University of California system strikes landmark open-access deal with Springer Nature

The University of California system is on a mission to break down publisher paywalls. Yesterday, the 10-campus system took a significant step toward that goal, announcing a huge open-access deal with publisher Springer Nature.

Described by both sides as a transformative agreement, the arrangement is the largest of its kind in North America. It will be a first for Springer Nature in the U.S. when a formal contract is signed. A memorandum of understanding is expected to be published later today.

The deal aims to make all UC system research published in participating Springer Nature journals immediately available to the public to read. The open-access agreement shifts how the UC system pays to access and publish research. Instead of UC institutions paying for employees and students to read research in Springer Nature journals, UC institutions will pay for their researchers to publish openly in these journals by default, removing paywalls for everyone. 

Open-access publishing in hybrid journals, which publish both paywalled and open-access research, requires an article processing charge, which is typically a few thousand dollars per article. The UC system intends to pay these charges through a multipayer model that shares costs between libraries and research funds secured by individual researchers.

Ivy Anderson, associate executive director of the California Digital Library, and Jeffrey MacKie-Mason, university librarian at UC, Berkeley, co-chaired the system’s publisher negotiations team. In an interview with Inside Higher Ed, they described the agreement with Springer Nature as a significant breakthrough -- one which they hope will be replicated by other institutions and publishers. 

“We are pretty giddy,” said MacKie-Mason. “We are very happy with the terms of the agreement.”

The Springer Nature contract will last four years, starting later this year and ending in 2023. The deal will enable UC system corresponding authors to publish openly in more than 2,700 journals. Of these 2,700 titles, 500 are already fully open-access journals. Though open-access publishing will become the default option from 2021, UC authors publishing in hybrid journals will have the option of opting out.

The prestigious line of Nature-branded journals will not be initially included in the open-access deal. Anderson said, however, there is a plan for all Nature journal titles to be included by 2022, following a pilot phase in 2021. This is a notable achievement, as it is unusual for flagship journal titles to be included in experimental open-access agreements.  

UC students, faculty and researchers will continue to be able to access paywalled research they could access before, but will gain access to over a thousand additional journal titles. To cover this, the UC system will pay an initial annual reading fee of $750,000, according to reporting by The Scientist

MacKie-Mason and Anderson said they were unable to share details on how much the agreement will cost the system annually. The UC system’s current bundled journal subscription deal with Springer Nature costs millions of dollars per year. The new agreement is expected to save the system money overall, but the exact cost will depend on the number of articles UC researchers publish, said Anderson. 

The UC system has recently gained a lot of attention for its rejection of the “big deal” bundled journal subscription model. Last year the system walked away from negotiations with publisher Elsevier after failing to reach consensus on an agreement that would both reduce costs and increase open-access publications. Several U.S. institutions have since broken off negotiations with Elsevier, including the State University of New York system, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Springer Nature signed its first transformative agreement in 2014 with a research consortium in the Netherlands and now has 11 national agreements in place, including the world’s largest by article volume with Projekt DEAL in Germany.

The publisher has been more willing to experiment with its business model and adapt to an open-access publishing environment than some of its rivals. In a news release, Springer Nature described transformative agreements such as these as complex, adding that “no two customers are the same.”

“There is no one-size-fits-all model for these agreements,” said Charlotte Liu, chief commercial officer at Springer Nature, in a statement. “This is why we have invested to ensure that we have the technical flexibility to be responsive to individual funding partners’ objectives and requirements and, as demonstrated here, able to take into account different regions’ funding landscapes.”

A major challenge for Springer Nature in bringing the UC agreement to fruition is creating a billing process that will allow both UC researchers and UC libraries to contribute to article processing charges. MacKie-Mason said the UC system has been able to work with other publishers such as Cambridge University Press to implement these changes and has demonstrated that they can work.  

Researchers have adapted well to this model, said Anderson. “The workflow for submitting an article is very similar. Open-access will come up as the default option, and if they accept the default, they will be asked if they have grant funds. There are just a couple of different choices. We have worked to make this as nondisruptive as possible.”

Many authors already receive support from research funders for publishing their work openly, and those who do not will be supported by the library, said Anderson. The first $1,000 of each article processing charge will be covered by the UC system. If an author is unable to cover the remainder of the cost from their research budget, then UC will step in to pay the rest of the bill.

“In general, funders are supportive of grantees seeking to disseminate their work as widely and openly as possible,” said Greg Tannenbaum, director of the Open Research Funders Group, a partnership of 16 philanthropic organizations that support open-access. “Many philanthropies encourage grantees to work with their program officers to get the funding they need to publish their work. This includes, but is not limited to, the ability to come back after a grant budget is set and seek additional support.”

Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe, professor and coordinator for information literature and instruction at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s University Library, said the UC system deal is notable because Springer Nature “continues to be able to reach agreements with consortia and other groups that Elsevier has been unable to reach an agreement with.” 

“Springer Nature has been very active in Plan S and is clearly trying to position itself as the leading publisher on open-access,” said Hinchliffe. “What is difficult to know is, at what cost is Springer Nature able to reach these agreements?” 

While there are many more details of the UC system deal still to be unearthed, Hinchliffe said she is particularly interested to hear more about the inclusion of the Nature-branded journals in the deal. 

“The fact that the Nature portfolio is something that they’ve agreed to collaboratively work on is not something we should lose track of. It means that the University of California is now positioned to shape the open-access policy there,” said Hinchliffe.

A sticking point in the transition to open-access has been that very high-profile, expensive journals would have to have enormous article processing charges to cover their publishing costs, which isn't going to work for institutions that can't afford to pay, she said.

Hinchliffe said she is also very curious to find out more about how the UC system’s implementation of multipayer open-access models is going so far. 

“Are faculty actually paying or is the library having to cover these costs? If authors are confused, do they opt out completely? How is their workflow impacted? Are they happy to spend their grant funds on this?” she asked.

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