Open access deals ‘shift scholars towards big publishers’

German study finds academics favouring Springer Nature and Wiley, with authors warning smaller publishers could be squeezed out

April 17, 2021

A groundbreaking open access deal signed by Germany with two of the world’s biggest publishers appears to have prompted German academics to switch the journals they publish in.

In 2019, a consortium of the country’s universities and research organisations agreed a new type of contract with Springer Nature and Wiley that allows academics in Germany to publish open access in the publishers’ journals at no immediate cost.

Since these deals, the proportion of chemistry papers from Germany-based authors appearing in the publishers’ journals shot up by more than 5 percentage points to over a third.

“That’s quite a jump,” said Justus Haucap, a competition economist at the University of Düsseldorf and co-author of “The impact of the German ‘DEAL’ on competition in the academic publishing market”, published recently as a working paper.

The findings could have relevance for other university systems that have already struck or are negotiating similar bargains. Last year, the University of California signed a similar “publish and read” deal with Springer Nature. Germany is still without a deal with Elsevier, the world’s biggest publisher.

There is good evidence that open access papers garner more citations than ones behind a paywall, said Professor Haucap, so everything else being equal, researchers were likely to tilt towards journals where their papers can be read by everyone.

“If you have a choice between two journals that are reasonably competitive…you will choose open access,” he said.

Of course, even before the deals were struck, German researchers were able to pay article processing charges to have their work appear open access in Springer Nature and Wiley journals.

But under the deals, these costs are calculated and handled centrally, meaning that open access publishing now feels like “less hassle” for German scholars, said Professor Haucap.

“It doesn’t come out of your own budget, so for you it feels like it’s for free,” he said.

The shift to Springer Nature and Wiley in Germany attributable to the deals is in reality less dramatic than the top-line figure of 5 percentage points, the paper cautions, because the publishers also gained share in 2020 in the rest of the world as well, but not by as much.

Controlling for confounding factors such as changes in journal prestige, and comparing Germany to France, where no such deal was struck, the researchers conclude that there has been a “statistically significant” shift as a result of the deals, and one that appears to be increasing with time as academics cotton on to the changes.

Professor Haucap and his colleagues chose to look at chemistry because the field has relatively brisk publishing turnaround times, meaning that shifts appear more quickly.

They warn that over the long run, by striking open access deals with the biggest publishers first, countries could inadvertently disadvantage smaller players by making it comparatively more inconvenient for academics to publish in their journals, and leaving libraries with less money to spend on niche publishers.

“At least on the margin, it becomes hard [for smaller publishers without deals] to attract good authors,” Professor Haucap warned.

The advent of these giant publishing deals could even spur “market concentration” in the publishing industry, the paper warns.

If this change left just two or three mega-publishers controlling the market, said Professor Haucap, these giants would have “tremendous market power to squeeze money out of libraries and science organisations” in future open access deals.

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