In this post I’m going to be discussing the feasibility and sustainability of open access (OA) business model du jour: subscribe-to-open (S2O for short). Briefly put, S2O is a model whereby a journal shifts from subscription access to OA, but the libraries who were subscribers under the old model continue paying in order to keep the journal financially viable. Some publishers (such as Annual Reviews) offer a discount to supporting libraries; others (such as IWA Publishing) don’t.

As is the case with any publishing business model, there are pros and cons to this one, some of which I’ll discuss below.

hand pushing a button labeled "subscribe"

Mission and Business

Before I do, though, let’s start with a possibly uncomfortable but unfortunately essential truth about the relationship between a publishing organization’s mission and its business model. As much as it may annoy us to acknowledge this fact, the latter will always constrain our ability to pursue the former. In other words, your organization’s ability to fulfill its mission is constrained by the resources available to it; all other things being equal, rich organizations are generally better positioned to fulfill their missions than poor ones. And in a worst-case scenario, if your publishing organization can’t pay its platform provider or editors, can’t pay rent on its offices, and can’t build a reserve for future needs, it’s going to go out of business and will then be unable to fulfill its mission at all. (This, by the way, is why it makes no sense for people who consider themselves mission-driven to denigrate those they call “bean-counters”: if you’re actually serious about accomplishing your organizational mission, you’d better know how many beans you have, and how you’re going to ensure an ongoing, reliable stream of beans for the future.)

Feasibility and Sustainability

That ongoing and reliable stream of beans is where the concepts of feasibility and sustainability come into play. Let’s look at each of those for a second.

Feasibility is perhaps the most fundamental, baseline criterion for any organizational initiative. The word is derived ultimately from the Latin verb facere (“to do” or “to make”) and it addresses the most basic question about any project: can it be done? Not just “is it possible in theory?”, but more acutely “can it be done in the real world under the conditions that obtain right now?”. “Feasible” is really just a fancier way of saying “possible” or “doable.”

Sustainability is subtly but importantly different from feasibility. It’s a concept that gets invoked in many different contexts to mean a range of different things, but in this context its meaning is both basic and simple: a publisher’s business model is sustainable if it’s able to be sustained over time. As we all know, there are lots of projects that are feasible as one-offs or for a short period, but which turn out not to be sustainable in the long run.

What determines sustainability? For an ongoing and open-ended project like publishing, the baseline determinant of sustainability is simple: recurring, reliable revenue. The revenue may come from selling access to content (as in a traditional subscription model), or from selling access to publishing services (as in OA publishing supported by article processing charges), or from institutional subventions (as in “diamond” OA publishing), but it has to come from somewhere and it has to keep coming consistently and reliably.

Feasibility and S2O

For a publisher, one of the most obvious attractions of the S2O model is that it preserves — in theory, at least — the revenue stream that made the traditional subscription model both feasible and sustainable. Existing subscription customers don’t have to change anything they’ve been doing; in fact, the model depends precisely on customers continuing to do exactly what they have been all along. This enhances feasibility because it minimizes disruption to an already proven process.

A closely related, and also important, strength of this model is that it largely preserves existing organizational structures and infrastructure. As long as revenues continue to flow from “subscribing” institutions, there should be little or no need for new accounting structures or management processes — although it also seems clear that the nature and mission of the publisher’s sales teams might have to change, as their message morphs from “Here are good reasons to pay for access to this content” to “Here are good reasons for you to underwrite our efforts to produce this content and make it freely available to all.”

A third important strength of the S2O model is that it doesn’t require existing customers to make new budget commitments; instead, it requires customers to continue allocating funds that have been directed towards the same publications in the past.

Because it relies on the continuation of tested and proven systems and structures and already-committed budget outlays, feasibility is one of the great strengths of the S2O model.

Sustainability and S2O

Sustainability, however, is a more complicated issue.

The biggest and most obvious weakness of the S2O model is that it’s built on a tenuous assumption: that libraries will be willing and able to continue paying indefinitely for content that has become free to access. It requires customers to continue behaving as if nothing has changed about the business model, even when the model has, in reality, changed radically. Advocates for the model like to say that it’s “a subscription model, not a voluntary donation.” But I would suggest that this is obfuscatory at best; if I’ll continue getting access to the content regardless of whether I continue paying, it’s tough to see how the model involves a “subscription” in anything like the sense traditionally understood in scholarly publishing. I’ll come back to this issue in a moment.

