Go back

American Chemical Society (ACS) and authors’ rights retention


In this post I shall describe how the American Chemical Society’s (ACS) new zero embargo policy perpetuates an increasingly out-of-touch and outdated position taken by some publishers, who aim to prevent researchers from retaining their rights to use their own work as they choose.

1. ACS Zero-embargo option

On 21st September 2023 the American Chemical Society (ACS) launched its zero embargo option, the latest iteration of a publisher erecting a barrier to authors retaining their rights, this time at a price. This profit-focussed model means that the author, who is expected to transfer their rights to ACS totally free of charge, has the “option” to buy back some of the rights they gave gratis, for the significant sum of $2,500. ACS calls this additional means of extracting money an Article Development Charge (ADC). 

As a business model, it has to be applauded for its sheer audacity; as an attempt to counter funders’ rights retention policies and Institutional Rights Retention Policies (IRRPs), it is both saddening and short-sighted. The ability for authors to retain rights to disseminate and use their own work as they choose is a fundamental principle that researchers and their institutions are increasingly adopting[1] but which some publishers are vehemently opposing. Rights retention forms a key element of 21st century Open Scholarship for “re-gaining academic sovereignty over the publishing process” as described in the EUA Open Science Agenda 2025.

Putting aside the fact that publication or submission fees are a barrier to publication for many, the detail and reasoning behind the ADC raise concerns:

  • Zero embargo pre-acceptance services costs are intended to be covered by the new ADC. I assume therefore that pre-acceptance services costs for non-ADC 12-month embargo articles are covered by the continuing subscription charge. Unless subscription charges are proportionally reduced, the new ACS Zero Embargo Option is a blatant example of double dipping. 
  • Bianca Kramer, from Sesame Open Science has questioned the reasoning behind the calculation of the ADC (see TSK comments). Clarity from ACS on this matter would be welcomed.
  • The Council of Australian University Librarians (CAUL) and Open Access Australasia have published a statement setting out a number of serious concerns raised by the approach taken by ACS.

Whatever the detail of the ACS policy, it flouts a core principle: article content belongs to the author, and the author should retain the rights to their intellectual output. Publishers like ACS are doing all they can to ensure authors do not retain their rights. Author rights retention is being adopted by academia to benefit researchers, academia, the future of scholarship, and society in general, rather than primarily benefiting a service provider.

2. Misleading language

The wording around the ACS publishing agreement is designed to persuade authors who do not have access to a Transformative Agreement, and who want immediate Open Access (OA) via repositories, to pay up. In the ACS flowchart for authors, researchers are presented with the following:

Do you want or need your article to be published open access? For example, does your funder require it?” [My emphasis]

The wording is slippery. A funder may require OA, but funders rarely demand a specific route to OA. Most are satisfied with OA via the repository route as an alternative to publishing OA in the journal (‘gold’ OA). 

ACS informs the researcher that:

ACS offers a Journal Publishing Agreement in which copyright is transferred to ACS and the article is published without charge to the author.”

Without charge.” I disagree: the author is paying handsomely – twice: once by supplying their manuscript (the content) free of charge, allowing the publisher to create a saleable product; and secondly with their rights, by freely transferring their copyright to ACS.

The ACS justification for charging an ADC rests on the premise that ACS provides a service for authors prior to acceptance, and that authors must pay for that service. The ADC “covers the cost of ACS’ publishing services through the final editorial decision” and is to be paid before the peer review of the manuscript is complete. As far as I’m aware the money is not returned if the paper is then rejected. In this way it is a submission fee. These publishing services include “organizing, developing and maintaining the high-quality, scholarly peer review process and multiple other publishing services provided by a vast global network of editors and reviewers.” If the ADC is intended to cover the cost of peer review, then why aren’t non-ADC paying authors charged this fee? Does it mean that if an author chooses not to take the ADC route, their work will not go through the “high-quality peer review process and multiple other publishing services?” 

The ACS announcement abounds with marketing language used by many large commercial publishers. [My emphases]

  • ACS Publications provides a new option to support zero-embargo green open access 

It is not so much a new option for ‘supporting,’ more like ‘monetizing.’ Better to re-phrase – ACS Publications provides a new option to support pay for zero-embargo green open access

  • (ACS) will provide authors with a new option to satisfy funder requirements for zero-embargo green open access. Through this pathway, authors will be able to post accepted manuscripts with a CC BY license in open access repositories immediately upon acceptance.

How reassuring, except authors can already satisfy funder requirements and post manuscripts for immediate OA if they retain their rights – as specified by… those same funders. There’s no need for a new ‘option.’

  • To ensure a sustainable model of delivering services from submission to final editorial decision, ACS Publications is introducing an article development charge (ADC) as part of this new zero-embargo green open access option.”

Here ACS resorts to a publisher’s favourite trope of a nebulous ‘sustainable model’ of publishing (see “Who’s afraid of Green. Market forces and the Rights Retention Strategy). Sustainable for whom? At the high price charged, certainly not sustainable for cash-strapped libraries. Especially as the ADC is an additional charge on journals funded by subscriptions. Publishers including ACS, continue to misleadingly cite ‘sustainable’ publishing in an attempt to justify unnecessary embargoes and demanding authors’ rights.

