Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Open Access Interviews: Richard Savory, Jisc Licensing Manager

For the past several decades the research community has been bedevilled with the so-called serials crisis, the phenomenon by which the cost of scholarly journals continues to rise at an unsustainable rate.
Richard Savory


One of the most significant responses to this affordability problem was the open access (OA) movement, which in 2002 coalesced around the Budapest Open Access Initiative. Open access publishing, OA advocates have always argued, will be cheaper, and therefore sustainable.

In 2004, confronted by the growing demands of the OA movement, and faced with competition from open access publishers like BioMed Central and PLOS, traditional subscription publishers responded with hybrid OA, which allows authors to continue publishing in subscription journals but, if they wish, to choose to make a particular paper open access by paying an article-processing charge (APC). The first such initiative was Springer’s Open Choice, which at the time the company’s CEO Derk Haank characterised as a challenge to OA advocates to “put their money where their mouth is”.

Since hybrid OA APCs are more expensive than those of pure open access journals (i.e. generally around $3,000 a paper), take up remained low until research funders like the Wellcome Trust and Research Councils UK agreed to start paying APCs for their funded authors.

It was quickly apparent however that, as things stood, hybrid OA could only worsen the affordability problem, since hybrid OA journals now have not one, but two income streams for the same article — one from the article-processing charge, another from the journal subscription, a phenomenon that OA advocates refer to as “double dipping”.

While publishers said that they would reduce the subscription price of hybrid journals to reflect the number of articles in them that had been paid for, what reductions have been made have been derisory. In any case, such an approach means that those who pay for hybrid OA are effectively subsidising those that choose not to embrace open access.


Meanwhile, as subscriptions continued to rise to the point where even the wealthiest universities in the world began saying that they could no longer afford all the journals they needed, concern was also growing about the lack of transparency in journal pricing — since publishers now rarely sell single subscriptions at an advertised price, but licences to expensive databases containing hundreds or thousands of electronic journals (the so-called Big Deal) for a privately negotiated price. And in agreeing these Big Deals publishers routinely insisted on the inclusion of a non-disclosure clause in order to prevent other publishers, and the public, from knowing what they were charging for their journals.

Concern about the lack of transparency in pricing came to a head during last year’s inquiry into open access by the UK House of Commons Business, Innovation and Skills Committee (BIS), which in its report recommended “that non-disclosure clauses should not be included in publishing contracts which involve public funds.” It added, “If the use of non-disclosure clauses persists, then the Government should consider referring the matter to the Competition Commission.”

This message appears to have been taken on board by publishers. That at least is how I interpreted a recent tweet from the Research Libraries UK executive director, who reported that Elsevier is now the only publisher that still insists on non-disclosure clauses.

The issue of double dipping also arose during the BIS Committee inquiry, with many of the witnesses called to give evidence deprecating it. Perhaps for this reason Jisc, the organisation that negotiates licensing agreements with publishers on behalf of UK HEIs, has this year been busy negotiating offsetting agreements with publishers intended to mitigate or extinguish double dipping. 

Thus last month Taylor & Francis published a press release announcing that it had reached agreement with Jisc on (amongst other things) an offsetting regime, and a note on the UCL web site indicates that a similar deal has been agreed with Wiley-Blackwell.

Since the Taylor & Francis press release does not go into details of how its offsetting works, and noting that in October Jisc CEO Lorraine Estelle had told Research that she “would not reveal the offsetting formula for the two publishers” I contacted Jisc in the hope of clarifying matters. The result is the Q&A below with Jisc’s licensing manager Richard Savory.

Commercial sensitivity

What I take from the Q&A is that whether or not publishers insist on non-disclosure clauses makes little difference theoretically, since the details may in any case never be revealed (unless someone undertakes the laborious task of submitting scores of FoI requests).

This seems evident from what Savory says below — even where there is no legal gag, he explains, those entering into an agreement with a publisher may not feel able to divulge the fine details for reasons of “commercial sensitivity” (i.e. publishers do not want their competitors to have this information). This reluctance, he adds, flows from the fact that divulging the information could “put an unnecessary obstacle in the path of a publisher’s willingness to enter into an agreement with us”.

