There is no shortage of creative thought across publishers and librarians on new publishing business models. From my perch, where I lead society publishing at the American Mathematical Society (AMS), it is easy to be overwhelmed with the range of offerings – which are often backed by powerful levels of advocacy. In the end, my job is to serve our community of members and mathematicians, some 30,000 mathematicians from diverse backgrounds and regions, working in institutions and disciplines with varying levels of resources. At the AMS, we have to understand cultural influences on our publishing programs, and indeed across the global mathematical community. What do authors need as they write books and journal articles? How do we maintain a sustainable publishing program, yet recognize the importance of openness for our customers – readers and authors? At every glance there is political pressure for a range of models of open access publishing. This pressure varies wildly depending on where you are in the world, the wealth of your discipline, the existing culture of openness, the role of funding agencies, and the nature of academic institutional support. Thus, it appears that no one model represents the holy grail of publishing. The best way forward for us at the AMS is to find a range of offerings that balance innovation and experimentation with the need for financial sustainability, recognizing that we are on an inexorable path to openness.
For mathematics, and indeed many disciplines with minimal direct funding, it is clear that author-pays gold open access (OA) is just not relevant. The last path a society such as the AMS wants to take is one in which the burden is placed upon authors.
In truth, one size clearly does not fit all. We find ourselves sifting through myriad approaches to openness; gold OA, green OA, diamond OA, a dizzying variety of approaches to transformative agreements, Community Action, and Subscribe to Open. Layered on top is a separate, but equally confusing link to Creative Commons licensing – I am all in favor of authors retaining copyright, but I still do not see the logic of suggesting that open access is only achievable through use of a Creative Commons reuse license. Oh, and let’s not forget that subscriptions are still in place – for now. It is worth taking a look at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s (AAAS’s) new policy that maintains subscriptions, but is allowing authors funded by cOAlition S funders to utilize a CC BY, or CC BY-ND license with authors retaining copyright. An excellent recent Scholarly Kitchen blog post on this policy, from Lisa Hinchliffe, is worth a read – AAAS Plan S Compliance Policy: Staying Committed to Subscriptions.
The AMS is not bucking the open access trend — indeed, we are launching a major new electronic-only, Diamond Open Access journal – Communications of the AMS (CAMS) – a research journal that sits at the interface of theoretical and applied mathematics. The journal is donor funded and will be endowed to ensure the journal succeeds in perpetuity.
However, we are looking for other ways to avoid reliance on article processing charges (APCs) for revenue. One of the most intriguing options is Subscribe to Open (S2O) – or at least it seems that way. But then again, there are pros and cons to a model that is philosophically appealing, but may not be sustainable in the long term.
Much has been written on how S2O works, so I will not repeat this all here. You should read an in-depth explanation of the model by Raym Crow, Richard Gallagher and Kamran Naim “Subscribe to Open: A practical approach for converting subscription journals to open access,” Learned Publishing, October 2019. https://doi.org/10.1002/leap.1262. Also useful are Rick Anderson’s Scholarly Kitchen Post of April 2021, Feasibility, Sustainability, and the Subscribe-to-Open Model April 2021, and Lisa Hinchliffe’s Scholarly Kitchen article of March 2020, Subscribe to Open: A Mutual Assurance Approach to Open Access. Also fascinating is a recent (February 2021) survey carried out by Maverick Publishing Specialists for Annual Reviews (who launched the S2O) initiative. The survey obtained 179 completed responses from 27 countries, across six continents. Over 95% of respondents worked in academic institutions, 37% of whom were librarians, and the remainder being classified as heads, directors, coordinators and deans.
For an independent academic society, I can see many advantages in S2O. I see the pros of a collective approach to openness that in principle is sustainable. Yet, I do see risks. Right now, there is an ethical force that sits beyond the boundary of logical institutional expenditure. Ongoing financial support requires university administration to accept the idea that their school should subscribe so that others may not need to. Will this approach work globally? Is this how an institution’s Provost or VP of Research sees sensible institutional spend going forward? On the one hand, usage may grow, but it is hard to see how there could be subscription, or financial growth with such a model – perhaps this is the point – but a publisher has to consider these issues.
Rather than letting all this keep me awake at night, I thought I would turn to a few experts with a few burning questions, asking them to help me navigate my way through this complexity.
