Germans to close “transformative” deal with SpringerNature

Deal banks heavily on hybrid option and excludes Nature-affiliated publications

Internationaal | door Sicco de Knecht
22 augustus 2019 | For the better part of three years German research institutes including the Max Planck society have been battling the major publishers over open access. Today Projekt DEAL and SpringerNature announce to have come to an understanding on immediate open access for most – but not all publications.
Image: ActuaLitté (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Today 700 German research institutes – including the world famous Max Planck Society – united in Projekt DEAL announce to have struck a deal with the #2 academic publisher in the world SpringerNature. The deal on which the involved parties worked for three years has now come to a “ground-breaking solution” according to SpringerNature CEO Daniel Ropers. According to Horst Hippler, chair of the German Rektorenconferenz and head of Projekt DEAL, the agreement is exactly what the union of institutes was going for: “a fair pricing model and a shift towards open access.”

Memorandum of Understanding

In short the deal encompasses a large part of the SpringerNature portfolio This includes Springer, Palgrave, Adis and Macmillan. of 2500 journals. For immediate and full open access publication in the current hybrid journals A hybrid journal is an academic journal that offers multiple types of publications. The 'regular' closed access (=paywalled) publication and open access publication. To publish their work open access researchers pay an open access fee. Both types of publications are published side by side but with different access. the coalition partners of Projekt DEAL will pay a €2,750 per article fee.

The deal applies to all current hybrid journals published by SpringerNature, which are estimated to make up for a yearly amount of 9,500 out of 13,000 German research articles published through SpringerNature. A SpringerNature spokesperson is keen to point out the difference between this Pay and Read (PAR) is not the same as the Article Processing Cost (APC). “The € 2,750 is not an APC, it is a ‘Publish and Read’ fee which reflects the costs for reading access and OA publishing in the Publish and Read (PAR) component. This applies to Springer Nature’s portfolio of some 1900 hybrid journals. Article processing charges (APCs) apply to Springer Nature’s 600 fully OA journals.”

Another important detail of the current Memorandum of Understanding is that the contract will most likely exclude Nature and “Nature-affiliated” journals. Although the option to include Nature publications is still part of the negotiation. This collection, making up 50% of the publishers title and between 40 – 100 journal titles depending on the definition is a major component of the publishers’ appeal and market share.

In response to the question whether institutes will still have to take out subscriptions to the non-OA and non-hybrid journal titels Ralph Schimmer (Max Planck Digital Library) answers on behalf of the members of Projekt DEAL. “Yes, the institutions will have to describe to those titles separately; but there is a large German consortium already in place that will handle this. The titles as such are excluded as the Nature brand does not yet offer a hybrid option and constitutes a unique set of title which would have added further complications.”

A true transformation?

Although both the Rektorenconferenz and SpringerNature hail the upcoming deal as “transformative” it remains to be determined whether this means it will truly be the long awaited transformation to full and immediate open access. Judging by its contours the deal struck by the Germans seems like a simple extension of the Dutch deal struck with SpringerNature in 2018 – a deal that open access Plan S allows for the duration of the contract but aims to replace in 2021.

In response to questions posed by ScienceGuide decades long open science advocate Egon Willighagen (Maastricht University) and editor in chief at the Journal of Cheminformatics (SpringerNature) is sceptical about the press release. “I would not call this a transformative deal. The issue of open science is not addressed and nowhere in the text can I find a reference to Plan S, suggesting that it is at least less transformative than what funders are aiming for.”

Seen from the context of his own full OA journal the planned deal would actually reduce the appeal to publish in the Journal of Cheminformatics. “A fee of €2,750 would actually be €1,000 above the current Article Processing Cost (APC) of our BMC [BioMed Central, ed] affiliated journal.” Over the past years the BMC cluster has put a lot of effort into moving towards open access, and more importantly open science – including availability of data.

The fact that the deal is (mostly) aimed at hybrid journals, and makes no mention of open science goals, will ultimately reduce the attractiveness of full OA titles Willighagen thinks. “If the deal does not cover APC for full OA journals, then they are deliberately put at a disadvantage. I think it’s ridiculous to call such a deal like this “transformative” when it simultaneously stifles the advance to the ultimate goal.”

Primary demands Projekt DEAL met

According to the Rektorenconferenz the transformative aspect of the deal is because “the agreement shifts the logic (business model), the mechanics and all workflow processes fundamentally away from the old subscription routines and onto a fully-fledged oa scenario.” Access is fully open and the public has direct access to scientific work. The primary demand of Projekt DEAL has been to get full and immediate OA at a price similar to what institutes were paying previously.

In a previous interview with ScienceGuide Projekt DEAL negotiator and director of the Fritz Haber Institute Gerard Meijer stated that an APC of €3800 – a number calculated by the Max Planck Digital Library based on current costs would be reasonable. Meijer is pleased with the current outcome. “This deal ensures that for less than the research institutions from Germany paid in total to SpringerNature in 2017, they will get much more value from the first of January 2020 on.” Additionally it will change the payment schedule, he adds. “We will gradually change from a pre-payment scheme to a post-payment scheme. In the past, the full subscription fees for a given year had to be paid before or at the beginning of that year. Changing to post-payment will effectively cause large savings.”

Meijer points out the fact that not only will the contract ensure reading access to all German institutions, it will also enhance visibility of German research worldwide. “Also, under the new contract copyrights stay with the authors under a Creative Commons license, with CC-BY as default. In the past, these copyrights needed to be transferred to SpringerNature.”

Misappropriation of funds

Open science activist and rogue palaeontologist Jon Tennant recently published an article on Times Higher Education warning not to celebrate deals such as these as a ‘tipping point’ on the road towards open science. He is much less enthusiastic about the route the Germans are taking to open access. “This is not a deal, it is further entrenching the dysfunctional elements of an outrageously profitable and inefficient system, instead of taking the opportunity to fund a non-profit, community-led and sustainable venture.”

“It should be a public scandal,” he adds, noting the considerable sum of money involved in the deal. “The PAR fee per article is quoted as €2,750. As we know that the per article cost should be between €400-1,000 at the high end, for an efficient and sustainable process, this amounts to a serious misappropriation of funds.”

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