The second weakness is related to the first: not only is it unclear to what degree libraries will be willing to continue paying for access under S2O, but it’s even less clear to what degree new customers or supporters will be willing to sign on. If a publisher wants to expand its offerings over time, or even just provide for the inevitably increasing costs of doing business, new or expanding streams of recurring revenue are going to be necessary. Under an S2O model, will these be realized by asking existing subscriber/supporters to pay more? Or by gaining new ones? There does not seem to be a third option.

Three Errors of Analysis

Let’s return to the issue of libraries’ willingness to pay. In this regard, I think it’s important to avoid three related (and potentially fatal, from a sustainability standpoint) errors of analysis:

Error #1: Confusing high use of open content with evidence in support of any particular open-access business model.

When publishers experiment with making their content open, they invariably find that when the content is open, it gets higher rates of use. No surprise there, of course — one would hardly expect usage either to stay the same or to go down if the only change to the content is that it becomes free.

But this finding provides evidence of pent-up demand; it doesn’t provide evidence that OA is a sustainable access model for the publisher in the long run, and still less does it constitute evidence that any particular funding model for underwriting OA would be better than another. Expanded readership doesn’t make a business model more sustainable unless it results in more (or more reliable) recurring revenue.

Error #2: Confusing librarians’ enthusiasm for OA generally, and for S2O in particular, with enthusiasm on the part of those who allocate funds to libraries.

I cannot stress this point enough: while libraries have money to spend and are given a great deal of latitude in how they spend it, this money has traditionally been given to libraries to use for the purchase of things that cost money. Furthermore, libraries don’t generally have pots of money available that they can spend without accountability. (The exception might be expendable balances of unrestricted endowments, which typically represent a very small portion of a library’s available funding.) What this means is that while the librarian you talk to may enthusiastically support S2O, and may express a sincere intention to support that model into the indefinite future, the librarian’s intention to do so will matter only to the degree that the library’s sponsoring institution remains willing to continue allocating funds to the library for that purpose. When it comes to any subscription model it’s essential to bear in mind that the library is only the proximate subscriber; the library acts as an agent of the ultimate subscriber, which is the library’s host institution.

One obvious objection to this observation is “Come on; do university administrators really ask the library to account specifically for every purchase they make with allocated funds?” And the answer to that question is, of course, no. However, every year the library asks the provost for more money, and has to explain how the current allocation is being used. And 24 years of library management experience have led me to adopt a few rules of thumb, one of which is: “If a program or practice relies for its viability on the fact that your boss doesn’t know what you’re doing, that program or practice is doomed in the long run.”

Here is an entirely realistic scenario to illustrate what I’m warning about:

A provost attends a higher-ed leadership conference. One breakout session is dedicated to the topic of the future of scholarly publishing. A panelist outlines exciting innovations in open access, including the S2O model, mentioning that this model is growing in popularity.

The provost returns home, and in her next meeting with the library director, asks about this model. They have the following conversation:

Provost: “Are we participating in any S2O programs?”
Librarian: “Yes.”
Provost: “How much money are we talking about?”
Librarian: “We’re spending $100,000 a year supporting S2O with Publisher X.”
Provost: “So just to be clear: if we stopped paying that money, would we lose access to the journals?”
Librarian: “Well, no — but of course, if enough subscribers cancel then the whole system falls apart and the journals would no longer be free.”
Provost: “At which point, presumably, the journals would go back to a toll-access model and we’d have to start paying for the content again.”
Librarian: “Right.”
Provost: “Except that we’re paying for the content now, even though it’s free.”
Librarian: “Well, what we’re doing is supporting the publisher in making the content free to everyone.”
Provost: “Hmm.”

After the meeting, the provost spends some time pondering this question: Is effectively donating $100,000 a year to a publisher so that the publisher’s content can be made freely available the best way for the university to fulfill its mission? Or should the university gamble that it could redirect those funds to other mission-critical programs (scholarships for underrepresented students, lab renovation, that diversity and equity study they’ve been meaning to do) and be reasonably confident that other institutions will continue supporting the publisher sufficiently to keep the journals open?

