Once seen as the gateway to full open access (OA), hybrid journals have either been wildly successful or a total failure. A hybrid journal is when authors can publish a paper in a subscription journal and choose to make it OA, typically by paying an article processing charge (APC).

If the goal of hybrid OA was to facilitate a global flip to full OA, the goal has, at least so far, failed after decades of trying.

If the goal of hybrid OA was to provide options for authors to select OA while still publishing in their preferred journals, then it’s been a roaring success. Let’s look at the numbers.

Antique mirror

The number of journals offering hybrid went from 2,000 in 2009 to 10,000 in 2016 with articles growing from 8,000 to 45,000.

While these overall numbers seem high, studies have found that journals offering hybrid on average have at most 10% of the content as OA to as little as 4.3% — meaning, the vast majority of content in most hybrid journals is not supported by APCs and thus, there is no clear level of sustainable financial support to flip the journals to a fully OA models. There are certainly journals offering hybrid OA that have received zero OA requests and others that receive many more.

The danger for a subscription journal offering some papers as APC-supported OA is well documented. Some in the library community complain of “double-dipping.” A journal that reaches a certain threshold of OA content will likely feel pressure to provide offsets, not an unreasonable or uncomplicated expectation.

For the publisher, the only “extra work” needed to make a journal hybrid is to have a way of collecting an APC and ensuring that all licensing and metadata around licensing is clear.

Many publishers, particularly society publishers, sat on the sidelines of offering hybrid OA, especially if their community of authors weren’t asking for an OA option. This changed with the 2013 Finch Report and the promise of widespread availability of APCs for hybrid journals. Not wanting to be left off the list of journals available to receive RCUK funded papers, many publishers added a hybrid OA option.

So here we are, many years into rapid hybrid OA growth, and the number of journals that have successfully flipped has been modest.

I have long argued that multiple business models can, and should, be supported in order to ensure sustainability, as well as providing different research communities with outlets that meet their different needs. The continuing existence of hybrid journals is one element to this balance, particularly for research communities that are not heavily funded through government or philanthropic organizations.

Enter Plan S. According to the list of principles provided by cOAlition S, the funding agencies participating in Plan S intend to disallow publication in hybrid journals. While there may be some sort of “transition” period allowed — a transition from the transition — for journals that have been offering hybrid and have not seen enough uptake of OA to flip their journals, this is certainly a concern.

The size of the concern over losing hybrid depends on a lot of factors for any given publisher or journal. The biggest factor is how many papers a journal is currently receiving from the small number of funding agencies signed on to Plan S. A publisher with only a handful of papers from Plan S agencies may decide to walk away from those authors entirely instead of starting a new OA journal or flipping a subscription journal that has little hope of attracting enough OA submissions to keep it alive.

Another option is to create “mirror journals”. Mirror journals are essentially new journals that piggyback off existing journals for the sole purpose of offering a fully-OA option. Part A of a journal would be the already existing subscription or hybrid journal, and a new journal, part B, would be a fully-OA version of the same title.

These would be separate publications, with separate ISSNs. However, both parts A and B of the journal twins would have the same editorial board, the same aims and scope, and the same editorial peer review policies. Authors would submit their manuscripts through one shared system for peer review. Upon acceptance, the author would be given the choice of publishing the paper in the hybrid original title, or the fully-OA title.

Mirror journals solve several problems:

  • These are two journals that can have two separate business models. If one part goes subscription only and the other goes OA only, it’s easier to leave behind the concerns of double-dipping. That said, publishers may want to continue to give authors the maximum amount of choice, meaning non-Plan S funded authors could continue to opt for OA in the established journal as a hybrid model.
  • No need for publishers to launch brand new OA journals that are generic in scope and fail to reach specific audiences.
  • Any funding mandates for Gold OA are met while still providing authors with the option of publishing in their community journals.
  • Separate journals make for cleaner offerings to libraries that may want to add pre-paid or discounted OA fees to their subscription purchase. Mirror journals would be eligible for “Read and Publish”-style arrangements, helping mitigate the additional costs that Plan S members are voluntarily taking on.
  • The editorial decision process is separated from the financial model for the journal. Editors don’t know whether an author will choose to pay an APC until after their decision is made, so this reduces economic influences on what gets accepted.

