Editor’s Note: Today’s post is by Sara Bosshart, Rod Cookson and Philipp Hess.

Sara is the Open Access Publisher at IWA Publishing, the publishing division of the International Water Association, where she is responsible for implementing a strategic transition towards Open Access. Rod currently runs IWA Publishing, and is a Director and Council Member of ALPSP and a Council Member of the Society Publishers’ Coalition. Philipp Hess studied Engineering and Industrial Design in the Netherlands and Japan, before getting into scholarly content while working for Kiron, a platform that offers higher education to refugees. He is currently the Head of Publisher Relations at the Knowledge Unlatched GmbH and is pursuing a complimentary Master Degree at the Hochschule St.Gallen and the University of Arts Berlin in “Leadership in digital Innovation”.

The Why.

With so much uncertainty, it may seem like an odd time for a small society publisher to announce its intention to overhaul the business model of its journal’s program and jump on the rapidly moving ‘Subscribe to Open’ bandwagon. Yet here we are. And the ‘why’ is surprisingly simple. IWA Publishing wants to be completely Open Access (OA) and we want to do it now.

IWA Publishing is the publishing division of the International Water Association, a membership organization representing water professionals and researchers in over 140 countries. Through our portfolio of 17 peer-reviewed journals and over 850 books, we provide seminal information on our most valuable resource: water. Our titles additionally touch on global health, sanitation, environmental issues, and climate change. We want everyone, everywhere to be able to read this research and (just as importantly) we want to be able to afford to keep publishing it.

Easier said than done.

Golden afternoon light reflected on the surface of a stream

As a small society publisher, we have spent the past couple of years analyzing ways we can move our relatively small publishing output to open access (OA) under various models. One of our OA journals, Ingeniería del Agua, is a Spanish-language journal published in partnership with the Polytechnic University of Valencia, for which we charge no author processing charges (APCs). We launched two new OA journals, one an interdisciplinary title and the other covering an emerging niche in sustainable urban water use. Although these titles are developing good reputations, they have yet to generate revenue and are currently being subsidized by our larger subscription journals.

We also flipped two of our existing titles to OA via an APC model — one in 2017 and the other at the beginning of this year. Although the flip has been successful in terms of usage and impact (we have seen the Impact Factor triple for the journal that flipped in 2017), we took a financial hit on both flips and have yet to generate revenues similar to those we made pre-transition. To flip the remainder of our portfolio this way would require a significant and unrealistic increase in our author charges.

Like many publishers these days, we have been trying to negotiate Read & Publish agreements. Because of our relatively small size, however, it has often been difficult, if not impossible, to convince libraries to devote precious time and resources to complicated deals with a publisher that makes up only a tiny fraction of their readership and/or publishing output. Nevertheless, we were lucky in 2018 to partner with TU Delft and Wageningen universities in the Netherlands, who were willing to work with us to come up with a model that was both fair to them and sustainable for us — granting unlimited OA publication and full reading access to our publishing portfolio. Since then, we also signed a number of additional Read & Publish deals: a national deal with KEMOE in Austria covering 58 institutions, a deal in Sweden with 6 Swedish institutions, and a deal in the UK with Jisc covering 10 institutions.

Now five years into our OA journey, only about 16% of our total annual output is OA.  With many of our authors coming from low-to-middle income countries, about a fifth of this is from waivers associated with our Research4Life program, making APC-based OA challenging if we want to maintain reasonable author costs and need-based waivers. If we want to achieve 100% OA soon, a different approach is required. Enter Knowledge Unlatched and “Subscribe to Open.”

Subscribe to Open (S2O) seeks to take existing subscriptions and transition them to S2O subscriptions, allowing a publisher to flip their journals entirely to OA without charging APCs. Because the model relies on existing procurement processes, the transition has the added advantage of not requiring often costly APC management software and associated administration. Of course, the model only works with sufficient community support, making awareness and understanding key.