I would suggest that the right answer to this question is not immediately obvious. I would further suggest that this scenario is by no means far-fetched, nor is it even merely hypothetical. Provosts are constantly — constantly — wrestling with exactly these kinds of questions, and are currently doing so in an environment of troubling economic prospects for higher education. When putting oneself in the provost’s shoes here, it’s worth bearing in mind that the worst-case scenario of free-riding on an S2O journal is not that the university will lose access to the content, but rather that it will have to go back to paying for the content as it was before. Consider how this translates into risk assessment: no longer having to pay is all upside; resuming payment is merely a return to the status quo ante.

Error #3: Assuming that renewals immediately following an initial S2O pilot constitute evidence of long-term sustainability.

This is an error of analysis that I’ve encountered more than once in conversations with publishers and S2O advocates.

If you’re a publisher considering trying out S2O, the question you need to be asking yourself is not “If we make the journals open in 2021, will libraries renew in 2022?”. The question you need to be asking is “If we make the journals open in 2021, will libraries still be renewing in 2029?”. Inertia is a powerful force, but it’s not infinitely powerful, and it weakens over time. S2O will fail if it depends, in the long term, on its surface similarity to a traditional subscription model. Back to my earlier rule of thumb: if the host institution is giving the library money with which to buy things that cost money, and the library is instead using that money to underwrite the publishing of content that could be had at no cost, that arrangement is not sustainable—because eventually it will become clear that the library and its host institution are out of alignment, and a realignment will take place. (A wise library leader will ensure alignment at the beginning, counseling with her provost as to the institution’s willingness to participate in S2O using campus funds.)

If You’re Considering S2O

Whether you’re a publisher considering adopting an S2O program, or a library contemplating participating in one, there are some important questions your organization should consider.

For publishers, these questions are largely about sustainability. For example: how will you provide for the inevitably increasing costs of doing business from year to year? If you find that renewals are flagging as time goes on, what are you willing to sacrifice in order to maintain S2O — will you publish fewer journals? Will you make editorial sacrifices? Will you look for philanthropic support? If none of those strategies works, will you consider going back to a toll-access model or adopting a different OA business model? (An important variant on this question would be: what are you not willing to sacrifice in order to keep your S2O program afloat?)

For libraries, some of the most fundamental questions are political: given that the money you’ll be feeding into the S2O model is vouchsafed to you by a host institution, is your institution on board with supporting that program, or would the institutional preference be to take the risks of free ridership and redirect those funds toward other, also worthy, purposes? Does the library have endowment expendables that could be used for S2O support, thus largely obviating the institutional-preferences question? How big a risk would free ridership represent — if the S2O model fails for the journal or journals in question, would the library and its institution be worse off than it was before S2O was adopted?

By recommending these questions, I’m not proposing that every publisher or library will answer them the same way. Political and economic situations differ from case to case, and due diligence will lead different organizations to make different decisions. But I do think asking these questions and considering these factors are essential if you want your program to be both feasible in the short run and sustainable in the long term.

Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson is University Librarian at Brigham Young University. He has worked previously as a bibliographer for YBP, Inc., as Head Acquisitions Librarian for the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, as Director of Resource Acquisition at the University of Nevada, Reno, and as Associate Dean for Collections & Scholarly Communication at the University of Utah.

Discussion

39 Thoughts on "Feasibility, Sustainability, and the Subscribe-to-Open Model"

This is an interesting post from the American Historical Association about their experiment in 2005. https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/may-2013/from-publishing-to-communication

– In 1999, it made the issues open online and subscriptions fell 8.5%
– In 2005, the AHA Council decided to experiment with a different form of open access-making all articles open immediately upon publication, but keeping the book reviews (which tend to hold the most immediate interest for readers) closed. Subscriptions fell 18%
– After another decline of almost 18 percent in subscriptions, and as evidence arose that the audience for the articles was fairly limited (most readers left mere seconds after landing on an article), the AHA Council walked back a bit from the open access policy-first by adding a one-year gate to the articles, and then by shifting to a three-year moving wall. That decision again stabilized our subscription sales.

