Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Are you working with a scholarly society or institution starting a fully Open Access (OA) journal or thinking about transitioning one or more titles to fully-OA publishing models and wondering where to begin? You’re not alone.

As efforts to realize an open online scholarly communication ecosystem become more prevalent and increasingly urgent across disciplines in response to funder mandates like Plan S, many publishers are eager to dip their toes in the OA waters. And there’s no question that now is a great time to initiate OA pilots, with more potential journal models and time and cost-saving digital publishing opportunities to explore than ever.

But moving from ideation to execution can be tricky. If you’re starting a journal from scratch, there are countless aspects of publication development to consider — from defining the journal’s aims and scope to establishing its editorial board. And even OA flips require revisiting fundamental elements of journal plans, with financials chief among them.

In this post, we break down how to determine the best OA publishing route for your organization and, once you’ve chosen one, the primary steps you should take to get your OA efforts off the ground. You can jump to any section that interests you by using the links below:

Table of Contents

  1. When to flip an existing journal and when to start a new one
  2. If starting an OA journal — make sure you have a niche to fill and committed editors
  3. Determine the best funding model for your OA journal flip or launch
  4. Develop or revisit journal editorial and publishing processes
  5. Find the right tools to streamline your publishing workflows and scale them over time
  6. Develop journal promotion and discovery strategies to attract readers and authors
  7. Know where to find OA publishing support

Quick Note: This post is meant to be a high-level primer. For more detailed information on the various publication planning topics covered here, be sure to check out our resources page, which includes guides to managing peer review, digital publishing, and more.

Alright, let’s get to it!

When to flip an existing journal and when to start a new one

“To flip or not to flip?” — that is usually the first question for organizations with active journal programs to answer when exploring OA publishing options.

In this section, we’ll cover what “flipping” journals to OA means and how to determine when to flip titles and when to embark on journal launches. If you’re not working with existing journals, you can go ahead and skip this part.

The term “journal flipping” refers to transitioning one or more paywalled titles to an OA publishing model. As noted in the introduction, this post focuses on fully-OA publishing, or when a journal makes all of its articles freely available to read immediately upon publication under an open copyright license (e.g., CC BY). Fully-OA titles are often referred to as “Gold” or “Diamond” OA, with the latter distinguishing journals that are both free to read and free to publish in. Though publication charges are not inherent to “Gold OA.”

In recent years, many publishing organizations have started testing journal flipping approaches. The 2020 Society Publishers Accelerating Open Access and Plan S (SPA-OPS) project represents one of the most expansive initiatives to bring together societies and university libraries to explore viable OA transition options.

Flipping existing journals has many benefits, including starting OA publishing efforts with a:

  • Clear space in the marketplace to fill
  • Built-in journal readership/following
  • Established journal reputation and impacts (e.g., Journal Impact Factor, altmetrics tracking, etc.)

Your organization’s ability to flip any journal to OA will depend on buy-in from all publishing stakeholders. If you’re working with an external publisher partner, you’ll have to present the idea to them. If that publisher is not interested in moving to an OA model, then you may have the option to embark on an OA flip on your own or with the help of a new partner. For example, some mission-driven university presses are open to working with/launching new OA titles like those listed here. But be sure to read the fine print of any contracts you have. Many corporate publishers require organizations to sign over the rights to their journals when they enter a publishing agreement, essentially transferring journal ownership to the publisher. If you find yourself in this situation, starting a new journal is likely your only option for OA publishing.

Since the mid-1990s, a growing number of journal editorial teams and some scholarly societies have left paywalled titles with corporate owners to start OA alternatives. Such instances have been coined “journal declarations of independence.” You can find a list of examples over the decades here.

Of course, beyond journal ownership, finances are usually the primary concern in any conversation about transitioning subscription titles to OA. Scholarly societies and university presses that depend on subscription revenues to support their organizations will have to weigh the potential of different OA funding options. And they may need to seek additional alternative income streams to make a sustainable transition. In some cases, launching a new title may be a more viable entrée to OA if your team needs time to explore transition approaches that require changes to your overall organizational business model like Transformative Agreements (TAs). We dig into OA funding models in the section below.

In a 2021 CHORUS Forum recap, publishing consultant David Crotty stated the following helpful basis for defining sustainability : “generating enough revenue to support the services you offer, and to provide some level of surplus to both allow your organization to thrive and to continue to maintain and develop more publishing services.”

Overall, when deciding between flipping journals to OA or launching new titles, teams need to think about their long-term publishing goals and available resources, not only in terms of funding but also bandwidth. If your team has the resources and desire to expand your journal program, launching a title may offer the dual benefit of being able to serve a wider readership and pilot a new OA model in isolation. For example, when the American Society of Clinical Oncology was developing plans for the Journal of Global Oncology they decided to use it as an opportunity to try fully-OA publishing under a pilot funding model separate from their other titles. However, if your team is already struggling to maintain the journals you have, starting another one is not likely to be your best option.

