Last week I had the privilege of serving as the keynote speaker for “Seeking Sustainability: Publishing Models for an Open Access Age.” This virtual event was originally developed as a preconference for the annual UKSG conference, which like so many events was cancelled to help fight the global pandemic. This piece is a reconstruction of my remarks, highlighting the main points that are on my mind as I think about open access, business models, and sustainability. My slides are available via my university’s repository.

Title Slide of Lisa's Presentation

My Multiple Perspectives

I come at this topic from a number of perspectives. I have a long career in academic libraries and have worked at a community college, a comprehensive university, and a research university. Each had its financial challenges. It has never been possible, in my experience, to purchase, license, or otherwise make available all of the content that the campus community needs. In all of my librarian positions, I have also held a tenure-line faculty appointment and so I have traveled the path to tenure and promotion. My current institution has an open access mandate for faculty. 

I was president of the Association of College and Research Libraries when it flipped its flagship journal, College and Research Libraries, to a diamond open access model, choosing to subvent the journal from other revenue sources rather than implement article processing charges. Long ago, I served as editor of Research Strategies, a journal that was owned by Pergamon Press and then acquired by Elsevier. I am currently the editor of Library Trends, which is owned by my university, published by Johns Hopkins University Press, and consists solely of special issues, which are available for free reading in my university’s repository after a two-year delay. 

On any given day, the values, responsibilities, and priorities I have across these roles conflict and challenge me. Finding a sustainable path is not easy, something I am certain many others regularly experience as well.

The Past is Prologue — Subscriptions and The Big Deal

I have found it tremendously useful to bring a historical lens to our discussions of current business models for open access publishing, particularly as we are two decades from the rise of “The Big Deal” and the emergence of the Budapest Open Access Initiative. Yes, two decades! There are people working in publishing, academic libraries, etc., who have never known a time in their career without digital distribution, the idea of open access, publisher platforms, etc. In the arc of history, two decades is a small fraction of time and I’m not one to think deterministically about historical precedents; however, what comes before often guides and shapes what comes next. 

In the time before digital distribution and access, libraries subscribed to print copy of journals. Those subscriptions were purchases of printed copies of the journal issues, which were checked in, shelved, and annually sent to the bindery to be hard bound. In today’s era of on-demand access, it seems almost incomprehensible that at one point the most recent 6 or 12 months of a journal would be taken off the shelf and sent away, inaccessible for at least a week or two, perhaps more. A variety of collection development reference tools helped identify core and quality journals for different disciplines and fields and different types of institutions. Through purchasing decisions, libraries created sustainability for some journals and others were weeded out. 

The digital turn brought not only new models of access to content but also new models for libraries to acquire content. Subscriptions became licenses, sometimes with permanent access rights (that still require an annual fee to be maintained) but not necessarily. In addition, bundling of publisher content into discounted packages, e.g., topical subcollections, or a license for everything, known as The Big Deal, emerged. Subscription agents that managed library serials subscriptions saw a turn to libraries licensing directly, in particular from the larger publishers. 

Not all libraries were enthusiastic about the promise of The Big Deal, however, and some expressed concerns that have been borne out at least in part. Mary Case, then Director of the Office of Scholarly Communication, Association of Research Libraries, speaking at an EBSCO Subscription Services’ Executive Seminar for directors of Association of Research Libraries, observed that:

“The electronic environment offers new opportunities for publishers to enhance market share and control“ and “if larger proportions of library collections budgets go to fewer publishers, will the community be able to sustain publications from publishers who are in fact doing what librarians have asked them to do: keeping their prices reasonable … It would be truly unfortunate if libraries inadvertently undermined the ability to support long-term system-wide change by focusing decision-making on local short-term considerations.” 

And, Kenneth Fraizer, Director of the General Library System, University of Wisconsin-Madison, stated plainly:

“Academic library directors should not sign on to the Big Deal or any comprehensive licensing agreements with commercial publishers.”

