Image Credit: Javier Allegue Barros on Unsplash
Image Credit: Javier Allegue Barros on Unsplash

At this stage in the Open Access (OA) movement, many publishers have reached an inflection point as they move from deliberating whether to embrace OA journal publishing to seeking viable OA models to adopt.

The compounding forces of OA directives from policy organizations and governments in recent years, including open science recommendations released by UNESCO in 2021 and a proposed expansion of US government OA requirements following those issued by the White House in 2013, as well as funder initiatives, like Plan S, and a general uptick in OA publishing across disciplines, has led more organizations to commit to making some level of an OA transition. Now the question for so many is how?

Particularly for independent scholarly societies that rely on journal revenues to help fund their organizations, finding sustainable OA publishing routes has become a hot-button issue. And with corporate publisher partnerships among societies on the rise since 2018, some stakeholders like Senior Consultant at Clarke & Esposito David Crotty have expressed concerns that mounting OA pressures could lead to further acceleration of market consolidation.

Rapid consolidation doesn’t have to be the only way forward, though. Examples of independent scholarly society publishers successfully implementing new OA models in the wild can provide valuable insights and inspiration for others to follow suit.

Which OA publishing models are independent society publishers successfully implementing?

Various possible OA funding approaches have come to the fore, as outlined in the “Society Publishers Accelerating Open Access and Plan S” (SPA-OPS) project. Now, for independent society publishers, the challenge – or opportunity, depending on how you look at it – is pinpointing specific models or “flavors” of OA within those broad funding categories that have the most potential for them.

Which OA publishing models are independent society publishers successfully implementing? Looking at the latest industry reports, the following stand out.

Institutional and government subsidies:

One of the broadest possible OA funding categories identified during the SPA-OPS project is “other revenue models.” This category encompasses a variety of alternative revenue streams, from crowdfunding to advertising to grants and subsidies, which can be used to support transformative OA arrangements or direct journal flips. The initial findings from the “OA Diamond Journals Study“, which was led by Plan S and based on a survey of Diamond OA journals, provides further insight into which “other revenue models” look to have the most potential. The two options that stand out are institutional and government subsidies.

The report found that the majority of Diamond OA journals surveyed were financially supported in large part by “research performing organizations (541)” and “national funding/government agencies (351).” Whereas the report states,”museums/archives/heritage institutions (28), NGOs or charities (31), international funding agencies (38) and national academies (45) are the least likely to have funded OA diamond over the last two years.”

Survey respondents also considered grant funding to be more supplemental than sustainable, as “only 8% saw grants as a way that funders can support OA diamond.” The report went on to state that “grants are considered an unreliable source of funding by some, and considered an unstable source of income.”

It’s worth noting that institutional and government subsidy funding models are likely better suited to smaller-sized journal programs. The “OA Diamond Journals Study” states that “most OA diamond journals are the sole journal of their publisher or are with a publisher having just a few journals.” So those reporting success with these funding options generally have fewer titles to support. Another theme identified in the study was that most publishers surveyed (60%) were heavily volunteer-based, making their overhead costs significantly lower than those with full-time staff. There was also variation in the perceived financial health of Diamond OA journals among those surveyed, with 43% of respondents reporting “breaking even,” 25% reporting “operating at a loss,” and 31% selecting “unknown” for financial status.

Transformative Agreements:

Moving towards OA routes that exhibit promise for larger independent society publishers, the broad OA category that’s been catching buzz in recent years is Transformative Agreements or TAs. But which TA flavors appear to show the most promise?

First, as a quick overview, there are two primary types of TAs for publishers to consider:

  • Read and Publish: an agreement in which the publisher receives payment for reading and payment for publishing under a single contract.
  • Publish and Read: an agreement in which the publisher receives payment solely for publishing. Reading is included for no additional cost.

TAs can be unlimited deals, where upfront fees support unlimited OA publishing and/or reading, or capped deals, where upfront fees cover publishing a specific number of OA articles.

You can find a much more in-depth explanation of TAs by Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe, Professor and Coordinator for Research and Teaching Professional Development in the University Library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, here.

Both TA approaches are being successfully piloted by scholarly societies. For example, The Royal Society of Chemistry and The American Chemical Society both have “Read and Publish” initiatives, and The Microbiology Society and The Biochemical Society both have “Publish and Read” initiatives. So, at this point, there does not appear to be one “winning” TA model. But there are some trends among TAs launched by independent scholarly society publishers that others can look to, including:

  • Use of standardized TA agreements: For independent society publishers, one of the most potentially daunting aspects of launching TAs is managing the needs of different institutions or consortia. One of the best ways to mitigate this is to develop a standard agreement to offer as a starting point, which can help simplify negotiations and ideally result in uniformity across TA deals. There are TA templates and examples that society publishers can use as a starting point, including those in the SPA-OPS Transformative Agreement Toolkit and the contracts section of the Projekt DEAL website.
  • Offering unlimited open access: Another emerging trend in TA development is support for unlimited OA models, including the release of a set of shared principles by The Society Publishers’ Coalition (SocPC). Speaking to the benefits of unlimited TA agreements, SocPC’s 2021 report on sustainable routes to OA states, “it has specific appeal to institutions whose budgets can be better managed with the certainty that they will not need to top-up mid-year.”
  • TA tiers: The 2021 SocPC report on sustainable routes to OA also notes that societies may have better outcomes offering tiered TA deals where “institutions are assigned tiers according to averaged publishing output.” The report explains, “at the lowest end of the output scale, the tier pricing reflects ‘read’ benefit and so decreases in proportion to OA article increases.” Tiered TAs offer more predictable pricing structures for institutions.

