Martin Paul Eve bio photo

Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

Email Books Twitter Github Stackoverflow MLA CORE Institutional Repo ORCID ID  ORCID iD Wikipedia Pictures for Re-Use

Transformative agreements for OA are all the rage at the moment. Plan S compliance beckons and early movers can make it sound as though they are really doing what’s needed.

Yet we’re at a very difficult time with the global pandemic of COVID-19. Library budgets are likely to contract as institutions come under financial strain. (Also, interestingly, it’s not necessarily the universities that you would think who are in desperate trouble in the UK. It’s not those who mostly recruit home students, but rather those larger institutions who have become dependent on vast international student fee revenue who are set for the dire pain pocket.) So what does a transformative agreement actually look like on the ground?

I was shocked to hear this week that a major publisher’s transformative agreement proposal was optioned as follows:

  1. Normal subscription rate: last year’s rate + 3%
  2. Transformative agreement rate: last year’s rate + 10%

Wait, what? +10%. How can this logic possibly pan out? Surely, if other groups are buying in to this transformative agreement, option 1 should at the very least be last year’s rate - 7% if there is a transformation here? Perhaps that comes in future years? The +10% includes a publication clause, but this is on top of the existing subscription rate. Many universities, mine included, have already had to cut their internal APC funds, so this just means a continued increased burden on the information resources budget.

But a hyper-inflationary increase of approximately 7% above the price indexes for the transformative agreements is simply not going to be possible for many institutions, particularly at this time. This is then going to look like a ‘failure of demand’. ‘We offered OA and transformative agreements’, the publishers will say, ‘and libraries didn’t buy it’. Library budgets, though, are not going up by 10%. They are going to go down by a substantial portion in light of the pandemic. Publishers are being totally unrealistic in demanding such price increases at this time.

Inflating the subscription budget is not a transformation. It’s exactly the same ongoing strategy that we’ve seen for years. But this time, it’s going to backfire badly as customers really, quite literally, will be unable to afford such deals.