Nonetheless, libraries did sign on to these licensing agreements. And, without a doubt, library users enjoyed convenient access to an expanded number of titles. Libraries also benefited by positioning themselves as campus leaders in applying technology to serve faculty and student needs. We can also see again how sustainability was created for some while not for others. What is particularly important to note as well, is how The Big Deal and related licensing approaches are the basis for many of today’s open access business models. 

The Open Access Age

Interestingly, at the same time that libraries were moving to license increasing amounts of the scholarly literature, and in some cases receiving additional budget allocations from their campuses to do so, the open access movement was emerging and arguing that no one should have to pay to read the scholarly literature. For example, the Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI) stated: 

“An old tradition and a new technology have converged to make possible an unprecedented public good. The old tradition is the willingness of scientists and scholars to publish the fruits of their research in scholarly journals without payment, for the sake of inquiry and knowledge. The new technology is the internet. The public good they make possible is the world-wide electronic distribution of the peer-reviewed journal literature and completely free and unrestricted access to it by all.”

The declaration continued: 

“By “open access” to this literature, we mean its free availability on the public internet, permitting any users to read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full texts of these articles, crawl them for indexing, pass them as data to software, or use them for any other lawful purpose, without financial, legal, or technical barriers other than those inseparable from gaining access to the internet itself. The only constraint on reproduction and distribution, and the only role for copyright in this domain, should be to give authors control over the integrity of their work and the right to be properly acknowledged and cited.”

Again, I think the historical perspective is important because many contemporary efforts cite back to this and other statements, particularly with respect to arguing that open access publishing demands copyright retention by authors and deploying particular Creative Commons (CC) licenses, which did not yet exist at the time, among other provisions. 

Fast forward to today. Open access is less typically discussed as the BOAI’s vision to “lay the foundation for uniting humanity in a common intellectual conversation and quest for knowledge” and more as a question of how to develop business models that operationalize publishing open access articles. Along the way, different types of open access have been described and fiercely debated. While open access seems inherently a characteristic of the article, attention is now also focused on the journal container and whether the collection of articles are collectively open access as well. 

The term “open access” does not have a standard definition, much less one that is globally adopted or enforceable, even if certain statements, like the BOAI, are often invoked as touchpoints. Much ink has been spilled in arguing for and against different terminology, and it is impossible to represent the diversity of views in any detailed way with the space now available. Instead, my approach is to synthesize these discussions and present what I call “open access (as typically discussed).” This allows a kind of heuristical reasoning and community dialogue. 

I find it useful to distinguish between open access articles and open access journals, though of course the latter is at least in part derived from the former.

Article Level Open Access 

At the article level, various colors, metals, and gems have been invoked to distinguish different kinds of open access articles from each other. Gold and green are the basics. A gold open access article is an article that is published open access. It is the version of record that is openly available (sometimes more colloquially known as “the publisher’s PDF”) and it is openly available immediately upon publication on the publisher’s platform. For an author to publish their article gold open access, an article processing charge (APC) is typically — though not always — paid by or on behalf of the author. Though such articles also typically entail copyright retention by the author and a CC-BY license on the version of record, there is wide variation in practice on these aspects.

Green open access is even much more slippery to define. It may be a version of the article that is not the version of record, such as the author’s accepted manuscript, that is posted elsewhere — not on the publisher platform. Or, it may be that the version of record is allowed to be shared openly, but is not made open on the publisher’s platform. Any of these may occur previous to, concurrently with, or delayed for some time after formal publication, depending on the author agreement with the publisher.  Copyright ownership and CC license status vary here as well. It is important to recognize that green open access is predicated on the article, the version of record, being published behind a paywall. 

