The transition towards open access to research articles has become a question of how, rather than why and the rise of transformative agreements has enabled publishers to strike agreements with larg…
In this installation of Convos on the Common, we talk with AJ Boston, a scholarly communications librarian at Murray State University, about the “Read & Let Read” model, a library-publisher agreement that would alter how everyone, not just university libraries, access paywalled scholarship. AJ shares some of his thinking on logistics, gaining momentum and support, and how this could change how and what articles are accessed.
Enhanced transcript below and/or listen on
Sarah Kearns 00:30
So I've long been aware of you and your work through your social media presence. So it's really a pleasure to finally break through that sphere and actually meet and talk with you.
AJ Boston 00:42
Thank you, Sarah. I'm really glad to be here. And thank you for inviting me. And I'm glad to chat.
Sarah Kearns 00:49
Yes, maybe we could start off this conversation with you just introducing yourself here.
AJ Boston 00:54
Yeah. So my name is AJ Boston. And I'm an Associate Professor and scholarly communication librarian at Murray State University in Kentucky, and I am the CEO for Elsevier.
Sarah Kearns 01:08
I knew that about you! That's why we're having you on here. Because you're such a big wig CEO of the of the best publisher in the world.
AJ Boston 01:18
Not many people know that I'm the CEO, but it's true.
Sarah Kearns 01:22
I'm glad we're keeping the meme alive here.
But we are having you on this podcast, because you recently have written a few articles now about sort of transforming transformative agreements. So these like TAs have been discussed and circulated for, I think, long enough now to have a general sense of what they are and what they mean. But also, either not yet long enough, or maybe too long to have like a loose definition and application. So maybe we could start off with like, from your perspective, what are transformative agreements, and how are they being used in a library context? And then how sort of does this current ecosystem of TAs and APCs motivate the Read & Let Read model that you've proposed?
AJ Boston 02:13
Thank you for letting me talk about Read & Let Read, which is an idea that, as you note, I won't shut up about. It is kind of born out of an ecosystem where we have transformative agreements — also known as read and publish deals, or publish and read deals. They're kind of in a funny space of awareness. A lot of people know what they are, some people have no idea what they are. And some people are just like, kind of confused by the whole idea. A lot of librarians get a lot of vendor emails, asking to see if they're interested in signing up. I saw a vendor email the other day (I won't say who it was sent to) but it was a vendor asking for a quote about how they how their school or the their library enjoys their TA. But they don't have a TA with that publisher.
Transformative agreements are kind of like subscription deals for a library or institution to have some pre agreed some set number of article processing charges to be paid for in the upcoming year. Schools and research institutions especially will pay processing charges to make their faculty works open access. And this is kind of like a bundle deal that gets them that cuts them a little bit of a discount.
I think it's funny to think about where TAs are, because if you had told me when I started this job in 2016, or if you would have told people even further back 10 years ago, that we would see institutions like signing up for these and for like hotcakes I think a lot of people would have been really excited by that idea that libraries and institutions were putting so much money into open access. It makes sense in a lot of ways. Sometimes I think about the negatives a lot, but I have to like sit back and think why are people signing up for these. There are positives to it. It's like the old adage of “Think global, act local.” That's like literally what TAs are like: you are thinking about the global information system and you're doing what you can do about it at the local scale. Now that we're kind of into a system where we have more transformative agreements, and it is getting a lot more open access at scale. You can also kind of see how this is not going to be the thing that gets us to total open access, at least not on its own. As a lot of people have noted, it really kind of normalizes the idea that you would pay a fee to do open access when there are other routes that don't involve an author payment.
