Monday, July 09, 2018

OA Big Deals: VSNU embraces greater transparency

Over three months ago (in March) the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU) published a very brief news item announcing that it had reached agreement with Springer Nature on a new OA Big Deal. 

Curious as to the details of the agreement, I invited VSNU to answer some questions, both about the Springer Nature deal and VSNU’s failure to reach agreement with the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), concerning which another short news item had been published at the same time. VSNU’s Spokesperson and Advisor Public Affairs Bart Pierik agree to answer my questions.

When I sent my list of questions to him, however, Pierik appeared to change his mind. “Considering the fact that we are finalising some more deals with publishers at this moment (we just published good news about Oxford University Press) my proposal is that we would be glad to make one Q&A in April about all of these deals,” he emailed me.

I was disappointed but decided instead to write something more wide-ranging about the growing number of OA Big Deals we can see being agreed between legacy publishers and the research community and to mention VSNU in that larger piece.

I concluded that article by again inviting VSNU to answer my questions, adding, “By doing so they can help shine a light on this somewhat crepuscular corner of scholarly communication and demonstrate that affordability and transparency are just as important as accessibility.”

April came and went, and I assumed my questions had fallen into a black hole somewhere never to be seen again. 

To my surprise, however, this morning I received an email from Wilma Van Wezenbeek, Programme Manager Open Access at VSNU.

Not only did Van Wezenbeek attach answers to my questions but she informed me that VSNU has now published the contracts it has signed with both Springer Nature and Taylor & Francis (although Springer Nature has not permitted VSNU to disclose their general terms and conditions).

I publish below both the email and the Q&A, as I received them.

I could have wished that the answers were fuller and more detailed, but I guess Rome wasn’t built in a day!

The only other comment I would make at this stage is that it seems to me that if OA advocates and the wider research community want to see greater transparency over the rising number of OA Big Deals that universities, consortia and funding agencies are now signing with publishers on their behalf they are going to have to push hard. And they are going to have to keep pushing. 

The email

Dear Richard Poynder,

It has been a while that you sent Bart Pierik a list of questions to be answered by us. As we mentioned earlier we wanted to respond but needed some more time to flesh out the details.

We also thought the best moment would actually be now so that we could “put the money where the mouth is”, because we also worked on getting the contracts with Springer Nature and Taylor & Francis disclosed.

As you might have seen today, we have (partially, Springer Nature has not agreed with opening up their general terms & conditions) now done so.

Together with the Springer Nature negotiation team, I have answered the questions. I hope that you find them satisfactory. Please note that you can make them public if you wish to do so.

Kind regards

Wilma van Wezenbeek
Programm Manager Open Access, VSNU

The Q&A

Wilma Van Wezenbeek
RP: What are the main details of the new Springer Nature deal? How does it differ from previous OA deals with Springer Nature? What are the key changes over the last deal?

VSNU: The new deal is a continuation of the Springer Nature Compact deal, comprising both reading and publishing rights.

RP: I am thinking it is a deal that covers both reading and publishing, but perhaps not what the DEAL negotiators call a Publish & Read contract?

VSNU: It is too early to compare what we are doing, and what the result of the German DEAL negotiations will be. We can learn from each other, and for sure we know that there are more roads that lead to open access.

RP: What about numbers: In terms of access, how many journals does the deal provide access to? Is this all of Springer Nature’s journals? If not, what percentage of them?

VSNU: All of the Compact Collection, comprising 2,268 journals (compared to 2,079 in 2017).

RP: In terms of publishing, how many journals does the deal allow authors to publish OA in? Is this all of Springer Nature’s journals? If not, what percentage of the publisher’s journals? Are there any limits on the number of papers that can be published OA?

VSNU: In over 1,854 journals the articles by corresponding authors from the Dutch universities are published in open access (in 2017 we had 1,712 journals).

RP: How many (and what percentage of the total number of journals that authors can publish in as part of the deal) are hybrid OA journals, and how many (and what percentage of the total) are pure gold?

VSNU: The publishing part of the deal only covers the Compact Collection, being the hybrid journals.

RP: Has VSNU signed an NDC with Springer Nature over this? If not, are there nevertheless constraints on what it can release in the way of information about the deal and its costs?

VSNU: VSNU advocates openness and transparency regarding the contract. In the bilateral agreement between the Ministry of OCW (Education, Culture and Sciences) and higher education recently closed, the VSNU is asked to have “disclosure” as one of the conditions with which they enter the negotiations.

It took us several months after we published our notification that we had an agreement on the main issues to flesh out the details, but we are happy to note that Springer agreed with publishing the major details of our contract.

RP: Either way, can you say how much will be paid to Springer Nature as part of the deal, and how the price was calculated?

VSNU: Yes, this is in the public part of the contract which covers both reading and publishing rights. BTW, you might know that we did also have a request in the context of the Government Information (Public Access) Act and published a graph of costs incurred by publishers over the years 2011-2015.

RP: What is the estimated APC cost for the OA publishing part of the deal?

VSNU: Our negotiations are about non-APC based offsetting agreements. VSNU arranges what has been common practice for subscriptions for years – central financing. Calculations have been made of the virtual APCs in our deal; we refer to a publication written by Leo Waaijers, in September 2017, to the OpenAPC website, and to the most recent figures we update frequently on What you find about the APC costs in the contract, is Springer’s own interpretation/calculation.

RP: How do these costs compare with previous deals? Are there savings, or is it cost neutral, or perhaps higher than previous deals?

VSNU: Our VSNU mandate at the time of the start of our negotiations last year was very clear – no price increase (we only accepted the cpi, i.e., consumer price index) and a continuation of our full open access deal.

