5 million in article processing charges (APCs) to journals that the libraries were also subscribing to. Without open access agreements like those UC has been negotiating, these dual revenue streams will grow unabated. 

Publishing agreements like the UC/Elsevier deal consolidate the university’s resources into a single funding stream — one that reduces the institution’s costs and the publishers’ profits, while using those same dollars to maximize global access to UC research.  

3. Empower authors.

UC’s goals were developed through a collaboration between the faculty and the libraries. For UC’s faculty and researchers, a top priority was restoring their control over how their work can be used. By working closely with the faculty and listening to what matters to them, we have achieved open access agreements that allow authors to retain copyright to their own work and to use and share it as they see fit.

4. Accelerate the industry’s transition to open access.

The transition to full open access will not happen all at once; such a complex system requires incremental change to allow both publishers and research institutions to unravel long-established business practices, financial systems and cultural expectations. Transformative agreements can help move that change along.

During this transitional phase, increasing the proportion of open access articles in hybrid journals can turn them into de facto open access journals, which gives all libraries greater flexibility and market power: If most of a journal’s articles are publicly available, libraries and the researchers they support can more easily live without subscriptions, giving them more options as they negotiate new deals of their own. In other words, transformative agreements are one of the tools that enable libraries to break up their “big deals” and become more selective consumers. This, in turn, creates pressure on publishers to lower subscription prices and incentivizes them to transition to open access business models.

5. Sow the seeds of long-term culture change within the academy by spotlighting the cost of scholarly publishing.

For generations, academia has rewarded authors who publish in the most prestigious journals. Yet, because the high cost of subscriptions to top journals is borne mainly by libraries, the authors who benefit from this scholarly “prestige economy” have been shielded from its cost. As UC authors encounter the high publishing charges (APCs) of the most prestigious journals, some ask why they are so expensive and what alternatives they have, even though the university will bear that cost on their behalf if needed. That is a good question to be asking. Culture change is a long game, but awareness is the first step.

Unintended consequences?

Nevertheless, some have asked if this deal might be an example of the road to hell being paved with good intentions. Does it disadvantage LMIC researchers by setting a precedent for paying publishing fees that their institutions cannot support? Does it consolidate the power of large, commercial publishers with excessive profits at the expense of publishers better aligned with the academy’s values? And if these claims may be true, should a research library avoid transformative agreements in order to avoid “complicity” in systemic problems within academia and research publishing? 

Impact on LMIC researchers

Research findings confirm that open access publishing greatly benefits researchers in low and middle income countries (LMIC), whose first challenge is in accessing research results at all; in a recent UK study, subscription paywalls were cited as a key obstacle by 89% of respondents. 

According to the UK study, LMIC researchers are equally motivated to participate in the prestige economy, and their attitudes toward publishing and open access are similar to researchers in wealthier countries. However, it is intuitively obvious that many researchers in LMIC countries, and even many in the developed world, lack funding to pay publishing fees, and placing that burden on individual researchers is problematic. Counterintuitively, there is evidence that despite these challenges LMIC researchers are publishing with open access more than their counterparts in higher income countries, in part because of collaborations with researchers in developed and developing countries. In addition, most scholarly publishers offer fee waivers to underfunded researchers to defray the cost of open access publishing. 

The scholarly publishing industry has never had a single business model. In addition to paywalls and transitional hybrid models, publishers large and small are experimenting with different models for different journals — gold, platinum, diamond, subscribe to open and every other idea that has potential. As with article page charges (another form of author payments that have been around for a long time, e.g., in physics and plant biology), open access APCs naturally work better in some disciplines, and for some institutions, than others. Moreover, subscription fees can vary widely in different economies; there is no reason why comparable economic sensitivity cannot be extended to publishing fees as well. While acknowledging the desirability of lower cost or non-APC business models to improve access to OA publishing, the UK study recommended broader and more consistent application of APC waivers as an important near-term strategy.

The bottom line is that publishers and libraries need to continue to experiment to find the best solutions for their particular circumstances. In the meantime, we believe that making our research universally accessible will benefit the global research enterprise, including within LMIC countries.