The cost for creating mirror journals seems relatively low — though more than for adding a hybrid offering to an existing journal. Each new part B journal will need its own ISSN and the mirror variant will need to be set up as an independent title on the publishing platform. The platform fees will vary depending on the provider. Journal workflows may need to be adjusted to incorporate the post-acceptance fork. New contract addenda will be needed for any societies working with a publisher partner. Again, this will vary by each journal’s individual situation.

Indexing is still a bit of a mystery in these scenarios. A benefit of hybrid OA is that the journal can make this offering available to authors while maintaining its status on indexing sites like Scopus and Web of Science. But what happens to the Impact Factor when a mirror journal is launched?

It’s not clear whether mirror journals would be considered new publications, or seen as a “split” of an existing journal. Per the rules of splitting journals provided to me by Thomson Reuters in 2015 (since purchased by Clarivate), the journal as a single title keeps its IF in year one. In year two, parts A and B both get Impact Factors based on one year of citation and source counts. Parts A and B get full two-year Impact Factors in year three.

In other words, by year two of the split, the journals will go their separate ways in terms of Impact Factor. The other rule for splitting is that the content and scope of the two new journals (parts A and B) come from the original title. In the case of mirror journals, they would be identical. I did ask Clarivate if these rules would hold true for mirror journals and I received the following response from Nandita Quaderi, Editor in Chief, Scholarly and Academic Research:

Clarivate Analytics cannot determine a general indexing policy position at this stage as no publisher policy has yet been announced. We will respond to any changing situation if, later, a clear outcome is agreed between research publishers and research funding organizations. Our response will be guided by the principles of fairness and editorial balance that have been exercised throughout the development of our citation indices. We look forward to close engagement with all interested parties.

While the answer is theoretical in nature, in practice, some of these journals already exist. The American Mathematical Society has had a “series B” fully-OA version of their transactions journal and their proceedings journal since 2014 (described here).

Elsevier has launched a few journals, one called Water Research X, which has the same board and the same scope as Water Research, and now Journal of Hydrology X with the same model. The submission and review process appears to be the same for both the original and the “X” titles. They do both have different ISSNs.

In theory, for Plan S-funded authors it should not matter if the new title has an Impact Factor given that Plan S specifically calls for adherence to the DORA principles, which eschews the use of Impact Factor in assessing the quality of work of an individual. This will be fine for authors whose career path keeps them under Plan S funding, but may cause problems for international collaborators or researchers who may wish to one day move to areas with different funding and evaluation conditions. At the very least, mirror journals allow Plan S authors to benefit from the existing reputations of the original titles, even if the new OA version’s Impact Factor does not measure up.

Adopting mirror journals will create a whole lot of new journals. It’s been widely reported that up to 85% of the journals that currently exist would be off limits to Plan S-funded authors. Does this mean that we need to duplicate 85% of the world’s journals? Publishers will need to decide which journals would benefit from having a mirror. Again, this may depend on which funders intend to adopt Plan S and what kind of research those agencies fund.

Some colleagues have stressed concern with how the architects of Plan S might respond to mirror journals. Will an organization that has outlawed hybrid OA see this as an attempt to recreate hybrid under a different name? It’s hard to tell. In a recent interview with Richard Poynder, Robert-Jan Smits declared, “It is for publishers to provide Plan S-compliant routes to publication in their journals so that researchers can choose where to publish when accepting funding from those who sign Plan S.” Smits apparently discussed the Elsevier title recently and was reportedly lukewarm to the concept.

While mirror journals seem to fit the bill for publishers enabling “Plan S-compliant routes,” they will not provide the sought after financial relief that seems to motivate the plan for banning hybrid OA as an option. Plan S members would be voluntarily taking on the additional financial burden of paying for their own authors’ OA publications while still having to pay to subscribe to access the research published by the rest of the world.

