The Power of Concerted Action

If the aim is to transition to an open information environment, supporting OA publication of articles in hybrid journals will prove to be merely a very expensive failure, unless we use the experience as an opportunity for discovery. Similarly, the offsetting agreements currently being tested in a number of countries are stepping stones the transition—national efforts which, when taken together, have impact on a global scale. With China now represented in the OA2020 Initiative, the collective potential of our transformative actions is stronger than ever before, but it will take continued, concerted efforts to achieve the transition. Libraries should not be discouraged but empowered by the lessons learned and push forward with more and improved iterations of transitional agreements and other strategies to divest of the subscription system in order to invest in open access.

This past December, the Universities UK Open Access Coordination Group released their latest report Monitoring the Transition to Open Access which provides a wealth of data points with which to assess the state of open access in the UK. The data clearly illustrate that UK policy has fostered an increase in open access publishing of UK authors, yet also brings to light the financial implications for UK funders and institutions of such growth. Increases in subscription expenditure combined with sharp rises in gold OA APC and, especially, hybrid APC expenditures have caused some to wonder whether the progress made in the five years since the Finch Report can be considered a success, given that the funding allocated to boost the transition has not resulted in the large-scale shift from subscription to open access publishing that was originally envisioned.

In her London Information International presentation, Danny Kingsley offers this critique: “it could be argued that the main outcome of the RCUK policy transition period is that it has given large publishers time and space to adapt their practices. Manipulation of embargo periods, confusing information, and a graduated charging system for different licenses all work towards ensuring a second income stream.” Danny concludes her presentation with her own sobering summation of the effects of the strategy applied in the UK these past five years:

  • No other country has joined the push for gold OA
  • We have spent literally millions on hybrid articles
  • Journals have not flipped and are unlikely to
  • We now have a considerably more complex system in relation to embargos (very expensive in terms of manpower)
Lessons learned locally inform our global strategy

While these conclusions may be condemning in the UK context, viewed from a global perspective, they constitute an urgent call for collaboration. Peter Suber, in a recent post, provided this recommendation to libraries: “Think about redirecting funds from supporting paywalled journals to supporting OA. Think about a timetable for doing this. Think about doing it in concert with other institutions.”

Peter’s recommendations echo the founding document of the OA2020 Initiative, which states

  • We aim to transform a majority of today’s scholarly journals from subscription to OA publishing in accordance with community-specific publication preferences.
  • We will pursue this transformation process by converting resources currently spent on journal subscriptions into funds to support sustainable OA business models.

The UK has been, laudably, a pioneer in open access strategy and is, of course, a major contributor to global research; of published articles indexed in Web of Science in 2015, articles with a UK corresponding author account for ~5%, behind the US whose corresponding author share is a little over 20% and China, accounting for 17%. It would be naïve therefore to presume that policy and practice from the UK or any country alone could have transformative effects on the global subscription market.

On the other hand, the UK is far from being the only country to push for gold Open Access publishing. National licensing bodies, representing Universities and Research Councils, in the Netherlands, Austria, Finland, Norway, Germany and more have all been building on the experience of the UK, refining and improving the objectives and approaches in their negotiations of transitional agreements with the major publishers to shift the focus away from the traditional subscription model to pure gold open access publishing.

The key factor in the evolution of approaches underway is the realization that publishing articles open access in subscription journals, ie the hybrid model, is not a strategy for transformation but merely the first iteration of an open access publishing model that must evolve. Testing this model has enabled a large number of articles to be published open access, and has granted both publishers and libraries the opportunity to establish the new processes that are necessary to support publishing on the article level, but at what cost? Not only are “literally millions” flowing from library budgets into the system on top of ever-increasing subscription expenditures, but the UK universities report also acknowledges that even more money is seeping into the commercial publishing system unmonitored as researchers hand over department and grant funds for OA publication of their articles.

When institutions take steps to monitor all the revenue streams flowing to publishers via their library and their researchers, they are empowered with a new bargaining position and can make strategic decisions based on a comprehensive cost/benefit analysis of the services being offered by a given publisher. Such analyses have informed the underlying strategy of the transitional agreements in the Netherlands and the DEAL negotiations in Germany which, taking the next evolutionary step in the OA transformation, incorporate pure gold OA publishing entitlements into their content licenses, definitively retiring the hybrid model. Libraries should also take note of the reaction of the German researchers who no longer have access to current Elsevier content due to the stalemate in DEAL negotiations, as reported by Bernhard Mittelmaier, part of the DEAL negotiating team, which confirms Peter Suber’s affirmation that large-scale cancellations almost never trigger the faculty protests that many people fear and predict.

