Universities push open access-only approach to publishing

A recent report from a higher education working group recommending that a consortium of higher education and research institutions only sign agreements to publish in fully open access (OA) journals has been widely welcomed by stakeholders in Sweden and the European region.

The ‘Beyond transformative agreements’ working group (the BTA group), convened in 2021 by the Association of Swedish Higher Education, was tasked with proposing a strategy for transitioning from transformative agreements to a financially sustainable system that stimulates the ongoing transition to a fully open publishing system.

Their recent report advises members of the Bibsam Consortium, a grouping of 85 higher education and research institutions in Sweden that negotiate licence agreements for electronic information resources, to stay away from ‘read and publish agreements’ – also known as ‘transformative agreements’ – in so-called hybrid journals.

According to the report, titled Charting Sweden’s Path Beyond Transformative Agreements – Analysis and proposals for strategic direction, this new approach should be implemented by 2026 at the latest, and it should apply to all fully open journals, regardless of the publisher.

Sweden as open access leaders

A statement by Stockholm University accompanying the release of the report said Sweden is “far ahead when it comes to promoting open access to scholarly publications. But there is risk of getting stuck in a permanent transformation that favours large commercial publishers”.

The Stockholm statement noted that the current publishing system has “several flaws that negatively affect research, at the individual level (the researcher), and at the systemic level”.

Astrid Söderbergh Widding, president of Stockholm University and chair of the BTA group, is quoted as saying: “Subscribing to and publishing in scholarly journals is expensive, and costs are increasing. Additionally, the publishers’ business model is based on researchers transferring the rights to their own work, despite the fact that in many cases this work is paid for with public funds.”

The report noted that the following “complementary and supporting strategic initiatives and actions” are also needed during negotiations with publishers:

• Signing agreements with publishers that only publish open access journals;

• Providing a national independent publishing platform;

• Improving the opportunities for migrating researcher-owned journals from traditional publishers to other platforms; and

• Continuing to work with copyright issues related to open access.

The BTA group also noted in the report that there may be a need for a better understanding within the research community of the benefits that a change in existing publishing practices can bring, and that communication and engagement with higher education institutions and the research community will be needed.

The recommendations aim to provide support to institutional leaders and the Bibsam Consortium Steering Committee when they make strategic choices in future negotiations with the major publishers. Additionally, they are intended to guide the implementation of the supporting measures that the group deems necessary, the report noted.

Government support

Despite the inadequacies of the so-called transformative agreements, the Swedish government has played a proactive role in pushing for open access.

For example, in its research and innovation bill Forskning, Frihet, Framtid – Kunskap och innovation för Sverige (Research, Freedom, Future – Knowledge and Innovation for Sweden, (Prop. 2020/2:16), the government called on publicly funded scholarly publications to be made openly accessible by 2021 and research data to be made available as openly as possible and as closed as necessary by 2026 at the latest.

When Sweden had the chair of the European Union Council in the first six months of 2023, a call on open publishing was promoted.

At the time, Mats Persson, Swedish minister for education, said: “If we really believe in open science, we need to make sure that researchers can make their findings available and re-usable and that high-quality scientific articles are openly accessible to anyone that needs to read them. This should be particularly the case for research that benefits from public funding: what has been paid by all should be accessible to all.”

‘Perpetual transformation’

Explaining the move away from transformative agreements, Wilhelm Widmark, library director of Stockholm University Library and member of the BTA group, said in the university statement that while Sweden had made considerable progress towards open access, “we run a substantial risk of getting stuck in a perpetual transformation that also contributes to increasing costs”.

He explained: “At the European and global levels, transformative agreements have often served as the starting point for working more systematically with negotiations with publishers, as Sweden has now done for a long time.”

He said the work has been successful in Sweden “because we signed transformative agreements with most major publishers. In 2022, 70% of all articles in scholarly journals with at least one author from a Swedish HEI were open access”.

Widmark added: “These types of transformative agreements were signed with the hope that the publishers would convert more of their journals to fully open access journals. But that has not happened. The publishers are actively working to obtain income from both subscriptions and publishing, and they therefore see this type of agreement as a long-term solution.”

Widmark said the report was a contribution to a wider, international discussion on open access.

“The negotiation group of Bibsam has entered into discussions with a couple of the largest publishing companies on the need for a new type of agreement beyond the transformative agreements. The goal is only to have agreements on publishing as a reasonable service that is transparent and not too costly,” he said.

International discussion

“What is needed is an international discussion on how to proceed beyond the transformative agreements, and this report is Sweden’s contribution to this discussion,” he explained.

