The Budget Dynamics behind the Open Access Agreement between the University of California and Springer Nature

The significance of the agreement concluded in June 2020 between these institutions is the comprehensive departure from the paywall-based, reading-oriented subscription model toward the Open Access one.

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This deal apparently marks the shift on the part of Springer Nature toward a greater dependence on article processing charges (APCs) as a source of revenue. This agreement is also likely to maintain or increase APC levels, given the rollout of the multi-payer model for author-facing fees, which complexly relies on reduced subscription charges, non-offsetting APC discounts, dedicated library funding via subventions and publication oriented sections of grant funds. Whereas libraries assume the APC costs for unfunded authors with accepted papers, the fragmented and contingent nature of publication funding will likely apply optimization pressures on all players in the Open Access market with universities becoming its more active agents.

Even if in the framework of this agreement alone, Springer Nature commits to transition the remaining 81% of its journal portfolio to full Open Access, which most likely corresponds to the Gold Open Access publishing model, between 2021 and 2023. This tremendous departure from the hybrid model combining both closed-access and Open-Access components to Gold Open Access is further underpinned by a freeze on the APCs of the journals based on the former model at their 2019 levels and a 15% discount on the APCs of the journals based on the latter model at their 2020 levels, in addition to the planned increases in the APCs of up to 2% for hybrid Open Access journals from 2023 and of no more than 3.5% for Gold Open Access titles from 2021.

This commitment to Open Access is also based on the annually adjustable reading fees of 750,000 USD that the University of California will be paying for paywalled content, in correspondence to the number of Open Access articles published by its affiliated researchers bracketed by estimated minimum and maximum levels. This transformation will, thus, ensure the preservation of the long-term interests of both the university and the publisher on the basis of financial sustainability. Under the terms of this agreement, the University of California partly shifts the burden of the journal subscription costs to external and internal agents, such as research funders and libraries, as it commits to cover automatically only 1,000 USD in author-facing APCs.

On the one hand, this arrangement brings transparency to the cost structures of the production and consumption of scholarly articles, the costs of which become covered only when their research-derived supply meets with the publisher demand in the form of manuscript acceptance. On the other hand, the paywall-based models are not only less transparent than Open Access ones, but also bear the risk of market disequilibria, such as expensive subscriptions for publications few read. This transition also allows researchers to exercise their cost-benefit judgement as regards the chances of successfully submitting papers to high-selectivity, high-APC journals, for a significant share of which they will have to secure funding, which can be time- and effort-consuming, as opposed to journals with lower APCs.

Consequently, this likely landslide change in the structure of the scholarly publishing market, such as in favor of medium-to-high-quality journals with lower APCs, could also have been behind the readiness of leading publishers, e.g., Springer Nature, to adopt the Open Access model.

 By Pablo Markin

Featured Image Credits: UCSD's Geisel Library, University of California, Berkley, CA, USA, June 23, 2012 | © Courtesy of Photos By Clark/Flickr.

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Pablo Markin

Community Manager, Open Research Community

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