And will these agreements have more success in transforming the subscription system than the UK? Taken alone, perhaps not; the Netherlands accounts for between just one and two percent of the world’s scholarly outputs, while Germany is on the same level as the UK with 4.7%, but the alignment of their strategies offers the potential for true impact on a global scale and corresponds precisely the concerted effort recommended by Suber and formalized by the OA2020 Initiative.

The major stakeholders in scholarly communications in the Netherlands (the VSNU, the NWO and the UKB) along with those in Germany (the DFG and the HRK) have all made a formal commitment to OA2020 and are joined by nearly 100 other institutions and organizations from five continents who seek to accelerate the transformation of today’s scholarly journals from subscription to open access through their strategic spending decisions.

New leverage from China’s research agenda

It is particularly significant that among the institutions to join OA2020 most recently there are three national-level institutions from China: the National Science Library of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (NSL), the National Science and Technology Library (NSTL) and the ShanghaiTech University Library. In the last decade, China has achieved some important milestones in Open Access:

  • 2013 The NSTL joins SCOAP3 on behalf of China
  • 2014 The Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC) establish respective Open Access
  • 2015 NSFC opens its institutional repository which now holds more than 500,000 papers
  • 2016 The NSL establishes ChinaXiv as the first large-scale academic pre-print archive in China.

On its commitment to Open Access, Huizhou Liu, Director of the NSL, comments, “As a scientist by training and by career, I know the critical importance of open access to knowledge. NSL sees it as one of its missions to build an open science environment to support better research and to enable rich and diverse innovations by the whole of the society.”

Indeed, China has its own goal for the year 2020, aiming to raise the scale of their research output and impact to be shoulder to shoulder with that of the US by that time, and Open Access serves this aim. Prof. Yiqi Peng, Director of the NSTL, explains their strategy in joining OA2020: “The paywall to research publications seriously hampers NSTL’s ability to serve the national R&D communities even with the results funded by our own public money. OA2020 is a step in the right direction to free knowledge which is a public good to begin with, and to establish a fair, just, and sustainable scholarly communications ecosystem.”

In his report to the 13th Berlin Open Access Conference last March, Ralf Schimmer illustrated how, based on current world publishing trends, it would take the commitment to a transformational approach to subscriptions of fewer than 100 research-intensive institutions distributed globally to upend the paywall system and achieve open access on a large scale, paving the way for a diverse, sustainable and open information environment. With the recent addition of institutions from China looking to adopt transformative strategies, we come that much closer to achieving the vision of the Budapest, Bethesda and Berlin open access initiatives.

Key recommendations for 2018

While it is wholly appropriate to implement different tactics on a local level to drive the OA transformation, the global nature of research compels us to engage in coordinated global efforts, learning from and building on local experiences. As we lay out our plans for 2018 and prepare the next steps in our collective drive to make open access on a large scale a reality, here are some lessons learned and recommendations from the OA2020 community based on the work carried out in many parts of the world so far:

There are significant amounts of money flowing through our institutions to publishers that is undocumented or uncontrolled. While departments and individual researchers may hold their own publishing budgets, the funds they pay for OA publication of articles must be counted and incorporated into a broader, institution-wide analysis of the value proposition of any given publisher. A coordinated approach to spending that encompasses subscription and publishing expenditures will uncover opportunities for cost control.

Supporting OA publishing in hybrid journals is a missed opportunity for impact and innovation in scholarly communications, constituting a costly investment that has not lead to any real transformation of the paywall system. If unlocking research to improve and advance research is the goal, funding must be diverted to pure open access publishing services and initiatives.

Transitional agreements (ie offsetting, read-and-publish, etc.) that bring all components of an institution’s interaction with a publisher under one umbrella, incorporating read-access with OA publishing services are in continuous evolution and are increasing, but it will take more global participation to reach the tipping point on the paywall system. Libraries should be empowered by past experiences and forge ahead with new iterations of transitional agreements and other strategies for divestment.

Sharing best practice across borders and participating in global initiatives like OA2020 will make us all more effective in our individual and collective efforts. In 2018, OA2020 will be offering even more transformation workshops with the objective of creating opportunities for exchange and enabling institutions around the world with information, ideas and tools to develop action plans that will meet local objectives and have real impact in the large-scale transition to open access.

If you are interested in learning more or working alongside us, please get in touch!

Colleen Campbell
OA2020 Partner Development
Max Planck Digital Library