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.

puzzle pieces showing business concepts

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.

Webinar Discussion

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.

Ann Michael

Ann Michael

Ann Michael is Chief Transformation Officer at AIP Publishing, leading the Data & Analytics, Product Innovation, Strategic Alignment Office, and Product Development and Operations teams. She also serves as Board Chair of Delta Think, a consultancy focused on strategy and innovation in scholarly communications. Throughout her career she has gained broad exposure to society and commercial scholarly publishers, librarians and library consortia, funders, and researchers. As an ardent believer in data informed decision-making, Ann was instrumental in the 2017 launch of the Delta Think Open Access Data & Analytics Tool, which tracks and assesses the impact of open access uptake and policies on the scholarly communications ecosystem. Additionally, Ann has served as Chief Digital Officer at PLOS, charged with driving execution and operations as well as their overall digital and supporting data strategy.


17 Thoughts on "Sustainable Open Access – What’s Next? "

It’s interesting that Crow doesn’t really have an answer to the biggest question facing S2O (and other collective action models): why would anyone pay for something they can get for free? This is greatly exacerbated by the continuing unwillingness of universities to adequately fund their libraries, forcing them to cut necessary resources and leaving no excess to invest in charitable activities (https://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2019/10/09/roadblocks-to-better-open-access-models/). The economic turmoil caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is going to make such voluntary spending even less likely over the near term (https://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2020/08/04/two-steps-forward-one-step-back-the-pandemics-impact-on-open-access-progress/). So the question of whether these models are scalable and sustainable remains in doubt.

Also, I’d argue that a model where there’s a private benefit to those who pay would better be called a “freemium” model than S2O.

Also, convenient timing — today, the American Society for Cell Biology announced a move for their flagship research journal to a S2O model: https://www.ascb.org/science-news/new-subscription-model-may-make-cell-biology-journal-open-access/

Because the publisher does not guarantee that the content will be opened unless all subscribers participate, institutions that value access to the content must either participate in S2O or opt-out and subscribe conventionally to ensure continued access. (The offer is repeated every year, with the opening of each year’s content contingent on sufficient participation.)

The expectation of full participation is critical to the logic of the S2O model. The full participation condition reinforces that ensuring continued access to the journal requires each institution to act individually. That other institutions, beyond current subscribers, will also gain access to the journal does not change the fact that current subscribers must either participate in the S2O offer, or subscribe conventionally, to guarantee continued access.

This is also important in the context of institutional procurement policies. Some institutions, especially public universities, operate under policies that forbid donative payments. As an institution can only ensure access to each year’s content by participating in S2O or by subscribing conventionally, participating in S2O cannot be considered a voluntary payment.

This may be something of a semantic/legal terminology argument but I get your point. As noted here (https://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2019/10/09/roadblocks-to-better-open-access-models/) some states prevent the spending of public funds on things that are available for free or for charitable donations, so for the success of the model, one has to avoid those classifications.

Regardless of the terminology used, if one assumes that unless the journal in question is exactly at the threshold point where it moves to OA, then it is not necessary for an individual library to continue paying. That only becomes an issue when the last library above the threshold drops its payment and the journal flips back to the subscription model. You are not “guaranteed” access, but it’s highly likely that you’ll still have it if you stop paying.

Given that most libraries are having to drop absolutely necessary resources on a daily basis, why wouldn’t you take that gamble? You stop paying, and if access is indeed cut off, then maybe you find something else to drop later on to restore the funds. If it’s not cut off, then you win the bet and you spare your faculty losing a different essential resource as well.

One other consideration is that once the journal flips to OA, all back content is now CC BY and permanently OA. So if you do lose access, you’re only losing access to the current year’s content, which may flip back to OA at any moment if another library blinks first.

A couple of practical implementation issues are relevant here:

First, as S2O is not a collective action model—it’s predicated on each institution acting on its own—there is no publicly stated threshold. So, there’s no way for an individual institution to evaluate the potential success of non-participation as a strategy.

Also, S2O offers sometimes provide a 5% discount for participating, whether the offer succeeds or not. In those cases, an institution would risk losing access and the discount by opting out.

And as far as backfiles are concerned, some publishers use term access to the backfile as an additional inducement to participate in S2O. So, an institution that participates in the offer receives a 5% discount and access to the backfile, again even if the offer were to fail. This further strengthens an institution’s incentive to participate.

Thanks Raym — as with seemingly most things in publishing these days, settling on a common vocabulary remains a struggle. With no publicly stated threshold, there’s an upside for the publisher (maybe more people will subscribe beyond that threshold and we’ll make more money) but also a downside (some folks will take the gamble and see what happens).

