The University of California (UC) system today announced it has signed the biggest open access deal in North America with one of the largest commercial scientific publishers. The agreement with Springer Nature includes a commitment by the publisher to explore making all articles that UC corresponding authors publish in the Nature family of journals immediately free to read upon publication starting in 2022.
The new deal is notable, in part, because it includes Nature, one of the world’s most prominent journals, as well as highly selective sister titles in the Nature Research group, which total 148 journals. “These flagship journals are the hardest nut to crack [for open access], and this is the first big step forward, we think worldwide, in doing so,” says Jeffrey MacKie-Mason, university librarian at UC Berkeley and co-chair of UC’s publisher negotiation team.
UC says the deal, covering 2020 to 2023, represents a milestone in its campaign to push all scientific journals toward open access (OA). It ratcheted up that effort in 2019 by ending subscriptions with another publishing giant, Elsevier.
The new deal gives UC access to read 1000 more journals than its current contract with Springer Nature allows, while lowering net payments in 2021 by at least 5% from the 2020 level. It also calls for all articles that UC authors publish in the 2700 other journals run by Springer Nature to be immediately OA unless the authors opt out.
Publishers have expressed strong reservations about moving toward OA deals for highly selective journals because they predict the cost to authors would be prohibitive. In the immediate OA model, journals derive some or all of their revenue by charging authors to publish papers—an alternative to the existing, predominant business model in which institutions pay subscriptions for their readers. But because exclusive titles such as Nature reject the large majority of manuscripts submitted, publishers contend they would have to set author fees high to cover the expense of that work.
The average author fee for “hybrid” journals, which charge author fees and subscriptions, was $2900 per paper, according to a 2018 report by the International Association of Scientific, Technical, and Medical Publishers. By contrast, Nature Communications, an OA journal operated by Springer Nature, charges $5380.
Springer Nature and UC will conduct an OA pilot for Nature journals in 2021 and negotiate fees for UC authors to publish open access in them. The publisher committed in April to transition most of its subscription journals, including those in the Nature Research group, to immediate OA for all authors globally. So far, however, it hasn’t set a timetable for that change or released other details.
Still, MacKie-Mason says just having Springer Nature’s commitment in the UC deal to explore that change, with an explicit implementation date, is promising. “It’s a bigger step than Springer Nature has agreed with anyone else in the world,” he adds. There was no such provision in Springer Nature’s agreement in August 2019 with Project DEAL, a consortium of institutions in Germany that is the world’s largest OA deal. And if UC and the publisher cannot reach terms over the Nature titles, UC retains the right to stop subscribing to them starting in 2022.
A rare deal for North America
UC’s overall deal with Springer Nature remains a rarity in North America, where institutions typically negotiate subscription-based deals with publishers individually. UC has the clout to seek such terms because the approximately 50,000 articles per year the system produces represent about 10% of all scholarly articles published annually by U.S. authors. Of the approximately 22,000 articles with a UC corresponding author—the subset eligible for an open-access deal—Springer Nature published about 2500, or 11%, in 2019, UC says. (Springer Nature puts the number of papers at 1400.).
The university’s securing of a cost decrease comes as it and other institutions face big cuts in budgets for journal subscriptions and other activities because of the financial havoc wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic. Confidential provisions in UC’s existing contract with Springer Nature prevent the university from disclosing its existing spending on subscriptions, says Ivy Anderson, associate executive director of UC’s California Digital Library and co-chair of its publisher negotiation team. But she says payments under the new deal will be bounded by an explicit floor and ceiling based on forecasted publishing volume.
Author’s fees will vary by the journal, but the deal includes discounts on existing prices and controls on increases during the 3.5-year term. UC is offering to help its authors pay: As in OA deals UC has reached with other publishers, the university will pay the first $1000 of the fee, and provide additional amounts for authors who don’t have other funding sources.
UC continues to seek OA deals with other publishers, including Elsevier, with whom it has continued informal discussions, Anderson says.
A few other U.S. institutions have taken similar steps to UC’s. Last week, for example, the Massachusetts of Institute of Technology ended negotiations with Elsevier to renew its subscriptions because of an impasse over OA terms; the existing contract ends this month. But Elsevier has reached OA deals recently with California State University and Carnegie Mellon University.
“I think we’re starting to see what we hoped,” MacKie-Mason says, “which is that by having such a large research-intensive institution in the United States take the lead on this and demonstrate what could be done, other institutions who have wanted open access for years have recognized that the time has come and we can actually make this change. … And I think, particularly with the budgetary pressures that we’re all facing now, we’re going to see even more pressures on the industry to change and transform.”