If starting an OA journal — make sure you have a niche to fill and committed editors

If you are not in a position to flip an existing title, you can always start a new OA journal instead. You obviously don’t want to launch a journal on a whim. Be sure to determine if and where there is a need in your discipline for a new journal to fill either by: introducing a title on an underrepresented topic or in an area where there are no OA options or offering a better publishing experience than existing journals. For example, you might aim to provide a faster time to decision or produce articles in more modern digital formats.

Renowned mathematician Timothy Gowers explained how he identified a niche for his academic-led journal, Advances in Combinatorics, in a publication launch statement: “the rough level that Advances in Combinatorics is aiming at is that of a top specialist journal such as Combinatorica. The reason for setting it up is that there is a gap in the market for an ‘ethical’ combinatorics journal at that level — that is, one that is not published by one of the major commercial publishers, with all the well-known problems that result.”

If you’ve determined there is a niche for your new OA journal to fill, it’s time to start compiling its editorial team. As founding members of a journal, bear in mind that the flagship editors will have to be prepared to handle tasks touching ALL aspects of journal operations. Founding editors must be ready to take on everything from submission and peer review process development to supporting early publication promotion. Even if your organization has dedicated publishing staff, any journal launch will require all hands on deck. So be sure the editorial team you build has the time and ability to take on this commitment.

With a publication niche and team established, you can take the first steps towards setting up your journal. We recommend creating an initial draft of your journal’s “aims and scope” to start (i.e., the primary goals of your journal and the research topics it will cover), which you’ll want to include on the About page of your website. You should be able to condense your aims and scope into a single overview paragraph.

Below your overview paragraph, you’ll want to specify any particulars of your journal’s aims and scope. Areas that may warrant more detail include:

  • Fields/subfields that your journal covers (note whether articles must fit within a subfield or can be of general interest)
  • The nature of the research you seek: practice-oriented, theoretical, or either
  • Selection criteria: such as originality, interdisciplinary interest, timeliness
  • Types of content your journal accepts (e.g., original research articles, book reviews, etc.)

In addition to formalizing your journal aims and scope, now’s the time to pick a title for it and apply for an International Standard Serial Number or ISSN. An ISSN is a unique 8-digit code used to identify print or electronic media. Your ISSN will make it easier for discovery services to find and index your journal, and it will also signal to readers that it is a serious publication. As you get closer to publishing, you’ll also want to apply to register Digital Object Identifier (DOIs) for your articles through an official agency. Registering DOIs for articles with accompanying metadata will create persistent links to them and help you expand their reach. Many indexing services require journal articles to have DOIs, and some discovery services use DOI registration metadata to find content. You can learn more about getting started with DOIs here.

Find the best funding model for your OA journal flip or launch

Now, on to the big question — how can your organization sustainably fund new or flipped OA journals?

What’s become increasingly apparent in the development and analysis of OA funding options is that there’s no one-size-fits-all model. As explained by Associate Professor at Hanken School of Economics Mikael Laakso, who published one of the earliest reviews of approaches to converting subscription journals to fully-OA, the best OA funding route for an organization will depend on a variety of internal and external factors. For example, the willingness and ability of an editorial team to take on volunteer work and the national context, such as the availability of long-term OA subsidy options in a country, can both have a significant impact on an organization’s OA publishing options.

Journals affiliated with university libraries or departments may have the benefit of receiving institutional subsidization in the form of a line of funding or sponsored publishing tools and services. For example, many university libraries are launching publishing programs and providing resources to faculty interested in starting journals, including content hosting and peer review management support. Journal programs based out of universities may also be eligible for grants to support academy-led publishing efforts.

University press journal programs may also receive institutional funding, but they will likely require additional income streams. And scholarly society publishing programs generally have to come up with independent funding models. In these cases, it may be possible to seek financial support from grants or charitable organizations, particularly to get new titles off the ground, but coming up with self-sufficient funding is essential to maintain journals over time. For example, when ASCO launched the Journal of Global Oncology with plans to fund the title via APCs, they used a combination of grants and donations to cover APCs during the first year of publication to attract submissions and build up the journal’s following and then moved to an APC-based funding model after.

Your organization will have to assess possible OA routes based on your particular internal and external resources and funding opportunities. The SPA-OPS project identified 27 possible OA journal models to consider (note: not all of them are fully-OA), in the following categories:

  • Transformative agreements: Agreements made between a publisher and a library or consortium in which the library or consortium pays a fee to make all of the articles published by researchers affiliated with their organization available fully OA
  • Cooperative infrastructure and funding models: Libraries and publishers entering strategic publishing partnerships and co-funding publishing infrastructures and services
  • Author self-archiving: Commonly known as the “Green OA” model, where final articles are immediately archived by authors under a CC BY license
  • Article transaction models: Author-facing fees fund OA publications such as article processing charges (APCs) or submission fees
  • Open publishing platforms: Authors post their articles to open platforms prior to peer review and peer review is then conducted post-publication, usually with some sort of article processing fee (F1000 is an example of this)
  • Other revenue models: A variety of alternative revenue streams from crowdfunding to advertising to subsidies
  • Cost reduction: Taking steps to streamline publishing operations and use more affordable publishing tools and methods

