Editor’s Note: Today’s post is by Rob Johnson, Founder and Director of Research Consulting

Heralded by many as a transition mechanism to full open access (OA), hybrid OA has shown impressive growth in recent years, but questions are now being asked of its sustainability. Rob Johnson considers the future prospects for hybrid publishing and argues that publishers need to get serious about offsetting arrangements, if recent progress is to continue.

hotel sign

The growth of hybrid open access

At first glance, hybrid OA publishing is a great success story. Hybrid journals are closed-access subscription journals that allow authors, institutions, or funders to pay a fee (usually in the form of article processing charges or APCs) in order to make individual articles immediately OA. The relative citation impact of hybrid OA articles and reviews published 2009-2015 was 30% above the world average.

Both the fastest-growing and the most popular journal publishing model globally, hybrid OA has underpinned rapid increases in levels of OA in countries, like the United Kingdom, which have embraced it. Between 2009 and 2016, the number of journals offering the hybrid option increased from around 2,000 to almost 10,000 and the number of hybrid articles grew from 8,000 to 45,000. It provides a relatively low-risk way for subscription journals to make some of their content OA and enables authors to comply with funder mandates, gaining increased exposure without compromising on their choice of journal. 45% of all journals in the Scopus database are hybrid, while for 40 major publishers, the proportion is as high as 73%. Indeed, a recent study we undertook for the Publishers’ Research Consortium found that many European authors now take it for granted that subscription journals will offer an OA option.

Growth of Hybrid OA
The growth in hybrid OA articles. Source: Björk B. (2017) Growth of hybrid open access, 2009–2016. PeerJ 5:e3878 https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.3878 (CC-BY)

An unfinished journey

The problem with hybrid is that what was once seen as a brief stopping point on the journey to full OA is starting to feel like a permanent destination. Originally envisaged as a transition mechanism, low levels of uptake by authors call into question the idea that hybrid journals will eventually make the move to a fully OA business model. A recent Universities UK study found that less than 10% of articles in hybrid journals are actually made OA, suggesting that the point at which most journals could ‘flip’ to an APC-based business model remains a long way off. In fact, rather than encouraging flipping from subscriptions to APC-based business models, it would seem that hybrid has instead established itself as a successful mixed business model in its own right. Subscription-based publishing is starting to feel a lot like the “Hotel California” – you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.

This creates a conundrum for funders, who are picking up the costs of a seemingly never-ending transition to OA, and there are signs that some are losing patience. Robert Kiley, Head of Open Research at Wellcome, has observed that rising OA costs are a ‘concern’, while Robert Jan-Smits, the European Union’s Special Envoy for Open Access, notes that ‘we have put ourselves into kind of a very dangerous cobweb’. As Jan-Smits has observed, publishers, researchers and libraries all have a vested interest in preserving the status quo. Yet the appetite for change in the corridors of power should not be underestimated.

Upscaling offsetting

Funders and library consortia are already starting to demand greater transparency from publishers on the ’total cost of publication’, taking into account both subscriptions and APCs. There are also longstanding concerns that hybrid articles aren’t consistently deposited and licensed in accordance with funder requirements. In response, some publishers are experimenting with a range of offsetting agreements. These deals are designed to reduce the overall cost borne by research organizations, by offsetting journal subscription and OA publication costs. Offset agreements can take different forms (such as out-and-out discounts, credits, repayments, read-and-publish bundles and so forth), with varying impacts on research organizations, depending on whether they are net producers or net consumers of research. To date, European consortia have been the driving force behind these deals, but this month’s announcement of a ‘read and publish’ agreement between MIT and the Royal Society of Chemistry indicates growing interest from North American libraries.

Managed effectively, offsetting deals can simplify the workflow for authors and remove the need to operate complex APC payment processes. However, this relies on the presence of robust, standards-driven workflows to identify authors, match them to institutions and funders, and apply the appropriate discounts or waivers. All too often, offsetting instead takes the form of a retrospective reconciliation of subscription and APC costs at the financial year end, and laborious checks by institutions to ensure that authors have not paid APCs unnecessarily.