For this reason, it has taken a couple of years of discussion and planning with Knowledge Unlatched (KU) to determine exactly how S2O would work for our journals. When we first discussed the model, it seemed crazy. How would we ensure libraries continue to subscribe to our journal after the flip? Would librarians even support such a model? Luckily, there were a few publishers out there willing to take the first plunge. We watched with interest as Annual Reviews announced their S2O plans early last year and Berghahn Books implemented their Berghahn Open Anthro project, also in partnership with KU.  At the end of the Summer, we joined the newly formed Subscribe to Open Community of Practice – a group of publishers, librarians and funders all interested in making S2O a viable and sustainable OA model. Since then, several other members of the community have announced their upcoming S2O initiatives, including EMS Press, EDP Sciences, Pluto Journals, De Gruyter, Amsterdam University Press, and the American Society for Cell Biology.

Through our partnership with KU, we hope to make all 10 of our remaining hybrid journals OA by 1 January, 2021. In order to remain sustainable under an S2O model, the ultimate decision to flip will be based on whether we are able to achieve a specific target revenue – set based on the revenue generated from the relevant journals in 2019. Because this includes not only subscription revenue, but also additional sources of income such as APCs, pay-per-view charges, rights, member subscriptions and so on, it is imperative that we not only secure as many S2O renewals as possible but also that we manage to raise additional funds to cover the so called ‘revenue gap.’ That last bit is where KU comes in. Through their expertise in library crowdfunding and communicating the latest OA models, we hope to be able to secure the additional support needed to make S2O a viable and sustainable model.

The How.

Over the years, KU have made various attempts to help journals with sustainable OAfunding. Starting in 2017, KU tried to tailor its traditional monograph crowdfunding approach to journal portfolios from various publishers under the KU Select Journals model.

KU extended this attempt in 2018 to include two journals from IWA Publishing. Our goal was to crowdfund sufficient support for the journals for a period of three years, making them fully OA and APC free. Although we were ultimately unsuccessful in this early attempt at a S2O-type model, it was an important learning experience.

From our point of view, “starting from scratch” in the search for support for these journals was too much of a challenge. Although we had analyzed the current subscriber list and included authors and their affiliated institutions in our outreach, the overall process was too slow and onerous, both for us and the institutions we spoke to. It also became clear quickly that we lacked appropriate incentives to convince institutions to support the initiative.

Since then, both IWA Publishing and KU honed our approach. For this new S2O transition, we partnered with EBSCO to streamline the process and focused our internal efforts on in-depth discussions with libraries and institutions on the advantages of S2O, particularly in the long run as an APC-free model.

As an added challenge, IWA Publishing needed to not only maintain revenue from current subscribers, but also to cover the gap in revenue generated from other sources such as APCs which would not be covered under an S2O model. The question became how best to renew existing revenue while simultaneously securing new sources of revenue. It became obvious that we needed to structure and review current funding streams so that we could use the renewals process to our advantage.

We started by splitting existing subscribers in to two main groups: ‘longtail’ and ‘core accounts’. The ‘longtail’ is the group of subscribers for which it makes the most sense to renew their current subscriptions in the simplest way possible. This means renewing through whatever means they would normally renew, be it through agents or directly with IWA Publishing. These institutions usually have a small amount of subscriptions within the complete portfolio and so the incentive to support S2O is simply that it is the easiest thing for them to do administratively. Through S2O, they get what they were getting before at the same rate with the added advantage that their continued support means that the entire portfolio will be OA. The most important factor here is clear communication: informing sales agents about the process and providing them with clear guidelines on how to process the S2O renewals.

The second group, the ‘core accounts’, are those institutions who are highly invested in the journal portfolio and are likely to support the remaining journals they do not yet subscribe to with a contribution to ensure S2O is a success. These customers are actively approached by KU to “upsell” S2O at the portfolio level. Again, it is important to coordinate outreach to these institutions with any agents involved to avoid multiple invoices and to align messaging.

Through a combination of both simple S2O renewals and additional S2O subscriptions and support, we hope to reach the revenue target and ultimately ensure the success of the S2O initiative.

The What Now?!

So let’s imagine we get enough renewals, that KU manages to convince ‘core accounts’ to further support S2O, that ultimately our target revenue threshold is met, and that we flip the IWA journals portfolio to OA. What then? How sustainable is the S2O model? What will we need to do in year 2 or 3 or 4 to make sure institutions continue to subscribe?