But we should not conclude from all this that Jisc itself prefers secrecy. When Estelle told Research in October that she would not reveal the offsetting formula for the two publishers Jisc was negotiating with, explains Savory, the organisation was still consulting HEIs about the deal, and so any public comment would have been premature.

And separately, Estelle agreed to clarify with me what Savory says below about the Taylor & Francis offsetting formula. “I can confirm that the average APC price mentioned by Richard Savory, in respect of the offset system agreed with Taylor & Francis, is the average price of an APC in a Taylor & Francis journal — not an industry average for APC costs. The amount an institution pays in journal subscriptions is divided by this amount to arrive at the total number of APC vouchers awarded to that institution. Institutions can then use their vouchers to fund APCs.”

The key question, of course, is whether the offsetting formula will eradicate double dipping. When I put this to Estelle she replied, “This is not an exact science, but my estimate is that this will on average reduce the cost of APCs by around 75%. The actual figure, of course depends on how many articles, by authors in each institution receiving the vouchers, are actually published in the relevant journals.”

This implies to me that, at best, the deal could still see a 25% incidence of double dipping. However, Jisc is committed to monitoring the situation closely and, says Estelle, will make the results available to the public. “All the offset systems we have agreed with publishers are new, so we will be collecting data and monitoring their impact. We will publish the results regularly. We need around 10-12 months of data following implementation of these offset system to fully understand their impact, so we aim to publish some results towards the end of 2015.”

Clearly it is vital that this information is made available to the public. It is the public, after all, that foots the bill for the scholarly communication system, and so the public should know how effectively its money is being spent.

A final point to make perhaps is that even if the offsetting agreements being negotiated by Jisc entirely reduce double dipping they will not address the fundamental problem that open access was meant to solve — making scholarly communication affordable.

After all, there is no reason to doubt that hybrid journals will continue to increase their subscriptions for the foreseeable future, and if they want access to all the articles in them (not just those their institution has paid for) universities will have to continue paying those subscriptions. The current reality would therefore seem to be that — unless something else changes — open access looks set to co-exist with subscription publishing, and the larger affordability problem will continue.

It is worth point out, therefore, that the research community in The Netherlands is seeking to negotiate deals with publishers in a way that appears intended to force subscription publishers to fully embrace open access.[1] Might this be a better approach? Could such an approach work in any case?

[1] Whether full open access will actually prove any less costly than subscription publishing is a separate topic, of course, and best left for another day.

The interview begins

RP: As I understand it, Jisc Collections has been negotiating offsetting agreements with a number of publishers, including Taylor & Francis and Wiley-Blackwell. Taylor & Francis has put out a press release, so clearly that deal has been finalised. But what is the situation with Wiley-Blackwell, and which other publishers is Jisc hoping to reach agreement with over offsetting?

RS: Jisc Collections is negotiating with all journal publishers of hybrid journals on the Total Cost of Ownership. By this we mean the combined cost to UK Higher Education Institutions of journals subscriptions (the cost of consumption) and the cost of article processing charges — APCs (the cost of open access publishing).

To reduce this combined cost, Jisc Collections has negotiated with a number of publishers, including Taylor & Francis, for the introduction of offset systems. These systems recognise the additional burden of the combined costs, and offset one against the other.

We are very pleased to have reached a conclusion on an offset system to mitigate the Total Cost of Ownership with Taylor & Francis and some of the other major publishers of hybrid journals.

RP: I am wondering how these deals relate to the regular round of (Big Deal) subscription agreements that Jisc negotiates on behalf of the UK research community. I believe, for instance, that Jisc reached three-year agreements with both Wiley-Blackwell and Elsevier last year.

RS: They relate because we deal with the Total Cost of Ownership — the cost to consume and the cost of open access publication. We do not look at either of these costs in isolation.

We have agreed a three-year licence agreement with Wiley for 2015-17, and are in the middle of a 5-year agreement with Elsevier running 2012-16.

RP: I am not sure what the situation is with regard to Taylor & Francis over the Big Deal, but where do these offsetting agreements fit with the Big Deal cycle: are they in addition to the Big Deals, or some kind of addendum to them? For instance, there seems to be a component of access to subscription journals in the recent T&F deal, suggesting that this might be a Big Deal+. Is that right?