Seeking ‘radical transparency’

For hybrid publishing to become a sustainable OA strategy, there must be both transparency around the cost of publishing for the institution, and a seamless publishing experience for the author. Institutions are entitled to expect robust reporting to enable them to evaluate value-for-money in offsetting deals, and track compliance with funder mandates. Meanwhile, publishers themselves need to be able to understand and evaluate the impact of these deals on their revenues and ensure that hybrid offers a sustainable transition pathway. This pathway is less likely to take the form of a global ‘flip’ than a gradual shift to OA, the pace of which will vary by both geography and discipline.

For the time being, at least, reports of the death of subscriptions remain greatly exaggerated. For many journals in humanities and social sciences, and highly selective publications in other fields, ‘author pays’ has yet to prove itself a viable business model. The concentration of costs on a few highly-productive institutions and countries, and potentially insurmountable barriers to publication for authors based elsewhere, means a full-OA world is likely to fall some way short of a utopian ideal.

Yet those publishers who have made the ‘hybrid hotel’ a permanent home may soon find themselves forced back onto the road to open access. The argument that subscriptions and APCs represent separate revenue streams for two distinct groups of articles is getting increasingly short shrift from libraries and funders. Some who have hitherto supported hybrid, such as the University of Manchester Library, are already choosing only to fund APCs for those publishers considered to be ‘taking a sustainable and affordable approach to the transition to OA’.  Others are likely to follow suit, with major reviews of UK research funder’s OA policies currently underway, and recent proposals for the EU’s 2021-27 R&D programme (‘Horizon Europe’) suggesting that hybrid APCs will no longer be eligible for funding. Publishers would be well-advised not to get too comfortable with the current healthy state of hybrid OA, and to prepare for more testing times ahead.


13 Thoughts on "Guest Post: Time to Check Out of the Hybrid Hotel?"

Yesterday I went for lunch. The waiter asked for our drink orders and I said a diet coke. The bill came and the cost of the drink was $3.50! I demanded that the restaurant justify the cost of the coke! I demanded transparency!
Only in publishing are there demands for transparency. Cost to do something vary with the producer. So who’s transparency does one accept?
The belief that OA would reduce costs of publishing was unfounded at least and fantasy at best.
Welcome’s and other funders discovery that there is no free lunch though late in coming had to come.

I agree with you that the conflation of OA and cost reductions has been too simplistic, Harvey. However what I’m trying to draw attention to is the fact that funders and libraries are facing significant cost increases as a result of the move to OA, and are starting to question the rationale for these. This is arguably a result of costs being shifted onto first movers and research-intensive countries and institutions, as global offsetting reduces subscriptions elsewhere in the world.

An economist would tell you there are a number of differences between all of this and buying a Diet Coke, which explain why there are greater demands for transparency. A couple of examples:
1. Soft drinks are substitutable goods, academic journals are not. If your Diet Coke gets too expensive you can switch to Pepsi and get much such the same benefit. But if the price of a journal goes up, you can’t buy the same content anywhere else.
2. Coke is a private good, which is depleted by use, and is excludable – you can stop people who haven’t paid for it having access to it. Knowledge, as communicated through journal articles, has characteristics of a public good. Anyone can benefit from it, and it is not diminished by being ‘used’. You can exclude people from accessing it by a paywall, but the motivation behind the OA movement is that knowledge should be non-excludable, meaning everyone has access to it without charge.

All of these means the ‘market’ for academic journals is rather less efficient than that for soft drinks, which results in closer scrutiny by public bodies. It’s worth noting that governments are not averse to meddling in the soft drinks market either though: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/soft-drinks-industry-levy-comes-into-effect

There are some very serious problems with this reply. I do not support Harvey’s position, but it is wrong to say that publications are about knowledge. The copyrighted material concerns solely the tangible expression of ideas, not the ideas themselves. Further, the use of this material often changes its value. Access can provide competitive advantage to researchers and enterprises. Precisely why we would want to eliminate competitive advantages is a mystery to me if those advantages were in fact earned.

