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New deals could help scientific societies survive open access

In the push to make the scientific literature open access, small scientific societies have feared they could be collateral damage. Many rely on subscription revenue from their journals—often among the most highly cited in their disciplines—to fund other activities, such as scholarships. And whereas big commercial publishers have the scale to absorb financial losses in some of their journals, many scientific societies operate at most a handful of journals.

A reprieve may be in sight. Last week, a project that included funders backing Plan S, the European-led effort to speed the transition to open access, released a set of contract templates and tips meant to help small, independent publishers reach deals with libraries that would eventually eliminate subscriptions while protecting revenue. The project also helped arrange pilots, which may soon be inked, that use the guidance; they will allow researchers served by library consortia to publish an unlimited number of open-access articles in return for a set fee paid to societies.

The Biochemical Society, based in London, is participating because “we have to start somewhere, and our principle is, learn by doing,” says Malavika Legge, its publishing director. The new guidance  grew out of a June workshop in London attended by two dozen society and library officials, which “opened the door to talking to librarians in a way we’ve never done before.”

Plan S, set to begin in 2021, requires researchers funded by participating agencies to ensure that their papers are immediately free to read. To ease the transition, the plan allows authors to publish in a “hybrid” journal, which has a mix of free and paywalled content, but only if the publisher commits to shifting the journal to entirely open access by 2024. Commercial publishers and their biggest customers—library consortia representing multiple research institutions—are already signing “transformative agreements” that allow researchers to read a publisher’s paywalled content while publishing open-access articles in its journals.

But negotiating those deals is complex and time consuming, putting them out of reach of many small societies. “It makes no sense for a library consortium to spend any time negotiating an agreement with a publisher they don’t publish a lot of content with,” says Michael Clarke, managing partner of Clarke & Esposito, a Washington, D.C., consulting firm whose clients include society publishers.

The report, released last week by a project called Society Publishers Accelerating Open Access and Plan S, and the associated pilot projects might help smaller societies get into the game. Five societies and four library consortia—most of them in Europe—have committed in principle to testing transformative agreements in coming months, says Alicia Wise, a director of Information Power, a consulting firm in Winchester, U.K., that wrote the report. The Biochemical Society, for example, is discussing a deal for its seven journals with Jisc Collections, a nonprofit in Bristol, U.K., that manages subscriptions for 180 U.K. libraries. Three societies--the Biochemical Society; the Microbiology Society, in London; and the European Respiratory Society, in Lausanne, Switzerland—are also negotiating with the Council of Australian University Librarians, representing 39 universities in Australia and eight in New Zealand.

All the participants are working on terms that allow researchers represented by the libraries to read all articles in the societies’ journals and publish as many open-access articles in them as they want, which Wise refers to “all you can eat.” (Some transformative agreements negotiated by larger publishers cap the number of articles that can be published.)

Kathryn Spiller, a licensing manager at Jisc who worked on the pilots, says some libraries remain skittish about negotiating with small publishers. One hurdle is that a society may lack the data needed to negotiate pricing, which can depend on how many articles the authors at each institution in a library consortium have published in the society’s journals. “Some have systems in place to [track] that. A lot don’t,” she says. “So a lot have said to me that they want to focus on getting their data together this year in order to try to do that kind of [transformative open-access] agreement for 2021.”

The Biochemical Society isn’t waiting. In addition to negotiating with Jisc, it plans to offer a one-size-fits-all transformative agreement to its 700 institutional subscribers not represented by library consortia. Subscription costs will be frozen at this year’s levels, with an additional fee to make up for the revenue that some subscribers will no longer pay in per-article publishing fees. Other societies are talking about joining forces to negotiate jointly with library consortia.

Other societies are still hesitant, says Rachael Samberg, scholarly communication officer at the University of California, Berkeley, and co-chair of Transitioning Society Publishers to Open Access, a group of librarians mostly at North American institutions. “For societies, it’s sort of a game of chicken,” she says. “They want to see what happens when other people go first.”