Early last year, I interviewed Richard Gallagher, President and Editor-in-Chief of Annual Reviews about the organization’s rationale for pursuing open access (OA) and details of their Subscribe to Open approach. A few months ago, Lisa Hinchliffe offered us an update on Annual Reviews, providing both an expanded definition of Subscribe to Open and an overview of some of the advantages and challenges of the model.
As more publishers consider this model, it seems like a good time to dive a little deeper into collective action models and Subscribe to Open in academic publishing and also to consider why interest in these models might be accelerating.
Is Open Access gaining momentum?
Several factors appear to be converging to accelerate the move toward OA. To start, as many publishers made their COVID-related content freely available, participants in the scholarly publishing ecosystem began to question why this content was not open from its inception, adding perceived pressure to move to OA publishing.
Then there is the perception of Plan S. While the reach of Plan S may be debated, it is difficult to deny the impact it has had on publishers, many of whom have considered funder mandates to foreshadow the industry “direction of travel.” When Plan S refined its criteria for Transformative Agreements, for example, there was an immediate response by Springer Nature to not only commit “the majority of our non-OA journals” to a transformative path, but to also include its flagship journal, Nature.
Additionally, earlier this year the U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) held several discussions with publishers about how changes in their policies could impact U.S. academic publishing. One potential element of the OSTP policy was promoting zero-day embargo Green OA as a path to compliance with a policy requiring immediate OA. While OSTP has not taken any official positions, their consultation process triggered many publishers their OA strategy.
Could Collective Action models become another standard model supporting OA?
No business model is without limitations. While charging an APC is currently the most prevalent model used to sustain OA, its limitations are apparent. Depending on funding source, APCs can be a barrier to participation in OA for some authors and research topics. Shifting to an APC-funded OA model also means that the full burden of the cost of publication rests with producers (authors and/or those paying APCs on their behalf). Consumers of research bear none of the cost burden directly but experience no reduced benefit.
These issues and others have led some publishers to explore collective action models, most notably the “Subscribe to Open” model pioneered in academic publishing by Annual Reviews. Subscribe to Open was structured to retain subscribers while flipping Annual Reviews’ publications to a fully open model. It is based on collective action principles, but it is a specific instantiation of those principles for journals that have an existing subscription base. Here are a few more examples:
We were interested in finding out more about the principles of collective action and how they can be applied to academic publishing. Do they require a subscriber base to be successful? Can a new journal be launched with a collective action model? Can a journal that is already OA “flip” to a collective action model? What are the limitations?
An interview with Raym Crow, Chain Bridge Group
To explore these questions, we spoke with Raym Crow of Chain Bridge Group. Raym has over 30 years’ experience in academic publishing and library information services, specializing in strategic business planning. He supports the development and ongoing operation of all types of nonprofit publishing and information initiatives by making them mission relevant and financially self-sustaining. For over a decade, he has focused on collective models to support the provision of OA services. Here’s what we discussed.
1) How long have you been working with publishers to flip journals using a collective action model?
I’ve been consulting for about 20 years, working independently and — since 2002 — as a consultant with SPARC. During that time, I’ve explored various models for opening access to research outputs, especially those sponsored by scholarly societies and university presses. Some collective-support models focused on launching new OA journals and others — like ‘Subscribe to Open’, developed with Annual Reviews — focused on flipping existing subscription journals.
2) Some folks wonder if a collective action model is sustainable. Why would someone pay for something they can get the benefit of for free? How would you address that concern?
That’s the gist of the collective funding problem: How to get institutions to contribute to the support of an open resource when it’s in their individual self-interest to let others pay to provide it.
Most public goods are provided by government via compulsory taxation, but that’s not really an option — at least, not directly — for many of the open resources we want to sustain.
Sometimes, small groups of institutions will come together to fund an open resource, such as an open-source software application. In those cases, the benefit to the contributing institutions, including direct influence on the end product, may be sufficient to justify the investment, even if the resource is eventually open to all.
Other initiatives rely on institutional altruism and social incentives to motivate contributions. While this approach can work on a limited basis — some portion of institutions might contribute — it can be cumbersome (and expensive) to coordinate and unstable over time. As a result, altruism alone tends to be a weak model for journals and other serial resources.
Another common approach is to provide some type of private benefit, exclusive to institutions that contribute to the open resource, as an inducement to provide support. This can work, as long as the private benefit is of sufficient value and doesn’t add appreciably to the cost of providing the open resource, not always an easy balance to achieve.
Another challenge when providing private benefits is that the offer may resemble a market transaction and be treated as such by libraries. This perception can undermine pro-social motivations for contributing, limiting the funds available for the resource.
Most collective support models probably fall somewhere on the continuum from pure altruism to compelling private benefits.
3) Are there any mature examples of this type of model in scholarly publishing or other industries?
Collective activity is everywhere — including cooperatives, credit unions, scholarly societies, and advocacy organizations. Again, much of this activity is driven by exclusive benefits to contributing members. There’s an additional challenge when collective action targets provision of open resources.
The small-group collective action I mentioned before represents one of the most common and successful approaches for developing open scholarly infrastructure resources. These initiatives often morph into user-based membership models for long-term operating support, with varying degrees of success.
4) It seems as though many of the applications of collective action are for “flips” where there is an existing subscriber base. Can this model be applied to a publication without existing subscribers?
Collective models can certainly be applied to publications without existing subscriber bases. Perhaps the simplest example would be the ‘conditional provision’ of a new journal, where the publisher makes publication of the journal contingent on securing sufficient long-term support. It’s a little more involved than that in practice, but the concept is simple.
Although its design was informed by collective action issues, ‘Subscribe to Open’ or S2O isn’t really a collective model, as it relies on subscribers acting in their economic self-interest and on existing subscription sales and procurement processes. As a result, S2O is more suitable to mature journals with readily identifiable subscriber bases.
5) What’s next? How might collective action models evolve? Are you contemplating other business models for flipping or starting open publications?
There are several promising possibilities that we’re working on.
One is to coordinate ‘Subscribe to Open’ offers across multiple journals. The idea here is that multiple S2O offers can be linked so that participants in one offer can also enjoy the benefits of parallel offers. A major aggregator of nonprofit journals has expressed interest in exploring such an implementation, and that could provide an opportunity to extend S2O to a large number of society and university press journals that might not be in a position to act on their own.
Also, we’re working with Annual Reviews to help launch a community of practice for S2O. We hope that will provide publishers a channel for sharing their specific experiences with the model and provide a resource to encourage other publishers to explore S2O. That site will be launching soon.
SPARC continues to support efforts to design and implement a collective funding framework capable of providing ongoing operating funds for open resources. The framework’s objective is to maximize participation in collective funding initiatives, while reducing the costs of coordinating each funding action.
Conclusions (and Observations)
It will be interesting to see how these deals progress. Not only might ‘Subscribe to Open’ prove a viable model for certain publications, but collective action more broadly may be a model that supports flipping to OA or converting an existing OA publication from APC-based to an open subscription model.
With the diversity that exists in academic publishing on so many dimensions (subject area, geography, funding models, etc.), it is reasonable to believe that a variety of approaches to sustainability will be required. We look forward to following collective action models to understand what their contribution might be to the sustainability landscape.
If you’re interested in discussing this topic with the authors and a group of your peers, consider joining us on September 11th for a free online discussion webinar. I will be facilitating a discussion of collective action with Raym Crow and PLOS’ Director of Strategic Partnerships, Sara Rouhi.
Note: This post is predominantly taken from the August issue of Delta Think News & Views.