Together for Transformation

Research Publishing
By: Frank Vrancken Peeters, Wed Jun 14 2023

Last week I had the privilege of addressing the 16th Berlin OA Conference organised by the OA2020 initiative and hosted by the Max Planck Society. The meeting brought together national-level delegations, including scientists and scholars, senior library, higher education, funder and government leaders from around the world. With the conference theme of ‘Together for Transformation’ being most apt, I touched upon the following three areas: 

  • Our early experience of a Transformative Agreement (TA) 
  • The important part these agreements play in the transition 
  • Some challenges we need to overcome in order to achieve our shared goals

We were early movers in open access. We acquired the first open access publisher - BMC, launched the largest OA journal - Scientific Reports - and created the first highly selective fully OA journal, Nature Communications - all publishing articles gold OA meaning the final version is immediately available for all to use from the moment of publication. This is the version researchers want to use as it can be trusted, is curated, supports open science, and is not dependent on subscriptions.  It also drives more visibility for research and this in turn leads to more use and re-use. OA articles on average are downloaded six times more than non-OA articles and for books, it’s more like 10 times more! Our mission at Springer Nature is to help speed up solutions to the world’s biggest challenges and for us open access sits right at the heart of this. 

Despite growing our fully OA journals and hybrid options, the transition to open access was still moving slower than we’d like and we realised that the only way that a transition to OA was going to work was by focussing on addressing the subscription part of publishing - and not building a new OA structure in parallel.  That would just not be realistic against a universe of more than 20,000 journals with reputations dating back more than 150 years. The first TA we signed in Europe with UKB in the Netherlands was an experiment which involved a leap of faith by us and our Dutch partners, but it proved to be a game changer. Why? It showed us that partners with common goals could sit together and find an affordable way to manage the transition by repurposing reading costs to cover OA publishing. It showed that this one agreement could avoid thousands of individual OA transactions and offer more opportunities for researchers to get published. This was especially attractive for disciplines like Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS) where OA funding is harder to come by, as well as for those institutions with smaller pockets who could benefit from the advantages of group purchasing power - something which was also a very important part of the DEAL discussions in Germany.  And importantly, because papers published under the TA are published gold open access, authors benefit from the five more times visibility that comes with publishing OA as many more researchers around the world are able to use and reuse their research - leading in turn to 50% more citations and five times more downloads and impact!

The many TAs that we’ve entered into since our early experiment have surpassed our expectations.

  1. Last year we published three times as many gold OA articles in our Springer hybrid titles via TAs than we did via our author choice options. In countries where we have a TA, up to 90% of articles we publish are now published OA. In Germany, open access articles have grown by a factor of almost nine and if you look at HSS articles, it’s over 15 - going from 120 articles to over 2000 in a single year! In fact, industry wide, the picture is the same.  STM recently published data which showed that TAs accounted for over 200,000 of the over 1m gold OA articles last year (up from just under 18,000 in 2018). This means that a fifth of all OA articles are already being generated by TAs. Overall, gold OA articles now account for over 31% of all articles while subscription articles have fallen to 52% and the number of green OA articles stayed flat at only about 8%. 
  2. And it’s not just about OA volume growth.  As I said earlier, the gold open access articles the TAs provide are really effective at driving visibility for the research too. For example, in the UK, we have seen usage increase nearly 15 fold since our first TA - from 2.3m downloads in 2016 to over 33m in 2022. In Germany following our transformative and fully OA agreements with DEAL, usage increased 4.5 times - from 4.6m downloads to 20.7m. Importantly, this is not just a European story. In the US, we more than doubled the number of downloads of content in our Springer journals - from 400k to more than 800k in one year alone - thanks to our TA with CDL. And it's not only scientists reading and using these articles. An author publishing her paper under our new TA in Sweden reported that within a week, her paper had been read 32,000 times with almost 80% of readers being the general public. 
  3. They are also providing what Scholarly Kitchen Chef Lisa Hinchliffe calls a ‘hidden benefit’ by expanding access to subscription content in journals that institutions did not previously have access to. This in turn leads to a growth in usage as the subscription content in these journals is treated as OA content for TA customers. For instance, with our DEAL agreement, usage of subscription articles went from 12m to close to 20m downloads.   

Of course as the world moves towards OA, the reading part of TAs will go away, which brings me to my final point. To harness the potential of these TAs and the migration to OA in general, we need to collectively find answers to some questions that affect us all.

  1. How do we encourage researchers to take full advantage of the opportunities that TAs provide? We are seeing that researchers are wary of taking up the OA options available to them via the TA, or are not making full use of existing OA funding.  We need to educate the  research community  about the potential of gold OA and build confidence in choosing this route. 
  2. How do we preserve the integrity of science? In some countries outside of Europe,  there is a misconception that open access is somehow less reliable than subscription content.  At Springer Nature, we’ve invested considerable sums in people and technology to preserve the integrity of science.  And many of us are working with the STM Integrity Hub to share insights and tools. But let’s face it, publishers are still seeing too many issues and these can erode trust in the system.  What else can we do collectively to preserve integrity and build trust?
  3. How do we ensure equality of publication and accessacross disciplines, across the globe, and even across territories (as not all institutions are covered by TAs and not all researchers within a territory are part of a participating institution)? We are experimenting with different models (such as the recent acquisitions of Cureus) but we need to find an answer as an industry.
  4. And  finally, I’d like to close with my last question.  We have so much to celebrate, not just here in Europe but globally. We now have lots of examples of TAs that have really worked and sent us much further down the road to an open access future.  But how do we encourage more countries to join up and not get stuck behind paywalls? How can we act as ambassadors for this approach that we know works for the institution, for the funder, for the researcher and even for the world?  Remember the increased visibility of OA publishing extends to SDG articles too - which is good for all of us, right? 

The conference concluded that “The global open access transition must advance at a far greater pace”. I agree. Transformative Agreements come with challenges, but the opportunities are just so great that I think it’s worth us all working together to keep the transition momentum going.


Author: Frank Vrancken Peeters

Chief Executive Officer

Frank Vrancken Peeters joined Springer Nature in 2017 as Chief Commercial Officer and became CEO in September 2019. He has spent more than 25 years in the media and publishing sectors, with leadership roles across a range of strategic and delivery business functions in both business-to-business and business-to-consumer contexts. Frank has previously had senior positions at: Wolters Kluwer, where he was Regional Managing Director, Legal and Regulatory, Western Europe; at Infinitas Learning, where he was Chief Operating Officer; and Elsevier Science, where he served as MD Government and Academic Markets, MD ScienceDirect and MD Global Sales, in each case building and growing significant-scale, complex international businesses. Frank holds a Master’s in Business Administration from the Erasmus University Rotterdam.