Some academics have made the argument that academic freedom is being impinged when they cannot choose the appropriate venue for their work. Others have raised concerns about what happens to society publishers in the face of any wide-spread Plan S-like provisions. To that, Smits reportedly stated that societies will need to “bite the bullet and go open access.”

Mirror journals allow for the authors to remain within the journal communities they already support, be it commercial journals or society journals, while still providing a Plan S-compliant avenue for their papers. This may be the only option for many research societies other than shunning Plan S researchers entirely.

As long as APCs are not capped (another principle of Plan S) at a rate lower than what publishers of ALL sizes can afford, mirror journals will stand alone and not be dependent on revenue from the subscription journal. If the OA version fails to displace content from the subscription journal, both versions of the journal will continue to co-exist. If, over time, the majority of content moves over to the fully-OA version, the two titles can eventually be merged back into one.

Putting the considerations for Plan S aside, mirror journals may provide a better path to full OA in that there is no risk with having to flip an already profitable or break-even journal. Both parts of the journal can peacefully co-exist until such time that the OA journal is outpacing the subscription journal making the subscription journal obsolete.

Angela Cochran

Angela Cochran

Angela Cochran is Vice President of Publishing at the American Society of Clinical Oncology. She is past president of the Society for Scholarly Publishing and of the Council of Science Editors. Views on TSK are her own.


26 Thoughts on "Are Mirror Journals a Better Path to the Open Access Flip?"

This is a useful and informative post on mirroring. The open questions are whether authors and evaluators will indeed see the sister journal as having the same quality and prestige as the original. It is also unclear whether the original will remain hybrid or will revert to subscription only. I know Elsevier is planning to do the latter with at least a number of journals. Another unknown is the all important APC cap. It is very likely that that won’t be at the level of current top priced APCs (in the range of 3000-6000 USD). Will the consequence of that be that the APC in journal B will be lower than in journal A in order to make journal B Plan S compliant? And will the hybrid OA in journal A then become moot? Finally, scientometricians will like to study this experiment to look at open access citation advantage levels as it creates a situation where almost all is the same except for OA status (and any submission bias).

The Impact Factor questions are really interesting. If publishing in a journal with no IF is seen as a problem for authors, then I would think that publishers would keep the original journal a hybrid, allowing those who want to publish OA (or are required to by policies that don’t forbid hybrid) to do so without taking the hit from publishing in a non-IF journal. As for the IF of the new B journals, selection bias would certainly play a role, but also they’re going to vary widely because they’ll be dealing with a relatively low sample size. Delta Think puts Plan S articles at about 3.3% of the literature (https://deltathink.com/news-views-potential-impact-of-plan-s/), although this may vary depending on how the UK implements their iteration. Even with full UK participation, most B journals are going to be pretty small, so either they won’t qualify for an IF, or if they do, they will be enormously variant depending on the citations to a very small number of papers. One could see huge shifts every 2 years as one well-cited paper drives the B version above the A version, and when that paper stops counting, it could drop drastically, and everyone will rush back to the A version which, by its size, may be more stable. Kind of like what we see for megajournals but played out on a much faster scale.

Incidentally I suggested the same approach and was brushed aside by my “superiors” saying “the top management will come up with something that is needed”.
Thank you for putting this up as a post. Mirror Journals are feared for nothing actually. Its clear demarcation between OA and Paywall, while still keeping the back-end and review processes the same and thus retaining the reputation effect. The only beast to deal with is the Impact Factor (diversion: why is this grade school metric still alive anyway? Can’t the brains that deal with complex ‘rocket science’ come up with something better?)

I’m very curious what Elsevier does with CiteScore currently and plans in the future about such a situation.

On the surface, Open Access should be straightforward. Everything is free and can be used, reused and shared – or can it? And if this is the case, how can it be sustainable as a business model? Ingenta have launched the Ingenta Open platform and invite you to attend the free webinar on Wednesday 14th November, where our guest presenter Eelco Ferwerda, director of OAPEN will discuss Open Access. An unmissable session for anyone interested in OA publishing, or looking to flip to an OA model. The webinar starts at 15.00 GMT / 16.00 CET / 10.00 EST. To register please visit: https://www.ingenta.com/event/ingenta-webinar-open-access/ We hope you can make it.