So much of this will depend on the amount of support we get for 2021, how many institutions pledge to S2O for multiple years and how willing libraries are in general to commit to S2O as a viable alternative OA model. The risk is that, as with traditional subscriptions, libraries can decide to cancel at the end of any year — or to reduce their S2O support to fewer titles. To make up for these potential losses, we will need to be vigilant about recruiting new subscribers.

And for that, we need data. We need clear and accurate usage data. We need to know who uses our content, who tried to use our content but failed in the past, and who publishes in our journals. Assuming that a subset of our current subscribers will continue to subscribe through S2O, we need to figure out who isn’t currently subscribing but should. And then we need to present compelling data to highlight why it’s in these institutions’ best interest to support S2O and ensure we can keep our journals OA.

How sustainable is this? Only time will tell. What is clear is that we will need more of a concerted effort each year to retain renewals and accrue new subscribers. This means continuing to work with KU, investing in our sales team, and/or further incentivizing third party agents to promote S2O. It also means extra communication — continuing to raise awareness of S2O as a viable model for OA journals and growing the community of S2O supporters.

We will also need to demonstrate to our supporting S2O libraries that usage at their institutions is high and that their researchers find IWA Publishing journals to be an excellent means of sharing their work with the wider world. Libraries will continue to support S2O if they can see that it helps to achieve the goals of their institution.

Looking further into the future, we aim to work with librarians and funders to explore how S2O can be made into a permanent model which is easy for libraries and publishers to adopt. If we can repurpose the existing infrastructure that university and college libraries have to make OA sustainable for the long term, everyone will gain.

Sara Bosshart

Sara Bosshart is the Open Access Publisher at IWA Publishing, the publishing division of the International Water Association, where she is responsible for implementing a strategic transition towards Open Access. Originally a marine geologist, Sara began her publishing career at Frontiers where she launched and managed a suite of new OA journals in the Physical and Life Sciences, including Frontiers in Marine Science.

Rod Cookson

Rod Cookson currently runs IWA Publishing, which spreads knowledge about the world’s most valuable resource, water. He is a Director and Council Member of ALPSP and a Council Member of the Society Publishers’ Coalition. Before joining IWA Publishing, Rod spent ten years at Taylor & Francis, variously running the Medical and Life & Environmental Science journal portfolios. He has also worked for Blackwell Publishing and Reed Education.

Philipp Hess

Philipp Hess studied Engineering and Industrial Design in the Netherlands and Japan, before getting into scholarly content while working for Kiron, a platform that offers higher education to refugees. He is currently the Head of Publisher Relations at the Knowledge Unlatched GmbH and is pursuing a complimentary Master Degree at the Hochschule St.Gallen and the University of Arts Berlin in “Leadership in digital Innovation”. His goal is to make knowledge accessible to everyone, everywhere and to help shape the future dissemination of scholarly content.


18 Thoughts on "Guest Post — Subscribe to Open: The Why, The How and The What Now?!"

Very useful to hear more about your thought process and experience — thanks for sharing!

Thanks Alix, appreciated! Hope all is good at AIP – and great to see your Read + Publish agreements rolling out

Very encouraging to hear of such an innovative approach to the author pays vs. subscription payment dichotomy. It does seem as though the whole model relies on good will and altruism. I hope there’s enough of that to make it work. My employer subscibes to some IWA titles but probably is a long-tail. I would see our acquisition librarian being supportive, but if it comes time to make hard decisions on cuts, I don’t know how far altruism will hold.

Hi Chris, thanks for the feedback! As you say, much of our S2O push at the moment is based on good will and altruism which we’re hoping to generate through the wider community. We appreciate that library budgets are tough all over and we’re incredibly grateful to the over 150 institutions that have already supported us through S2O subscriptions so far. Still, if we’re ultimately successful with S2O, we’ll need to continue to demonstrate the value of our publications through compelling usage data and author affiliations.

Could you say more about usage data? Are you going to be tracking readers to report usage to subscribing libraries (like what arXiv does or something different)?

Hello Lisa. Thanks. We haven’t firmed up our plans around usage data yet, but our intention is to continue providing it to subscribing institutions. We want libraries to support us, and we also want to give them information that lets them assess whether our S2O initiative is a sensible budget expenditure. We will look at arXiv – I’m not familiar with their data provision.

