Transformative Agreements: Do they make sense for us?

The scholarly publishing sector is in transition. The traditional model of library’s paying for read access to journal content is making way for payments for Open Access (OA) publishing, through the new ‘transformative agreements’. The intent is to increase the number of Gold OA articles out there, but libraries need to know what is in their best interest. This case study explores methods that I have developed to determine what’s best for the individual library.

Key themes
  • Emerging trends
  • Research
  • Resourcefulness
  • Liaise with consortia

What happened

Transformative agreements are a new business model for journal publishers, where libraries pay for authors’ OA publishing fees in place of (or in addition to) read access. In theory, these agreements increase the amount of immediately open articles (Gold OA) as researchers from these universities may publish OA with mp costs. These types of agreements have actually been around since the early 2010s, but we are now just starting to see them being offered to Canadian libraries. Our libraries have a mandate to support OA initiatives in the spirit of making research more accessible to all. Transformative agreements have pros and cons when it comes to how well they work to achieve OA, but individual libraries must also determine what is best in their own local context.

Much like the metamorphosis of a caterpillar to a moth, our scholarly publishing models are in transforatmion. Image: British moths and their transformations, Biodiversity Heritage Library

There has been some criticism that transformative agreements continue to prop up the ‘big deal’ journal packages, which provide access to many (or all) of a publisher’s journals for a substantial annual subscription cost. The value of big deals has long been in question, due to the inability to subscribe to only the journals that are needed (and thereby paying for access to many irrelevant articles), unsustainable price increases, and the overreliance that such agreements place on the publisher. By incorporating OA publishing into the mix, cancelling or modifying these big deals becomes even more complex. The change in the business model also makes it more difficult to understand what value the OA component brings to your campus before you subscribe.

Last year, Leddy Library was asked what its priorities were for the upcoming journal negotiations. Some of the journal publishers were interested in offering OA discounts and transformative agreements as part of the new round of renewals. The question was how to vote, and how do we know which publishers to target for these new OA deals and which ones to not? Even more basic questions such as ‘how often do our authors publish OA’ and ‘how much are folks spending on publication fees’ needed answering in order to provide better information for these decisions. I set out to try to answer these questions using resources that we already subscribed to, and a bit of data analysis.

While consortia staff from CRKN could provide some data on who from Windsor published in journals by certain publishers, these data were limited to publishers with whom OA agreements already existed. A good starting point was to collect publication data from citation indexes we already had a license from. I selected Scopus, as LIS research shows that Scopus has the most comprehensive coverage of journals (with the caveat that no database will provide perfect coverage). From there, I filtered out the most recent articles from the last 5 years that were OA and had a corresponding author from Windsor. LIS research also shows that the corresponding author often pays for the OA publication fees, and there are many cases where there are authors from multiple institutions.

Next, publication fee pricing data were collected from OA datasets produced by Canadian LIS researchers and the prices were cross referenced with the publication dataset. With this merged dataset, I could then analyze questions around general OA trends, which publishers were most popular, estimate an overall publication fee spend and look at the influence of funding in OA publications.

It was interesting to note that most of Windsor’s research is still behind paywalls, with the authors opting to not publish Gold OA nor upload a manuscript to the institutional repository. Regardless, the rate of OA publication was increasing year-to-year with the estimated OA publication fee increasing from $61K in 2018 to $135K in 2020. The most popular publishers for Gold OA articles were:

  • MDPI
  • Elsevier
  • Frontiers
  • Wiley

None of these publishers were being considered for new OA agreements that year with CRKN, and the ones that were, had marginal OA publications already. Of course, Gold OA participation will likely increase if a transformative agreement is in place so general publication rates were also considered. This information helped us to better understand the publication patterns of Windsor authors and helped us to prioritize interests during these votes (e.g., cost containment > OA discounts).

These strategies and data were shared openly with staff at the CRKN office, which provided feedback on the type of data that is helpful for member institutions such as ourselves. I have also presented at library conferences and fielded questions from a number of libraries across North America, who are interested in this methodology.

So what?

As stated above, this methodology is helpful in generating information on OA trends at an individual university. The resulting data provides good evidence to support decision making for transformative agreements or agreements with OA publication fee discounts. No commercial product currently offers reports like these, so having a method to utilize existing resources (or even free citation indexes) is valuable to academic libraries.

The more information academic libraries have around OA publication trends, the better, as we can proactively identify which publishers our researchers gravitate towards for publication, and where current money is being spent on OA publication fees. Publishers will already have all of this information and they incorporate this into their pricing models, which creates an unequal position for negotiations. Those who are negotiating with the vendors can use this information to rationalize the pricing offered by publishers in the read-and-publish, or publish-and-read agreements.

As a side effect of working on this project, I reviewed and confirmed the existing OA entitlement details from all of our agreements with CRKN and OCUL. I renovated the library’s web page on OA publication fee discounts in order to better communicate what OA discounts are, what alternatives they have and what is available through the library. This improves the information available to campus authors on the availability of OA discounts and how to use them, which were communicated to liaison librarians as well.

Next steps

The next steps with this work include improvements to the methodology and also to strategy at the library. This method can be time consuming and tedious with respect to cross-referencing and data wrangling. With the availability of APIs for the citation indexes and the DOAJ, where OA publication fee data is crowd-sourced, there is the opportunity to automate this work so that libraries can use this information without investing the human time to do so. I have worked with Elsevier to get more granular data about OA status into the API, which were previously only available through the Scopus website. I intend to produce this code and share it openly on GitHub with other libraries.

This work has also highlighted the need for an overall OA strategy at the library. This method produces useful information for decision making, but libraries should have an overarching OA strategy to respond to the new OA models we’re seeing with journal agreements. In most libraries, these agreements constitute more than half of all collections dollars, and they are often the most accessed resources. We should have principles behind what types of agreements to support, if any, and how we invest in other types of OA initiative such as Green OA, OA software and OA memberships. I intend to work with other librarians and administration on developing an overall OA strategy, as the time is now with these new agreements.