Can you explain the 5% discount more? Is it time-limited? Only available to existing subscribers that don’t let things lapse? Given how individually negotiated so many journals deals are these days, I’m willing to bet that a smart publisher won’t be willing to lose a potential subscriber over 5% if it really comes down to it. And that potential 5% loss may be a reasonable stake on a bet that you can potentially save 100%.

And do you have examples of S2O models where back issues are not made open access? My understanding was that when the journal flips, all back issues also flip and are publicly available. If it’s only access to this year’s articles, that’s a lot less compelling a model at least in terms of freeing up access to scholarly content.

David, you wrote “once the journal flips to OA, all back content is now CC BY and permanently OA.” First, a S2O journal never flips to OA; its “default state” is closed. Each year/cycle it has to be opened again (unlatched is indeed a good term but I don’t want to confuse with Knowledge Unlatched, the company!). Second, all back content may or may not become CC-BY and permanently OA – you have to read the specific terms of the S2O offer. Back content may or may not be included. And, in fact, even the current articles published under S2O may not be CC-BY. As I wrote about (https://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2020/03/09/subscribetoopen/), Berghahn authors choose among 3 CC licenses (CC-BY, CC-BY-ND, and CC-BY-NC-ND). Side note as well: Annual Reviews authors still had to transfer their copyright to AR, which then made the version of record OA; however, under the AR S2O, that would not be a Plan S compliant pathway for a Plan S author because of the copyright transfer. So, the author would need to still use the repository pathway for the copyright-retained author accepted manuscript in order to be Plan S compliant even though the version of record is OA. Which, to me, seems rather unfortunate as certainly it would be better for AR’s pitch to libraries and/or funders for support that they get the reader traffic – plus there indeed does seem value-add to me in the version of record … but such are the knock-on effects of regulatory policies sometimes.

Thanks Lisa, you’re right — Annual Reviews makes the current year OA but back issues “freely available” which doesn’t say anything about their license, and I assume gives them the right to put them back behind a paywall. And you raise interesting questions — does this make Annual Reviews a hybrid journal since it’s not fully-OA and thus not compatible with many policies? And do review articles count any way or just original research?

It would be interesting to receive an update in six months on whether the new reality for library budgets due to the pandemic has an impact on S2O, and how that compares to the impact on subscriptions.

Regular updates are important, agreed, although 6 months may be too short a timeframe to know what’s really happening, as budgets are often planned far in advance. It’s also going to be problematic to sort out the first mover advantage described by Lisa Hinchliffe here (https://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2020/03/09/subscribetoopen/) from what would happen if broader adoption occurred.

I think we’ll start to see in six months because as more S2O offers come on the market there will be gathering evidence re whether they continue to succeed. E.g., this (https://www.ascb.org/science-news/new-subscription-model-may-make-cell-biology-journal-open-access/) that came on the market yesterday! But, most of these also involve a “first year of offer” incentive where current subscribers get a discount on what they would pay if the S2O wasn’t on offer so it is indeed complicated beyond the first mover advantage.

I won’t say no to more data, but I think seeing where these are after 5 years will be a lot more informative. Not sure how much we will be able to definitely know in as short a time as 6 months, but certainly worth tracking.

Without a doubt we’ll know more in 5 years than 6 months. But, if new S2O offers start failing, we’ll definitely learn from that!

I have come to the conclusion that when one is dealing with an altruistic producer and consumer that all reason goes by the wayside. Why aren’t scholars beating down the doors to have one of their primary tools made free, namely Microsoft Office Suite and/or Dell Computers? That would probably mean more to the advancement of knowledge than the Journal of Un-understandable Nit Picking.

No need to beat down already-opened doors: https://www.libreoffice.org/

There’s a free alternative to many major software packages and academics actively work on developing free software and innovate using open hardware systems like Arduino.

What we do know is that the participants in S2O programs will not be any larger in 5 years. Whatever innovation in scholarly publishing takes place will happen elsewhere. S2O does not step into the same river twice; it steps into the river and insists that the water stop moving.

Yet, some S2O publishers are reporting an *increase* in subscribers for certain S2O offers. I analyze this as libraries using signing on to a S2O as a signal they support OA. But, it is hard to predict how many times a given library would be seeking to send out that signal. Also, there are publishers who are exploring sending a “your folks read this OA work so you should be supporting” kind of “invoice” … I’ve heard librarians call this the “shakedown invoice” so I’m not sure it’s going to be really effective. But, it might be in some cases where readership of OA content reveals that a library probably should have been subscribing all along and the library would want to ensure their readers get access even if the S2O fails in a coming year. Interesting times!

That doesn’t speak to the innovation issue. Of course, most people don’t care. One property of S2O is that it clears the field for more imaginative publishers. It’s like “winning” the Darwin Awards.

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