For-profit publishers

UC authors publish in a wide range of journals from different publishers, including Elsevier and other large for-profit publishers, and there is no question that some of these are excessively profitable. As long as authors have the academic freedom to publish where they choose, that situation will likely continue so, as mentioned earlier, a central feature of UC’s agreements is a shared funding model that motivates authors to consider cost in their choice of journal. By splitting the cost of APCs between the libraries’ journals budget and an author’s research funds, authors now see the cost of publishing, even in cases where they request that the library cover their share. That education in and of itself is new and, from what we’re hearing, eye-opening for many researchers. Over the next four years, we will gather a lot of valuable data about how authors behave in this new environment.

Meanwhile, UC is also investing in other pathways to open access, including smaller, non-commercial publishers and new entrants. These approaches involve redirecting subscription budgets to support new “gold” open access journals, converting traditional journals to open access, and supporting experimental journals and alternatives to traditional publishing like preprint archives. These investments don’t garner the attention that our contract with Elsevier has, but they are also an important part of our institutional strategy for transforming scholarly publishing. 

Making progress within the bounds of our current reality

Finally, some suggest that a better path forward than continuing to do business with traditional publishers is to create a new publishing system, free of cost to both authors and readers of scholarly research. While the vision of a world in which scholarly discourse is completely free and open to all participants is very compelling, it requires enormous effort to build and begs the question of what scholarly publishing really costs and who will pay. 

While many point out — rightly so — that peer review is typically done by faculty donating their labor, there are still real costs associated with publishing scholarly journals. Ask any society that publishes their own; even if the funds come from another source, such as membership dues, they come from somewhere. 

In some countries, the government has accepted that responsibility and the regional publishing industry is thriving. In other areas, research funding agencies are individually and collectively investing in new publishing systems. These experiments and many more are beginning to demonstrate the potential and the cost of new publishing ventures and new models for supporting them, but this will take time and long-term commitments from entities that have many competing demands on their resources and can be subject to shifting political forces. 

Most importantly, if we build it, why would they come? One of the fundamental problems with the scholarly publishing industry that so troubles librarians and many others lies in the hands of scholars themselves. While creating new, more affordable journals published by the academy has great appeal for solving systemic problems in scholarly publishing, it is unrealistic to assume that authors would choose to publish in them, at least in the near term. Today, institutions, disciplines and researchers depend on the journal prestige economy in ways that are incredibly difficult to change. 

Researchers decide where to publish based on a journal’s reputation in their field, and that reputation flows up to the university departments, scholarly societies, and university reputations and rankings. As all researchers know, publishing in prestigious journals is rewarded in myriad ways by the academy — in hiring, in tenure decisions, and by funders. Libraries alone cannot change this entrenched aspect of academia; in fact, research universities’ commitment to academic freedom demands that researchers be supported in publishing however, and wherever, they choose. Addressing the most fundamental inequities in scholarly publishing will require researchers around the world to find common cause in transforming the system that they created over centuries.

But by subsidizing open access publishing as part of our transformative agreements and supporting other open access strategies, we hope to learn about author behavior and what institutions can do to make open access publishing more attractive, affordable and aligned with academic values.

We look forward to sharing what we learn and working alongside all institutions that want to reform and improve scholarly publishing. As large as UC is, we clearly cannot change the world alone. 

Practical idealism is the art of aligning what is right with what is possible. UC’s strategy for working with publishers reflects the reality of our research enterprise and the current state of academia.

Through transformative agreements, we have made significant strides — making significantly more of UC’s research open access, regardless of access to funds for APCs, helping libraries opt out of the subscription model; restoring authors’ ability to retain copyright to their own work; and building awareness of the true costs of scholarly publishing and the prestige economy. 

From here, we are better positioned to take the next steps toward deeper system change, and toward a world in which all knowledge is freely accessible.

MacKenzie Smith is University Librarian and Vice Provost of Digital Scholarship at the University of California, Davis. Her research is in information technology and digital knowledge management, including the intersection of scholarly communication, technology and libraries.

  1. For example, Combinatorial Theory moved to the eScholarship platform in 2020, branching off the established Elsevier-owned Journal of Combinatorial Theory, Ser. A (JCTA).

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