I would love to hear from publishers detailing the research and modeling they have done to support a move to S2O. The assumptions behind the model are fraught: 1. Paying customers will continue to pay out of support for OA. 2. University administration shares the same passion for OA that the library administration does. 3. Well funded institutions should underwrite poorly funded institutions (this is flawed because it leaves a responsibility to individuals and institutions that should be broadly, government-borne) and 4. Finally, it flies in the face of basic economic principles …

The problem with the OA model in general is that it is based on the free lunch model. There is no free lunch. Someone has to pay. The publisher – regardless it being profit based or not-for-profit based – both require a profit to be sustainable!

I’m not aware of any OA model that is based on the idea of a free lunch–all of them are built on the understanding that someone is going to pay. The question is always who will pay, and by what mechanism? The problem is that every funding model for scholarly publishing (including traditional subscriptions) has weaknesses as well as strengths.

One possible way forward is to pivot S2O toward the funding agencies and research institutions rather than the libraries by selling “subscriptions”, usually for older archival content, which include discounts or waivers on APCs for papers published OA by authors affiliated with the subscribers.

Rick – excellent article. I’d like to suggest an expansion on your provost-librarian scenario. I doubt that most provosts would say anything as direct as, “I’m reducing your budget by $100,000 because I don’t want us to support S2O initiatives.” Maybe, but a better budget management technique to retain a manager’s (librarian’s in this case) authority over their area would be to say, “We need to take $100,000 out of your budget. Can you produce a plan that would do that in the way that is least damaging to the needs of our community?” Of course, the librarian could then decide to reduce some traditional subscriptions, especially if they are somehow still subscribing to titles they don’t think are highly valuable to the community they serve. But in the case where the librarian judges two publications to be of equal value/importance to the community – one traditional subscription and one S2O – it’s hard to see how one would avoid the ‘free ride’ approach…

Excellent article. Thank you. This is the kind of conversation I am having with senior leadership at my small medical college. The transformative agreement works for us if enough authors willingly submit their papers to the publisher that the school breaks even (or comes close) by not having the burden to pay the additional APC or OA fee. I have identified two publishers where we’ve moved to this type of agreement. Their publishing portfolio includes journals that publish case reports, technique papers, and scoping reviews that an early career researcher can successfully write and publish. Removing the APC and OA fee barrier allows ECRs to prefer publishing in journals currently indexed by MEDLINE (the vetted journal file of PubMed, https://www.nlm.nih.gov/bsd/difference.html).

We do have a lot to learn about the sustainability of S2O, but the same can be said of the other open models being adopted and even the subscription model. My advice to publishers considering S2O is this. Learn from other publishers that are trying the model, which is easy to do with the S2O Community of Practice. Work directly with your libraries and consider them partners on your open transition. You will learn a lot and the libraries will be better positioned, when needed, to explain the model and its value. And last, realize there is a lot of interest in equitable open models like S2O.

S2O Community of Practice
https://subscribetoopencommunity.org/

These darn Provosts. Here’s another one:

Provost: “Are we participating in any S2O programs?”
Librarian: “Yes.”
Provost: “How much money are we talking about?”
Librarian: “We’re spending $20,000 a year supporting S2O with Publisher Y, a non-profit publisher.”
Provost: “So just to be clear: we use existing budgets to support journals to flip to open access? No other costs or fees? And we can apply it to all fields of research?”
Librarian: “Correct.”
Provost: “Just to be crystal clear: if we stopped paying that money, would we lose access to the journals?”
Librarian: “That’s highly likely, if enough subscribers cancel then the journals would no longer be free.”
Provost: “At which point, presumably, the journals would go back to a toll-access model and we’d have to start paying for the content again.”
Librarian: “Right.”
Provost: “So our choice is to subscribe solely for our own faculty and staff, or pay the same amount for everyone in the community to have access?”
Librarian: “Yes. If we choose to do this, we will would be making high quality research information on all kinds of crucial questions accessible to all.”
Provost: “Screw them! Cancel!”

Richard, based on my experience with provosts, the reaction I described is the more realistic one. I think it’s relatively unlikely that, having come to an understanding of how S2O works, the provost is going to react in a mercenary and dismissive way. Much more likely, I think, is that the provost will spend some time thinking about the pros and cons of participation in the model, carefully considering what options would be foreclosed by that participation. As you know very well, budget allocation is a zero-sum game and opportunity cost is merciless.

