SPA-OPS Project and the Plan S Transformative Agreements Toolkit

At Information Power Limited we have just finished the Society Publishers Accelerating Open Access and Plan S (SPA-OPS) project. This project was funded by Wellcome and UKRI in partnership with ALPSP, to help learned society publishers comply with Plan S. That is a lot of acronyms in one sentence, so let’s unpack it a bit!

Plan S is a an initiative by a group of national research funding organisations who would like the journal articles about the research they have funded to immediately be Open Access. This means unrestricted online access to research outputs such as journal articles. These open access articles are published under a Creative Commons license, which means that the author gives permission for others to have the right to share, use, and build upon a work that they have created.

However, most learned societies are non-profit organisations. Their activities typically include holding regular conferences for the presentation and discussion of new research results and publishing academic journals in their discipline. So while learned society publishers support open science and would like the journal articles they publish to be open to people all over the world, alignment with Plan S is a challenge to their existing business models. Most learned society publishers are currently have a Hybrid model, with the larger part of their revenues usually coming from subscriptions paid by academic libraries, and a smaller part of revenue coming from transaction charges called Article Processing Charges (APCs). These fees are typically paid by an author’s institution, so that their research articles can published immediately in Open Access. These so-called hybrid open-access journals (subscription journals in which some of the articles are open access) do not align with Plan S requirements. Our role in the SPA-OPS project was to help learned society publishers find new and sustainable models that will provide them with a sustainable future whilst still complying with the research funding organisations’ requirements.

So, what did we do?

We undertook lots of consultation with learned society publishers through interviews, surveys and workshops. We explored 27 different approaches and business models with them.

The IP team pondering the challenges of the project before entering our first workshop with learned societies.

It soon became apparent that while all approaches we outlined are compliant with Plan S individually or in combination, the most pragmatic in the short term is the Transitional Model.  These are promising transition models, because libraries and library consortia currently provide the lion’s share of funding.

This model focuses its financial basis on the current subscription spend of a university library (or a consortium of university libraries), and also the current spend of those same universities on APCs. If this revenue stream is transformed to support Open Access, then journals can also transform to be fully Open Access.

This means that the universities that subscribe to a Transitional Agreement can both ‘read and publish’. All the staff and students of the university can read the publishers’ journals and all the researchers in the unviersity can publish their relevant articles in those journals without APC payments.

Although this model has legs, it also provides some challenges for learned society publishers. They usually sell directly to university libraries via agents – how can they approach many hundreds of universities across the world with this radicial new model? Library consortia traditionally negotiate with large commercial publsihers on behalf of their members. Would they be willing to engage with many learned society publishers to help them transition to this new business model?

To find the answer we worked with library consortia across the world, surveying and interviewing library consortia leaders. They told us that while resources and capacity top their list of priorities, they are positive about enaging with learned society publishers and helping them transition to new models. Library consortia would like to see Open Access accelerated and look forward to more new, transparent business models for journals.

We then held a workshop in London inviting an international array of library consortia leaders and learned society publishers. Although the names of the learned society publishers were familiar to the library consortia leaders (or at the very least, the names of the corsortia) and the names of their university members were familiar to the publishers, they had never really met before. Nonetheless, it was a lively and committed group of people that came together that day, and they worked tirelessly on agreeing principles for Transformative Agreements.

After such a long and intensive day of earnest discussion and collaboration, workshop participants (and Information Power) were delighted to relax over a delicious meal and well-deserved bit of wine.

By talking to both learned society publishers and library consortia we realised that some pilots were needed to test out what is necessary for a publisher and a consortium to reach an compromise on a Transformative Agreement. We we delighted when these consortia, CAUL in Australia, Jisc in the UK, Max Planck Digital Library in Germany and VSNU in the Netherlands and publishers Brill, European Respiratory Society, IWA , Microbiology Society  and Portland Press agreed to work with us to negotiate these agreements for the first time.

Facilitating the  discussions between learned society publishers and library consortia made us realise that there was the need for a toolkit. This toolkit should be freely available to library consortia and learned society publishers when negotiating transformative agreements. The toolkit should be fully adaptable to save these stakeholders from reinventing wheels.

The toolkit we created contains a ‘tips and tricks’ guide to negotiating a Transformative Agreement; an Excel spreadsheet for collecting the historic data needed to price a Transformative Agreement; an Overview Document, setting out both the spirit of the agreement and the key practical issues; and finally, a Model Licence for the Transformative Agreement.

We at Information Power are thrilled to announce that we published our report and the toolkit at the ALPSP conference on 11 September 2019.


To celebrate the launch of the report and our tool kit, we joined some friends on the ALPSP Fun Run!

There is plenty more to read if you would like to know more about the SPA-OPS project!

Here’s where you can find out more:

  • Our blog post on the SPA-OPS Project and Presentation at ALPSP.
  • The project outputs (our report and the toolkit) are available under a CC-BY licence on the ALPSP website and here.
  • video overview of the report has been produced by the organisers of the Basel Sustainable Publishing Forum.
  • An Open Access article has been published in Insights and a second will be published in Learned Publishing early next year.
  • An article about the project published in Science Magazine.
  • Lorraine Estelle gave an overview of the toolkit at the ALPSP conference and a video is in production, to be posted on the ALPSP YouTube channel.