I agree that we can make a distinction between the knowledge and the copyrighted material, Joe, and am aware that the ‘public good’ argument for OA is not without its critics. Nevertheless I think it’s important to recognise that it lies behind many of the OA policy developments in Europe, at least, ever since the Finch report described it as ‘fundamentally unanswerable’. There is a much greater willingness to ‘let the market decide’ in the U.S., and the concept of preserving competitive advantage carries more weight, as you observe. There are also practical reasons why a laissez-faire approach predominates in the U.S. , given there is less central co-ordination of institutions and libraries than in Europe.
My point is that many perceive a public interest in having an effective system of scholarly communication, and there are particular characteristics of scholarly publishing which make it an unusual market. Both of these factors lead to greater scrutiny of how prices are set than might be the case elsewhere.

I really appreciate this essay and the reflections it has prompted for me since I read it first thing this morning. I’m particularly asking myself – is the next phase given the questioning of hybrids … acceleration to a global flip to Gold OA journals or a regression to subscription-only with fewer hybrid?

Or something else entirely? From where I sit, neither of those options seems to be the advance that many of us would like. I’m not saying that I have the answer (wish I did!), but would hope that we can collectively think more expansively about models that better serve all participants.

Good point! There is a messiness here that makes it easier to see the challenges than clear paths forward. In part, I imagine, because of the various and disparate goals of players across the system!

Thanks for the comments Lisa, and in essence yes, I think withdrawing support for hybrid means publishers either have to revert back to subscriptions, or push on in the direction of gold OA. In some cases it might be that subscriptions are the only viable option – particularly for highly selective journals, as Alison notes. In practice, though, I think we will see a lot of the spend currently going on hybrid APCs get wrapped up into offsetting/read-and-publish deals, though some at least may be diverted into APCs for full OA journals. Offsetting deals could move things along a little further, but it’s by no means clear how they will work at scale, and particularly who foots the bill if large swathes of content start to become OA in a subscription journal. European libraries (and perhaps some US ones going forward) are pushing hard to contain costs whilst simultaneously making more content OA, but other parts of the world may then start to expect subscription reductions, or even consider cancellations, in light of the growing proportion of OA content.

Thanks, Rob, for highlighting some of the challenges with hybrid. There are a couple of additional issues worth raising in this context that haven’t yet been mentioned explicitly. The first is that one of the reasons driving demand for greater transparency is the hybrid journal APCs are, for the most part, significantly higher than those of gold APC journals. Those footing the bill – not unreasonably – would like to understand that. The second is to note a critical cost that is all too rarely acknowledged or costed, and that is the cost of selectivity. Traditional, highly selective journals – including those published by PLOS – incur expense from the number of papers rejected, increasing per paper cost significantly. That’s really a key issue for the scientific community to grapple with – everyone wants the prestige that comes with selectivity, but no one wants to pay for it.

There is an economic side to the open access debate and it’s part of some general trends. Quite simply, people want stuff for free, or for almost nothing, and various forms of deregulation cater to this. In the travel field, for example, think of Uber drivers over taxi drivers, B&Bs over hotels, even free tour guides (via sites like showaround.com) over professionals. Because of the ease with which an ebook can be pirated, and because Amazon’s book preview feature has been hacked (when you read inside a print volume you’re reading a PDF), I have not authorized my publisher to issue ebooks or digital previews (PDFs) of my academic monographs.

The challenges confronting scholarly publishing are part of a wider problem. Open access is great, but somebody has to be paid for their work once in a while.

Agreed, but even if that element were removed from the equation the fares would probably compare favorably to taxi fares in most major cities. Uber drivers don’t pay high registration fees and other costs taxi drivers have to pay. Open access in publishing is trickier to start because freedom of expression (or publishing) is an easy “moral” card to play, not that I’d compare a PDF on a website to an 18th-century printing press!

My point was that even when something appears to be “free” or “cheap”, there is usually still someone paying the bills. With Uber, it’s the investors paying for more than half the costs of your ride. Not sure there’s an equivalent willing to cover publication costs for authors.

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