closeup of locked gate

Reframing the Agreement

Changing the Way Libraries Invest in Scholarship

Illustration showing a club with locked gates and people outside of it. Only a few people let in.

The five biggest academic publishers (see box below, “Pushing the Bottom Line”), are gatekeepers to 80% of scholarship. Funders, authors, libraries, and universities pay to get into the club (to read and use scholarly articles, books, data sets, news, etc., behind paywalls) or pay to get out—have works published Open Access.

Bethany Bradley

Professor Bethany Bradley in the Department of Environmental Conservation at UMass sees an inherent problem with a for-profit publishing industry operating within the nonprofit world of academia. Bradley and colleagues in her discipline, who are paid largely by publicly-funded research universities, write articles aimed at sharing their research with natural resource managers in the field, to inform their work. In order for the resource managers to read relevant, timely material in scholarly journals, someone has to pay the publisher who stands between them. 

“High-profile journals are eating away at our ability to do science successfully and share knowledge,” says Bradley. “In the larger scheme, we pay a lot of money to buy back our own products,” she adds, referring to researchers, the university, and people of the Commonwealth ensnared by the academic publishing ecosystem. 

Illustration of paywall

What has any of this got to do with you? Perhaps you’ve encountered one of life’s annoyances as you curiously peruse the internet. Aha—you find a scholarly article that addresses your exact question. Click, and up pops a box offering you a chance to pay for the resource through a one-time fee, a membership, or a subscription. Congratulations, you just hit a “paywall.” 

That annoying pay-for-access pop-up box? Unfortunately, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The rest of the iceberg is an academic publishing ecosystem looming under the surface that has blocked the scholarly flow of information. It’s largely unseen to most users of that information, who may be paying for access in multiple ways. 

Rebecca Reznik-Zellen

“We teach undergraduate students about this familiar roadblock all the time,” says Rebecca Reznik-Zellen, head of the Science and Engineering Library. “Junior researchers learn they have access to content paid for through the libraries’ databases, access which they won’t actually get if they only use Google.”

A paywall is not an abstract thing; a paywall is people, human beings within corporations— academic publishing corporations—who profit from restricting access to scholarly research. In most cases, the people who build and maintain paywalls and restrict how scholarship can be used and reused don’t write, evaluate, or even edit the articles; the content and the quality of the content is the work of a complex set of stakeholders: the people who conduct and evaluate research; scholarly societies that promote and publish research; the funders who sponsor it; and the scholars who share it.

In the prevailing publishing ecosystem, the top academic publishing companies (the “Big Five,” see box below, “Pushing the Bottom Line”) are able to lay claim to vast amounts of intellectual labor. That’s because historically, journals originally published in print have the longevity to develop reputation and prestige that help faculty to reach their target audiences and secure promotion and tenure.   

Christine Turner

The printed publication of scholarly research in academic journals started out as a more straightforward economic exchange when publishers bore the costs of paper, ink, printing presses, distribution, and analog communication flows. Now that words, images, data, and ideas move around the world digitally, instantaneously, and often freely, the value the “Big Five” add to the editorial process has come under a microscope, according to Christine Turner, scholarly communication librarian. She sees a broken system in which knowledge is held hostage by corporations driven to protect profits—and even expand them—by constricting access. “They have been increasing their prices exponentially,” said Turner, “and there is no transparency in their cost models … none.” 

Authors’ salaries are just one resource in a complex academic ecosystem that supports the production of content and that are paid for by the public, in the form of tuition or taxes, as well as public and private grants. Faculty authors are supported by publicly-supported teams of researchers, data specialists, and other experts with distinct and complementary roles that produce protocols, methodologies, data, and analysis that, if widely and openly accessible, could contribute to other research, discovery, and, ultimately, knowledge, explains Turner. 

For two decades, there has been growing awareness that the tools of modern scholarly publishing—from digitization and data sharing to online networks among researchers that facilitate rapid information communication and knowledge growth—call into question traditional relationships among academic authors, publishers, and readers. “The facility with which researchers and scholars can exchange information more quickly, at a more granular level with fewer barriers, changes the landscape,” explains Turner. 

In short, publishers have been leveraging the legacy print publishing model well into the digital age, charging hefty prices for the knowledge and perspectives by authors who grew accustomed to signing away their copyright to advance their careers. 

