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Deal reveals what scientists in Germany are paying for open access

Project Deal, a consortium of libraries, universities, and research institutes in Germany, has unveiled an unprecedented deal with a major journal publisher—Wiley—that is drawing close scrutiny from advocates of open access to scientific papers.

The pact, signed last month but made public this week, has been hailed as the first such country-wide agreement within a leading research nation. (Only institutions in the United States, China, and the United Kingdom publish more papers.) It gives researchers working at more than 700 Project Deal institutions access to the more than 1500 journals published by Wiley, based in Hoboken, New Jersey, as well as the publisher’s archive. It also allows researchers to make papers they publish with Wiley free to the public at no extra cost.

This business arrangement, known as a “publish and read” deal, has been touted as one way to promote open-access publishing. But until this week, a key part of the Wiley agreement—how much it will cost—had been secret.

Now, the numbers are out. Germany will pay Wiley €2750 for each paper published in one of the publisher’s so-called hybrid journals, which contain both paywalled and free papers. The contract anticipates researchers will publish about 9500 such papers per year, at a cost of €26 million. In addition, researchers will get a 20% discount on the price of publishing in Wiley journals that are already open access.

The deal is an important step toward more open access in scientific publishing, but the per paper fee of €2750 seems high, says Leo Waaijers, an open-access advocate and retired librarian at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. Dutch researchers are paying Wiley just €1600 per paper under a similar deal in the Netherlands, he notes. “It’s the same process, the same product, so why the price difference?” he says.

The explanation is that Germany’s deal with Wiley was designed to be “more or less budget-neutral,” says Gerard Meijer, a physicist at the Fritz Haber Institute, part of the Max Planck Society in Berlin, and one of the negotiators for Project Deal. The goal was to keep Germany’s 2019 payments to Wiley about the same as they were in 2018, he says. And as a larger country with more institutions, Germany paid more in subscription fees to Wiley than the Netherlands. That translated to a higher article publishing fee. But the difference is that papers from Project Deal researchers will now be freely available around the world. In addition, some institutions have gained access to journals that they did not have access to before.

One advantage of the deal is that German researchers will no longer be paying twice for Wiley’s hybrid journals—once for a subscription, and again if they want to make a paper free—says Lidia Borrell-Damian of the European University Association in Brussels. “Germany seems protected from double-dipping … and that’s important,” she says.

Eventually, Waaijers hopes German institutions will be able to negotiate lower open-access publishing fees. But he sees the current contract, which runs for 3 years, as a good first step. “I think it is not possible for Germany to say to Wiley at the moment: ‘We want a contract for 1600 [euros] per article,’” he says. “That would mean an enormous step back financially for Wiley, and they are absolutely not prepared to make that step.”

The fact that the details of the German contract have become public is also important, Borrell-Damian says. “Contracts should be public because this is about public money spent,” she says. And if other countries sign similar deals, and the details become public, then “the whole game of price comparison may start,” Waaijers says. And that, open-access advocates say, could produce pressure for even lower publishing fees.