Big universities pay more as Germany strikes Springer Nature deal

‘Publish and read’ pact leaves Elsevier as last of three big publishers yet to reach agreement with country’s negotiators

August 23, 2019
Hands shaking to make a deal

Research-intensive German universities could see their publication costs rise by up to 50 per cent under a new deal with Springer Nature, while smaller, more teaching-focused institutions and public science libraries will see their outlay slashed.

After three years of negotiations, on 22 August the publisher and a consortium of German institutions announced a new agreement that will largely shift the costs of publishing from those who read research papers to those who produce them.

It follows a similar deal between Wiley and Project Deal, Germany’s negotiating consortium, in January. These “transformative deals” are heralded as a way to enable open access to research, because if journals no longer rely on reader subscriptions, they do not need paywalls – although critics counter that they leave publishers’ sizeable profit margins untouched.

They are also set to have major implications for different universities’ budgets. At a press conference in Berlin, Gerard Meijer, a member of Project Deal’s negotiating team, said that while the new deal would be “budget neutral” for Germany as a whole, “those research institutes that publish a lot will in the future have to pay more. Those that publish nothing will have to pay nothing.”

“It was wrong in the past that the smaller universities that hardly did any research…need[ed] to have a library budget to read what others did,” he continued.

The deal represented a “paradigm shift” in which “small, poor and little universities” will no longer subsidise the publication cost of their larger counterparts, said Horst Hippler, the spokesman for Project Deal and former president of the German Rectors’ Conference.

Under the agreement, German universities will pay €2,750 (£2,486) per article to publish in hybrid journals, which include a mixture of open access and closed, subscription-only articles. For fully open access journals, the price depends on the title.

This figure of €2,750 was calculated to make sure that the overall agreement was “budget neutral”, said Professor Meijer, so that German universities would end up paying roughly the same amount to Springer Nature as they did before – although they would get far more for their money, he argued.

“The most realistic, pragmatic way to be able to make a transformation from a subscription system to an open access system is saying: let’s do it budget neutral,” he said.

The deal allows researchers at German institutions to publish open access in the “vast majority” of Springer Nature journals. Currently, 30 per cent of articles are open access, said Daniel Roper, the publisher’s chief executive, but the agreement should boost this to “almost 100 per cent”.

However, the agreement does not cover Nature and other Nature-branded subscription journals, which still have no option to publish open access. “In volume terms, this is only a very, very small percentage [of articles],” said Mr Roper.

German academics were still free to publish in these closed journals, said Professor Hippler. “But the point is, it is in the general interest of the scientist that everything he or she publishes can be read by anyone in the world,” he said. If an academic chooses not to publish open access, “he has to explain to the taxpayer how and why he chooses these options”, he added.

The agreement leaves only Elsevier as the last of three big publishers yet to strike an agreement with Project Deal. “It will be very difficult for other publishers, Elsevier in particular, to neglect that,” said Professor Meijer. Researchers might abandon Elsevier for Springer Nature and Wiley if Elsevier remained without a contract, he added.

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