Finally, we need to be aware of bronze open access, which some say is not open access at all but rather marketing and public relations. A bronze open access article is made freely available for reading by publisher policy or practice. Such access may be temporary or permanent and it is subject to withdrawal from open access because this is gift access, not open access guaranteed by payment or author contract. Possibilities include sample articles for review by potential subscribers or authors, articles by Nobel Prize winners, historically significant articles, and topics of immense political or social import. In studies that attempt to document the prevalence of bronze open access, only those articles made open on the publisher platform for subscription content are typically analyzed. Articles posted to supplemental websites or contributed to portals, such as those recently developed on COVID-19, are not captured by these studies and so, even though a remarkable amount of literature is documented to be in bronze status, estimates are likely based on undercounting. 

Journal Level Open Access

Almost all journals have articles in gold, green, or bronze status, and most have all three. It is rare to find a journal these days that does not offer any open access articles at all, even if only considering the categories of green and gold. Nonetheless, unless a journal offers the option for gold open access article publishing, it is not typically considered to have any open access status at all. In considering open access at the journal level, green and bronze articles are typically set aside. Subscription journals that offer an option for publishing an article gold open access, which is predominantly done through an APC payment, are known as hybrid journals. 

Only if all of the articles in a journal are published gold open access is the journal given a different designation. For fully open access journals, the two most common categories are gold and diamond (which is also sometimes called platinum). The distinction between these two categories is not the status of the articles. In both, the articles are gold open access. Rather, the distinction is the funding model. For a gold open access journal, the business model is APC payment by or on behalf of the author. For a diamond (platinum) open access journal, the journal is financed in some other way. 

Landscape of Models

Any number of mandates, policies, and other catalysts are motivating authors, libraries, institutions, funders, etc. to push towards greater open access publishing. Institutional and governmental policies, funder requirements, and guidelines from various communities of practice are opening up, closing down, altering, and shaping pathways for business models and whether they are sustainable. In addition, for any given publisher, which emerging models are possible considerations are dependent on their historic publishing practices and models, their financial stability, and whether they have reserves to capitalize a change in business practices and processes. Starting up as an open access publisher requires capital. So does shifting to open access publishing from subscription models. Each has the possibility of different kinds of investments and efficiencies.

With that in mind, we can examine the general approaches we are seeing in the marketplace for contracting for open access publishing. As before, the categories presented here intentionally abstract from the complexities of the specific contracts being signed and represent “as typically discussed” rather than any legal designation. 

Transformative Agreements

The predominant mode for institutional funding of open access publishing is the transformative agreement. As I have explained elsewhere, in a Transformative Agreement, a library or group of libraries continues to pay a publisher but shifts the payment away from subscription-based reading and towards open access publishing. These agreements take one of two forms. A read-and-publish agreement is an agreement in which the publisher receives payment for reading and payment for publishing, which are bundled into a single contract. In a publish-and-read agreement, the publisher receives payment only for publishing and reading is included for no additional cost. While some argue that they are not meaningful differences, I believe they are strategically different, particularly with respect to how they impact on library consortia. We are seeing more recently that some transformative agreements include add-ons such as rebates and society membership for authors. 

The transformative agreement is the successor to The Big Deal and the majority are undertaken with only the largest publishers as they require immense investment in negotiating and implementing the agreements by both the library and the publisher. In addition, because libraries have not historically been part of an author’s publishing process, libraries must also take on the work of educating campus researchers on new procedures and the role of the library in managing them. Authors may be surprised by this new role of the library and may or may not welcome the intervention in their workflow. 

It is important to note that transformative agreements are a transitional model. They are intended to create a sustainable transition to full open access publishing. If they are successful, they will no longer exist and there will no longer be new subscription content to which libraries can subscribe. 

Pure Publish Agreements

Transformative agreements are only possible for those publishers, regardless of their size, that have existing subscription journals. For open access-only publishers, the successor to The Big Deal is the Pure Publish agreement. In a pure publish agreement, a contract is made to manage and fund an institution’s authors ability to publish in fully open access journals from a particular publisher. These may take the form of a single payment for unlimited publishing in a given period of time or individual payments per article, likely with a discount. As with transformative agreements, the publisher must invest in new approaches for managing payments and the library takes on a role of coordinating the institution’s open access payments to a particular publisher and educating the campus community on workflows and this new role of the library. 

