Frontiers – It is not transformation if nothing changes

The substantial benefits of open access (OA) publishing are within our reach, but legacy publishers are employing commercial tactics to delay the necessary transition.

This paper exposes several of the negative, often unintended, consequences of “transformative agreements” (TAs).  It argues that these agreements, sold as a pathway to open science, in fact reinforce the status quo.  TAs maintain paywalled access as the standard financial model in publishing.  They are negotiated in the absence of basic competition and procurement rules.  And by concentrating resources into silos for a few incumbents only, they pose a threat to the diversity of the publishing ecosystem, locking out innovators, including the very players who demonstrate the benefits of OA publishing.  Deployed as a commercial tactic, these agreements will stall the establishment of a transparent and competitive marketplace for professional editorial services.

In 2018, an influential group of research funders, recognizing the superior value proposition of OA publishing, came together under the banner of cOAlition S.  With their Plan S, they declared they would mandate immediate and universal access to all the articles that resulted from the research they funded.  Pressure from legacy subscription publishers subsequently led to concessions that have weakened that founding mission.  The most damaging of these concessions was the acceptance of the “hybrid” model.  This option granted “transformative” status to paywalled access as long as it was accompanied by the publication of some open access content.  

This hybrid concession is a loophole that large traditional publishers are exploiting to prolong and validate their current business model and practices.  The TA thus represents the offspring of the existing “Big Deal” of bundled services, but now with a costly additional channel for OA publication. 

As the COVID pandemic has so powerfully shown, the effective dissemination of validated scientific knowledge is at a critical stage in the research-innovation cycle – and vital if we are to overcome the challenges we face as a society.  Plan S intended to “shock” the system into a logical state of affairs with the backing of research funders.  However, for as long as the “Big Deal” approach is maintained, legacy publishers will continue to negotiate conditions that guarantee their market share, with consortia paying high prices to a small number of publishers (and offering, in effect, a massive subsidy).  

To tackle climate change, technologies such as solar panels, fuel cells and electric vehicles have benefited from a policy of subsidies, pushing society away from the dangerous status quo of fossil fuel consumption.  By contrast, and analogy, we see that TAs are incentivizing pernicious behavior, supporting the paywalled status quo, hindering positive change and suppressing the innovative models that offer true fully open solutions.

If initiatives such as Plan S are to make full OA a reality, then funders, institutions and libraries must tackle monopoly legacy models which hinder innovation. We believe the signatories of Plan S, institutions and libraries should: 

–       Ensure their funding allocations meet the needs and requirements of authors and the academic community. 

–       Negotiate conditions such that all published research is truly, immediately and fully open according to a binding timeline; with a minimum schedule in which at least 75% of content is OA across a publisher’s full portfolio by the end of 2024.  

–       Insist on agreements that are transparent and visible to all stakeholders, with a clear attribution of costs to products and services, allowing a credible assessment of value and unbundling.

–       Establish a truly fair competitive landscape by applying the principles of common commercial conditions and basic rules of public procurement.

Fully OA publishers already offer quality and innovation at scale, with better value for money and greater impact than legacy publishers.  They are driving efforts to meet the political and societal need for truly open science.  At Frontiers, we stand ready to work with all stakeholders to meet this call to action, to share our knowledge and data in doing so, and to see Plan S delivered.