Belly flop
The goal is to avoid this. Image courtesy of

The question of whether – and, if so, when and how – to ‘flip’ a traditional, subscription-based journal to open access (OA) is one that comes up time and again in meetings with our society partners. It’s also something that funders sometimes like to suggest as a quick route to a more open world – “Why not just convert all your journals to OA?” they ask.

Needless to say, it’s not quite that simple. The SCOAP3 initiative to (ultimately) make all journals in the field of high energy physics openly available is probably the best-known and biggest attempt at flipping en masse. And, to quote Ann Okerson, SCOAP3 National Contact Point for the US, in this Scholarly Kitchen interview last year, “To test converting an entire sub-discipline to OA is no small thing.” She also notes that, “SCOAP3 is an observatory, a Grand Pilot, and a test of various things — to what extent it can be a model for other disciplines is one of those aspects to be tested. With SCOAP3, we had the adventure of being first to try something — we have a lot to offer to other sub-disciplines that may wish to try the SCOAP3 ‘flip’ from subscription to OA/APC [Article Processing Charge], and we can help them shortcut their implementation time!”

So perhaps in time a more wholesale approach to flipping journals will be feasible but, for now, doing so on a case-by-case, journal-by-journal basis is more likely to be the norm. Even then, however, the process is far from straightforward, as the UK Open Access Implementation Group notes in its online guide, Gold Open Access for Learned Societies?, which includes this beast of a flowchart summarizing the decision-making process.

Wiley, like other publishers, has been experimenting with flipping some journals, both proprietary and society-owned, to OA. For the right titles, it’s proving successful – and there are some real benefits. Moving to OA can help a good but slow-growing journal succeed more quickly. It can be an opportunity to experiment with gold OA without the risk and cost of starting from scratch. No longer being confined by page budgets means you can publish more.

But there are also some potential drawbacks. Gold OA journals are still viewed with distrust by some people (as seen in this 2013 CIBER Research/University of Tennessee study), which could put off potential authors and readers, and ultimately lead to a drop in usage and Impact Factor (not to mention revenue). Plus there’s almost always an initial financial risk involved for the publisher and/or the society.

So how do you pick the right title, capitalize on the benefits, and minimize the risks? In our experience, a good candidate would ideally meet most, if not all, of the following criteria:

  • Modest subscription revenue
  • High quality and growing submissions
  • High rejection rate (60%+)
  • Well-funded field with money available for APCs
  • Author community already actively publishing in an OA manner

A typical journal for consideration, therefore, would be relatively young; in a fast-moving, competitive, and well-funded field; and with an author pool that is already publishing OA. Ideally it should also be well-regarded, with a good Impact Factor, and a strong, active editorial board.

Once a suitable candidate is identified the fun really starts, as careful modeling is needed to determine whether moving to OA really is viable. Submission and rejection analysis, as well as financial modeling, are helpful ways to look at variables, including the potential impact on non-subscription revenue (eg, rights, corporate sales – revenue that will reduce or disappear altogether once articles are openly available); the volume and level of waivers you’re likely to grant (especially for articles already accepted but not yet published); and a probable initial dip in overall revenue as the market adjusts to the new business model.

Having a realistic timeline is also essential. Don’t attempt to flip too quickly, and definitely don’t do it mid-volume. Authors and librarians alike will need plenty of warning about the change, so at least a year’s preparation is needed. And don’t forget – marketing, marketing, marketing! Getting the message out early, clearly, and consistently will give your flip the best chance of success. Focusing on authors as customers, rather than libraries (as purchasers) or researchers (as readers) requires something of a change in mindset for most marketers. Rather than focusing their efforts on promoting the content you publish, they’ll be spending a lot of time marketing services for authors – from easy article publication charge payment to altmetrics and beyond.

It’s impossible to predict how successful (or not) any one journal’s conversion to OA will be and, for most journals, it will be several years before you can evaluate this. By way of example, the eight journals that we’ve flipped so far (excluding the three we added in 2015) have averaged an increase of 37% in papers submitted in their first year – however, that ranges from a 30% decrease to an increase of over 150%. But, as with everything, practice makes perfect, and the more we flip the less we flop!

You can learn more about one of our most successful flips, EMBO Molecular Medicine, in this video of my colleague Jackie Jones speaking at last year’s Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers’ annual meeting.

Alice Meadows

Alice Meadows

I am a Co-Founder of the MoreBrains Cooperative, a scholarly communications consultancy with a focus on open research and research infrastructure. I have many years experience of both scholarly publishing (including at Blackwell Publishing and Wiley) and research infrastructure (at ORCID and, most recently, NISO, where I was Director of Community Engagement). I’m actively involved in the information community, and served as SSP President in 2021-22. I was honored to receive the SSP Distinguished Service Award in 2018, the ALPSP Award for Contribution to Scholarly Publishing in 2016, and the ISMTE Recognition Award in 2013. I’m passionate about improving trust in scholarly communications, and about addressing inequities in our community (and beyond!). Note: The opinions expressed here are my own


6 Thoughts on "Flipping, not Flopping: Converting Subscription Journals to Open Access"

Love the beastly flowchart, but I suspect it does not include what I call “looping” which means getting to a given point and finding one has to go back several steps and start over. Novel situations often involve a lot of looping (which I call “chaos management”). As for it being a beast, when I develop something like this and my client asks “why did you make it so complicated?” I usually say “this is an accurate picture of your situation.”

Ignoring the intrinsic complexity is a prescription for failure. Or as Pogo might say, this job ain’t simple.

These sorts of studies are interesting, but correlative at best. If I’m reading the posts right, they’re looking at journals that moved to the BMC platform and became OA, and then experienced Impact Factor growth over the next several years. I’m not sure it’s possible to conclude whether OA was the causative factor here. Moving from self-publishing, or being published by a small, regional publisher to a huge and effective platform like that wielded by Springer/BMC, access to a global marketing team, massively increasing discoverability, getting expert editorial strategy advice, all of these things could just as easily have resulted in the Impact Factor growth seen as the OA status of the articles.

Observational studies like these can show correlations, but without proper controls, one cannot determine causation.

Thank you, Alice, for a particularly insightful post. I have one comment. In the list of requirements or elements of a successful “flip” candidate, it seems to me that the first on the list trumps all: modest subscription revenue. Would you flip a journal with strong subscriptions? What do you lose if you flip one with modest–or no–revenue? The other items on the list sound to me like good publishing pure and simple. For example, all editors like to see a lot of manuscript submissions coming in. I am not suggesting that all publications with modest subscription revenue can successfully make the flip, only that there is no reason not to try this if that is indeed a journal’s circumstance.

Thanks Joe – I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. It would indeed be especially challenging to successfully convert a subscription journal with high revenues to OA and I imagine that is part of the reason why not all high energy physics journals have signed up to SCOAP3.

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