RS: We do not negotiate the Big Deals in isolation — we look at the Total Cost of Ownership (see above).

RP: Just to clarify: my understanding was that a Big Deal was agreed with Wiley-Blackwell last year. What I take to be a separate offsetting agreement was finalised with the publisher a month or so ago. So presumably the latter is some form of addendum to the former? And would I be right to conclude that the deal recently agreed with Taylor & Francis was in fact the regular Big Deal, and so perhaps the first Big Deal to include an offsetting arrangement? Or am I misunderstanding?

RS: No, our previous agreement with Wiley runs from 2012 until the end of this year, and the new agreement will run from 2015-17. Our Taylor & Francis agreements reflect the same timeframes. The new Wiley and T&F agreements both incorporate an OA offsetting component.

Not about double dipping

RP: Can you say how exactly how the offsetting agreement with Taylor & Francis works? Since it is designed to avoid “double dipping” I assume it only applies to hybrid journals, but the T&F press release describes it in terms of “discounted Article Publishing Charges via a voucher system”. Do I assume from this that no money will come back to HEIs, and no money discount will apply, just the opportunity for researchers at the HEI concerned to publish in hybrid (and perhaps gold?) journals at a discounted price?

RS: This is not about “double dipping” — it is about the Total Cost of Ownership for UK HEIs. Publishers such as Taylor & Francis have worked with us to introduce an offset system that we believe will significantly reduce the Total Cost of Ownership. An offset system, by its nature, means that the cost of one is offset against the other — so if a system is successful in reducing the costs, there is no need to move money because the cost is reduced.

RP: Can you tell me what the formula is for calculating the discount and the number of vouchers that are offered for what?

RS: It’s the institution’s expenditure divided by a given amount (roughly average APC price) = number of vouchers for discounted APCs.

RP: You will know that there have been widespread calls over the past year or so for much greater transparency over the contracts that are negotiated between research institutions and publishers — including from the House of Commons Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, which recommended “that non-disclosure clauses should not be included in publishing contracts which involve public funds.” As I understand it, the only publisher that still insists on non-disclosure is Elsevier. Yet in October Jisc CEO Lorraine Estelle told Research that she could not reveal the offsetting formulas used in the agreements with Taylor & Francis and Wiley-Blackwell. I am not sure that your answer above is much more informative (what, for instance, is the average APC, and how is it calculated?). Do you not think that both Jisc and publishers should routinely put into the public domain the details of the agreements they reach, including exactly how any offsetting arrangement works? Or are there valid reasons for maintaining secrecy that critics do not appreciate?

RS: There is a distinction between (legal) non-disclosure and commercial sensitivity. Publisher A would usually prefer Publisher B not to have ready access to the fine detail of its agreement with Jisc Collections; indeed the prospect of this happening might put an unnecessary obstacle in the path of a publisher’s willingness to enter into an agreement with us. The information is routinely available in the community domain to the extent that we inform every Jisc Collections member of the detail of each agreement.

It should be noted at the time of speaking with Lorraine Estelle the formulas for the offset systems had not been agreed with the publishers, and our community was still being consulted about them. It would therefore have been premature to announce them in any detail to anyone at that stage.

Tangible reduction

RP: You will also know that there is some scepticism about the ability of offsetting arrangements to mitigate double dipping. How confident are you that the deals Jisc is agreeing will entirely remove the possibility of any double payment?

RS: Each of the offset arrangements we have agreed have different facets. This is because the disciplinary focus of the journals and administration workflows in each publishing house is different. However, this also provides an opportunity to monitor and evaluate the offset systems in place.

We will be collecting and analysing data on an ongoing basis to measure the impact of these systems in reducing the Total Cost of Ownership to UK universities. We are confident that the schemes in place will result in tangible reductions of what would otherwise have been the costs.
However, these schemes are new, so we have to rigorously test them and amend them if necessary.

RP: Is the “substitutions allowance” mentioned in the T&F press release essentially the voucher system by another name, or something else?

