Since 2013, the U.S. federal government has allowed an embargo of up to 12 months for some federally funded research publications. In August 2022, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy announced there would be immediate access without embargo, targeting an implementation timeline by the end of 2025.1 The announcement is considered by many as a game changer, impacting the established publishers-led open-access enterprise. The announcement applies to all agencies with R&D expenditures, expanding the current scope of coverage of the U.S. federal open access policy. Most importantly, It asks agencies to address inequities often affecting underserved individuals and early career researchers in publishing and accessing research publications and data. We still have to wait for the details as to how the agencies would apply the statement in practice. The open access mandate policies, like the OSTP announcement, must be addressed by clarifying their limits and barriers. Thus, asking if it is a game changer in practice is reasonable.
Two academic publishers’ responses are contrasting: a membership-based, non-profit publisher and a commercial publisher. The American Association of Advancement in Science (AAAS), the publisher of the Science family of journals, welcomes the OSTP announcement emphasizing the government’s commitment to more equitable access to research publications. While the AAAS waits for more specifics to work with the agencies, they emphasized their Green OA policy: “it is already our policy that authors who publish with one of our journals can make the accepted version of their manuscript publicly available in institutional repositories immediately upon publication, without delay.”2 On the other hand, Springer Nature, in a September 13, 2022 editorial published in Nature Biomedical Engineering in response to the OSTP announcement, emphasized the importance of the Gold OA route with accompanying high Article Processing Charges (APCs) and encouraged more public investments in OA infrastructures.3
SPARC (the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition) and the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) celebrated the news.4,5 SPARC offered pragmatic support for librarians by publishing an FAQ and providing OSTP policy guidance. SPARC also gave libraries a heads-up, pointing out that the new policy may accelerate the changing balance of power with publishers and allow an improved negotiating position for libraries. Among other things, SPARC optimistically pointed out, in the member briefing circulated via e-mail, that the OSTP’s commitment to equity would most likely create a counterforce to the author-pays APC OA business model.6 Also, the briefing offered useful lists for librarians by informing them what to watch for in publisher responses and promoting proactive strategies when negotiating with the publishers.
While acknowledging that the OSTP’s new open-access policy no doubt facilitates greater public access to research, some critics are skeptical that the new OSTP policy would be sufficient to address inequities in publishing. Of particular concern are the Transformative Agreements (TAs) that are already gathering steam and engaging universities, libraries, and their national and regional consortia in the background.7,8
According to the latest update (October 26, 2022) from the LIBER Open Access Working Group (the Association of Europen Research Libraries), over 550 TAs across Europe and other world regions have already been included in the ESAC Transformative Agreement Registry.9 The TAs are the new contracts between academic publishers and research institutions, replacing the subscription-based contracts by folding the author fees (APCs) into the contracts to publish in for-profit journals. In their “read-and-publish strategy” model, a single subscription payment allows researchers to publish seamless OA publications in the publisher’s titles. The model is sold as “transitional” in Plan S, published in 2018 by cOAlition S, “a group of national research funders, European and international organisations and charitable foundations,” aiming to make fully open access publications by 2025.10, 11
TAs were pioneered in Austria, the UK and the Netherlands and have been adopted by more than 70 countries. However, the details are in small print. Ghamandi examined Projekt DEAL in Germany, an example of TA with a consortium, and found that the top Nature-branded journals with a high APC price (£2750 APC) were excluded from the contract. He also examined Norway’s TA, which showed that Elsevier only covered 90% of their journals and excluded the Cell-brand journals in the contract. He notes the reason for its exclusion is Cell’s expensive APC which was $5,900 in 2019.12 Furthermore, Costopoulos points out that Plan S is written with commercial publishers in mind and functions to solidify their APC OA business model.13 Pooley argues the actual effect of TAs is that it sustains and strengthens inequities in publishing OA.14
“[T]he prevailing APC regime fixes one barrier to access, for readers, by erecting another, for authors.” 15
TAs sustain and reproduce inequity in publishing because researchers’ ability to publish depends on whether their affiliations can afford such agreements. Pooley points out that TAs would bake the flawed APC model into the open-access publishing ecosystem, thus exacerbating the inequity in publishing along the existing stratified Global North and South division.
