In pursuing transformative agreements and taking a principled stance on cost — particularly when dealing with large, dominant for-profit publishers — universities need to develop a more complex and participatory negotiation strategy.


1. Establish a representative negotiation team.

Negotiators for licensed content should be joined by representatives from faculty and library leadership. In addition to creating an efficient feedback loop and participatory process, this will strengthen your credibility and demonstrate institutional alignment around transformative agreements. It also ensures that faculty perspectives are accounted for at every step and gives faculty the opportunity to communicate directly with the publisher.

2. Make the first proposal.

The first agreement proposal should come from the institution, not from the publisher. This sets the goal posts where you want them to be, and compels the publisher to negotiate on your terms. (If they don’t, the gap between your established goals and their response will be very apparent.) Make these goals a touchstone as you go forward and reiterate them frequently.

3. Determine who “speaks” for your side in the negotiation room.

With multiple individuals on the team, it is important to delegate an official spokesperson and interlocutor, ensuring that decision authority is coordinated in a visible way.

4. Hold pre- and post- meetings for each negotiating session.

Confirm that you know what you intend to happen at each session and that key takeaways are captured while they are fresh.

5. Do not make decisions in the negotiation room.

New information and proposals should be brought back to the negotiation task force for discussion and, when necessary, broad consultation with the coalition’s representative committees.

6. Pay attention to both the internal and external environments.

Demonstrate awareness of your internal environment (those you are negotiating on behalf of) and your external environment (how your negotiations are being portrayed publicly) to the publisher through questions and observation. They will often know more about your organization than you might expect they do.

UC’s experience

In negotiating with Elsevier, UC strategically aimed to first hold a high-level information sharing session to present our dual cost reduction and open access goals, and to indicate that UC would make the initial proposal (which the university delivered thereafter). UC requested senior-level participation from Elsevier’s open access leadership at the outset, in addition to traditional sales personnel. The high-level goals set forth by UC in the initial meeting remained a touchstone throughout the negotiation, referred to early and often.

The initial proposal to Elsevier, as well as all subsequent UC counter-proposals, were fully vetted by the task force. Major outlines and decision points were also vetted with UC’s library leadership committee and key faculty leadership committees, and both task force and campus representatives continued to speak at local and systemwide faculty and administrative meetings to ensure continued engagement and support.

The task force met before each negotiating session to align on messaging and identify potential pitfalls, and debriefed after each session to analyze what had transpired and lay the groundwork for next steps.

As the negotiation team and task force sought input about acceptable responses and fallback positions, the primacy of open access transition and cost containment emerged as twin priorities of UC’s library and faculty leadership.