Subscribe to Open

Like transformative agreements, Subscribe to Open models have subscription publishing as their foundation; however, Subscribe to Open does not seek a transition to paying for open access publishing. Instead, Subscribe to Open is a mutual assurance approach for addressing a collective action problem. Under subscribe to open, a subscribing library is only guaranteed to have access to the content by continuing to subscribe; however, if all libraries continue to subscribe, then not only will those libraries have access to the content for their users, but the content will also be openly available. In either case, the subscribing libraries are assured of their priority — access to the content — but the collective impact is access for all. In essence, subscribe to open is a no-risk opt-in for the subscribing institution. 

Subscribe to open requires the least adjustment in existing workflows but neither authors nor the authors’ institutions have full agency in determining whether the articles are published open access. Also, long term, this model is likely best matched to highly valued content for which a library would not want to risk losing access. For less valued content, the risk of not subscribing and therefore losing access may not be sufficient to sustain the model. 

Membership Models

The membership model is a model that has proven sustainable for a variety of publishers, publications, or projects but may be limited in scalability by the complexities of managing the relationships of the publisher with its community of members or the natural limits of who may be interested in a specialized or niche area. Sometimes termed partnership models, in this approach members receive benefits beyond the open access content, which is of course, definitionally available to everyone. Many of the publishers or publications pursuing a membership model are initially grant funded as they have little to no operating capital at the start and need an infusion in order to develop and attract members. The Open Library of the Humanities and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy are examples of, respectively, a publisher and a publication operating successfully with a membership/partnership model.

Concluding Thoughts

Beyond those topics I have discussed already, the question of sustainability necessarily raises a number of other issues. Funder mandates are further shaping the marketplace. For example, Plan S, which banned authors from publishing in hybrid journals, but then offered the option to rehabilitate those journals back into a compliant pathway through transformative agreements, accelerated publisher and library interest in transformative agreements. These agreements are typically with the largest of publishers — “crowning the OA royalty” — and so independent hybrid journals may find themselves locked out of consideration by Plan S authors unless they join up with a larger publisher. Whether one sees this as evidence of a sustainable system may depend whether one is the independent publisher or the larger publisher. 

Of course, mandates such as Plan S also face challenges in implementation, compliance monitoring, and enforcement. We know from past mandates, e.g., the Public Access Policy in the United States, that compliance is not immediate or universal. In addition, there is evidence that authors are opting-out of open access publishing even when it is fully funded and the publishing system defaults to open access. Some authors are pursuing redress in the courts for what they argue are inappropriate restrictions on their academic freedom by institutional mandates. 

From the library perspective, The Big Deal is typically seen as no longer sustainable. One must ask then if transformative and pure publish agreements will suffer the same fate. In my view, it seems impossible that they will not. Librarians the world over know how difficult it is to cancel a subscription journal that readers want to read. How much more challenging will it be to cancel or restrict in scope a transformative or pure publish agreement when it entails telling researchers that they are no longer funded to publish in their journals of choice? While perhaps prices were held steady in this first round of transformative and pure publish agreements, pegged to “historic spend,” just as The Big Deal was originally, should we expect that prices will be held steady when it comes time for renewal? Given that reading institutions will likely begin to cancel their subscriptions to hybrid journals as a greater percentage of the scholarly literature becomes open, it seems that heavy publishing institutions will likely see significant increases in price at renewal time. Such will be necessary if the model is to remain sustainable from a publisher perspective.

All parties are seeking sustainability. But, ultimately, the question seems to return to the query – sustainable for whom?


Note: I want to recognize the great work of Mary Beth Barilla, Program Director, Society for Scholarly Publishing, as well as efforts by co-organizer Heather Staines, Head of Partnerships, Knowledge Futures Group, to pivot quickly from the UKSG preconference to an online seminar format. My talk was followed by panel presentations and discussion with Steven Hall, Managing Director, IOP Publishing; Scott Delman, Director of Publications, ACM; Ruth Harrison, Head of Scholarly Communications Management, Imperial College London Library Services; and, Martin Paul Eve, Birkbeck, University of London and the Open Library of the Humanities. We had over 100 registrants and a strong mix of librarians, publishers, service providers, etc. participating.  

Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe

Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe

Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe is Professor/Coordinator for Research Professional Development in the University Library and affiliate faculty in the School of Information Sciences, European Union Center, and Center for Global Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.


12 Thoughts on "Seeking Sustainability: Publishing Models for an Open Access Age"

Thank you Prof Hinchliffe for this article. It refreshes and enlightens my mind on issues bothering on open access landscapes, publishing models and sustainability. Its comprehensive, current and highly thought-provoking.

Your concluding remark is most succinct and to the point. One point being that institutions will soon discover that they cannot pay a faculty salary and pay for that persons promotion and salary increase at the same time.

Sustainable for whom? It is absolutely a root of the scholarly publishing tree. Priority should be for those who produce research – scholars. They produce research which increase a well-being of a whole society. Recently, the issue of sustainbility in scholarly publishing is based on the vision of shareholders of large publishers. It is naturally for capitalism. But, it is not benefitial for the scholars and society if the major target of large commercial publishers will be a rate of profitability.

Really nice primer on OA. Congratulations. You do a great job detailing the complexity of the arrangements. Even within a category such as”read and publish,” each arrangement is a unique snowflake. Scaling is hard.

Thank you, Roy. It’s definitely a challenge to make the complexity comprehensible without eliding that it is indeed complex!

Sustainable for whom, that is the question. So far, for everybody. Perennially, governments worldwide are paying billions and billions for research. The costs of publishing the results are a fraction of these huge amounts, often assessed at about 1,5%. The main portion of this money goes to a few powerful publishers and a serious cost reduction can only be achieved by opposing these moguls. Isolated attempts by some libraries, however, have been to no avail. The same amounts that were payed in the subscription era, were payed during the Big Deal period and are now payed for the Transformative Agreements, with an annual increase of 3% to 5%. And profits remained abundant as ever.

Yet, I think there is light at the end of the tunnel. Via initiatives like Project DEAL and Plan S, open access will become the default publishing model. Contrary to the subscription model, this model allows for competition. Then a decent market place for academic publishing may emerge. Finally.

Leo Waaijers.

I have yet to be convinced by anything I have read (and I have read an awful lot), that open access allows for any more competition that subscription-based publishing does. If anything, the kinds of agreements we are seeing struck are setting up even more lock-in with the biggest publishers than we already have.

You are right Lisa; my expectations are not based on reading but on a lack of imagination. Today Dutch universities pay € 1600 for every article a Dutch author is publishing in a Wiley paper. German universities pay Wiley € 2750 for the same article. In a normal market situation, you just might expect that German universities would pay less than their Dutch counterparts as they could claim a quantum rebate. NB reading of Wiley journals is free in both countries. I simply cannot imagine that German universities will remain so submissive for ever.

Just curious: What economic benefits are there in publishing OA articles at greater scale? Why would it be cheaper (for Wiley) in Germany than in the Netherlands?

Well, this is what I remember from my time as librarian in the subscription era. We, the Delft library that is, were the biggest Elsevier client in the Netherlands. Every year the Elsevier salesman told me that our contract was so much appreciated by Elsevier that his boss had allowed him to make us a special offer. But I should never ever tell a colleague…
So, I am curous as well. Is the size of a client no longer a factor when making an offer?

I am sure it is, but I don’t know how much it is. Your response was about the cost to a library. My question was about the internal costs of the publisher. Pricing is a very complex process, and it is not done by any sophisticated organization (and not just in publishing) on a client by client basis. Publishers manage a portfolio and trade off margin from client to client, geography by geography, type of institution by type of institution. Lower pricing for impecunious institutions are offset by higher prices by institutions with greater resources.

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