RS: This is a standard system operated by the majority of journal publishers in the case of agreements for which institutions are required to maintain ‘core subscriptions’. Archival rights are typically applied only to core subscriptions. However, institutions are able to substitute subscriptions to certain journal titles for other titles of the same value. This means that institutions can change their core subscriptions according to changes in research interests.

RP: And what are the “improved subscriptions reinstatement conditions” referred to in the T&F press release?

RS: These conditions are to make the “Big Deal” (a complete collection of journal titles) more affordable to those institutions that currently subscribe not to a complete collection, but on a title-by-title basis.

RP: The press release also says that T&F access fees are now entirely “Jisc-banded”. What does that mean?

RS: Jisc banding is the method Jisc has developed for differentiated pricing. It uses as its metric the total income (research and teaching) of each HEI. Thus, institutions that have less income pay less for the same level of access to digital resources.

Opting in

RP: I am assuming that the way Jisc works is that it negotiates deals with publishers, and then HEIs opt in or not as they wish. If that is right, what percentage of eligible HEIs do you expect to sign up to the offsetting deals that Jisc is negotiating?

RS: Yes. Jisc Collections negotiates the deals and the licence terms. HEIs may opt in if they wish to do so. We envisage that most HEIs will opt in to those agreements that provide content which matches their research and teaching requirements.

RP: What are Jisc’s objectives in negotiating offsetting arrangements: simply to avoid “double dipping” or are there other aims too?

RS: The chief objective is to reduce the Total Cost of Ownership for UK HEIs. If well-designed and implemented, we envisage that offset systems could also reduce the cost of administration for APC payments.

RP: As I understand it, the aim of what you call Total Cost of Ownership is to avoid publishers being paid twice for the same article, once by means of subscription charges and once by means of an article-processing charge. You will know that the term double dipping is widely used to express the same thing. Can you say why you resist the term double dipping?

RS: Our focus is on the Total Cost of Ownership, because publishers adjust for double dipping at a global level by reducing the list price of their journals. This by no means addresses the situation faced by UK universities implementing OA policies with preferences for Gold open access.

Without offset systems in place, UK universities would in some cases see their expenditure with the same publishers more than double as they pay for both subscriptions and publication.

We need solutions that can be implemented quickly, and that are designed to deal specifically with the issue facing UK universities — an increase in the Total Cost of Ownership. Stephen Pinfield has introduced a perhaps more helpful term — Total Cost of Publication (but talking about the same issue); his article is an interesting read and is available here.

Managing a transition

RP: I assume these offsetting deals are a necessary part of the process of managing a transition to open access. How long do you expect that transition to take, and will it ever be complete in your view? If it is never complete, what in your view will be the implications for the future with regard to the costs of scholarly publishing, and the negotiation of Big Deals?

RS: Open Access is already bringing significant benefits to research and the wider economy and society, which is why funders of research in the UK, EU and elsewhere have put in place policies to encourage or require researchers to make their research OA.

However, the policy environment is complicated and uneven across the globe. It is difficult to say how long it will take. However, during the transition period, it is essential that library consortia such as Jisc Collections look at the Total Cost of Ownership and negotiate the best outcomes for their member libraries.

RP: How challenging are these kind of negotiations when it comes to reaching agreement with publishers, and what do you feel to be the main sensitivities for publishers when trying to reach agreement?

RS: All negotiations are challenging by their very nature. Publishers naturally wish to grow their businesses and increase revenues and libraries naturally wish to reduce the very high cost of scholarly publishing. Publishers have shown initial concern about offset systems and this is understandable given that the concept is a new one — a concept designed by Jisc Collections.

However, our negotiations are evidence-based and informed by the data we collect and analyse, so we see an increasing number of major publishers willing to introduce offset systems for their hybrid journals.

RP: The Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU) seems to be taking a different approach to transitioning to open access — notably through the deal they have done with Springer (a model that Elsevier seems to have rejected). What would you say were the pros and cons of these two different ways of transitioning to OA: the Jisc approach and the VSNU approach?

RS: Open Access is already bringing significant benefits to research and the wider economy and we support its implementation. Every country needs to contain the cost of scholarly publishing while providing the widest possible access — both to those in academic institutions and to society more generally.

Approaches may sometimes differ, but there is great commonality across all the countries we talk to on this issue. 

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