That was kind of the stew that I wrote my paper out of my proposal out of. Additionally, the University of California system had that year where they walked away from Elsevier and then they came back with a brand new deal involved kind of a TA aspect to it. And there was a lot of criticism about that. And as you noted, I'm on social media and I joined the bandwagon. I was like this, this sucks, this is bad. And then I was just reading interviews with people at UC that had brokered the deal, and I went to some things where they spoke, and I know they're trying their best. And it's started to feel after five years of me being on social media, kind of dogging things for for various reasons, that it occurred to me that they — UC — really are trying some really cool stuff with open access: they find they and maintain preprint, preprint repositories, they have diamond open access journals, they're really trying everything they can. So it may not be perfect, transformative agreements, but they're trying it. They're experimenting with it. Likewise, my thoughts, I know, aren’t perfect, but it's not constructive for me to simply say, this sucks. I'm a librarian, I'm alive. I'm working, like I can throw my hat in the ring and try to throw some ideas in there. If I if I think something needs to be improved, I can I can put my brainpower towards trying to help improve that.
Sarah Kearns 07:29
I think it takes bravery and courage to even do that. It's very easy to critique from the sidelines, but to actually put yourself out there and try something new and risk, being critiqued yourself by everyone else on social media is, you know, that takes that takes something.
Like you said, with UC, they're experimenting and trying things out. And I think I've heard that TAs can be really helpful and useful certainly. We had a series on Commonplace last year about the global transition to open and we had a few submissions from folks in the Global South who were like, “actually, this is really great since this helps us access articles.” And that was mind-opening for me since I had been in this "TA bad" mindset and like not thinking as critically as perhaps we should have about about it all.
But anyway, maybe you could go into a little bit more about what the Read & Let Read model actually is and how it's a little bit different than transformative agreements as such.
AJ Boston 08:47
Like you said:there are clear benefits to TA's like, it does make stuff open access. And so people who could formally not read stuff can now read stuff.
So Read & Let Read has kind of three portions to it, it is the way that I'm thinking about it now is kind of a flip to the traditional way that Library's subscribed to read paywalled articles in journals. Right now, a library will subscribe to some set of journals from a publisher, and they'll get access to read those. Increasingly, a lot of these journals are hybrid, and they have paid routes to go open access. So as you're reading and as you're subscribing to these journals, the value of what you're paying for is constantly in flux because some of these things are pay world and some of these things are not. So at the very first level, I think we need to stop subscribing to journals. I think we need to just sign up to say like kind of all you can eat buffet streaming, like Spotify and things like it. Elsevier has, I don't know how many journals…
Sarah Kearns 08:48
I thought you were the CEO of Elsevier?
AJ Boston 09:21
Haha, we're such a fast moving company our journal numbers are growing at a rate that I simply cannot keep up with.
Sarah Kearns 09:48
No, sorry to interupt, I just had to.
AJ Boston 10:24
We got to stick with a bit, that's good.
But what's happening is, at a few levels, on a year to year basis, some journal, some libraries are having to discontinue subscribing to some journals, because they simply can't afford it. Or they've never signed up to journals, because it doesn't quite match their profile, and they can't afford it. Or they are looking using things like UnSub, to look at the amount of things that are actually open access, and then deciding to cancel based on that. So I think it doesn't make sense for a lot of reasons for us to continue with that way of subscribing to things need to just sign up and have access to everything. I don't know how closely most libraries are actually looking at each journal, the publisher just says like, this is the journals that your people use, this is kind of the value of those journals that we have decided upon.
I think it would benefit both publishers and libraries if you just made everything accessible. And then in doing so, we need to pay for what we actually use at our libraries, instead of basing that on some sort of FTE scale like we have. I'm at a very small school, we have just shy of 10K students. And so a lot of times we'll get billed according to that. And that doesn't quite make any sense because we're largely teaching first university with a lot of undergraduates. Our demographics don't quite make sense as a basis for us to be paying as much as we are, and instead we should just pay for what we use. \
The next part with Read & Let Read is libraries pay the publisher based on the articles we used to restructure that payment system so that we could get similar to TAs kind of Bulk Rate price for those articles. So if I know, my library is going to use X number of articles in a year, I can pre pay that for the next year. I would expect a discount because I'm going to pay for a very large amount of articles. And if we're doing that, let's go ahead and multiply that number by two. So if I use a million articles last year, I want to pay for a million articles next year, plus, I want to buy a second batch of million articles. So I want to buy 2 million articles in the next year, I think my campus will probably just use 1 million of those articles. Then when that next year is over there should be a remainder of a of an additional a million articles. Those should be donated to anyone on the web that needs it. I think that would do a lot to open up access to people in the global south or even in my own local community. I have a whole community surrounding my university, and they can't access any of the stuff that is one mile from them. So I think it would be a great boon for everybody if we paid for access for everybody.