Everyone wants to do good in the world, but no one has sufficient resources to do all the possible good that could be done. So how does one decide when the choice is between, say, underwriting an OA publishing program and, say, providing scholarships to underrepresented students? Provosts are in a tough position, and some at less-wealthy institutions are in nearly impossible ones.

I would also suggest that the risk that your one institution canceling will be the one that puts the journal under its OA threshold is probably not “highly likely”, at least unless cancellations become widespread. And if that’s the case, can’t you just jump back in and re-subscribe (perhaps losing the discount) and putting the journal back into OA status? Or maybe wait a bit and see if someone else bites?

I know we’ve discussed this elsewhere David but I can’t recall specifically where (maybe on Twitter?) but my answer to why an institution might not want to cancel, see if it is OA anyway, and then re-subscribe if it is not … (1) doing so take a lot of labor and tracking, (2) you lose access for awhile, and (3) even if the frontfile opens you possibly won’t have the backfile (depends on the particular publisher’s S2O model). It may depend on the resource, the potential savings by free riding, etc.

FWIW, I think it is understandable that non-librarians don’t have a detailed sense of what happens labor-wise when a title is canceled. I’m not saying “woe is me” but it is time that is then not spent on other things. So, FWIW, anything that gets canceled triggers my office to review thousands of course/subject guides to see it the title was linked, re-write the text as necessary to remove the item, etc. And then in this case we’d add back in tracking that all in case we need to reverse it a couple months later. And, I’m just one librarian in my institution who would be trigger to action by a cancelation.

Personally, I don’t think S2O is going to work for all use cases — pretty sure no one does — but it seems a good match for some (as I wrote just over a year ago! https://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2020/03/09/subscribetoopen/).

Understood, but to me that’s why S2O is a good short term model, and one that won’t scale. It’s probably not worth the effort to bother with this for a handful of journals, but if it spreads and a significant portion of your serials budget is going to S2O, then suddenly all that labor is probably going to be worth it. Not sure where that threshold is, but it’s a model that works best under the radar.

I’m also curious about access to the backfiles. If you’re a subscriber, doesn’t that entitle you to perpetual access to all the material to which you’ve previously subscribed, even if you drop paying for new content? Do perpetual access rights suddenly go away?

Another piece to consider here is that at least for Annual Reviews, we’re talking about review articles, not the newest and latest research. There may be a lot more patience in waiting for ILL access to review articles by patrons than for other types of materials.

Isn’t the existence of Research4Life/HINARI already an instance of a workable S2O program (https://www.research4life.org/about/)? The design of that program is that subscribing/paying institutions are paying the publisher enough to enable them to agree to completely free or reduced cost access for institutions/countries that have met objective criteria that show they really can’t afford to pay. The program has public eligibility criteria for an institution/country to qualify for free access. While I’m sure it is not perfectly decided/administered, at least it disqualifies the obvious free riders (those with plenty of ability to pay if they so desired) and reduce the game theory of incentives that Rick describes above (where U Michigan might be subsidizing U Minnesota, or the reverse, at any one time).

Would it make more sense to make better use or expand existing programs like Research4Life to increase access while still maintaining the integrity of the subscriptions that are being paid by those that can (i.e. eliminate the conundrum for them that they can stop paying and still get full access)?

Jake, my understanding–which may be mistaken–is that the subscribing/paying institutions are actually paying for access. If one of them were to stop paying, that institution would no longer have access to the content. Is that correct? If so, the Research4Life model is substantially different from S2O.

You are correct, it is different than the S2O model you analyze above. I was really asking if the unbounded S2O concept of “some pay for something so that others don’t have to pay for that same thing” where *any org* could be on either side of that equation could at least be contained into a more established ethical framework such as (to put it crudely) “richer orgs/countries pay for something so that poorer orgs/countries don’t have to pay for the same thing.” To me the former is a bit of a free-for-all while the latter is more defensible.

While S2O was designed to address collective action challenges, it does not rely on pro-collective behavior. The model recognizes that subscribers will require an inducement that makes participation in an institution’s self interest. Inducements can include a participation discount, term access to gated backfile content, access to collateral content from multiple coordinated S2O offers, and/or other private benefits. The risk of not participating isn’t just loss of access, but also the forgone benefits; so, there is a cost to an attempt to free ride. As for long-term stability, S2O offers recur annually, with the content opened each year only if support is inadequate. The model does not rely on inertia.