“The read-and-publish strategy is making global inequality worse. … The OA citation-and-visibility advantage is one of the best-established findings in the scholarly communication literature. In practice if not by intent, the read-and-publish deal-makers are buying that advantage for their constituent-scholars.”16
Moore importantly points out that the OSTP statement is similar to other open access policy mandates introduced so far in that they are indiscriminate, apply to everyone equally, and are “not accountable to research communities or the university more broadly.”17 Moore and Pooley argue that these policy mandates further entrench the domination of the top commercial publishers, like Nature-Springer and Elsevier, and the prestige economy among researchers sustained by publishing in their journals “directly or by arrangement with learned societies.” 18
In summary, while the OSTP announcement came across as a game changer in OA publishing, TAs are steadily making their way into the network of library consortia in its background and sustaining the inequity in scholarly communication.
1. OSTP August 25, 2022 announcement: https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2022/08/08-2022-OSTP-Public-Access-Memo.pdf
2. Parikh, S. (2022, August 25). AAAS Statement on OSTP Federally Funded Research Guidance. American Association for the Advancement of Science.
3. Nature Biomedical Engineering, 6(9), Article 9. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41551-022-00944-9.
4. The Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition. (2022, September 30). SPARC Member Briefing: The Changing Balance of Power in Library/Publisher Negotiations [Membership communication].
5. The Association of Research Libraries. (2022, August, 25). “ARL Celebrates Biden-Harris Administration’s Historic Policy to Make Federally Funded Research Immediately Available.” https://www.arl.org/news/arl-celebrates-biden-harris-administrations-historic-policy-to-make-federally-funded-research-immediately-available/
6. Article Publishing Charge (APC).
7. See: Moore, Samuel. “Thoughts on the New White House OSTP Open Access Memo.” Samuel Moore (blog), August 31, 2022. https://www.samuelmoore.org/2022/08/31/thoughts-on-the-new-white-house-ostp-open-access-memo/.
8. See also: Pooley, Jeff. “The Big APC Question Mark Hovering Over the OSTP Announcement.” Accessed November 8, 2022. https://www.jeffpooley.com/2022/08/the-big-apc-question-mark-hovering-over-the-ostp-announcement/.
9. LIBER Open Access Working Group. Update. (October 26, 2022). https://libereurope.eu/article/open-access-week-2022-developing-policies-and-practices-for-fully-open-access-landscapes-update-from-the-liber-open-access-working-group/?mc_cid=c25dc10e47&mc_eid=1f1733de24
10. cOAlition S. 2018. Part I: Plan S Principles. https://www.coalition-s.org/plan_s_principles/
11. “What is cOAlition S?” Plan S web page. https://www.coalition-s.org/about/
McNutt, Marcia. “Opinion: ‘Plan S’ Falls Short for Society Publishers—and for the Researchers They Serve.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 116, no. 7 (February 12, 2019): 2400–2403. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1900359116.
Aguado-López, Eduardo and Arianna Becerril-Garcia. Impact of Social Sciences. “The Commercial Model of Academic Publishing Underscoring Plan S Weakens the Existing Open Access Ecosystem in Latin America,” May 20, 2020. https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2020/05/20/the-commercial-model-of-academic-publishing-underscoring-plan-s-weakens-the-existing-open-access-ecosystem-in-latin-america/.
12. Ghamandi, Dave. “‘Transformative Agreements’ & Library Publishing: A Short Examination,” 2021. https://hcommons.org/deposits/item/hc:38689/.
13. Costopoulos, Andre. “Plan S Could Have Been Written by the Big Commercial Publishers, except for One Key Provision: It Seeks to Regulate APCs.” ArcheoThoughts (blog), September 5, 2018. https://archeothoughts.wordpress.com/2018/09/05/plan-s-could-have-been-written-by-the-big-commercial-publishers-except-for-one-key-provision-it-seeks-to-regulate-apcs/.
14. “The Big APC Question Mark Hovering Over the OSTP Announcement | Jeff Pooley.” Accessed November 7, 2022. https://www.jeffpooley.com/2022/08/the-big-apc-question-mark-hovering-over-the-ostp-announcement/.
15. Pooley, 4.
16. Pooley, Jefferson. Impact of Social Sciences. “Read-and-Publish Open Access Deals Are Heightening Global Inequalities in Access to Publication.,” February 21, 2020. https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2020/02/21/read-and-publish-open-access-deals-are-heightening-global-inequalities-in-access-to-publication/. para 4.
17. Moore, para 4.
18. Pooley, para 11.