Transitional agreements may not be the whole route to open access

Open access publishing has been bolstered by centrally negotiated transitional agreements between funders, publishers, and the sector. Libby Homer wonders how far this can take us in pursuit of real cultural change

Libby Homer is the Director of Student and Library Services at Anglia Ruskin University.

Last week’s Jisc-published Critical Review of Transitional Agreements suggests that it will take the “big four” publishers 70 years to transition to fully open access if they continue to transition at their current rate.

That is a depressing statistic. I’ll be dead by then.

It’s just one of a number of “highlights” in a report which presents some positives of transitional agreements but startling unintended consequences and a lack of cultural change.

Big deals

Let’s start with the good stuff. Many of these agreements met the objectives set by the sector, negotiation on the deals was effective with the sector acting together to get better terms. Jisc and HEIs did more deep diving into usage than ever, developed feasible walkaway scenarios and collaborated further so that negotiators had a robust mandate from which to act. The costs of these agreements have, on the whole, reduced or at least been restricted; Jisc estimates, based on the 2024 modelling undertaken, that just over £49m worth of costs will have been avoided.

Authors utilising these agreements have not experienced the friction they have encountered in the past when trying to publish open access articles. Jisc negotiated transitional agreements have provided compliant routes for large numbers of articles in the UK. Most importantly, transitional agreements have become the norm – as of January 2024, Jisc have negotiated 75 such agreements with 47 publishers, with the first one being launched in 2016.

Jisc have been negotiating transitional agreements for a decade, a period of time which one would hope would lead to change, reform, evolution. The trouble is, the change hasn’t happened and our expectations have shifted.

In context

The UK has outperformed the rest of the world in terms of open access publishing, the number of OA articles published in the UK was 4 per cent higher than the global average in 2022. We have adopted OA as part of our research culture faster than other countries and while the number of OA articles has increased, content behind paywalls remains steady at about 40 per cent of the total. Furthermore, between 2021 and 2022 there has been a 4.5 per cent growth in the proportion of closed articles.

There remains much iniquity in access to research findings with a large amount of UK research not covered by a transitional agreement at all (including research undertaken in the NHS). In addition, the ability of HEIs to sign up to “big deals” is becoming increasingly difficult with many UK institutions thinking about how to remain financially sustainable. Green publishing has suffered as gold and hybrid publishing have proved more popular – and despite this, since 2020, gold publishing has remained reasonably static. The ability to choose a route to open presented everyone with options a decade ago, and was extremely useful when we were moving on from a standing start. Now though, despite a small number of journals “flipping” to open access, the big publishers have not – and they have the majority of the market share.

Behaviour problems

The Critical Review also highlights the challenge of actually knowing what we’re paying for. Indeed, transparency in costing was an issue in the latest set of negotiations with publishers, it has consistently proved extremely difficult to get the detail of OA costings. These costs are also increasingly being met by the UKRI block grant, in 2022, £9.4 million of the block grant was spent on transitional agreements and it is estimated that in 2024, 25 per cent of the modelled costs of the agreements will be paid by the block grant. As UKRI undertakes a review of their OA policy, they may wish to consider the ethics of how the block grant is being spent.

For me, the gloomiest part of the Critical Review is the finding that author behaviour has fundamentally not changed. Ninety per cent of the UK’s hybrid outputs are published by the top ten publishers, with the report stating “UK authors continue to choose traditional publishers to disseminate their research”. It is certainly worth noting here that the recent UKRN report on reform, recognition and award for OA has a whole range of recommendations of creating and fostering an open access culture. You may wish to utilise some of this report in response to the REF 2029 OA Policy consultation launched yesterday.

With the evidence that has been presented to us by the Jisc Critical Review I hope that the next decade keenly focuses us all on the shift of culture.

One response to “Transitional agreements may not be the whole route to open access

  1. Thanx for this, which I agree is rather depressing.

    Might one say more than behaviour is the result of culture, as if it could be changed by a strong advertising campaign. Might one argue that culture is embedded in structures and processes which should be improved?

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