The libraries are affected in two key ways: “The more we pay Springer Nature, Wiley, or Elsevier,” says Turner, naming three of the biggest players, “the less we have left over to pay publishers and providers who represent a much broader swath of research and scholarship from different countries and different demographics.” At the same time, new and historically overlooked purveyors of knowledge get shut out when acquisition budgets are allocated. “Profits are not reinvested into the scholarship system,” explains Turner, who has a mandate to look at all aspects of how scholarship circulates throughout society. 

Illustration of someone doing research

Imagine a world where access to the latest research was available at no cost to the teacher looking for evidence-based ideas on classroom management during COVID, to the student-athlete reading up on a new theory for healing a hamstring, to your loved one diagnosed with a rare disease, to the novelist reconnoitering her genre.

A movement has grown around an array of strategies, organizations, websites, and tools to promote open access to scholarly output in ways that are much less expensive, that promote use and reuse, and favor high quality. 

Illustration of an open park-like space where everyone is welcome.

The Framework principles are designed to encourage broader participation from people of diverse perspectives and backgrounds such as language, race, ethnicity, and gender in both the production and use of knowledge.

logo for Max Planck digital library

A global leader in the push to raise awareness of the issue of access to information and to devise strategies for reform is the Max Planck Digital Library which serves a network of government-funded research centers in Germany. It drew a line in the sand in 2003 with the Berlin Declaration, issuing key principles around information provision, publication support, and research data management. Since then, hundreds of universities and research institutions around the world have endorsed or built upon those principles. In the United States, this includes the University of California system, MIT, the University of North Texas, Iowa State University, North Carolina State, and the University of North Carolina. All have made significant advances in negotiating with publishers. Figuring a way out of this dilemma must, of necessity, be a group effort that cuts across institutional and geographic boundaries.

Logo for UMass Amherst Libraries

UMass is next in line. In anticipation of university system-wide negotiations taking place with Elsevier in 2022, UMass is prepared. 

To fulfill the university’s mission to draw from and support diverse experiences and perspectives as a route to a more just world, the libraries formed a task force for creating a new model for negotiating with vendors. The result, a Framework for Provider Agreements, aims at building momentum for rethinking, and in some cases, revamping, how to negotiate with publishers of materials the university purchases.

Illustration of  pushing the bottom line

The Framework is designed to shift the culture of acquisition at the UMass Amherst Libraries over time. The libraries currently allot $7M a year to purchase access to electronic resources for students, faculty, staff, and the general public who come on site to use the resources. Eighty percent of those fees are paid to the “Big Five” for-profit academic publishers: Elsevier, Springer Nature, Wiley- Blackwell, Sage, and Routledge/Taylor & Francis. They are known as “legacy” publishers because they started publishing in print and largely base their cost models on antiquated paper-based workflows. Says Rebecca Reznik-Zellen, “these publishers may look like they are in the open access marketplace, but they are actually buying up other aspects of the publishing ecosystem, dressing up their business model using the language of open sharing and scholarship, yet much of it still remains closed to most.” 

The Framework paves the way for the libraries to increase our investment in resources that are intentionally open in perpetuity. Such vendors include Knowledge Unlatched which offers a crowdfunding model to support a variety of open access book and journal content packages as well as the financial funding of partnerships; we have invested in several open access journals published by Duke University Press; we support Royal Society Open Science, a peer-reviewed open access scientific journal published by the Royal Society which covers all scientific fields and publishes all articles which are scientifically sound, leaving any judgment of impact to the reader; and we support The Open Library of Humanities, dedicated to publishing open access scholarship with no author-facing article processing charges, funded by contributing libraries, “to make scholarly publishing fairer, more accessible, and rigorously preserved for the digital future.” 

The task force, which includes Turner, as well as law and public policy librarian Lisa di Valentino and acquisitions unit coordinator Scott Stangroom, and has a Faculty Advisory Board, is drawing up plans to communicate with stakeholders within the university on how to be change agents.

The UMass community supports reforming scholarly communication. 

“When we talk about this, people are saying, it’s about time,” said Reznik-Zellen, who chaired the task force. “There are no qualms behind the intent to shake things up.” COVID forced many people to access necessary resources online—and encounter the paywalls that restrict them, accelerating the understanding that a new model is sorely overdue. Unsustainable pricing models are increasingly at odds with the campus’s mission of wisely stewarding taxpayer dollars. 

