Wednesday, February 19, 2020

PLOS CEO Alison Mudditt discusses new OA agreement with the University of California

The Public Library of Science (PLOS) and the University of California (UC) have today announced a two-year agreement designed to make it easier and more affordable for UC researchers to publish in the non-profit open-access publisher’s suite of seven journals.

Under the agreement – which is planned to go into effect this Spring – UC Libraries will automatically pay the first $1,000 of the article processing charge (APC) incurred when UC authors choose to publish in a PLOS journal.

Authors who do not have research funds available can request UC Libraries pay the full APC fee. The aim is to ensure that lack of research funds does not present a barrier for UC authors wishing to publish with PLOS.

The pilot is intended to test whether an institutional participation model that leverages multiple funding sources, rather than only grant funds, can provide a sustainable and inclusive path to full open access.

Below PLOS CEO Alison Mudditt discusses the new agreement and addresses some of the issues that the current trend for universities and consortia to sign so-called transformative agreements with legacy publishers raises for native open-access publishers like PLOS.

The interview begins …

Alison Mudditt
RP: The PLOS/UC agreement is essentially the same deal as UC signed with JMIR Publications in January. Is that correct?

AM: Essentially yes. UC has made their priorities for these agreements clear, so most UC deals will be very similar.

In addition, we are generating custom reporting for the UC to help them evaluate the efficacy of the pilot in bringing new authors to open access publishing while maintaining existing funding streams.

RP: Would I be right in thinking that these deals are native open-access publishers’ response to the transformative agreements that legacy publishers have been signing with universities and consortia like Project DEAL?

AM: While we can only speak on behalf of PLOS, this is certainly one of the drivers for us. We think that there is a significant opportunity for institutions and funders to prioritize partnerships with native OA publishers who stand fully aligned with their OA objectives.

We have been reassured by the commitment from institutions and consortia not to sideline negotiations with (and thereby disadvantage) native OA publishers.

RP: How many articles do you envisage UC faculty publishing with PLOS during the two-year period of the agreement?

AM: If we base it on previous years, then around 600-800 articles.

RP: How many articles a year do UC faculty currently publish with PLOS?

AM: Around 300 per year, across the seven journals.

RP: As I understand it, the agreement means that UC faculty will be able to publish in any PLOS journal and the first $1,000 will be paid by UC libraries. If the researcher has access to no research funds s/he can request full funding from the libraries. Is there any maximum sum agreed with UC libraries such that the funds could run out before the pilot ends?

AM: Yes, we have agreed to a capped total spend of $1.5M USD over the two-year period. This cap reflects library spend plus grant funding declared by authors.

Once that spending cap is reached, PLOS has committed to cover the cost of additional UC publications (assuming UC authors continue to faithfully declare their existing grant funding, a two year spend is most likely to fall between $1.2M and $1.25M).

$1.5M would demonstrate an unprecedented increase in publications from the UC – but of course, a key unknown is the level of demand once the barrier of APCs is removed.

If for some reason, we reach this cap earlier in the agreement period than expected (if at all), we have agreed to good faith renegotiations to ensure that both PLOS and the UC are protected from unanticipated surges in cost.

RP: Will the details of the agreement be published?

AM: Yes – as are all of the UC agreements.

RP: PLOS has an Institutional Account Program, of which I do not think UC is currently a participant. What is the difference between the agreement announced today and UC simply signing up to become a participant of the IAP?

AM: The Institutional Account Program is a simple direct billing program meant to minimize administrative overhead of APCs either through pay-as-you-go monthly invoices or debiting from a standalone account. While useful for mitigating administrative costs, it is not an OA deal, or transformative, in and of itself.

This new deal enables the UC to allow grants to cover APCs when they exist, so they can focus their support on where it is needed most (i.e. where authors do not have the grant funds). It introduces an organized, multiple-payer model of OA, which we think is important to test out.

And it meets our primary goals with new business models of ensuring that any author who wants to can publish with PLOS, regardless of ability to pay an APC.

Number of questions

RP: Is PLOS talking to other universities/consortia with a view to signing similar arrangements with them?

AM: Yes, absolutely. We’ve asked ourselves a number of questions in approaching these arrangements:

·         How do we make the next phase of “open” in scholarly publishing as equitable and inclusive as possible? To us, APCs cannot be the be-all and end-all of this “transition to open”. This shift should be characterized by multiple business models that meet authors and institutions where they are.

·         What do institutions and consortia need from us as a publisher? Depending on region, research focus, institution-type etc., our partners have different needs and pain points. It might be alleviating the high cost of APC administration. It might be a fee structure that requires no APCs for authors. It might be a combination of services and fees to meet compliance mandates. We are eager to develop a range of solutions.

