Annual Reviews announced today that the 2020 volume of the Annual Review of Cancer Biology has been published open access and that the back volumes of this journal are also now available for free reading. As the pioneer of the Subscribe to Open model, congratulations are due on achieving their first open title. The 2020 articles are published copyright to Annual Reviews with a CC-BY license. The backfiles do not carry a CC license. Annual Reviews developed their Subscribe to Open model in partnership with Raym Crow, Managing Partner, Chain Bridge Group, with funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. As interest in Subscribe to Open grows based on the experiences of early innovations, publishers and libraries need to develop an understanding of the various approaches to Subscribe to Open and the benefits and limitations of the model.
Subscribe to Open is an example of an assurance approach to addressing a collective action challenge. In the Subscribe to Open model developed by Annual Reviews, each subscribing library is motivated to continue to subscribe (because they have been a subscriber and as such have already made a decision that the content is worth paying for) by a discount that is built into the Subscribe to Open offer. The model is two-fold. First, if all libraries continue to subscribe, then not only will those libraries have access to the content for their users, but Annual Reviews will also make the content openly available to non-subscribers as well and apply a CC-BY license to the articles. Second, if all libraries do not continue to subscribe, then those that do will still receive the discount — as well as access to the content — but the content will not be made available to non-subscribers. In either scenario, the subscribing libraries receive a discount and access to the content. Essentially, this is a no-risk opt-in for the subscribing institution. Martin Paul Eve has outlined a similar possible model for society publishers but with a three year rather than annual timeframe.
Ultimately, Subscribe to Open builds easily from the established subscription system, maintaining many of its affordances while also opening content. Curtis Brundy of Iowa State University shared with me his view that, “Since it is based on the current subscription system, it is relatively easy to adopt for publishers and libraries. The annual recurrence offers a way to control free-riding. And since it isn’t article based, it doesn’t erect a barrier in front of authors.”
Subscribe to Open also offers an additional benefit to publishers that may not be immediately apparent. As a model, it sidesteps the additional demands that libraries and funders are increasingly requiring of open access publishers, which they do not demand of their subscriptions. The most obvious of these currently in play is copyright retention by authors. Many libraries and funders require copyright retention as a principle for funding, for example, an APC. Some Subscribe to Open models include copyright retention by authors but not all. For example, Annual Reviews is still requiring copyright transfer at this point. Richard Gallagher, President and Editor-in-Chief of Annual Reviews, explained that, “During this pilot phase of S2O, we are asking authors to transfer copyright…because articles started the copyedit and finalization process months before we knew if S2O would be successful.” Though Gallagher said that Annual Reviews looks to develop a workflow that includes copyright retention, by having the copyright transferred during the pilot, Annual Reviews “can quickly alter the license to CC-BY” after the Subscribe to Open threshold is reached.
Annual Reviews is not the only publisher exploring Subscribe to Open. Raym Crow shared with me that he “is in discussions with several society and university press publishers interested in exploring” the model. In January, Berghahn Journals announced the success of their Berghahn Open Anthro Project, which worked with Knowledge Unlatched to implement their Subscribe to Open model. 13 journals in anthropology will be published open access during the 3-year pilot and authors retain their copyright and choose among three CC licenses for their work. The backfiles of the Berghahn journals do not become freely available via Subscribe to Open. And, just last week, EDP Sciences announced Subscribe to Open for its journal, Mathematical Modelling of Natural Phenomena. In the EDP Subscribe to Open mode, for new articles, authors retain their copyright and publish their work with a CC-BY license and the backfile of articles is available for free reading.
Challenges and Limitations
Perhaps obviously, Subscribe to Open is only a model for funding open access publishing for those publications that have subscribers. This seemingly obvious statement is important to unpack because the number of publications that might be offered under this model is more limited than it might initially appear. First, of course, this model is not possible for native open access publishers or any publications that are currently “Diamond” journals that are subvented in some way. These publications do not have subscribers.
Second, many journals do not have subscribers in the way that Subscribe to Open requires. For example, Michael Clarke has detailed how society journals published in partnership with commercial publishers likely no longer have a subscriber list as those publishers focus on selling packages of content and not specific titles. Read and Publish agreements and other approaches that support hybrid approaches (open access and paywalled articles in the same journal) further limit the possibilities for specific titles to adopt Subscribe to Open because of the complexity of avoiding double dipping in general, much less in the context of a Subscribe to Open offer. In essence, if a journal is already offering APC-based publishing or is part of a transformative agreement, pursuing Subscribe to Open would require first reverting to being subscription only or the enterprise of pursuing Subscribe to Open will be derailed by administrative complexity and suspicions of double-dipping.
In addition, it must be acknowledged that some journals are more valued than others. High value titles that libraries are unlikely to cancel in challenging budgetary times are better candidates for long term success with Subscribe to Open. These titles are not likely to induce any initial response of libraries risking non-renewal to see if others renew sufficiently and they are also less likely to revert to being paywalled because of cancellations over time. A publisher may not want to risk a journal see-sawing between open and closed year to year (both a public relations and logistical challenge) and so will likely either not offer marginal titles in this model or only do so by bundling those with other more valued titles, which of course recreates one of the aspects of the Big Deal for subscriptions that libraries are increasingly rejecting.
Early innovators with Subscribe to Open may also be experiencing some first-mover advantage that will not be enjoyed long term. Libraries signing on to successful Subscribe to Open campaigns not only ensure they have continued access to the content but also benefit from the public relations benefit of being promoted as a supporter of open access. As such, libraries that were not previously subscribers may sign up in order to support open access even if they had not been subscribers previously. And, indeed, according to Gallagher, the Annual Review of Cancer Biology picked up some new subscribers, “solely in support of the program.” The draw of this signaling function will dissipate over time as Subscribe to Open grows and as libraries increasingly have open access investments that they can point to without signing up for the latest offer. As a consequence, in the long term, Subscribe to Open limits the potential for revenue for publishers, since after this initial period there is little further expectation of subscriber growth, and the only way to raise revenues will be to increase prices.
Finally, inducing renewals of Subscribe to Open subscriptions may prove challenging for even highly-valued titles. It is possible that a subscribing institution may see a drop in the usage of Subscribe to Open titles on their usage reports. This could occur because, even if the institution’s users are using the content at the same or even higher rate, that usage may not be able to be attributed to the institution. Users will no longer have to pass through an authentication system to get to the content and so any off-campus, mobile device, etc. usage may end up untraced to the institution. If libraries see a drop in their institutional usage, even if overall usage of the content goes up due to open access, they may reconsider their subscriptions. Though publishers may attempt to offset any attrition by signing on new subscribers, converting a non-subscriber to a subscriber is likely to be a heavy lift.
The Future of Subscribe to Open
Subscribe to Open is a model in its infancy and its future uncertain. The status of the remaining four titles in the Annual Reviews pilot program is not yet known and Annual Reviews has not yet determined if it will offer additional titles in 2021. And, regardless of the specifics of a particular publisher’s Subscribe to Open offer, a central component of them all is that, should libraries drop their subscriptions, the journal(s) will revert to their default status of closed access for new articles. Only in a few years will we know if 2020 marks the beginning of a growing program of success in sustainably funding open access or an experiment from which to learn.