Not Only Transformative Agreements

More and more institutions and consortia of libraries conclude so-called read-and-publish deals or transformative agreements with legacy publishers. But this new incarnation of the big deal is not without its critics. The hard line opposition argues that transformative agreements hamper  progression and should therefore be avoided at all cost. A less radical approach is to make sure that the available budget is not spent exclusively on transformative agreements but is also used to support alternatives, fostering diversity of business models in the market of academic publishing.

The hard line

Transformative agreements diminish rather than stimulate diversity and equality in scholarly communication, are unnecessary in certain disciplines, might worsen the state of the market, and stimulate vendor lock-in.

Let’s look at the last argument in a bit more detail. If the negotiations leading towards a transformative agreement are successful (which is only possible if they are very well prepared – which comes at great expense), they might lead to a deal with a legacy publisher including OA at about the same cost as an earlier subscription arrangement. Hoorah! However, by concluding such transformative agreements, academic institutions demonstrate that they are able and willing to pay above production cost for publication services. What is more: by doing so, they finance legacy publishers to further develop services concerning research data management, bibliometrics, and other aspects of scholarly communication.

So what will happen next negotiation round? If (and this is again a very expensive if) negotiations go well, academic institutions might even be able to drive down the price for publication services offered. But they will have to pay additionally, and handsomely, for the other services. They will feel obliged to do so (1) because these legacy publishers will dominate the market place even more than before, (2) because the services these publishers offer will be more attractive and user-friendly than anything else on the market (since academic institutions, unwittingly but generously, provided the budget to develop them), and (3) because legacy publishers will be able to lure academic institutions into new forms of big deals packaging services concerning scholarly communication which will seem easier and cheaper than obtaining these services separately.

For this, and many more reasons, transformative agreements should actually be considered librarian malpractice.   

What if academic institutions would invest the budget as well as the time, energy, and talent they currently waste on transformative agreements in community-owned alternatives? Alternatives that foster diversity rather than monopoly and support bibliodiversity and multilingualism, thus providing a more global and democratic approach. Alternatives which involve working with partners who do not insist on vendor lock-in and who operate in service of the academic community (rather than in the service of their shareholders). Would that not mean that we would finally see, in the words of Eloy Rodrigues, the return of universities and scholars “to the driver’s seat of scholarly communications”?

Back to reality

Even if it seems a naïve dream to expect a general commitment to this approach, is it not smart to safeguard part of the budget to invest in alternatives, thus keeping the market healthy and our choices open? Even when we do it in a very small way, let’s say – as argued by David W. Lewis – by putting aside 2,5% of the total library budget to support open and community-owned infrastructure (and if you don’t know where to start, the Global Sustainability Coalition for Open Science Services can most certainly help). An investment of 2,5% seems little, and perhaps not something to be proud of (since the implication is that you spend 97,5% of your budget on scholarly communication infrastructure which is closed and/or privately-owned). But it is a start. 

 As Head of KU Leuven Libraries Artes, Demmy Verbeke is responsible for collections and services for the Arts and Humanities.  Demmy is a strong believer in Fair Open Access, serves on the editorial board of the Journal of Librarianship and Scholarly Communication and is, together with Laura Mesotten, responsible for the day-to-day management of the KU Leuven Fund for Fair OA.


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