·         Ultimately, we are striving to remove as many barriers as possible for authors to make their full research outputs open and transparent.

RP: PLOS has, at least since 2017, said that there is a need to move beyond APCs and that it, therefore, needs to develop other business models. Will not agreements like this serve to perpetuate the APC model rather than move beyond it.

AM: The reality is that many of our consortial partners – especially in Europe – are deeply committed to the APC workflow and want our help to make it more efficient, transparent, and compliant with funder mandates.

In other regions – like the US – many libraries have not managed APC budgets and wish to move to alternative models that don’t restrict their authors and don’t involve micropayments.

At this stage in the OA transition, our goal is to bring flexibility to process and avoid prescriptions where possible.

RP: What alternatives to APCs is PLOS currently looking at?

AM: We are currently working through a new “collective action model”, initially for our highly selective journals PLOS Medicine and PLOS Biology. So far we have not made APCs pay for the cost of selectivity and have elected to use cross-journal subsidies rather than charging higher APCs.

As PLOS grows, we are excited to debut a new model that integrates both read and publish institutions to ensure collective action success. This will be a pilot and we’ll be announcing more details at the UKSG meeting in April.

In addition to collective action models, we are exploring “flat fee” models for institutions that want to move away from resource-intensive administration of APCs. We have seen quite a bit of interest in these models and hope to announce new agreements in the coming months.

 RP: OA advocates used to argue that one of the benefits of pay-to-publish is that authors are made aware of publishing costs in a way they never were with the subscription model (since they could publish for free and, thanks to Big Deals paid for by the library, they had free-at-the-point-of use access to journals).

As such, it was said, pay-to-publish would force researchers to start making price sensitive decisions and this would exert downward pressure on the costs of scholarly communication.

I note your press release makes the point of saying that the agreement with UC will ensure “that lack of research funds does not present a barrier for UC authors who wish to publish in PLOS journals.” Agreements like the one PLOS has signed with UC – and certainly the transformative agreements that universities and consortia are signing with legacy publishers – surely protect authors from the financial consequences of their publishing decisions in a not dissimilar way to the subscription model, and so presumably will have no effective price control mechanisms built-in.

AM: The reality is that this hasn’t played out. We’ve seen that APC price increases have shown little relation to the costs they’re meant to represent (hence the value of the Plan S transparency pilot PLOS is participating in with other publishers). We’ve also seen that authors are still choosing to publish with “prestige” journals regardless of the cost of APCs.

This suggests that focusing on authors to play the cost management role is unrealistic – it makes far more sense for this to sit with libraries, who have the relevant skills and experience. 

In this particular case, the key component is the $1.5M USD price cap over the two years (which caps spend from both the library and authors’ own funding sources). This represents risk for both PLOS and the UC but both sides are committed to learning and adapting as we go.

RP: How would you respond to someone who suggested that these deals are therefore a step backwards?

AM: With polite disagreement! As noted above, we need a range of models for different needs and while we absolutely want to find strong alternative business models, it’s clear that APCs still have some role to play.

I have been clear about concerns with transformative agreements, especially from the large commercial publishers, but as with so many things, there’s important nuance. Deals such as this still meet important goals for PLOS, including making it possible for more researchers to publish with us.

It goes a long way towards ensuring equity and author price awareness by asking authors to honestly represent their funding situation while simultaneously making native OA publishing an option for those with no funding. Our success metrics for this pilot include:

·         Impact on submissions from across the UC.

·         Impact on new authors coming to PLOS.

·         Increases in publications in subject areas that typically have little or no funding.

Any of these outcomes would be evidence that the UC’s pilot program is effectively accelerating an OA transition within the UC (at least in PLOS’ case).

RP: Another issue that has arisen with pay-to-publish is that research-intensive universities like UC (which says it publishes 10% of all US papers) will have to pay more rather than less in a pay-to-publish world.

Do you think they are going to have to swallow the pain on this, or might we see less research-intensive universities agree to share publishing costs in the way they did with the subscription system? Do you have views on whether such a cost-sharing arrangement is desirable/necessary? Is PLOS looking at ways in which such cost-sharing could be organised?

AM: A shift to a truly “open-to-read-open-to-publish” paradigm will require all existing stakeholders to contribute. How much and through what mechanisms may change, but money exiting the system is not going to accelerate this change.

In our conversations, we’ve been heartened by the serious commitment “read” institutions are making to participate in this new ecosystem and avoid the label of “free riders.” 

We’re using our understanding of their needs to inform the new collective model in development (see above).

RP: As you indicate, transformative agreements have been criticised for the way they are enabling legacy publishers to lock themselves into the new OA environment, to the disadvantage of native OA publishers. In fact, some believe this poses an existential threat to small native open-access publishers and learned societies. Would you agree? If so, what can be done about it?