However, a full comparison is tricky, e.g. the Adis journals have been added to the reading part (we used to pay separately, i.e., we held individual subscriptions at several of our institutes).

RP: How do universities pay for the deal, and on what basis are their individual bills calculated, or is the government top-slicing the deal (i.e. paying Springer Nature directly for the deal)?

VSNU: Dutch universities make use of a model to allocate the costs. Cost division is based on the total budget of a university, student numbers and scientific output.

RP: Does the deal cover all Dutch research institutions and all researchers based in The Netherlands?

VSNU: The deal covers all Dutch universities and university hospitals. The KNAW is also taking part in the same deal.

RP: When does the deal go into effect? (I think the last contract ended in 2017)?

VSNU: The deal covers the period 1/1/2018 until 31/12/2021.

RP: So presumably it is a 3-year deal? I think the previous contracts were for 1 year. Is 3 years not too long a period to sign up for in today’s somewhat volatile OA environment?

VSNU: Yes, this (actually 4-year deal) is covering a long period. For us, it includes an important milestone year: 2020. The articles by Dutch corresponding authors in Springer journals will then be openly available for all to read.

RP: What went wrong with the Royal Society of Chemistry negotiations? What is the next move with the RSC?

VSNU: The Dutch universities and Royal Society of Chemistry Publishing (RSC) have been unable to reach a new agreement on access to scientific journals. The VSNU would be happy to reopen negotiations with RSC if and when the publisher is willing to make comprehensive and fair agreements on open access, which they have not been until now.

RP: What other publishers has VSNU failed to reach agreement with, and why?

VSNU: There was one other publisher, namely Oxford University Press. Happily, OUP was able to present an acceptable offer a year after the previous contract had ended.

RP: Why has VSNU published so little information about the deal? At a Couperin event in January VSNU president, Koen Becking said that the take-home point of the meeting for him was that VSNU and other negotiators need to communicate with the research community much better over what they are doing and why. Does that not imply a far greater amount of information should have been released with the announcement of the Springer Nature deal, and with the announcement that the RSC deal has failed.

VSNU: As happened in the past, we try to share information whenever and wherever we can, and we will continue to do so. The moment that we have reached mutual ground, it does not mean that every detail of the contract has been settled. It took us longer than we anticipated, and we are happy that we can share some more information with you now.  

Larger issues

RP: The VSNU announcement says: “the proportion of Dutch articles published open access in Springer Nature journals has risen from 34% in 2014 to 84% in 2017.” What does that mean? 84% of what: of Dutch output? Of the output of participating institutions? These are Springer figures I believe. Has VSNU done its own calculations?

VSNU: The figure means that 84% of the output by Dutch eligible authors have published his or her article OA at Springer Nature. In the author’s submission process the default option to publish is under a Creative Commons license. The VSNU receives monthly reports from Springer; in which these figures are shared. More information on the numbers of articles published open access at Dutch universities is available on  

RP: At the Couperin event Ralf Schimmer (Max-Planck Society) and Koen Becking (VSNU) said that these kind of OA Big Deals are simply not sustainable on a country-by-country basis. In other words, countries need to coordinate their strategy. But history suggests that this is very unlikely does it not, even within the EU? Science Business reported in 2016 that only five EU countries want to abandon the traditional journal subscription model and move to open access publication, and most EU countries prefer green OA. How then can these deals achieve their objective, or reduce costs in the way that Schimmer and Becking predicted at Couperin?

VSNU: The OA2020 initiative is growing, but you are right, we need more countries to follow us. This is something we also mention in our roadmap open access 2018-2020.  

RP: Meanwhile, we see funders moving towards building their own publisher platforms (mainly using the F1000 platform). Might that not be a better approach?

VSNU: Joining forces is an important condition to change the publishing landscape. For this reason, VSNU aligns with amongst others the Dutch funding organisation NWO and the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences KNAW at the national level, and at international level (e.g. with EUA).

As we mentioned in our open access roadmap, we would like to see the research(er) to be more in control.  Creating a publication platform is one of the actions to change the way of producing and disseminating knowledge in order to reach the goal of making research output publicly available without delay.

RP: Many predict that these kinds of OA Big Deal contracts will lock legacy publishers into the new OA environment, lock in unsustainable prices, and threaten the continued existence of smaller publishers and pure OA publishers. How can you allay the concerns of those who worry about this?

VSNU: These are real concerns. VSNU strives for changing the scholarly output system, not to push researchers into the hands of some publishers that impose their rules and regulations. Therefore, other actions are needed, such as a change in the rewarding and recognition policies underlying researchers’ career paths and funding policies.

For smaller or pure OA publishers the VSNU takes into account what reasonable steps can be taken towards open access, as is mentioned in our open access roadmap.

RP: What happens if an organisation like VSNU agrees one of these OA Big Deals with a large legacy publisher and then when it comes up for renewal cannot agree on pricing for the new one. Much has been made of the fact that researchers cannot get access to journal articles if a subscription Big Deal is not renewed, but what happens if an OA Big Deal fails? Researchers will presumably struggle to pay to publish their papers and so are more vulnerable?

VSNU: The preferred road to open access for the VSNU is the gold route. In case this seems to be not feasible in the end, there are alternatives of green open access or delayed open access making use of Dutch legislation (the “Taverne” amendment, see again our roadmap open access).

RP: It turns out that most open-access articles do not have a license attached to them. This has led Jon Brock to argue that publishers can deny access to the majority of open-access articles at their discretion. What if anything is VSNU doing to avoid that possibility in the deals it is signing

VSNU: In the contracts, the VSNU negotiates the CC-BY license is seen by VSNU as the preferred default to prevent copyright issues. 

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