Here’s where it gets interesting — under Plan S, the article must be CC BY licensed. That means you could simultaneously publish it in both journals (or, to be fair, publish it in the open variant and immediately re-publish it in the subscription/hybrid version). Then the author would get all the reputation/Impact Factor benefits of the original journal while still remaining compliant.

If you did this, would you give each version a separate DOI? How would Clarivate and other metrics companies handle citations to the different versions?

I hadn’t thought of that. That would be a mess. I had given DOIs a thought because my workflow assigns the DOI, which is journal specific, at acceptance. If I had one system splitting journals into multiple sites, I would need to change the DOI structure to not be specific, which fits the bill. Does CrossRef allow us to register the same DOI to two different titles?

If re-published in a new Journal, it should have a new DOI assigned. The point is that Article’s data and Metadata should clearly show where the original version of the Article was published firstly.

If the new version clearly shows that is a republication, authors should cite the first. If not, perhaps someone could refer to COPE for Redundant (duplicate) publication malpractice.

I don’t suspect many journals would take this route, but it (wreaking havoc in the citation record) is perhaps an unintended consequence of the CC BY license.

If the article is published under CC-BY then there is no ethical malpractice for publishing it again. That’s the whole point of OA measures pushing CC-BY as the only alternative–so these papers can be published/posted wherever and by whomever.

There mightn’t be ethical malpractice in submitting your CC-BY work to a journal from the author’s end, but the journal editors themselves guard for novelty of publication in their journal (the orig version and the OA version). Given how mirroring works they have already handled the paper and accepted it. If it is resubmitted to them, why would they publish it again? E.g., author *can* resubmit the work, but journal editors also *can* reject work that has already been published.

Angela one more comment, relating to the wording ‘small’ number of funding agencies signed on to Plan S

1) the number of funders signing on to Plan S is increasing weekly/monthly (https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-06895-z)
2) the amount of funded research is quite a substantial number, from said ‘small’ number of funders, around $16 billion total by my count now.

Your summary though on how serious and concerned publishers are about Plan S, and the risk/impact assessment they are carrying out, is spot on, albeit I see it’s going to be a continually moving target, as more funders join and adopt the Plan S policies, what might not seem a big issue one week, could suddenly become one.

It’s good to fully discuss and think through the mirror journal option, idea, and challenges/opportunities together as a community, I’m pleased to see TSK, this post, and the comments are doing this, I’m sure there will be many more discussions, posts and perspectives we will hear as the conversation and plans evolve !

” The biggest factor is how many papers a journal is currently receiving from the small number of funding agencies signed on to Plan S. A publisher with only a handful of papers from Plan S agencies may decide to walk away from those authors entirely instead of starting a new OA journal or flipping a subscription journal that has little hope of attracting enough OA submissions to keep it alive.”

Some colleagues have stressed concern with how the architects of Plan S might respond to mirror journals. Will an organization that has outlawed hybrid OA see this as an attempt to recreate hybrid under a different name?

When new policies/mandates are introduced, I always try to think about monitoring and enforcement. I don’t see any practical way for a Plan S funder to effectively “ban” the use of mirror journals from being compliant with their requirements, short of condemning themselves to the expensive, time-consuming, and ultimately fruitless creation of whitelists and blacklists for different journal titles. Confirming that every single article submitted for evaluation was immediately available and confirming its licensing conditions seems like enough of a logistical nightmare. Having to constantly review every single journal’s publication process forever seems like an enormous waste of money that could instead pay for research.

And that’s not even getting into potential legal challenges of restraint of trade, depending on the individual country’s laws.

You raise the point of whether the OA version in a mirror journal will displace content from the subscription version of the journal. The two “mirror” journals from the American Mathematical Society have published four complete years. The counts of papers published in each for the years 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 are:
Transactions (subscription): 242, 303, 299, 314;
Transactions Series B (Gold Open Access): 3, 4, 3, 5;
Proceedings (subscription): 400, 494, 488, 473;
Proceedings Series B (Gold Open Access): 13, 4, 3, 6.
Results in disciplines other than mathematics may vary.