If we go back to TAs and our criticisms of those, which is to say that we are paying these large amounts of money to privilege just a select few a set of people. I think we can look at traditional subscriptions, the way we've done things and we can levy that same criticism towards those because right now at my university, many university libraries, we're paying a large sum of money to access paywalled our nickels, and we're buying that access on behalf of just our users. I know we have an obligation to serve those users and I don't want to discontinue that I just want to expand it so that we're also serving everybody else. Because as we pay for access to paywalled content, we are the ones that are partnering along with publishers that are keeping those paywalls in place. So I really want to have the library community reconsider the traditional subscription model, think about the the harms that it does, alongside all the benefit that we know it brings, and try to make that into a better system.
Sarah Kearns 15:51
It's very provocative to ask libraries to pay more actually, perhaps, than what they’re paying. But the benefit of that is that it's open for everybody, and not just people within a university scholarship system.
AJ Boston 16:24
Another thing I'll credit TAs for is making the idea that you would pay money to benefit users outside of your walls, with content. So I think that how I think TAs really helped to kind of stretch the boundaries of what we consider normal and good to do with our money. So I think that's a good thing, we've not gone quite far enough with it.
The in the Read & Let Read model, I don't necessarily want us to spend more money than we currently are. When I think about what I would ask the libraries to try to broker with a publisher, if they wanted to look at one of these deals, is to kind of base the amount of money they would pay going forward on what they are already paying now. So if I'm paying a million dollars, and I know my users generally access about a million articles a year, then I would structure it such that I still continue to pay just about a million dollars to get a million articles read on my end and a million articles read everywhere else. So that would that would roughly shake out to to half a buck per use.
Sarah Kearns 17:53
That would be amazing. Given that it's like $30 per article right now on a lot of articles. That kind of speaks to the economy of scale, I think is the phrase.
AJ Boston 18:11
Yeah, it is exactly it. We publish millions of articles every year. It's kind of like they are commodities. It's like wheat prices and article prices.
Sarah Kearns 18:35
The things that keep the world is turning: wheat and scholarship.
I would imagine publishers would be nervous about that, in terms of not making the money that they're maybe used to, given how things have worked so far. What would publishers stand to gain from this model out of curiosity?
AJ Boston 19:12
I want to do as much as I can to make publishers not nervous about the system. I think as libraries and publishers think about brokering these deals is to base the deal on the same amount of money that a library is already paying to a publisher. I want to rock the boat but in such a way that everyone feels comfortable like I want the outcome. At the end of the day the outcome I want is access for everybody. Anytime you do something new you it's gonna make both libraries and publishers nervous. It's in both of their interests: for libraries we want a deal that's not going to drastically increase the amount we spend, and for publishers, I want them to know that it's not going to drastically reduce the amount of money that they are able to make.
There's a lot of little small ways like unforeseen ways that this could be a benefit to publishers. Like you said, if you don't have access and you want to buy it legally, it's like 30 or 40 bucks. I don't know how much people actually do that. But I would imagine that it drives a lot of people to pirate articles. So at the one on the one hand, you might start to lose some small subset of users who pony up $40 for an article, but you're also going to plug leakage on all that piracy that that system engenders. At a second level, you’ve just increased readership for a publisher. When you're getting all that readership data, you're having your articles be more impactful because they're being read by more people. That would include scholars who are more likely to cite you now because they can read you. That's going to include public policy professionals who are going to be able to access your work at a more consistent rate. Members of the public are going to be able to see these things when something pops up. And then when a study is in the news or something. And a handful of people go to Google, it's like they're going to be able to read it from now on. So I think it's just going to lead to a lot more legal readers.
Sarah Kearns 22:06
I didn't even think about about pirating as like a concern. So that that's interesting to mention.
