Swedish consortium Bibams’s recent cancellation of its contract with Elsevier is the latest in a series of high-value “publish and read” negotiations to make the news. It follows other examples such as Germany’s Projekt DEAL (also affecting Elsevier) and France’s Le Consortium Couperin (affecting Springer Nature).

These multi-million dollar (or Euro or Kroner) negotiations have in common the advocacy of increased OA adoption. So we thought we would take a look at what effects they might have on the market place if the consortia negotiators have their way and cancellations became commonplace.

Background and Common Drivers

Negotiations undertaken by the Netherlands’ VSNU consortium from 2014 are now seen as a game changer for national consortia deals. Some aspects of the deals are familiar – such as enterprise-style licensing, multi-year contracts, and specified price rises, but there are some features which suggest a shift in balance of power in favor of the buyers:

  1. Lack of fear about publishers cutting off access to content if negotiations fail.Traditionally faculty demands for content have tied buyers’ hands as they could not walk away from deals and risk being cut off. However, this is now seen as less of a potential problem. Publishers do not always choose this path (as with Elsevier and consortia inGermany and South Korea), but alternative access methods mean that this is not the problem it once was. Sweden’s Bibsam, for example, lists alternative legal suggestions for researchers to find content in its PR. And, there is the elephant in the room of illegally-supplied content from SciHub: few we speak to would acknowledge its role publicly, but few doubt that it gives negotiators an advantage. Even if its usage is overplayed, if it incentivizes buyers to take a hard line, the end result is the same whatever the usage stats.
  2. An insistence on making deal terms public. In a fragmented market, opacity of individual deals obviously helps the sellers to maximise revenue. But buyers are now beginning to push back. They are increasingly sharing negotiating tactics and are also prepared to make transparency a cornerstone of deals. This helps their negotiating positions, and resonates with their sense of mission of oversight of publicly funded activities. As well as VSNU sharing terms, we also see freedom of information legislation used to obtain information about costs in countries such as the Netherlands, the UK, Finland, and New Zealand.
  3. Bundling of open access publishing costs with subscription costs. This is not new – it was originally pioneered by Springer, CDL, and Max Planck around 10 years ago. However, the buyers’ press releases cite inclusion of APCs as a pre-requisite of reaching an agreement. Further, buyers are now able to use today’s higher rates of OA take-up as an argument to push back on the subscription price rises within the bundle.
  4. A questioning of the value of the big deal. Again, not new – SPARC has been trackingthis for a while – but data suggesting low usage of significant parts of big deals it is being used as an argument to limit price rises or even step away from the bundle in favour of a la carte access.

Putting the cancellations in context

The changes in negotiating approach may be significant, the cancelled deals worth millions, and the headlines numerous. But each of the small number of headline-grabbing cancellations affects just one publisher and together they represent a tiny fraction of the ~$10bn scholarly journals market. The SPARC cancellations list – which does not claim to be comprehensive and covers institutional as well as consortia activity – shows around 40 cancellations with a median deal size of $1.2m across the 9 values supplied.

With around 350 consortia licensing content, and many more institutions outside consortia, there would be a long way to go before these cancellations have any substantial financial effect on the market.

Market implications

Modelling the changes in the market at scale around consortia deals is particularly challenging because of the confidentiality around the deals. The few countries where data are available are mainly small. However, the recently-published European University Association’s EUR Big Deals survey provides insight into the costs of big deals at scale for the first time. Representatives of 27 (of 33) member countries provided information including spend on their top 3 big deals. The data were aggregated to preserve confidentiality and address differing practices between countries.

Annual spend in 2016-17 on the largest deals totalled €384 million ($425 million at average 2016/17 exchange rates) across 66 periodicals subscription contracts. This represents a subset of the market, as respondents only included their largest three deals. 10% of the contracts included APCs; a further 6% had provision for offsetting. 53% (by far the largest proportion) were 3-year contracts, with 50% including annual price rises of between 0 and 4%.

By combining this sample with our own data points, we can develop a model of effects of consortia renegotiations on the overall market. Table 1 below shows what the effects might be on 2016-2017 market growth for various scenarios in big deal subscription rises.

Figure 1

The table models the effects of an EU-wide roll-out of three pricing scenarios. Couperin mentioned 8% volume of OA articles in its press release, so we took that as the most aggressive cost reduction scenario. Underlying assumptions we have made are based on ratios and proportions of large publisher market share, EU market share and annual market revenue growth by aggregating a variety of public and private sources from our Open Access Data and Analytics Tool. We assumed an underlying journals market growth of 2.5% (including OA) at constant currencies.

If aggressive cuts in consortia prices occurred at scale across the EU, the models suggest that annual revenue growth in the scholarly journals market could reduce by as much as one-third compared with long term averages. If prices were capped, annual growth could fall by almost 10%. (Note: this is a reduction in growth, not a reduction in market size, which will continue to grow, albeit at an anemic rate.)


A move to open access appears to be acting as a catalyst, and its uptake is being used as a wedge to prise apart the big deals. Only 10% of big deals in Europe include APCs, but there is a possibility of 63% of them doing so in future, with half the deals up for renewal in the next few years.

