Leaders of the German consortium Project DEAL signed an agreement today with Springer Nature officials in Berlin.

Bettina Ausserhofer

More than 700 German research institutions strike open-access deal with Springer Nature

BERLIN—A consortium of more than 700 German research institutions and libraries today announced an agreement with publisher Springer Nature to make it simpler for authors to publish their papers open access. The agreement is the largest national open-access deal to date, but it doesn’t allow authors to publish open access in Nature or its sister journals.

The consortium, called Project DEAL, has negotiated for more than 3 years with major publishers to reach “publish and read” agreements. Such agreements give member institutions full access to a publisher’s online content and make papers that their researchers publish freely available worldwide. Charges are based not on subscriptions, but on a fee per published paper.

Project DEAL reached a similar agreement with the publisher Wiley in February, but this agreement is bigger. It is expected to cover more than 13,000 articles per year published by researchers working at German institutions, compared with roughly 9500 in Wiley journals. That makes it “the largest ever transformative agreement” for open access, Springer Nature CEO Daniel Ropers told a press conference here this morning.

The agreement does not, however, cover Nature, Nature Medicine, and other subscription journals that are part of the Nature brand—or magazines like Scientific American or the German Spektrum der Wissenschaft. Those titles do not have an option in which scientists can pay a fee to make their paper freely available, so they did not fit into the agreement, Ropers said. Institutions will still need to purchase subscriptions to those journals, and German authors’ papers in them will remain behind a paywall.

Under the memorandum of understanding signed this morning, corresponding authors at a Project DEAL member institution can publish open-access papers in roughly 1900 Springer Nature journals for €2750 per paper. (Those journals are “hybrid” journals—which mix open-access and paywalled papers.) Authors will also receive a 20% discount on fees to publish in BioMed Central and SpringerOpen open-access journals. Member institutions will have full online access to about 2500 of Springer Nature’s hybrid and open-access journals, including archives back to 1997.

Total payments will be based on the number of papers that authors from Germany publish under the agreement. A few details remain to be worked out, but the consortium and publisher expect to sign a final contract in the coming months. It will run from 2020 through 2022, with an option to extend 1 year before new negotiations.

“Project DEAL [negotiators] seem to aim at a win-win for both parties,” says Leo Waaijers, an open-access advocate and retired librarian at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. “The publishers keep their subscription-based revenues intact, and the institutes get more open access.” However, he notes the agreement’s €2750 fee is higher than those in an earlier deal Springer Nature struck in the Netherlands. “The big risk is that this price will become the norm. … So, we are still far away from a market situation where publishers offer a service for a competitive price.”

On a practical level, researchers in Germany will find publishing their papers open access much simpler, says Frank Sander, head of the Max Planck Digital Library Services (MPDL Services), a company in Munich, Germany, formed to manage the Project DEAL contracts. Instead of researchers paying open-access fees to a journal covered by the agreement, MPDL Services will pay. MPDL Services will then bill the authors’ institution. This arrangement, which was set up to support the earlier Project Deal agreement with Wiley, means German funding for publications will shift from libraries to research institutions, he notes.

Germany’s main research organizations formed Project DEAL in 2014 with the goal to negotiate nationwide open-access agreements with major publishers. Negotiations started in 2015 with publishing giant Elsevier but ran aground by late 2016. Efforts to reach an agreement in 2017 also failed, and negotiations have been on hold since mid-2018. In the meantime, nearly 200 member organizations have let their Elsevier subscriptions lapse, and they now lack online access to the publisher’s journals.

The agreements with Wiley and Springer Nature may bring those talks back to life, says Horst Hippler, former president of the German Rectors’ Conference in Bonn and head negotiator for Project DEAL. Although there are no official ongoing negotiations, there is still unofficial contact, he says. He is scheduled to talk with Elsevier’s CEO in the coming weeks. “We are talking about developments,” he says, “and with this second contract, the boundary conditions have changed somewhat.”