As you read the thoughtful responses below, I am interested to know what you think. My take-away is that there is a symmetry and determination to S2O that appears to defy the logic of unsustainability. It is also clear that we need to know more over a period of time to see if S2O will work or not. The question I pose on Creative Commons Licensing appears to be an afterthought for many, and indeed the answers below solidify my sense that there is no clear link between S2O and the use of Creative Commons licensing, or if there is, it needs to transparently be the authors’ decision
Voices included here are: Curtis Brundy (Associate University Librarian, Iowa State University), Larry Howell (Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Associate Academic Vice President, Brigham Young University), Judith Russell (Dean of University Libraries, University of Florida), Rick Anderson (University Librarian at Brigham Young University and Scholarly Kitchen Chef), Tom Ward (Professor of Mathematics and Pro-Vice Chancellor (Education), Newcastle University), Richard Gallagher (President and Editor-in-Chief, Annual Reviews), Michael Levine-Clark (Dean of the University of Denver Libraries)
What do you see as the major pros and cons to the Subscribe to Open business model approach?
Pros – S2O is easy to implement for both libraries and publishers. No time-consuming article level workflows are necessary. Libraries can participate through normal subscription agent channels. S2O is equitable. Because libraries provide the funding, it is barrier free for authors. No APCs! It has significant potential to scale. I see little reason why a medium-sized publisher couldn’t use it. There is a healthy community of libraries and publishers working together to ensure the model is successful and sustainable. The Subscribe to Open Community of Practice is an excellent source of information, expertise, and lessons learned.
Cons – As with traditional subscriptions, cost control could prove a long-term issue. However, it has been encouraging to see early S2O publisher adoptions include greater pricing transparency than we ever saw from traditional subscription offers.
Although it has merit in the short term, it seems a difficult model to sustain over time. The subscription is already in the budget and it can be attractive to get a small discount compared to what you were paying, and you can feel altruistic by helping to make content available to others at no cost. The reality is that once it becomes available to non-subscribers it will be difficult to justify the cost when there are such intense pressures on budgets.
Pros – Our library can support our authors and small/society publishers at moderate/affordable cost. This is especially important for early career faculty and those without access to grant or other funding.
Cons – Sustainability. If the volume of articles by our authors grows, the costs may not remain moderate/affordable. As we face additional budget pressures, we will continue to reassess the ROI on supporting our authors vs. paying only for content licenses. This may challenge the publishers ability to rely on income from S2O.
The vision is certainly an attractive one, and I am personally enthused by the idea of using the combined weight of collective commitment to address a “too-difficult” problem. In operation as conceived, I see two major advantages. It confronts the need to adequately fund the costs of publishing, and it accesses and channels the type of community shared responsibility model that mirrors wider societal needs in areas like climate change. My concerns would be in two areas. First, the organizational side of the model is inherently complex and will need regular updating as libraries join, drop out, or seek to renegotiate. Second, the scholarly interest is very largely connected to the maintenance of stable access (in the case of pure mathematics, over immensely long periods of time) and the model feels vulnerable to a wave of budget pressures in a few key countries.
On the pro side, I think major features include the fact that it relies on well-established systems of acquisition and payment: the customer doesn’t have to do anything differently in order to continue supporting the publisher under an S2O regime. In fact, just the opposite: S2O depends for its sustainability on customers continuing to do exactly what they’ve always done. And, of course, S2O ends up massively increasing the availability of the publisher’s content, with all of the positive knock-on effects that come from doing so. These are significant upsides and should not be discounted.
Pros – It is impactful: S2O converts entire journals to open access immediately. It is equitable: S2O can apply to all authors at all institutions across all disciplines. It is cost-neutral for subscribing institutions. It uses the tried-and-tested subscription infrastructure. It imposes a high level of interaction between publishers and librarians, and the Subscribe to Open Community of Practice provides a useful forum for discussion, inclusion, and development of S2O.
Cons – Full or close-to-full participation from subscribers is needed. Attracting new subscribers, especially in the early stages, presents a challenge. For both the above, deep engagement is required, which stretches resources. Launching new titles under S2O presents a challenge
The major pro is the simplicity of the approach: A library can participate in the S2O model simply by maintaining a subscription (and, in the case of Annual Reviews, getting a discount). The money spent on S2O is already in the budget, and already committed to something that is presumably valuable to the institution (or the subscription would already have been cancelled). There is no need to renegotiate a complicated deal or to keep track of publishing from the institution – it’s simply a matter of maintaining a subscription that probably would have been maintained anyway.
Another pro is that S2O works equally well for a read institution as for a publish institution. Because the cost is that of the subscription (or even the subscription with a discount applied) and publishing volume isn’t factored in, S2O works for any size or type of institution.
