Annual Reviews is an eighty-six-year-old independent, not-for-profit publisher with a mission to synthesize and integrate knowledge for the progress of science and the benefit of society. It publishes 50 review journals across the physical sciences, life, biomedical, physical, and social sciences. The reviews capture current understanding of a particular topic, including what is well supported and what is controversial; set the work in historical context; highlight the major questions that remain to be addressed and the likely course of research in upcoming years; and outline the practical applications and overall significance of research to society.
Annual Reviews is keen to pursue open access (OA), believing its content to be of wide general interest, but does not consider APCs to be a viable route. The reviews are invited, and it can take three or four months to write them, so the publisher feels that it is not appropriate to present the author with a bill/invoice to publish. In addition, Annual Reviews authors rarely cite funder support, closing off the most obvious source of APC-based funding.
Instead, the staff of Annual Reviews want existing library subscription payments for gated access journals to be leveraged and then retained to convert and sustain the journals as OA. They are putting the idea to the test with a program called Subscribe to Open.
In this post, I interviewed Richard Gallagher, President and Editor-in-Chief of Annual Reviews, and Kamran Naim, Director of Partnerships and Initiatives, about the organization’s rationale for pursuing OA and details of their Subscribe to Open approach.
Annual Review journals are not subject to specific funding mandates, so why are you pursuing OA so deliberately?
There is both a push and a pull. The push is the OA movement itself. As an organization that is run for researchers and by researchers, Annual Reviews is very aware of the support for removing barriers to access for all science publications, and we want to participate. It is a fit with our mission to contribute to the progress of science. The pull comes from the other component of our mission, benefiting society. A functional democracy requires that citizens have access to the knowledge and wisdom of the world’s leading researchers. Annual Reviews authors address many of the issues that society is grappling with today — climate change, aging, mental health, food and water security, crime and justice, and so on. Making Annual Reviews freely available would be a powerful public benefit and we are experimenting with ways to make this shift a reality.
We have also developed Knowable Magazine as a complementary approach to opening up our content. It presents journalistic coverage of the real-world significance of science. All the content is published OA CC-BY-ND and the html version of relevant Annual Reviews articles are opened up for readers who want a deeper dive.
Do you have evidence that Annual Reviews content will be widely accessed when open?
We do. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation provided funds to publish the 2017 volume of the Annual Review of Public Health open access and at the same time we made the back volumes freely available. There was dramatic increase in usage. In February 2017, there were 26,000 downloads from the Annual Review of Public Health; in February 2019, there were 144,000. When it was a subscription-only publication, researchers and students from 2,000 subscribing institutions from 57 countries had access. In just the first six months of 2018, the Annual Review of Public Health was accessed from more than 9,900 institutions across 132 countries. This included a lot more universities and corporations, but also government and state agencies, NGOs, schools, hospitals and even prisons.
What is your strategy to transition to OA?
It is premised on the notion — advanced by groups such as OA2020 — that if libraries were to transition their current subscriptions to support OA publishing, there are sufficient financial resources in the system to support a full transition.
Subscribe to Open will succeed if all of our current customers continue to subscribe, and we are offering a 5% discount as a financial incentive. If we don’t get full participation, the project will not succeed, in which case institutions that wish to receive the content will need to have a traditional, gated access subscription at the list (undiscounted) price. There is no opportunity for subscribers to free-ride. In future years, non-subscribing institutions that regularly access the open access titles will be invited to become subscribers.
Because Subscribe to Open is contingent upon the participation of all subscribers, it is effectively a subscription. It can’t be interpreted as a voluntary donation and should not, therefore, violate state procurement policies. This allows libraries to utilize their existing subscription spends to support an OA program without the need for new OA funds.
Numerous intellectual and practical contributions have guided us to this model, for example that of Martin Paul Eve, and we also acknowledge guidance from many librarians, funders and publishers as we developed Subscribe to Open.
Will you set a public financial threshold to reach before you switch content to open?
Annual Reviews operates on a balanced budget – revenues closely match our expenditure – so we need essentially all subscribers on board for Subscribe to Open. For this reason, we will not be setting a public financial threshold, as it would introduce a group dynamic in which some institutions may delay their decision or attempt to free-ride if they believe the threshold will be met by other subscribers. Instead, the Subscribe to Open offer remains very much a subscription: the only way an institution can guarantee access to the journals is by participating, and they are further incentivized with the discount. Subscribe to Open is therefore a self-interested economic decision that should be taken by individual institutions.
Is the approach penalizing existing subscribers by letting others free-ride?
We don’t believe so. Our existing customers value Annual Reviews. We are asking them to continue to pay for access (at a slightly reduced price) while leveraging their collection budget in a dramatic fashion. We have discussed Subscribe to Open extensively with librarians who subscribe to Annual Reviews and their reaction has been very positive.
Does this lock libraries in to subscribe in perpetuity?
As with any subscription, institutions will participate in Subscribe to Open for as long as they value access to the content. There is no lock-in risk.
Do you have concerns about a loss of support after an initial surge of support dies down?
It is something we will be watchful for. However, we also see the opportunity to attract support from institutions that do not currently subscribe, if we can present them with impressive usage statistics. Also, while Subscribe to Open as currently conceived does not rely on additional income sources, we will look at mechanisms to top up funding if it should wane.
How does Subscribe to Open play with Plan S advocates?
We had already set our course on Subscribe to Open before Plan S was announced and it (indeed the open access movement in general) has not given much consideration to reviews. Nonetheless, we have engaged the leaders of Plan S on three occasions and each time they have been supportive of Subscribe to Open. They realize that there is need for diverse approaches to open access and that we are not the only publisher that can’t readily implement APCs. We view Subscribe to Open as a realistic and immediate route to open access.
When will you be launching the Subscribe to Open program?
We intend to pilot Subscribe to Open with five titles in 2020 and are currently introducing these plans to our customers. If all subscribing libraries participate, we guarantee that next year’s volumes will be published OA (with CC-BY licenses), all back volumes will be made freely available, and we will make usage statistics generally available so that subscribers and others can judge the effectiveness of Subscribe to Open.
What role do you think Subscribe to Open can play in shaping the future of OA?
Every publisher has a unique set of factors to juggle, but it is possible that Subscribe to Open will be a valid approach for a range of publishers, particularly society and nonprofits that enjoy collegial relations with their customers. We are happy to share our experience with Subscribe to Open with others who are exploring OA options, just as we hope to learn of alternative approaches from others.