The Pathways blog series highlights CDL’s efforts on various pathways to open access and illustrates how diverse approaches can complement and reinforce each other–and how they can raise productive tensions that push us to think more critically about the work we do. We believe this kind of approach can move us toward true and comprehensive transformation of the scholarly communications landscape.

What is the strategy described in this post?

This post explores one path to open access: CDL’s efforts to advance transformative agreements.   UC’s strategy for this pathway is grounded in what UC stakeholders refer to as the “moral imperative of achieving a truly open scholarly communication system” and advances this through a two-fold focus, “prioritiz[ing] making immediate open access publishing available to UC authors as part of our negotiated agreements,” and reducing costs while doing so.  In just four years, UC has made significant progress towards both aims, establishing 15 transformative agreements, including UC’s top five publishers as well as publishers across a diverse range that includes societies and native open access publishers. And we are beginning to identify savings generated by these agreements.

How does this pathway advance us in the overall transition to open access?

This pathway is not and will never be a sole path to overall transition.  However, we see it as a crucial element in that overall transition: “[T]he lion’s share of both the University’s research output and of our library budgets is bound up with the services of journal publishers,” creating a stark practical reality that advancing broad and sustainable open access “is inextricably entwined with the University’s ongoing relationships with publishers” and placing the agreements we sign with them as an essential element in an overall strategy to shift to open access. In other words, as long as our authors choose to publish in the established journals of their disciplines, which are predominantly held by journal publishers external to the academy, our strategy must include those publishers. 

As a result of UC’s work with publishers on transformative agreements for the past several years, approximately 50% of UC-authored articles are now eligible for financial support for open access publishing, including full coverage of all open access publishing costs in the vast majority of cases.  This number includes articles published by the largest commercial publishers, such as SpringerNature and Elsevier, but also by not-for-profit, scholarly society, and open access publishers, such as American Chemical Society, Cambridge UP, Company of Biologists, IEEE, PLOS, PNAS, SAGE, and the Royal Society.     

This substantial increase in open access to UC’s research has come with cost savings, which we have begun to identify and document, and hope to share more broadly soon. One example is our success with Elsevier: UC achieved 100% open access publishing for UC authors, read access to the full portfolio, with a 7% savings for UC.  

We are excited to advance this work in the context of a global community (OA2020 and ESAC) that strategically supports and informs all contributors’ efforts– and which has made significant progress in advancing open access around the world.  This global momentum is now also apparent in the US, where Cambridge University Press has signed up over 300 institutions for transformative agreements

Why is it worthy of library investment?

The power and potential of this pathway is that it transitions existing library investments, which support paywalled business models, to open access business models, while still accommodating UC authors’ existing journal choices. This approach directly tackles the problem of open access by leveraging, at scale, existing library relationships with core players in the scholarly journal marketplace, as well as existing and long-standing library investments, practices, and spheres of influence.  Advancing transformative agreements is a pragmatic near-term effort to work with the tools libraries have: both their collection dollars and their negotiation around contracts for well-established and respected scholarly journals valued by our authors and readers. 

These agreements also directly address the dual payment streams from our campuses to publishers: our authors are already paying publishers article processing charges on their own, and those payments at UC have been increasing year-over-year at a rate of 15-20%, according to our modeling. Through our transformative agreements, we are now bringing those author payments together with library investments, under a single agreement; we are capping those total payments from UC; and in so doing, we are forestalling for the UC system a further explosion of costs emerging from the authors’ parallel payment stream to publishers.

And transformative agreements are not just a pathway for publishing-intensive institutions like the UC, who feel a special obligation to ensure that our research output can be read across the globe. In dialog with our colleagues of the California State University (CSU) and the Statewide California Electronic Library Consortium (SCELC), we have also surfaced powerful incentives for read-intensive institutions to be leading participants on this pathway: as we get deeper into an open access transition, at reading-intensive institutions, less content will need to be licensed, and the actual cost of publishing will compare quite favorably to the former cost of a subscription. As a result of identifying these shared interests, UC, CSU and SCELC have struck the first-ever California-wide open access agreement.  

What are the productive tensions underlying the effort?

Transformative agreements, while an essential element in an overall transition, don’t provide a complete or sole solution.  These agreements do not enable open access for smaller-scale, scholar-led journals, especially those aiming for no-cost open access business models–a subset of journals that are of paramount importance to broadening our understanding of our cultural heritage, sharing the fruits of research and scholarship in all disciplines, and enabling a diversity of voices to be represented in scholarly journals.  In addition, given a focus in the current market on APC-based open access business models, these agreements can have unintended consequences, solving an access problem for readers but leaving unaddressed or even exacerbating an access problem for authors.  These agreements also emphasize a publisher-based open access model, whereas UC open access policies and US funder public access requirements tend to emphasize the OA strategy of sharing final, unpublished manuscripts through open access repositories such as eScholarship. 

These limitations have led to a certain amount of position-taking about which open access model is the best for the scholarly communications community and a sense that it’s important to choose a side in this debate.  However, these productive tensions have actually led us at UC in the opposite direction: rather than taking a specific position, we are doubling down on advancing the unique affordances and benefits of multiple paths, including our longstanding institutional commitments to advancing  library-based publishing, repository deposits, and transitioning journals to open access through a multiplicity of business models.   We have also intentionally invested in building and supporting open access business models that are not based on article processing charges, and continue to explore how best to transition our collections budget so that it is funding open access through sustainable, equitable models. We work collaboratively with our researchers and across the globe to adjust, refine, and iterate on open access business models and workflows that advance equity principles for transformative agreements including through relevant studies and global engagements.   UC is also investing in important work toward open infrastructure (see the upcoming post in this series on August 18), supporting the development and adoption of open identifiers in the scholarly communications sphere and methods for storing and sharing research outputs, both of which are foundational to building an efficient and sustainable scholarly communications system and which provide essential infrastructure to support open access journal publishing, including through transformative agreements. 

Guided by our values and by a core foundation in pragmatic action, we are working at UC to experiment, assess, and then iterate to improve transformative agreements – and to ensure that other pathways to open access flourish and compensate for gaps that transformative agreements can’t fill. We see and operate within a highly complex and intricate system that requires collaboration, complex problem solving, and multiple solutions to shift to open. Transformative agreements, built collaboratively with our research community through listening, learning, and readjusting continually, form a partial–but fundamental and essential–solution for shifting scholarly journal publications, at scale, to an open future.


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