AM: We’re on the record with our concerns about so-called “transformative” agreements precisely because of the risk that they further entrench the dominant market position of the large commercial publishers.

We certainly don’t see the current market shifts as an existential threat to PLOS although they certainly require us to refocus on our library partners (something PLOS had moved away from). 

We’ve been excited by the response we’ve had from libraries and consortia across the world: so many are aligned with our vision of a world where the open sharing of research is easier, more efficient and fair for all authors.

Prioritising native open-access publishers

RP: The founder of JMIR (Gunther Eysenbach) has gone so far as to suggest that transformative agreements are possibly illegal “under the anti-trust, competition and procurement laws.” Does he have a point? Do you envisage a legal challenge to the raft of transformative agreements we are seeing being signed – either in North America or Europe?

AM: We do not think they are illegal but we do support the notion that native OA publishers should get some priority in institutional and funder arrangements for having paved the way for this transition.

RP: Eysenbach has also argued that funders and consortia like Project DEAL ought, by rights, to use a tendering process when awarding large OA publishing contracts. Subsequently, The Scholarly Kitchen suggested  that tying open-access publishing services to reading access might at some point, in some contexts, fall foul of procurement offices.

With this issue (amongst others) in mind, in Europe we have seen a proposal for a pilot project aimed at developing pure open access contracts via a tendering process. What are your views on this issue and the implications for PLOS?

AM: I think our answer above makes our position clear. We support any and all positive ways native OA publishers could be appropriately recognized and, in light of our full alignment with the OA mission of such organizations, given priority.

But we think there are better ways than legal recourse to demonstrate our value.

RP: Meanwhile, in the US there is talk of Trump signing an Executive Order that would (it is rumoured) remove the current embargo on the green OA policy introduced by Obama. I note PLOS has signed a letter supporting the idea, so it presumably believes it would be good for PLOS if such an EO were signed.

But if it were – and the EO insisted on immediate open access – is it not likely that, like Plan S, it would trigger a raft of new transformative agreements being signed with legacy publishers – as UC, Iowa State, MITMichigan State and Carnegie Mellon have already done in the US? That would not be a good development from PLOS’ perspective presumably?

AM: We support the driver behind the rumoured EO since it is a statement of priority and emphasis for OA which is somewhat lacking in the US. 

We are in discussions with many US institutions, in addition to the UC, and would have no concerns about such an EO because we know our partners in the US are eager to ensure PLOS and native OA publishers are at the table.

Excited and confident

RP: We have over time seen some of the darlings of open access fall into the hands of legacy publishers, a development that has disappointed OA advocates. BMC, for instance, was acquired by Springer in 2008; SSRN and bepress were acquired by Elsevier in 2016 and 2017; and in January F1000Research was acquired by Taylor and Francis.

These, of course, were all for-profits whereas PLOS is a non-profit. However, we could note that – to the consternation of many in the open access movement – in 2016 the non-profit Knowledge Unlatched was transformed from a UK non-profit CIC to a for-profit GmbH and relocated to Berlin. Explaining why it was necessary KU founder Frances Pinter said, “As a not-for-profit CIC with few assets, we were not able to take on commercial loans. Grant-giving bodies and philanthropic funders regarded the proof of concept as a success – and therefore not requiring further funding from them.”

Last November, The Scholarly Kitchen reported that in 2018 PLOS ran a $5.5 million deficit on $32M dollars of revenue, and so it is presumably in a vulnerable situation. Is it technically/legally possible that PLOS could undergo a similar transformation from non-profit to for-profit status and then be acquired by, say, Elsevier or Springer? What is to stop that happening?

AM: PLOS has been pretty open about the fact that 2018 was a year of major transformation. Having made the decision to discontinue development of Aperta at the end of 2017, our results in 2018 reflect both the write-off of that investment and significant organizational restructuring.

We’ve gone through a careful, and sometimes painful, process of deconstructing what wasn’t sustainable and reconstructing in ways that position us for long-term impact and sustainability.

These decisions led to a significant turnaround in 2019 and a surplus of well over $1m (our first meaningful surplus since 2014) – and we still have a substantial cash reserve to fund future investment.

So we are entering 2020 both excited and confident of our future. Equally importantly, we’ve become much clearer about redefining how we innovate and lead – this is the work that PLOS was born to do. Leading the way in development of equitable and sustainable business models for OA is one important aspect of our work in continuing to push the boundaries of “open”.

RP: Finally, can you say what PLOS’ priorities are for 2020?

AM: We’d prefer to focus on the UC announcement, and we hope that the responses above showcase enough of our 2020 priorities for now! Ask us again sometime...

RP: Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. Good luck with your plans for the future.

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