I'm also curious to hear a little bit more about sort of the logistics of this would each so like a library would go to a particular journal? Or who would they go to? And how many people would they have to go to to set up these different Read & Let Read agreements?
AJ Boston 22:35
I would say that Read & Let Read is a really specific model for publisher type. So we have library based publishing, that needs to stay how it is. We have journals that do society journals that do really well, or that seem to be doing well under the Subscribe to Open (S2O) model. There are diamond open access journals out there that I would not want to touch those. This would be really just for the major commercial publishers.
So this type of deal only works if the articles are paywalled. And I'd really want to do this at scale. Which is not to say you couldn't do this with smaller commercial journals — in fact, you really could. So really just any commercial vendor you would go to, say, my company Elsevier, you would come to me and say we want to do a Read & Let Read. Which means each year you're not going to have to send me (the publisher) this weird spreadsheet of journals with usage, title usage, statistics. And then we're not going to send you back a deal that says we're going to continue subscribing to XYZ journal, we're just gonna give you access to everything. And next year, we're going to prepay usage based on that.
Sarah Kearns 24:22
I feel like librarians already do so so so much in terms of having these agreements and like working with publishers to keep track of everything. So it almost sounds like it would make that job a little easier because you're just paying the publisher a certain amount of money to access a sort of streaming-like, ability to to click on anything within that structure. So it almost sounds like it makes it the librarians job easier?
AJ Boston 25:15
Um, I would say it makes it different. So yeah, so there's several, little administrative things that would go away. Like DDA, demand driven acquisition, the thing where you set aside an amount of money and says if we don't have access to this article and user wants it, here's a fund and just buy it. Little things like that can kind of go away. A lot of inter-library loans that we do can go away. It'll just be one route that we're accessing articles from now on one place. Little problems like that go away, but then you'll get the new problem of making sure that the data that you receive on readership is accurate. So it's like consolidating our debt, the debts not going away. We're just paying one bill from now. Instead of servicing all these little, little bills each year, we're just gonna have one big bill that we're gonna have to service and really audit and make sure we're getting right.
Sarah Kearns 26:47
Yeah, I guess what kind of readership data do you mean, there?
AJ Boston 26:50
If we are paying based on readership, then we need to have accurate data about what's being read and what amounts by our users. So that may be something easy proxy login, IP address tracking, something like that, like when you're on campus, the number of times you download or access an article will need that data to be very accurate.
Sarah Kearns 27:24
The second portion of Read & Let Read that you mentioned was that it goes half of those basically go out to the world. Would that information be tracked as well?
AJ Boston 27:55
I don't think we'd want to know, too much demographic information just for user privacy's standpoint. It would be good to know, as a return on investment of the million articles, theoretically, that we're putting out for the globe. How many of these are being used? How quickly are they being used? So if they're all big, I would assume they would all get used every year. Libraries would be curious to know how quickly this is happening, which would tell you about demand, which would tell other libraries that they need to step up. And eventually, at some points, I would assume you reach some sort of equilibrium where you're just about getting everybody covered, like maybe, maybe in the distant future, or medium, medium future. Sometime in the future, if enough libraries signed up, you could potentially get to a point where those global uses go unused. Just because we're putting so many free uses out there that it's exceeding demand, the supply is exceeding the demand and that would be a good thing. I would rather have us have too much access than not enough.
Sarah Kearns 29:22
In one of the articles, you preemptively asked and answered this question, but I'm just when I re-ask it here because I think it's a good one. How can you make sure that the non-university users aren't just downloading that 1 million articles at once just for the meme or something. And in general having that social responsibility of using the university library resources ethically.
AJ Boston 30:01
You would want to make sure that when you put those million articles out there for free that some bot Utah is not downloading them all and just hoarding them at for the meme. That will come down to licensing, that will just come down to normal ways that we access content online today. For example, I go to the New York Times, and I read my five or 10 free articles for the month and then says, "you're cut off, you need to sign up or subscribe." One way we could consider is to do something like that through your IP address. After 15 articles this month, you can either sign in to create a free account or wait till next month. And there may be serious researchers who don't have access that need more than 15 articles a year. And I don't think it would be too much of an imposition to give them the option to either A) create an account or B) go to a different device and download it there or ask a friend. I don't think that would be an unethical thing to do to ask a friend to download articles for you send them to you. But it would help cut down on abuses.