There are increasing moves on the part of buyers to take less for granted and push publishers much harder than we have seen in the past. The power of collective bargaining is taking hold. Buyers share negotiating tips; German-run OA2020.org is spreading the word globally; lack of usage in long tail big deal content is being increasingly studied and discussed. The net exporters of research in the EU are now well-aware of rising publication costs, and the EU appears resolute in its drive towards a fully open world.

So, while the few headline-generating consortia negotiations are having little effect today, it seems conditions are ripe for change. Where pioneers of hard bargaining make progress, others will feel emboldened to follow. Nothing “bad” has happened to those who are prepared to walk away from the negotiating table, so the big inhibitor is falling away.

It seems that the days of the big deal may be numbered.


Open access and monographs – Where are we now? (A position paper by the British Academy) – May 22, 2018

“Recent announcements about a requirement that monographs submitted to REF2027 should be made available open access have been met with expressions of concern…The issues which the Academy believes need to be considered are laid out in the following paper.”

Europe’s open-access drive escalates as university stand-offs spread – May 17, 2018

“Bold efforts to push academic publishing towards an open-access model are gaining steam. Negotiators from libraries and university consortia across Europe are sharing tactics on how to broker new kinds of contracts that could see more articles appear outside paywalls.”

Springer Nature charts rapid growth in open access articles by UK authors – May 17, 2018

“A new report outlines how Springer Nature has been able to deliver rapid growth in gold open access (OA) articles in the UK. In the five years since the Finch report was produced in 2012, Springer Nature has published nearly 28,000 gold OA articles with a UK corresponding author.”

Sweden stands up for open access – cancels agreement with Elsevier – May 16, 2018

“In order to take steps towards the goal of immediate open access by 2026 set by the Swedish Government, the Bibsam Consortium has after 20 years decided not to renew the agreement with the scientific publisher Elsevier.”

LSE launches open access publishing platform – May 16, 2018

“London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) has unveiled a new open access publishing platform in partnership with Ubiquity Press. ‘LSE Press’, managed through the LSE Library, will provide a platform for high quality, open access research in the social sciences; supporting the development of publications that are innovative in terms of format, content and reach.”

Open science projects collaborate on Joint Roadmap – May 11, 2018

“A group of organizations building nonprofit, open-source tools for scholarship and publication has joined with open-science researchers in a new collaboration to develop a Joint Roadmap for Open Science Tools (JROST).”

‘Big Deal’ cancellations gain momentum – May 8, 2018

“An increasing number of universities are ending, or threatening to end, bundled journal subscriptions with major publishers.”

Anti Double Dipping Alliance for transparency in Open Access book publishing formed  May 7, 2018

“Fifteen of the most important vendors and platform providers in the scholarly publishing market have formed an Anti-Double Dipping Alliance. The group initiated by Knowledge Unlatched (KU), the central platform for sustainable Open Access (OA) funding models, aims at avoiding unwanted acquisition of book titles through different systems.”

Recommendation on access to and preservation of Scientific Information – May 3, 2018

“The European Commission has released a new set of recommendations to the Member States that offer guidance and propose the best way to implement and support open science practices…They are to replace the recommendations of 2012 which set out clear guidelines as to how publicly funded work should be made openly and freely available.”

AI experts vow to boycott new subscription journal from Nature Research – May 3, 2018

“Springer Nature, which places a strong emphasis on its Open Access and Open Research publishing, has been forced to defend its position after researchers in the Artificial Intelligence field vowed to boycott a new journal which is not being published OA.”


May 30, 2018

OSA to Launch New Gold Open-Access Journal, OSA Continuum

“The Optical Society (OSA) announced it will begin publishing a new open access journal, OSA Continuum, in September 2018. The new journal will accept contributions from the broad optics and photonics community.”

May 29, 2018

SAGE Publishing launches Cephalalgia Reports with the International Headache Society

“SAGE Publishing announced that it has launched an open access journal, Cephalalgia Reports, in association with the International Headache Society (IHS). Cephalalgia Reports will join its sister journal Cephalalgia, which has been published by SAGE and the IHS since 2010.”

May 28, 2018

JAMA Network launches JAMA Network Open, an open-access journal

“The inaugural issue of JAMA Network Open has been published, with articles exemplifying the breadth of areas that readers should come to expect to see covered in the new journal—oncology, physical medicine and rehabilitation, pediatrics, and cardiology. The open access journal, announced last year, is the 13th journal in the JAMA Network and the third journal launched by the AMA in the last three years.”

May 25, 2018

New Journal: Bridging Humanities Published by Brill

“Expanding their Open Access publishing program, Brill Publishers has launched a new open access journal: Bridging Humanities – Platform for Alternatives Methodologies. Bridging Humanities is a peer reviewed, interdisciplinary and multi-area online publication.”

May 16, 2018

Bioscientifica announces the launch of Vascular Biology

“Bioscientifica is launching a new open access journal dedicated to vascular biology. Led by Editor-in-Chief Paulo Madeddu and an esteemed editorial board of leaders in the field, Vascular Biology will see vigorous yet rapid peer review of articles that reflect the multi-disciplinary nature of vascular research.”