The Framework gives the libraries leverage to:

  • Move investments to those that fully incorporate open access and ensure the widest possible use, reuse, analysis, discovery, curation, and preservation of scholarship; 
  • Reduce the financial and transactional burden for UMass scholars of open access publication; and
  • Encourage the participation of diverse perspectives such as language, race, ethnicity and gender in the production and use of knowledge. Through open scholarship, the Framework supports a culture inclusive of diverse perspectives and backgrounds, such as language, race, ethnicity, and gender. 

Mark Twain wrote, “A habit cannot be tossed out the window; it must be coaxed down the stairs a step at a time.” Changing institutional habits and mindsets will take time and effort. 

Breac Krash

The first step is reaching out to academic publishing vendors “to let them know about UMass’s new set of criteria that we’ll be bringing to the negotiating table, ones that reflect the values of the campus and libraries, and make transparent our accountability to the public,” says Breac Krash, associate dean for content and discovery. 

The Framework weighs costs against benefits for the libraries to consider before entering into a contract. Bottomline expenditures will be important, and they will be balanced with other terms, such as authors’ rights retention and users’ rights to reuse, remix, replicate and redistribute the scholarship.

icon of faculty

Step two is bringing the faculty on board. “As producers of scholarship others profit from, faculty are key stakeholders in how a new model of scholarly communication should operate,” says Stangroom, “the Framework is designed to harness their influence to shape the ecosystem.” Sensitivity to, and even awareness of these issues, vary across disciplines, according to Turner. The need to publish in certain journals, sometimes in exchange for signing away copyright, plays itself out differently in different disciplines. 

There is also variety in how STEM, the social sciences, and the humanities are responding to new financial models of scholarly publishing. So approaches to bringing faculty into the process will vary, too.

icon of outreach

A third prong of the university’s approach is leadership through outreach and collaboration. By publishing the Framework, UMass sends a signal to other institutions experiencing similar pressures on their budgets, letting their leaders know that they have peer support in seeking to reallocate resources. UMass is part of a larger coalition for change among forward-acting libraries in crafting contracts and agreements that will, over time, transform the relationships between producers, consumers, and purveyors of content for all institutions.

Even with the changing landscape, the libraries will continue to enter negotiations with large publishers representing thousands of titles in order to secure access to databases, data sets, journals, articles, monographs, and other fruits of academic labor as long as they are needed by the community.

Decisions on where UMass should allocate money in years to come will respond to evolving trends in publishing systems driven by researcher, faculty, and students’ needs and the growing value of open scholarship, and, if done strategically, will offer leadership in shaping these trends. Says Reznik-Zellen. With the Framework, “We’ve begun a gradual and steady shift toward a different culture of acquisition.”

Torrey Trust


PROFESSOR TORREY TRUST, who studies learning technology, publishes up to half a dozen articles a year in journals well known to her field. Paying the processing charges, which in theory cover the costs publishers incur to copy edit, format, and then maintain articles in the cloud, could add up to $10,000 annually, she says. It’s why she served on the Faculty Advisory Board and helped develop its principles. 

In recent years, the “Big Five” have responded to calls for more open access by offering authors an option to pay what they call “article processing charges,” in return for making their work more easily available to non-subscribers. The stipulations and costs of these agreements vary and can be confusing, prompting many researchers to relinquish their copyright for the sake of convenience. 

Often these charges represent little more than a new revenue stream for publishers who still control platforms they can use to manipulate levels of access not only to the text of an article, but also to underlying research data, graphics and metadata embedded in electronic files, according to Christine Turner, scholarly communication librarian. “If the idea that authors should pay for scholarly research becomes the new normal, we will not have created a public good called open access,” Ashley Jester, assistant director of Stanford University’s Science and Engineering Libraries warned earlier this year. 

“We will have shifted the price of open scholarly publishing from the readers to the authors, and, instead of some readers finding themselves turned away at the gates, it will be the authors of new scholarship who will find their paths to open access publishing foreclosed.”

Even though Trust bridles against this system and resents that much of her work, which exists to help teachers and administrators improve practices, ends up behind paywalls, she feels like she has little choice. “I am kind of stuck in the middle,” she says. “I need to publish often, so I will sign away my copyright.” 

Trust recognizes that a shift is overdue in how academic output is distributed, but also that, “we are caught in that in between part” in which publishers still have a lot of power to wield over people like her and those who want to access her work.

—Eric Goldscheider ’93MA & Carol Connare