Sarah Kearns 31:48
You mentioned having an account or something like that a Read & Let Read account makes you wonder, like, what sort of infrastructure or new infrastructure? Or what current infrastructure would you be using that would facilitate this model, effectively, and then like if something needs to be created or built, like who's responsible for creating and stewarding and keeping track of all that?
AJ Boston 32:16
I've thought about this in a couple of different ways. But I'm thinking about easy proxy login that we have currently to make sure that our campus users are logging in and using to verify their credentials. It was someone the libraries that originally created that. I think it would be great if someone out there in libraries thought about this access in this specific way and tried to build something, maybe something open source, that could be used across publishers. I think publishers would have an incentive to build something themselves or to be have a part in that too because it's protecting their intellectual property. Authors in most cases have signed over copyrights. It's the publishers copyright and they would want to protect it.
At the end of the day, the library is who's paying for this thing. So they would really want to be able to audit the system to really be able to trust that data. There's going to have to be a lot of trust that goes either way. And then kind of going back to the idea of the way it would work under a New York Times or newspapers system where it's you get the 10 free and then you create account, if you set it up like that. If you if you were if I was a student or a faculty member at an institution that pays for access for me to have access, maybe the first month that this is in place, I the student can be like "oh, look, I can get these things for free." And then I hit that 10 article or 15 article limit and asked me to either create an account or sign into my account, and then at that point, I log into my EZ proxy, and then from then on out the the publisher or the library, or both, they know that I'm an institutional user, and my uses need to come out of bucket A and not bucket B. There there would be a little bit of waste of bucket B as as the new year rolls around, and you're trying make sure your users are using the right thing but you know, if you're talking about a million articles...
Sarah Kearns 34:45
Five out of a million is not a huge deal.
So you've proposed this new model, are you yourself proposing this or trying to work with publishers to broker the agreement for your university or is there? Or do you need to have this sort of critical mass of people who would do this all together to have it actually be effective?
AJ Boston 35:11
I'm sure publishers have some awareness of this, because it's because I won't shut up about it. But I really want to garner interest and enthusiasm from a critical mass of libraries first. I talked to a group in November, and I just this week, I've talked to a group of libraries here in Kentucky. Sometimes they'll ask me, like, why don't you do this at Murray State University? And I'm like, have you heard of Murray State University? We're very small school. This is this is a big deal and I don't think publisher would want to do it just for us as much as I would like to flatter myself, I don't think that's going to be the case.
If I could get enough Kentucky Libraries on board, if I could get some partnering, like one or two, R01 universities, maybe someone in the international community to kind of come together as a pack to say, we will we all are excited about this. If we can get a consortium of these different types of libraries to do it, I think that would show a publisher that there's actual appetite for this, and then they would want to play ball. But then having those different types of university libraries on board, it would be a great experiment as a pilot project to see if they all structured their Read & Let Read program in the exact same way, but across different institutions, you would really have a keen sense of what works and what doesn't work and what works best for some institutions over others. I think there's ways you can tweak this. But I think that that would really be the way to go. So library interests first, you need a number of libraries to be on board, it would help for the collective bargaining aspect on the library's side, and it would show publishers like there's enough libraries here that it makes sense for us to invest resources to do this experiment.
Sarah Kearns 37:52
Yeah, that's really exciting that you're having these conversations with other libraries and trying to Empower consortia and universities to facilitate these conversations and like steps going forward. You kind of mentioned that people are interested that you're having these conversations, which means people are at least intrigued by the idea and going forward with it, but how do you imagine those conversations going? Or how are you facilitating that empowerment for libraries and consortium has to actually put this model in place and open the floor up for experimentation around it?