To the degree that an S2O program connects concrete benefits to ongoing payment, it’s more likely to be sustainable. Of course, to ensure ongoing subscriptions those benefits will need to be proportional to the payment, so then the challenge for the publisher will be how to provide such benefits in a fiscally sustainable way.

One thing I find kind of puzzling is how the “participation discount” works. In the case of Annual Reviews, for example, is it possible to subscribe without participating in the S2O program (and therefore without getting the discount)? Obviously, there’s no incentive to pay the full price for the same content that you could have at the discounted price. But since the content is going to be freely available anyway, whether my specific institution subscribes or not (at whatever the price), we’re back to the original conundrum I outlined: does my institution achieve its goals and/or do more good in the world by underwriting a publisher’s OA program, or by directing those resources to other worthy goals?

Thanks Rick. Can you elaborate a bit more on what kind of conversations are happening on the publisher side? For example, in order to make this arrangement more sellable are publishers thinking in terms of product/service “tiers”?— if the university pays full freight then they get access to x,y and z (data analysis tools, 100 years of archives, social media marketing suites, APC discounts for other journals, etc.), but if they’re a free rider they only get access to 10 years of archives?

No, I have very limited perspective on the conversations that are happening on the publisher side. I’ve been party to a few of them, but none that have involved the creation of ancillary benefits for S2O participants.

It’s also worth noting that S2O was not designed to support new journals. There are better approaches that a publisher might use for a new open journal, such as a provision-point approach that makes launch of the journal contingent on adequate upfront support commitments. This raises the risk and effort initially but (if the model is properly designed) reduces it long-term.

I don’t think so. Many publishers already use multiple models, in any event. Using S2O to open legacy content and a collective model to launch new content shouldn’t be onerous for a publisher.

I don’t understand what the value proposition is to an author. This year the journal is open, next year it may not be? Submit in November and it could go either way? Also curious if these journals have seen a large uptick in submission due to them being free to access and free to publish in. If there has, then how are the journals absorbing that additional cost under this model? If they have not, then it seems like authors could be leery of the access status.

Authors that are publishing under a funder mandate can be accommodated in a variety of ways, depending on whether the journal(s) in the S2O offer are conventional subscription or hybrid. I suspect it’s too early to assess the submission patterns for most of the journals using S2O. (And Annual Reviews is commissioned content.)

I think it would be great to hear about the accommodations more transparently. I am hearing more and more of “side strategies” for authors funded by certain funders … that they can get certain copyright terms not available to other authors. Really cuts against the notion that we’re building toward an equitable system when some funders are more equal than others?

I’m referring to how the offer is timed and to transparent policies, not side strategies. I agree there does seem to be a welter of funder-specific policies.

Thanks Rick for a stimulating and in-depth analysis. I echo your comment that S2O delivers OA in a way that ‘largely preserves existing organizational structures and infrastructure’. We shouldn’t underestimate how important this is. Moving to OA is a huge change. Achieving it without having to rebuild the entire research communication infrastructure brings the benefits of OA many years sooner than would otherwise happen and (given the costs in any system change) does so at a low cost.

The IWA Publishing S2O model has some nuances which I will explain. The back archive of our 10 S2O journals is only available to our S2O supporters. That is 26,000 articles that your provost would lose access to with her/his budget cut.

What our S2O flip delivers is OA to the most recent five years of articles, and everything published this year is CC-BY, so will remain OA in perpetuity. So we are clear, that is 10,500 articles now made OA in our 10 S2O journals.

We are still analysing the impacts of the move to S2O. It has expanded readership of our content around the world to an unprecedented degree, with Q1 downloads trebled in India and almost quadrupled in Turkey. The change has been almost as large in our ‘traditional’ markets. Q1 usage in the USA is 120% higher than last year (ie has more than doubled), and improved by similar amounts in Germany and Canada. Our downloads in Japan and France have trebled.

S2O is being genuinely transformative in all countries around the world, and doing that for the same price as last year’s subscriptions. We all recognise the economic realities you describe in your article. They are real and they are tough all over at present. The challenge we as a publisher face is delivering OA and doing it in an affordable and sustainable way. S2O achieves that. The task now is ensure that it works equally well for libraries and publishers alike. That will take discussions and more experimentation and more collaboration. As Curtis says, the S2O Community of Practice is bringing interested people together to do that. Please join us.

