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Transformative Agreements: One Step Toward Open Access


Nathan Boutin, Associate Editor

July 2022

When it comes to reading scholarly literature, researchers are no strangers to pay-to-read publishing models. You have no doubt encountered paywalls for a journal or had a colleague complain that they cannot access a certain article.

These boundaries have become a headache for both academics and the public, which is why a group of European nations demanded that publicly-funded research be accessible to all, creating “Plan S” in 2018. This plan required researchers who accept state funds to publish their work in open-access journals, effectively flipping the current trend of subscription-based reading on its head. The plan was met with some backlash, though, as both publishers and researchers speculated how Plan S would affect them. Despite these reservations, Plan S brought these conversations and issues to the limelight.

Of course, many objections were valid. One problem was that libraries were stuck in multi-year contracts with publishers using subscription models. Thus, there was a need for an official amendment to the status-quo. In this case, transformative agreements were used to renegotiate the contract terms and seamlessly transition libraries and publishers to an open-access publishing model.

What are transformative agreements?

A transformative agreement aims to move a library or consortium from subscription-based models to open-access contracts. These agreements were used well before Plan S but have gained much more popularity in the last few years. They are transitional in nature, meaning that they will eventually expire, and cover a few basic ideas.

Copyright — Most agreements state that the rights to the work shall be retained by the authors instead of being transferred to the publisher. This is important for authors to maintain ownership of their work. In many cases, however, the publisher may require a Creative Commons license.

Transparency — One tenet of transformative agreements is that the information on such contracts is publicly available. This is to better understand how public funds are used and control the costs associated with scientific publishing. You can view a large registry of these agreements here.

Payment — Transformative agreements operate on the shared knowledge that money paid in traditional fees is generally sufficient to cover publishing costs. Thus, while the primary purpose is for groups to transition from subscription-based models to open-access publishing, these agreements are useful for libraries to have some authority over the ever-rising costs of publishing.

How do transformative agreements vary?

There are many other aspects to transformative agreements, and every document is unique in some way. Institutions normally pay publishers separately for two services. The first is the reading service, which simply means full access to the journal’s content. The second is the publishing service, which comes in the form of article processing charges. To generalize, though, there are two types of transformative agreements, both with similar names.

Read-and-Publish — This is payment for both reading and publishing packed into one contract. The library gets unlimited access to content, much as they would with a subscription. Additionally, researchers from this institution can publish open access for the journal with limited fees. Some contracts specify an amount of credit that can be used toward publishing charges, whereas others offer unlimited publishing.

Publish-and-Read — This is payment to the publisher for publishing only, and reading is provided at no further charge. From both sides, the distinction is quite small and serves only to highlight what benefits the agreement brings. At the end of the day, the cost is usually around the same for similar benefits. The library will typically aim for a cost-neutral contract, and the publisher will be satisfied so long as normal expected operating costs are covered.

In both styles of agreement, article processing charges are often deeply discounted, which is achieved through a lump-sum approach. This can aid researchers by streamlining the publication process and mitigating (or removing entirely) the financial burden.

There are many benefits to open-access publishing, and transformative agreements are just one of the vehicles through which institutions, publishers, and authors are navigating the landscape of open access. Maybe your lab has such agreements in place already, or maybe you are still looking at traditional journals. Whatever the case, if open access is on your mind, check out these four factors to consider for your next research paper and other ways to minimize publishing costs for open access articles.

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