AJ Boston 38:42
I've had a big learning curve with this. I published the first iteration in 2021 and to my mind, I was like, “Alright, I'm gonna publish this, and then people are just gonna read it, and they're all gonna do it.” Slowly learning like, no, that's not that's not how things work. In reality, you have to you have to do work and organize. So right now, kind of just forming an interest group. If any libraries listening to this are aware of Read & Let Read and they want to be part of this conversation, I'm really happy to have you on board, please email me contact me.
The more libraries that are interested in interested in this, the better. We just really went over the basics of this on Tuesday with my group in Kentucky. And what I said to them is maybe over the next couple months of our meeting, kind of hammer out what we know what we like about this, but let's figure out where the pitfalls are, what are the dangers and weaknesses? And how can we avoid those or strengthen the deal so that, that it accounts for those things?
Sarah Kearns 40:35
Yeah, I'm definitely looking forward to seeing you know, next steps of of all this and following following what comes out of it.
AJ Boston 40:43
Would it be okay if we did a postscript? Okay, so we talked about Read & Let Read as it stands, as far as subscription deal, and something that has occurred to me recently about reading that read is an open access components.
The new component that I think people should be really excited about is the idea that if you assign a number, an amount of money to what it costs to download an article, then you can look at an articles usage and you can quantify how much money that you've paid to access that article. And it occurs to me that at some points, if an article is popular enough, you will have paid the APC equivalent of it. I think if you have download an article, like your users and global users that are downloaded an article, the equivalent of an APC, then you need to consider the APC to have been paid on that and as a consequence you make that article open access. I think something that we don't like about TAs is the way that it kind of helps your institution but no others. But if you were to make that open access mechanism, where it would open up articles by authors of any institution, based on the amount of times it's read, I think that would put institutions in collaboration to make things open access in a way that I don't otherwise see possible.
Sarah Kearns 42:37
Yeah, I'm so glad you mentioned that, because I forgot to ask any questions about that. So yeah, that's really powerful, because it almost sounds like you'd be post publication, crowd sourcing the APC.
AJ Boston 42:54
It's crowdsourcing. It's in your interest to do that, because you don't want to double dip. Because after the point that you pay the equivalent of the ABC, anything you pay above that, it's you're getting a double dip territory.
Sarah Kearns 43:18
Because everyone would be overpaying to to access it at that point, yeah. And that would be like a cool signal too. If this article is really popular, you know, like, if New York Times covered something about it, then everyone just would actually be able to read it eventually because enough people have clicked on it. And that would I think that would probably change a lot of how people would just read in general, like scholars and otherwise.
AJ Boston 43:53
I think it's cost efficient, and a couple of different ways. Like you don't want to double dip. But then also, you think about what you pay for an APC, if you're able to quantify the use per cost, then a lot of things we pay APCs on they they never get downloaded enough times or used enough times to justify the cost. But then like you said, readership would change. I think that's that's the entire point of this is that at the institutional level, the way we subscribe right now we don't have access to a lot of things even though we subscribe to a lot of things. And everybody else outside of the institution doesn't have access. So that all that all needs to change.
Sarah Kearns 44:37
I'd imagine that would totally up heave a lot of just like scholarly communication. I come from a science background, so I'm just imagining all the science writers like what their responsibility would be to accurately portray the research itself. And if publishers would have has the responsibility to have like a common speak abstract that would describe the article if everyone now can access it and read it. So I feel like there's a lot there that would be altered if these articles are just free to access.
AJ Boston 45:21
If you let the common person to suddenly read all this paywalled stuff, all this content that they've long been denied, that's going to change the information ecosystem and in a very disruptive way. I think there's a lot of positive ways. hope the positives of that will outweigh the negatives. I think there's enough people that are outside of academia that have an interest in scholarly articles that it would change I think they can be contributors to some of these functions. If they wanted to be they could crowdsource the the layperson writing of abstracts. Things would certainly go into Wikipedia more often. With whole wikis based around problems could crop up. There's a lot there's a it would it would open the floodgates for what is possible in citizen science, I think.
Sarah Kearns 46:36
Yeah. Oh, man, that just makes me even more excited for for this to emerge. So yeah, I really appreciate that you added this important component and I get thank you for taking the time to talk with me.
AJ Boston 46:54
Thank you for inviting me!