On August 25, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) announced a landmark new public access policy set to be in place by the end of 2025. Questions remain as to how the policy directive will translate in practice, particularly with regard to licensing and funding arrangements. But there can be little doubt it will accelerate the transition to open access business models among scientific and scholarly publishers.

“We don’t know enough about the funding situation to make plans in earnest, so we’ll have to wait and see how the bigger federal agencies put the memo’s requirements into practice,” observes Sybille Geisenheyer, Director of Open Access Strategy and Licensing at the American Chemical Society (ACS). Nevertheless, Geisenheyer sees the OSTP policy announcement as a positive step. “I honestly welcome it, because it means we have a clear understanding of the direction of travel.”

With the OSTP making clear that it expects to see “business model innovation” from publishers, so-called transformative agreements are likely to play a key role. And while these agreements come in a range of flavors, including so called read-and-publish and publish-and-read and other models, the common goal is to transition the payments made by libraries away from subscription access toward open access publication.

According to the ESAC Registry of Transformative Agreements, 2022 will see more than 200,000 articles made immediately open access under such transformative agreements. That up from less than 20,000 in 2018.

While the OSTP memo suggests there will be growth in the uptake of transformative agreements in the United States, their adoption in Europe looks set for a slowdown. Part of that is because a number of countries, including the U.K. and the Netherlands, for example, are already seeing more than 80% of their research output covered by transformative agreements. But also because, cOAlition S, the organization driving Europe's march to open access, is scheduled to end its initial support for transformative agreements and their stablemates, transformative journals by 2025.

“The timing is really interesting because cOAlition S’ support for transformative agreements will expire just as the OSTP memo comes into effect,” Geisenheyer notes. “This means we might see a shift away from transformative agreements in Europe, even as they start popping up in the U.S.”

Importantly, even if transformative agreements in the United States increase as a result of the OSTP memo there is no guarantee of federal funding to support the transition to open access. Factor in the reticence of other big research-producing nations like China, India and Brazil to support open access business models and a large-scale ‘flip’ of subscription journals to open access by 2025 looks unlikely.

It is a prospect cOAlition S Executive Director Johan Rooryck accepts with equanimity.

‘If publishers really want to stick to the subscription model, that's fine. All they need to do is to allow the author’s accepted manuscript to be shared in a repository with no embargo,” he says. “But one way or another, we are heading for a scenario where all papers from the major funders have to be in a repository on publication.”

Transformation Is Coming

Working through the permutations of these different policies and the agreements needed to comply with them is likely to keep publishers’ strategy and data analytics teams busy over the coming years.

“The feedback we’ve had from publishers is that modeling deals with consortia and institutions is complex and resource-intensive for publishers, and this makes it difficult for them to scale,” observes Jamie Carmichael, Senior Director, Information and Content Solutions at the Copyright Clearance Center, which manages open access institutional agreements and collects publication charges for more than 30 publishers. “It also requires a high degree of metadata integrity.”

"It's never been our intention to put commercial publishers out of business,” Rooryck says. “But it is our intention to say, ‘If you want us to pay, academic publishing has to change.’”

Indeed, there is a growing expectation that publishers will provide high quality data to consortia and institutions. In the U.K., for example, Jisc asks publishers to supply article level metadata to inform any consultation on new agreements. “We need to ensure that all the agreements we’ve struck perform as expected and allow as many institutions as possible to participate,” explains Anna Vernon, Head of Portfolio, & Content at Jisc Collections, who leads on the negotiation and licensing of digital content agreements on behalf of U.K. universities.

As transformational agreements continue to grow, so too will reporting and modelling obligations. “Publishers and societies of all sizes need to consider automating their data enrichment and modeling processes to spend less time aggregating, normalizing, and analyzing data and more time innovating open access models,” Carmichael points out. And with a potential surge in demand for transformative agreements from US library consortia on the horizon—and with uncertainty over whether this will be supported by increased federal funding—the publishing community will need to move rapidly to resolve its data challenges if they are to support effective decision-making by internal and external stakeholders alike.

Beyond the obvious operational challenges, however, other questions also loom large. Europe is already turning to what comes after transformative agreements, and bracing for unintended consequences. “These agreements are not the end point,” Vernon notes. “Their aim should be to transition to models that support open research, with fees that represent the publishing services delivered and the value that publishers, institutions, and researchers bring to scholarly publishing.”

Rooryck agrees. With the goal of enabling cOAlition S-funded authors to publish open access now within reach, the organization is putting its weight behind calls for greater transparency and equity in publishing. Rooryck expects the U.S. will follow a similar trajectory over the next few years.

“Equity will be a central element of the American policy, and this is also going to impinge on the nature and conditions that will be imposed on transformative agreements in the U.S.,” he says. “So my message to publishers is to get used to price transparency, because it's a necessary condition of equity.”

At this point in 2022, it would be easy to assume that the dominant business models in publishing today—whether subscriptions, article publication charges, or transformative agreement—will persist into the future. Yet how many of us would have predicted a zero-embargo mandate from the US government a decade, or even a few months, ago? Rooryck points to research assessment mechanism reforms in Europe and the marshaling of public funds to support not-for-profit publishing platforms as evidence that funders and institutions are serious about changing scientific and scholarly publishing. It would be unwise, he suggests, to rule out further seismic changes in the decade to come.

“We are going to see different business models emerging, more discussion around who's paying for what, and more multiplayer agreements involving both institutions and funders,” ACS’s Geisenheyer says. “There will be new types of agreement in the U.S., and I don’t expect them to take the same shape as those in Europe.” And delivering these new business models and agreements, she suggests, will require continued experimentation, and robust data analytics and modeling.

‘It's never been our intention to put commercial publishers out of business,” Rooryck says. “But it is our intention to say, ‘If you want us to pay, academic publishing has to change.’”

Rob Johnson is Founder and Director of Research Consulting, a mission-driven business working to improve the effectiveness and impact of research and scholarly communication.