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Keeping pace with the open access movement: Understanding transformative agreements

Open access (OA) publishing has grown significantly in recent times, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, the OA market grew by 25% over the previous year, with around 36% of all scholarly articles published as paid-for open access. With the seemingly uninterrupted rise of open access publishing, the publishing landscape has also witnessed an increase in transformative agreements

A transformative agreement is a contract negotiated between institutions and publishers that transforms the scholarly publishing business model into an OA model. The ultimate goal of such agreements is to gradually phase out the “pay-to-read” scenario and move towards a “pay-to-publish” arrangement.

Publishers of varying sizes from around the world are striking transformative agreements with libraries and library consortia. The ESAC Transformative Agreement Registry lists over 500 agreements (and counting!) with details about the access cost and coverage for each. 

This blog looks at the different types of transformative agreements and the essential workings of each.

During the 44th SSP Annual Meeting in June 2022, the session “Everything you ever wanted to know about the most common Open Access agreements” covered the most common OA agreements in depth. During this session, the agreements were categorized into three broad “deal families.”

1. Read & Publish/Publish & Read agreements

Read & Publish and Publish & Read are two transformative agreements defined by Plan S. The basis of these agreements is to transition subscription spend to open access publication spend over time, helping institutions reach a cost-neutral approach.

The graphic below demonstrates the fundamental differences between these two types of agreements.

Read and Publish versus Publish and Read agreements

For more information about these agreements, read Tasha Mellins-Cohen and Gaynor Redvers-Mutton’s paper about the Microbiology Society’s journey in developing and adopting a Publish & Read package.

2. Membership/offsetting agreements

Under this category of transformative agreements, institutions or consortia pay an annual, upfront fee in exchange for discounted APCs on eligible manuscripts. The discount APC is either paid by the institution or the author.

Although offset agreements have helped institutions implement open access publishing and curb their costs, this study shows that over time, such contracts have spawned issues related to efficiency, transparency, “double dipping,” and more.

3. Collective action agreements

In a collective action agreement, member institutions pay an annual fee to cover OA publishing costs for an unlimited number of articles. Under such contracts, costs are distributed equally among institutions by considering not just the corresponding authors but all contributing authors.

Authors from non-participating institutions will be levied a “non-member” fee to publish in these journals. 

The principle behind these agreements is to create an equitable publishing environment and remove the burden of the cost of publishing on authors.

An example of this type of OA agreement is the three-year collective action agreement between The Big Ten Academic Alliance (BTAA) and the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ). This agreement signifies a commitment by the BTAA to support and promote open scholarship.

Transformative agreements present a series of new challenges. For example, how effective is the transition to open access publishing? To what extent are institutions able to cut costs with these agreements? Are small publishers able to participate in such agreements? What challenges do they face with procuring the resources needed to negotiate large-scale deals?

As the number of transformative agreements continues to rise (some of the recent ones being CUP and CAUL, IOP Publishing and TIB Consortium, and SAGE and UNL/UKB), the answers to these questions boil down to collaboration — What can publishers, libraries, funders, and researchers do together to make the landscape truly “open” to change?


Image courtesy: Handshake vector created by storyset –

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