I suppose and expect that publishers can even provide combined views/filters over both A and B. That way, the reader will have an option to experience the content of both journals as one timeline of papers, of course with A/B indicated. By the way, 6 weeks back there was also a long discussion thread on Twitter on A/B journals this: https://twitter.com/jeroenbosman/status/1041293138759954433

And calling the B journals X instead of A/B is not very smart, as that leaves a higher chance that in alphabetical listings other journal will sneak in between 😉

Regarding the question whether this is hybrid or not I would say that by definition it is not, although Plan S initiators may raise eyebrows. Important is of course which incentives it creates and which options it leaves. First, it is easier for funders/insitutions to demand hybrid without making publishing in some journals difficult (given an APC that is below the cap set). Second, it potentially makes pricing/value more transparent, making it easier to not submit or even unsubscribe from journal A. Third, and most important, it does not provide an incentive to authors to look for alternative and cheaper or more forward thinking publication routes compliant with Plan S, such as those based on preprints & overlay PR, diamond OA journals or other options we outline in the 8 routes to Plan S compliance post: https://101innovations.wordpress.com/2018/10/22/eight-routes-towards-plan-s-compliance/

The long road to Open Access has been littered with unintended consequences, which have made the original aims that much harder to achieve. One such consequence we might see here is another burst of predatory journal activity, with new journals dressed up as mirror journals to legitimate titles. Cabells already has over 9,000 journals on its Blacklist (https://www2.cabells.com/blacklist), and this move could incentivise yet more.

Mirror journals will certainly cause citation ambiguity in the Web of Science and counting issues when calculating Journal Impact Factors. Case in point: The Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery had two editions– an American edition (-Am) and a British edition (Br-). Citing authors often confused editions, frequently assigning the wrong source to a reference. This referencing problem was further exacerbated by the fact that both journals followed the same volume assignment. Clarivate’s solution was to simply split the ambiguous citations and assign them 50/50 to each edition. The ultimate solution to solving the citation ambiguity problem was to change journal names. JBJS-Br. is now known as The Bone and Joint Journal.

An alternative to full “mirroring” with Journal of FavouriteSubject A (reader/subscriber pays) and Journal of FavouriteSubject B (= funder/author pays) that may be worth considering is having one or more OA issues per annual volume with separate pagination. Subscription content (for instance) could be numbered page 1 to page 400; the OA content or issues as (for instance) OA-1 to OA-400. This has a few advantages, it seems to me:
– The separation is readily transparent and prices for the “subscription” content can be adapted depending on the amount of this type of content. There can be no accusation of double dipping.
– Flipping and how far it has gone is also transparent
– There is no need for a new ISSN, there is no journal ambiguity
– Clarivate has no need to re-evaluate the “mirror” journal or to calculate two sets of citation statistics, as the editorial process would remain identical
– The decision for OA or subscriber-paid publication can be made after acceptance, so avoiding pressure to accept and thus increase APC revenue

I mentioned this idea to Clarivate in Frankfurt, who seemed concerned about the effort of potentially having to evaluate hundreds or thousands of mirror journal, but at the same time appeared to be thinking about streamlining the evaluation of mirror journals. It seems to me the OA issues would be way out for them too. We only publish around 40 journals – if others of you from larger journal publishers think it has some mileage, perhaps you could take up the baton with me!

Wouldn’t that just be considered a “hybrid” journal by the coalition that has decided to declare publication in hybrid journals non-compliant?

You’re right of course – but I’d heard (not sure where) that the Plan S group had somewhat weakened the absolute “no-hybrid” stance, at least for a transition period, and thought this could be a way of at minimum making a journal that is looking to flip from paid access to OA very transparent, without the relative pain of a complete mirror journal. A precondition for its feasibility would be that Plan S proponents are amenable to discussions of how flips could be done in an acceptable manner. Or it is indeed just a daft idea!

I think the idea of mirror journals is interesting, though I don’t see that it solves the fundamental problem for humanities journals, which is that authors do not have the funds to pay for OA–whether that’s in a hybrid journal or a fully open journal.

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