Transformative open access agreements has recently come into use as an umbrella term for a type of comprehensive publisher agreement. According to the ESAC Initiative (Efficiency and Standards for Article Charges):

Transformative agreements are those contracts negotiated between institutions (libraries, national and regional consortia) and publishers that transform the business model underlying scholarly journal publishing, moving from one based on toll access (subscription) to one in which publishers are remunerated a fair price for their open access publishing services.

Various flavors of such agreements have evolved in recent years, with a corresponding evolution of terminology:

  • Offsetting agreements, in which fees for subscriptions and for article publishing offset one another, so that either subscription fees are reduced as publishing fees increase, or article publication charges (APCs) are heavily discounted to account for fees allocated to subscriptions;
  • Read and publish (RAP) agreements, in which, often, a single fee covers both subscription access and open access publishing for affiliated authors, with the balance tilted toward subscription charges; and
  • Publish and read (PAR) agreements, in which all or most costs are allocated toward open access publishing at the article level, with read access and perpetual rights to subscription articles included as a benefit of the agreement.

While some observers have described these as distinct agreement types, this is a fluid and evolving area in which agreement characteristics are subject to ongoing variation, innovation, and negotiation — and additional models continue to be developed.

Are all of these agreement types truly transformative? It is true that such agreements can be viewed and implemented in a homeostatic manner. However, the libraries, consortia, funding agencies, and, in some cases, publishers that have pressed for these agreements have generally done so with the intent to facilitate a cost-effective transition from subscriptions to open access over time. While the timeframe for transition may be expressed in a variety of ways — from the ambitious goal of full transition by 2020 articulated by Plan S to simple expressions of an intent to transition at some indeterminate future date — the institutions negotiating such agreements generally share the goal of placing subscription and open access charges into a unified framework with meaningful cost controls and eventual full open access transition. This is the perspective with which UC is approaching these agreements.

UC origins: The Pay It Forward project

In 2016, in response to concerns developing at several of UC’s libraries about the potential cost of an APC-based transition to open access for large research-intensive institutions, UC undertook a year-long study funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to examine the affordability and viability of APC-based open access at publishing-intensive universities. The findings of this study, called Pay It Forward, have been widely presented and discussed. Two of those findings have shaped UC’s approach to transformative agreement design:

  • Role of grant funding: In order for APC-based open access to be affordable for publishing-intensive institutions, library subscription budgets alone are not sufficient; grant funding needs to be part of the funding mix unless future competition reduces total payments to the publishing industry. Since most published research is a product of grant-funded research, and since such funding is typically used to cover open access charges now, this can be thought of as an extension of current practice.
  • Role of authors: The best path to long-term cost control will be one that involves authors in funding decisions, ensuring that they have “skin in the game.” Since publishers compete for authors and authors are the ones who decide where to place their publications (and, where applicable, how to expend their grants), Pay It Forward posited that by giving authors financial agency, the cost of publication would evolve to reflect its actual value to authors.

The UC transformative model

On the basis of these ideas, UC developed a unique “multi-payer” model for transformative agreements designed to engage authors and encourage shared funding between university library and research funds that can be replicated at other U.S. institutions. The model combines library funding — in the form of baseline financial support for all authors and full financial support for authors lacking grant funds — with an author workflow that asks authors with grant funding to pay a portion of the article publication costs. This is the model that UC proposed to Elsevier and that has formed the basis for our discussions with other publishers (including our April 2019 agreement with Cambridge University Press).

It is important to note that the co-funding elements of this model need not be limited to subscription publishers, but are intentionally designed for implementation with native open access publishers as well. The model is intended to create a level playing field for publishers of all types. Specific characteristics of the UC model include:

  • Default open access. Open access is the default publication option for all UC corresponding authors who publish in the target publisher’s journals. Authors have the choice of opting out.
  • Reading fee. The former subscription fee is greatly reduced and becomes a “reading” fee for access and perpetual rights to articles that are still behind a paywall.
    • UC has set its desired reading fee at 10% of the previous license fee, to allow for the bulk of the former subscription fee to be allocated to APC payments. The size of the reading fee recognizes that the proportion of closed to open access articles is decreasing as similar agreements are negotiated elsewhere around the globe.
  • Discounted APCs. The library negotiates reduced article publication charges (APCs) with the publisher, to bring the overall costs of the agreement into an affordable range that can facilitate a rapid transition to open access while protecting both the university and the publisher from undue economic risk.
  • Overall cost. In general, the total of all fees (reading fee + APCs) should be no more than the current licensing cost, possibly also including any existing APCs that have been paid outside the previous license agreement. To achieve this aim, negotiated APC discounts may be 30% or higher.
  • Co-funding model. Publication fees are subject to a co-funding model involving both institutional (library) funds and author (grant) funds, in a unified workflow:
    • Library subvention. The library provides a baseline subvention to cover a significant portion of the publication fee for all authors (e.g., $1,000 per article).
    • Grant-funded authors. Authors with access to grant funding are asked to pay a remaining portion of the article publication fee at the time of acceptance if they are able to do so, to allow for sustainability and scalability over time.
    • Unfunded authors. The library covers the publication fee in full for authors without access to grant funding (e.g., many authors in the humanities and some in the social sciences). Authors indicate the need for this support after their article has been accepted, as part of the publisher’s standard APC payment workflow.
    • Author choice. Authors can opt out of open access and publish their articles behind a paywall at their discretion.
    • Aggregated library payments. All library-funded components (baseline subvention and full funding for authors lacking grants) are paid through direct, periodic bulk payments to the publisher; there is no need for authors to request funding explicitly from the library. However, the full article publication costs, including library subvention amounts, should be disclosed to authors in the publisher interface.
  • Cost controls. Once established, the overall cost of the agreement varies up or down from year to year by a designated amount keyed to publication volume, to allow for gradual adjustments in response to author publishing behavior while allowing both the institution and the publisher to predictably manage costs.
    • UC’s model puts this standard variance at 2% — thus, the overall fees paid to the publisher can vary up or down by 2% per year.

Because author payments from grant funds are included within this cost-neutral, cost-controlled spend, the actual payment from the library to this publisher may decrease, freeing up library funds to offer similar support models for full open access publishers.