By Kevin Smith

A guest post by Ana Enriquez, Scholarly Communications Outreach Librarian in the Penn State University Libraries.

Along with others from the Big Ten Academic Alliance, I had the pleasure of participating in the Choosing Pathways to Open Access forum hosted by the University of California Libraries in Berkeley last month. The forum was very well orchestrated, and it was valuable to see pluralism in libraries’ approaches to open access. (The UC Libraries’ Pathways to Open Access toolkit also illustrates this.) The forum rightly focused on identifying actions that the participants could take at their own institutions to further the cause of open access, particularly with their collections budgets, and it recognized that these actions will necessarily be tailored to particular university contexts.

Collections spending is a huge part of research library budgets and thus — as the organizers of the forum recognized — of their power. (At ARL institutions, the average share of the overall budget devoted to materials was 47% in 2015-2016.) Offsetting agreements were a major theme. These agreements bundle a subscription to toll access content with payments that make scholarship by the institution’s researchers available on an open access basis. The idea behind offsetting agreements is that if multiple large institutions pay to make their researchers’ materials open access, then not only will a large majority of research be available openly but subscription prices for all libraries should come down as the percentage of toll access content in traditional journals decreases. The downside is that offsetting agreements tie up library spending power with traditional vendors; they redirect funds to open access, but the funds go to commercial publishers and their shareholders instead of supporting the creation of a new scholarly ecosystem.

Experiments with offsetting are underway in Europe, and MIT and the Royal Society of Chemistry have recently provided us a U.S. example. I look forward to seeing the results of these agreements and seeing whether they make a positive difference for open access. However, I am concerned that some see offsetting as a complete solution to the problems of toll access scholarship, when it can be at best a transitional step. I am concerned that it will be perceived, especially outside libraries, as a cost-containing solution, when it is unlikely to contain costs, at least in the near term. And I am also concerned that libraries and universities will commit too many resources to offsetting, jeopardizing their ability to pursue other open access strategies.

Offsetting agreements must be transitional, if they are used at all. They are inappropriate as a long-term solution because they perpetuate hybrid journals. Within a particular hybrid journal, or even a particular issue, articles from researchers at institutions with a relevant offsetting agreement are open access, as are some other articles where authors have paid an article processing charge (APC). However, other articles within that same journal or issue are not open access. An institution that wants access to all the journal’s content must still pay for a subscription. In contrast, if the library that made the offsetting agreement had instead directed those funds into a fully open investment (e.g., open infrastructure or library open access publishing), the fruits of that investment would be available to all.

Controlling the costs of the scholarly publishing system has long been a goal of the open access movement. It is not the only goal — for many institutions, promoting equity of access to scholarship, especially scholarship by their own researchers, is at least as important. However, with library and university budgets under perpetual scrutiny, and with the imperative to keep costs low for students, it is important to be transparent about the costs of offsetting. In the near term, offsetting agreements will cost the academy more, not less, than the status quo. Publishers will demand a premium before acceding to this experimental approach, as they did in the deal between MIT and the Royal Society of Chemistry. The UC Davis Pay it Forward study likewise estimated that the “break-even” point for APCs at institutions with high research output was significantly below what the big five publishers charge in APCs. In other words, shifting to a wholly APC-funded system would increase costs at such institutions.

The authors of the Pay it Forward study and others have written about structuring an APC payment model to foster APC price competition between journals. Institutions pursuing offsetting agreements should build this into their systems and take care not to insulate authors further from these costs. They will then have some hope of decreasing, or at least stabilizing, costs in the long term. Barring this, libraries’ payments to traditional publishers would continue to escalate under an offsetting regime. That would be disastrous.

Whether or not offsetting agreements stabilize costs, libraries will have to be cautious not to take on costs currently borne by other university units (i.e., APCs) without being compensated in the university’s budgetary scheme. What’s more, because offsetting agreements reinforce pressure to maintain deals with the largest publishers, they undermine libraries’ abilities to acquire materials from smaller publishers, to develop community-owned open infrastructure, to invest more heavily in library publishing, to support our university presses in their open access efforts, and to invest in crowdfunding schemes that support fully open access journals and monographs.

To maintain this pluralistic approach to open access, either within a single research library or across the community, libraries signing offsetting agreements should be cautious on several points. To inform their negotiations, they should gather data about current APC outlays across their institutions. They should structure the APC payment system to make costs transparent to authors, enabling the possibility of publishers undercutting each other’s APCs. They should safeguard flexibility in their collections budgets and invest in other “pathways” alongside offsetting. And they should, if at all possible, make the terms of their offsetting agreement public, in the spirit of experimentation and of openness, to enable others to learn from their experience with full information and to enable themselves to speak, write, and study publicly on the impact of the agreement.

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