I’d love to hear more about this as you work through this. Without a paywall + related authentication/authorization, it seems there will be a challenge in showing data to libraries that their users are using that for which the library is paying since there won’t be such a straightforward mechanism for tracking affiliation.

Hi Lisa, I can’t seem to respond directly to your second question, so replying here. As you suggest, gathering accurate data on who is making use of our content once it’s OA will present a unique challenge. We are currently able to collect some data on the IP ranges of visitors to our site and to individual journal articles. As a starting point, we worked with PSI Registry to identify the institutions linked to these IP ranges. This initial data gives a useful indication of some of the more regular visitors to our articles that aren’t currently subscribing. The current limitation is in the level of detail we are able to collect – the reports we can generate at the moment only give us information on usage over a 2 year period and it’s difficult to differentiate between actual article downloads and a quick visit to an article page. We would love to hear any suggestions or solutions from the community on ways we can more accurately identify the provenance of usage for our articles in an OA environment!

Hi Victor, thanks for your question. Based on the feedback we receive from our author community, our first priority is to maintain the quality and efficiency of our current peer review process. There hasn’t yet been the demand for Open Review, so this isn’t something we are considering at the moment.

The risk is that, as with traditional subscriptions, libraries can decide to cancel at the end of any year — or to reduce their S2O support to fewer titles. To make up for these potential losses, we will need to be vigilant about recruiting new subscribers.

Does it really make sense to think of (and characterize) ongoing supporters of this program as “subscribers”? They’re not paying for access to content; they’re making an ongoing free-will contribution in support of a business model that they believe is better than the subscription model. Maybe “member” would be a better term than “subscriber.”

Thanks Rick, this is a question we’ve been asking ourselves too. For this year, we wanted to stick with ‘subscriber’ to highlight the concept that we are asking libraries to maintain their ‘subscriptions’ at the same rate, i.e. it highlights the simplicity of the S2O model. Existing library infrastructure and budgets become the facilitator of Open Access. We don’t want to reinvent the wheel if we can find a way to deliver Open Access that is built on what already exists. S2O is a much simpler transformation than universities creating new OA units within their organizations – and very possibly re-purposing library budgets to finance those units. We like the simple, pragmatic approach of S2O, and for now ‘subscriber’ captures some of that.

Also, since the IWA is a membership organization with 10,000 members worldwide, we tend to associate the term ‘member’ with our global water community. As such, it’s more natural for us to think of ‘subscribers’ being different to ‘members’.

All that said, we completely agree that ‘subscriber’ is not an ideal of description of what is happening under S2O. We are very happy to improve our terminology as and when there is a better term. Please do continue to share suggestions – they are very welcome!

It is fantastic to hear about your innovative solutions, thanks so much for sharing. It shows absolute will and determination to experiment in this way and is great and inspiring for others of us looking to find creative ways to move away from traditional subscriptions and the APC model. Adopting two models must present operational challenges, and so for others looking on, once again demonstrates IWAs lead in finding a way to OA for smaller, independent publishers.
Echo the sentiment that new institutional models based on annual fees needs to find terms other than subscriptions/subscribers!

My local public radio station is in the midst of one of their “subscription drives.” Obviously anyone can listen for free, but the business model depends on a substantial number of steady donors, who are called “subscribers.” The threat/incentive is that if they don’t get enough subscribers, content will be diminished or even that the station goes dark. Always seems tenuous, but it’s been going for 30+ years. Wikipedia is another sorta S2O-like model that comes to mind.

Thanks Chris and David. Yes, it is very encouraging that NPR-like models have persisted for extended periods (even if details of what they do are different to S2O). We hope that publishers and librarians working together can develop a sustainable basis on which both can sign up to S2O with confidence. The members of the S2O Community of Practice (https://subscribetoopencommunity.org/) would like to make that a reality. Questions like Lisa’s above about usage data to that mutual trust-building, transparency agenda. And please note that the S2O CoP is open to stakeholders from all parts of the community who have a live interest in S2O. Speaking for IWA Publishing only, we are optimistic that collective action between libraries and publishers can make S2O a permanent and useful part of the scholarly communication ecosystem.

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