Looking beyond financial viability, Read and Publish deals may be somewhat more sustainable for the scholarly community, specifically where models support a linear decrease in read fees as the percentage of OA content in packages increases. Emma Wilson, Director of Publishing at the Royal Society of Chemistry, discussed how they baked this transitional element into their Read and Publish TA in a past Scholarly Kitchen article.

Of course, TA models are not without their drawbacks. As pointed out by Jefferson Pooley, Professor of Media and Communication at Muhlenberg College, in an LSE Impact Blog article, TAs could perpetuate inequities in scholarly publishing. This is because publishing and reading access is generally privileged to wealthier Western institutions, and alternative APC OA funding options for individual authors are often unattainable for those in the Global South. In its 2021 report, SocPC also pointed out that “the geography of authorship and whether published output increases or not has a large bearing on the success of [TA] deals.” The Discussion Points section of the report provides valuable insights into specific instances where TAs may be more or less viable for society publishers.

Cooperative infrastructure and funding models:

Finally, one of the most greenfield OA funding routes covered by SPA-OPS that’s ripe with potential is “cooperative infrastructure and funding models.” This category broadly encompasses any variety of libraries and publishers that enter strategic publishing partnerships and/or co-fund publishing infrastructures and services.

One long-standing example of cooperative OA journal funding is the library partnership subsidies model developed by the Open Library of Humanities.

In terms of promising cooperative infrastructure and funding options for scholarly societies, the Subscribe to Open (S2O) model, pioneered by Annual Reviews is gaining ground. The model was adopted by both the European Mathematical Society (EMS Press) and the International Water Association (IWA Publishing).

In the S2O model, journal subscribers can either pay their usual annual subscription or a discounted fee to become a “supporter” of making the journal fully-OA on a year-by-year basis where enough subscribers agree to contribute. In this model, the publisher must determine the minimum number of “supporters” needed to make the journal OA. If it gets enough by its chosen deadline, it can make all content for the following year fully-OA with no additional reader or author charges.

The S2O model is argued to be among the most equitable sustainable OA transition options for academy-led publishers to consider by some, including A.J. Boston, Scholarly Communication Librarian for Murray State University, because it eliminates author-facing fees.

Different strokes for different publisher folks

Whether frustrating or inspiring, the common thread that continually emerges in analyses of potential OA journal funding approaches and publishing models for independent scholarly societies, and publishers in general, is that there is no “one-size-fits-all” option. Other OA approaches society publishers are taking include Transformative Journal models, generally supported by APCs. That’s the route being taken by The American Chemical Society (ACS). And some are using APCs to flip or launch fully-OA titles. For example, the American Society of Clinical Oncology’s (ASCO) Journal of Global Oncology is fully-OA supported by APCs.

Publishers taking APC funding routes can help combat inequities in scholarly publishing by offering fee waivers to authors in low and middle income countries. Though, some like A.J. Boston argue moving beyond the APC is essential to promoting research equity. Beyond that, while often conflated with Gold OA, in reality, APCs are among the least reliable OA funding options for scholarly society publishers. As pointed out by David Crotty, “unfortunately, these flagship journals don’t really work with an APC model. The more articles you reject, the more expenses you have that have no way of being covered.” So, here again, there are gray areas to consider depending on the availability of APC funding within journal disciplines and journal outputs. APCs generally appear more applicable at a journal-by-journal rather than publishing program level.

Putting it all together

This blog post is an overview of examples of OA publishing models that are proving to have potential for independent society publishers, and it is by no means exhaustive. Publishers should look to the various organizations working to identify sustainable routes to OA, including The Society Publishers’ Coalition, Transitioning Society Publications to Open Access, the Library Publishing Coalition, and cOAlition S among others for further insight.

Overall, publishers can also benefit from acknowledging the reality that they will likely need to test and tweak OA models before they hit their OA stride. Adopting an Agile approach to launching OA journal pilots is one way to support more dynamic planning where publishers can try new initiatives, assess them, and iterate over time. Scholastica’s industry report, “Iterate to
ate: How scholarly publishers can use Agile methodologies to respond to change more effectively
“ offers examples of how publishers are leveraging Agile principles to respond to change more effectively.

We hope you found this overview of potential OA models useful! Which do you think present the greatest opportunities and challenges for independent society publishers? We invite you to share your thoughts in the comments section or by tweeting us at @scholasticahq!

Tales from the Trenches