S2O is the simple route to Open Access. Let’s work together to make it simple and sustainable too.

Very interesting, Rod, thanks. So it appears that a major incentive for current subscribers to stick with IWA through its transition to OA is the fact that the backfiles are not, in fact, OA, and are only available to paying customers. That’s an interesting incentive structure, and while it’s one that will gradually become less powerful over time (as more and more of the backfile becomes OA), it does create a concrete incentive in the present and the near-term future.

I appreciate your confidence and enthusiasm, but I would respond that whether your model is, in fact, affordable and sustainable remains to be seen. Kudos on undertaking the experiment, and I’m sure I’m one among many who will watch future developments with great interest.

Thanks Rick. As you say, the challenge now is to make the S2O model sustainable. We – and Annual Reviews, Berghahn Books, EMS Press, De Gruyter, EDP Sciences, Amsterdam University Press and Pluto Journals – have taken important first steps. More experimentation and development of S2O is now needed. We look forward to working with everyone interested to make that happen.

Provost: “Are we participating in any S2O programs?”
Librian: “Yes, we are paying this publisher to give the whole world free access to their journals, even those who don’t pay”
Provost: “Isn’t that a bit over-generous?”
Librarian: “Well, you see I have an understanding with a growing number of colleagues that they will do the same with other publishers, meaning that they pay for our free access.”
Provost: “Meaning that if we stop paying, your colleagues might do the same?”
Librarian: “That is a risk.”
Provost: “But if, at the end of the day, all libraries would switch to S2O, together we would pay exactly the same as we do now.”
Librarian: “Sure, but we would have achieved universal OA in a simple way.”

Boy, there’s an almost infinite number of ways these conversations can go, isn’t there?

Of course, the only way to know how it will go with your provost is to… have the conversation. And if you’re smart, you’ll have it prior to making a commitment to an S2O program.

There is nothing like a free lunch. You might be invited for a lunch once or twice but you cannot count on someone to invite you forever. You certainly cannot require that anyone does. Not a very sustainable model.
Excellent article!

Rick,

Another very interesting article!

S2O doesn’t just ‘preserve existing organizational structures and infrastructures’ – it preserves older companies, formats, technologies and processes. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a clearly a better model than subscribe to read. Truly. And a colossal achievement requiring compromise from many. But…

The good provost, the good librarian and the good publisher should all be seeking to get better value for their constituencies. Large jumps in such value are likely to come from disruption and especially disruptive technologies. Will S2O drive higher quality, faster, better mechanisms to deliver knowledge to researchers? Will it encourage investment in new kinds of peer review, machine processable articles, nano-pubs, successor formats to the journal, etc…? Or will it simply perpetuate the status-quo?

Thanks, Stephen. I’d only really quibble with one observation in your comment: I’m not sure we can take it as given that “large jumps in value are likely to come from disruption and especially disruptive technologies.” It seems to me that disruption itself is essentially value-neutral: whether it results in large jumps in value depends entirely on the nature of the disruption, and I’m not sure that disruption itself is necessarily more likely to result in greater or lesser value. (See also: boldness, collaboration, innovation, etc.)

It’s like what I say whenever someone asks me whether I’m in favor of “change.” My answer is always the same: “I have no idea. Tell me what you want to change and how you want to change it.”

The problem is that the “good” librarian, provost, and publisher do not have the same constituency. We do not live (or work) in a “we are all in this together” world. The world is divided asymmetrically into a variety of groups operating in seething competition with one another. Failure to recognize that leads to organizational failure.

Great article Rick. Never assume that increased usage once a journal moves to Open is true usage. Our investigations and evidence shows that, sometimes, a lot of the new usage in OA is bots, crawlers and bad actors, especially during the early phases of the pandemic last year, when paywalls went down.

To be clear, however, in the case of many of the S2O publishers we’ve worked with including Annual Reviews, the publisher has undertaken a careful and informed evaluation of their readership and based their decision making on this. I would like to echo Rod Cookson’s comments above that S2O has the potential to bring about equitable OA much faster than would otherwise be possible. I applaud both the motivation and the effort that publishers are employing in looking for new solutions.

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