Professor emeritus Johan Rooryck, a Belgian linguist and executive director of cOAlition S, an international consortium of research funding and performing organisations that supports Plan S, an initiative for Open Access publishing, said he “wholeheartedly welcomes” the report, saying it “outlines a strategy and recommendations that are vital for the change we need to move towards more open access at a financially sustainable cost”.

Rooryck said he also supports the recommendation from the report that scholarly publications “reside in the research community”.

He explained: “[It is a] recommendation I wholeheartedly subscribe to, and that will be implemented, if I understand correctly, by providing a national independent publishing platform.”

Rooryck, who was due to give a presentation entitled “Diamond scholarly communication: from vision to reality” at the Diamond Open Access Conference held in Mexico from 25-26 October, told University World News: “I think it would be good for this platform to align with other such platforms and initiatives in Europe [which] coordinate and align various so-called Diamond publishing initiatives that have no financial barriers to authors and readers and are led and owned by the research community.

“The current DIAMAS project is aligning such projects in Europe, so I would suggest that the Swedish initiative likewise aligns with this European initiative, so we can build a strong, aligned, and high-quality, scholarly communication system in Europe that is a valid alternative to strictly commercial academic publishing.”

Rooryck agreed that it was important to take the initiative to move away from transformative agreements for hybrid journals.

“As you know, cOAlition S … has likewise decided that it will no longer financially support these arrangements after 2024.

“cOALition S has been opposed to the hybrid model since its inception in 2018. We have likewise agreed to only invest in so-called fully OA publishing agreements that make all peer-reviewed research articles immediately open access,” he said.

“We must avoid a situation where university libraries, whose funds were and are for a long time completely locked up in transformative agreements without proper price transparency, will instead end up being locked up in equally opaque fully OA publishing agreements.

“This is why I believe that fully OA publishing agreements should be subject to full price transparency, such as that required by the cOAlition S ‘Journal Comparison Service’,” he explained.

Rooryck said to get prices under control, the academic community needs to better understand the breakdown of costs in academic publishing, and to refuse to “pay for prestige” that is currently inherent in some academic journals.

“Academic publishing is a tool, not a luxury product,” he said.

Tighter deadlines

Robert-Jan Smits, president of Eindhoven University of Technology, who is known for his key roles in planning Plan S and one of the main architects of Horizon 2020, also welcomed the main recommendation of the BTA group – to stop entering into new read and publish agreements in hybrid journals by 2026 – but said the timeframe could be shorter.

“In the opinion piece I wrote [September 2023] to celebrate the fifth anniversary of Plan S, I come to the conclusion that the so-called transformative agreements have not delivered.

“On the contrary, they are used by the big commercial publishers to continue the status quo. Science policy makers and science funders should therefore be persistent and insist on the 2024 deadline for these agreements to have fulfilled their mission, being to transform hybrid journals into full open access journals. So, in other words, I am tougher than the BTA group,” he said, referring to the BTA’s suggested 2026 deadline.

Professor Ole Petter Ottersen, former rector of the University of Oslo and the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm and now acting secretary-general of the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities, agreed with the need for shorter deadlines but said he nonetheless welcomed the initiative from Sweden.

“They [the BTA group] could have been even more radical in their conclusions and asked for an even shorter timeline towards open access. But it is essential that we get our research communities on board. Without unwavering support from our scientists the push towards open science might easily be thwarted. This is something we cannot afford,” he said.

Ondrej Daniel, assistant professor at the Institute of World History, told University World News he supported the Swedish initiative on behalf of Charles University European Centre where he works with the Coimbra group.

“The action plan of the Bibsam consortium is an important step, not only for the research landscape in Sweden but also for Europe and potentially global academic publishing at large,” he said.

“It clearly shows the way to confront the contemporary monopoly of scientific publishing, controlled by large commercial publishers, financed through public interventions. One of the crucial tools to address the issue of researchers' accountability towards society at large is open access, which is at the core of the Bibsam consortium's strategy. This can be seen as a model for similar practices to be adopted in other member states and at the EU level,” he explained.

Ramon Alexander Wyss, professor emeritus of KTH and chair of the ArtEmis Project, an early warning system for earthquakes based at the Royal Institute in Stockholm, told University World News it would be useful to move publications away from private publishing houses to societies – for example, the American Physical Society, etc.

“In other words, make ownership of publications public goods. The present system is not sustainable to my mind – but the Swedish attempt is the best within the present system,” he said.