  • The ADC is intended to provide a solution to the remaining authors who need to adhere to the zero-embargo green open access mandate.

This is not the point. The rights belong to the author and it should stay that way. No researcher should have to give them away, and certainly not be asked to pay $2,500 to get them back.

  • As the industry moves beyond being solely focused on a subscription-based model, ACS Publications is committed to finding sustainable ways to support all authors as they navigate funder and institutional mandates around public access.” And:
  • Assisting authors to get published is our North Star, and we’re introducing this ADC option to help authors navigate shifting funder mandates.” (TSK)

Here ACS lays the ‘blame’ for the ADC solely at the door of those pesky funders and institutions who adopt rights retention policies in support of their researchers, and wider society, who may have contributed to the research funding.

3. Publication ‘services’? Serving whom?

Some publishers are resorting to policies that reject papers not on scholarly merit, but on how willing authors are to concede their rights. For example, authors who assert their rights to use their own work as they choose when submitting to Springer Nature (SN) subscription journals are told they must opt for the paid Gold OA option to proceed in the submission process. This can hardly be described as an assessment based on editorial merit. 

In the new ACS option, when an author submits a manuscript to a subscription journal with a Rights Retention statement, the ACS will contact the author to ask them to select one of the following: gold OA via a Read & Publish deal; pay an APC for gold OA; pay an ADC for the zero embargo option. This is similar to the SN example above in that ACS is not categorically rejecting the paper, but by omission saying that they will not consider the paper unless the author pays, no matter how excellent that paper is.

ACS and other publishers are simply not listening to their key stakeholders – the same people who provide publishers with their raw material, i.e. content, gratis. I strongly suggest these publishers start taking the demands of researchers into consideration, and ensure researchers can easily retain their rights without charge. Authors are doing this anyway, so a change in policy is only reflecting 21st century Open Scholarship and research dissemination developments.

The rapidly growing number of global universities with IRRPs will be obvious to ACS, and other publishers that attempt to make author rights retention difficult. ACS says that the article development charge will be applied if the zero-embargo route is requested. ACS should note that authors affiliated to an institution with an IRRP i.e. with prior licences, have no need to make such a “request.” My guess is that research institutions will take a very dim view of publisher’s restrictive and expensive positions on authors’ RR both at the point of renewal of their contracts.

ACS and other publishers could choose to desk-reject papers submitted to subscription journals, or those with OA option where OA is not selected, from all the institutions with IRRPs in case the AAM is made OA in a way they don’t like – that is their choice. The way things are going, they’ll have to decline an awful lot of papers in the future. 

My expectation is that, like hybrid OA (OA option in a subscription journal), research funders and institutions will refuse to pay an ADC. Although ACS states that the numbers of researchers needing to use this option will be small because of existing Transformative Agreements (TAs), remember that cOAlition S funders will be ceasing funding for TAs after 2024.

4. Make actions match words

The Open Access Scholarly Publishing Association (OASPA), in its OASPA response to the NIH RFI 2023 (24th April 2023), publicly stated its support of authors retaining their rights:

OASPA has always called for immediate open access to scholarly outputs and so we welcome the move to remove embargos from publications…Furthermore, the proposal of developing language to support authors in retaining their rights and bring clarity to the submission process for both authors and publishers – as well as clear conditions for reuse of published works – is welcomed.

This statement is in favour of zero embargo, rights retention, and clarity. ACS is a member of OASPA. ACS, Springer Nature, and other major publishers that are members of OASPA who insist on embargoes, and push against author rights retention, ought to either amend their policies to align with the OASPA statement, or they should reconsider continuing their membership. It would be hypocritical not to.

Trying to ignore, avoid, or frighten authors about rights retention is looking increasingly like publishers are swimming against an inevitable tide. ACS’s new ADC has added charging authors for rights retention. Rather than continuing to scrabble around for ever more complicated and expensive ways to scupper author rights retention, I wish these publishers would step up and listen to the researchers they claim they serve and support, and graciously change their attitudes. Please call a halt to this increasingly unedifying game of cat and mouse, and accept that authors will keep their rights to use and disseminate their own work as they wish. Change your policies and practice to enable them to do so easily and without payment. You’ll be doing exactly what your paying subscribers and free content suppliers want. It’s that simple.

With thanks to Peter Suber, Johan Rooryck, Chris Banks, Robert Kiley and Chris Morrison.

[1] New institutional rights retention policies (IRRPs) include 30 UK institutions (at least 9 publicly stated as in preparation) and 6 in Norway. There are currently 126 IRRP policies of which I am aware. IRRPs are not institutional impositions on researchers: IRRPs are adopted with both the leadership and support of the researchers at that institution.

Sally Rumsey

Sally Rumsey was, until July 2022, Jisc’s OA Expert working as support for cOAlition S in all areas covered by Plan S, especially the Plan S Rights Retention Strategy. Prior to that, she was Head of Scholarly Communications & RDM, Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford. There she managed the University’s repository service for research outputs, Oxford University Research Archive (ORA and ORA-Data https://ora.ox.ac.uk). She was previously e-Services Librarian and manager of the repository at the London School of Economics. Sally remains a member of the UKSCL (Scholarly Communications Licence) group.