The fact that S2O relies on maintaining existing subscriptions makes it a pro in terms of simplicity, but it’s also a potential risk. If a library is forced to cancel subscriptions, it is much harder to justify continuation of something that can still be openly accessed. Faced with a choice between spending the subscription budget on something that will provide the university with content that is otherwise inaccessible to the campus or something that can be accessed by anyone, it is hard to imagine a librarian choosing the latter. Libraries are already routinely cancelling subscriptions and losing access to journals that matter to their communities. It seems naïve to expect a library to cancel another such title when cancellation of an S2O deal is on the table. If S2O is only moderately successful, and it’s clear that it’s a handful of cancellations away from failure, then libraries will be more likely not to cancel, but the more successful it is the more likely it seems that cancellations will begin.
I worry about uneven S2O coverage if a publisher can maintain enough funding in some years but not others. A journal that is OA in some years but not in others will be confusing to everyone.
Given that some institutions will pay to subscribe and others will gain open access to the content, how sustainable to you think the future of S2O might be?
Time will tell, but I think the model was designed for sustainability and its future looks bright. S2O has a built-in mechanism to control free riding, and it is really in a library’s best interest to participate.
While current subscribers may continue in the short run, it is difficult to imagine being able to motivate future users to subscribe. This makes it hard to fill the gaps if or when current subscribers drop out. Short-term success may give unrealistic views of the long-term potential. There is considerable pressure on university budgets due to periodical costs rising faster than university budgets, and hard choices need to be made. With a fixed budget, either other university programs need to be cut to enable increases in library budgets, or subscriptions would be cut to stay within budget. Under those pressure, it is easy to guess the decision when the choices are to cut budgets to a university program or stop subscribing to something that would otherwise be OA.
I have long hoped that many more of my colleagues, particularly those in research libraries, would be less concerned about “free riders” and instead see this as part of our contribution to sustaining scholarly literature for the future as well as making content available to others who can’t afford S2O in the present (much as we have done by providing ILL to our print collections to those who don’t own the books). I am always surprised — and disappointed — when I hear my colleagues express these concerns. There is increasing support for open access publishing, but not yet consensus about the equity issues. In addition, this is also a sustainability issue: how do libraries justify “paying” for open access content when we face future budget pressures.
This is the key risk. Set against the optimistic shared responsibility to maintain a common good of such immense value is the risk of the “tragedy of the commons”. It is not at all close to my field of study, but success at scale in this area feels like the sort of problem studied by Elinor Ostrom in relation to how communities can self-manage shared resources like water. The proposal makes sense at one level, but I am not confident that we have heard enough from the economists who study “commons” issues of this sort.
I think the overall, long-term sustainability of S2O is doubtful at best. Although its adherents get irritable whenever this is pointed out, in the real world S2O relies on a critical mass of former customers turning into free-will supporters of the publishing venture — they have to decide to keep paying to support the publication of content that they (along with everyone else) can have for free. Yes, if they stop paying they increase the risk that the publishing venture will fail. But for each individual customer, that risk is low, which will inevitably lead to some degree of free ridership. The long-term challenge, then, lies in keeping the number of free riders below the unsustainability threshold. Given the pressure on institutional resources and the overwhelming number of worthy initiatives vying for those resources, it’s not obvious that the underwriting of OA publishing will always be seen by those with decision-making power as the best possible use of them.
No less sustainable, and I believe more sustainable, than some other approaches, including paywalled subscriptions. There are tangible benefits for subscribing institutions, such as permanent rights to the volume published and enhanced back volume access. And if S2O is widely adopted, institutions will gain free access to content that other institutions have supported.
I am fairly confident that institutions that are publishing in those journals anyway will be able to justify continued support since it benefits them both as creators and consumers of that content. I am hopeful that institutions with a strong general commitment to open access will also dedicate funds to S2O, ideally in some budget category separate from subscriptions. I am not particularly confident that most other institutions will continue to subscribe if S2O is successful in its goal. Ironically, if it’s only marginally successful (and clear to subscribers that with only a handful of cancellations the content will end up behind a paywall) then it may be more sustainable than if it’s more obviously successful (many cancellations away from reverting to a paywall).
The guaranteed access that a subscription provides to an institution probably makes continued participation very likely for any institution whose usage is high enough that they would not want to risk lost access (and faculty ire) in the event that the content does not flip to OA in any given year. But institutions with only moderate use might be more willing to gamble on losing that access.
The conversation continues in Part 2 of the post….