When it comes to journal funding, remember to also keep in mind the limitations that some models may pose, even if they seem attractive at the outset. For example, APCs can be difficult for disciplines where authors lack designated funding, and they tend to create added administrative work for authors and journals. That’s not to say that the APC route can’t work for one or more journals at your organization, but rather that, if you’re considering APCs, you should do your due diligence to ensure most authors will have access to the necessary funds. Using a service like Copyright Clearance Center’s RightsLink solution to help authors manage OA publishing charges can also make a big difference.

Develop or revisit journal editorial and publishing processes

Let’s move on to publication planning. If you’re starting a new OA journal, you’ll, of course, be developing its editorial and publishing processes from the ground up. And even if you’re flipping one or more journals to OA, you’ll need to revisit some aspects of your previous publication plans. Journal flips can also be a great time to identify new ways to streamline operations and lower publishing costs, such as transitioning to an online-only publishing model as the Microbiology Society did in March 2021.

Among fundamental areas of publication planning all teams should consider, whether starting or flipping OA journals, are:

Core journal policies: You’ll need to map out core policies for your OA journal(s), including publication ethics and submission guidelines for new journals (e.g., manuscript formatting requirements like citation style) and copyright policies for new or flipped titles. You can find information on setting up ethical policies here and submission guidelines here.

When it comes to copyright, bear in mind that even OA journals need to have clear licenses (saying content is fully “open” is not enough). Many recent funder initiatives like Plan S require that authors or their institutions retain the copyright of their work and that articles be published under a Creative Commons CC BY license or equivalent. Plan S funders will also consider CC BY-ND licenses in select circumstances. You can learn more about the various available Creative Commons copyright licenses in this blog post. Once you’ve decided on a copyright license structure, be sure to include the details in your author guidelines.

Peer review processes: If you’re starting a journal, developing editorial policies and processes will likely take up a large chunk of your launch time. At the highest level, you’ll need to outline the type of peer review the journal will use — whether it be single-blind, double-blind, or open peer review — and the steps you will take to vet incoming submissions. Your peer-review process outline should also include: how you will initially evaluate submissions, the number of reviewers you will invite per manuscript, the number of review rounds you will accept (it’s a good idea to limit this, and the reviewer feedback you’ll expect. All journals should make their peer review policies available on their website as explained here.

Even if you’re flipping a journal, it’s worth revisiting your peer review workflows to look for optimization opportunities to improve your time to publication and free up editorial team bandwidth. Doing so can help your team support other aspects of your publishing program, such as journal promotion or developing new content products that can provide additional income streams for your organization. Be sure to look at all current and potential software options from the point of view of authors and reviewers in addition to editors to evaluate how user friendly they are.

On a more technical note, whether starting or flipping a journal, you may also need to establish a plan for collecting and releasing annual peer-review stats. This is one of the requirements for journals to be Plan S compliant.

Publishing processes: Whether launching or flipping an OA journal, you’ll also need to consider your publishing processes. Journal launches will, of course, entail figuring out a hosting solution, creating a publication website, and making initial archiving and indexing plans. For journal flips, you likely won’t need to change any of these publication elements, but, as with peer review, you can look for opportunities to streamline your operations and lower costs. Ways organizations might do this include looking for more efficient digital publishing tools and services and/or working to bridge gaps between peer review, production, and publishing.

When it comes to cutting publishing costs, one of the lowest-hanging fruit opportunities for many organizations with existing journals is eliminating printed issues like the Microbiology Society did. Another benefit of moving away from printing journal issues is that it can enable organizations to adopt digital-first publishing formats, including publishing articles in HTML to provide a better online reading experience and making them available on a rolling basis. The Microbiology Society chose to move to rolling publishing and now makes all of its articles immediately available online in monthly ‘open issues.’

Publishing data and reporting: Another aspect of publication planning your organization should focus on, whether you’re starting or flipping OA journals, is what data you’ll need to evaluate the performance of your OA efforts and how to gather it. To start, you’ll need to determine how you will collect financial insights to track the growth and sustainability of your OA journal or program. As noted by Erich van Rijn, Director of Journals and OA at UC Press, “In the old subscription ecosystem, it was easy to determine whether something was working or not because it all came down to whether it was generating subscriptions. But in an OA publishing ecosystem, all of the data points are changing, and we’ve got to change how we’re evaluating the success of different products.”

The financial data your organization requires will, of course, depend on the OA model(s) you employ. For organizations taking transformative routes to OA, such as TA agreements or Subscribe-to-Open (S2O) models, there will also be a need to provide journal program data to institutions and funders. This was discussed during the third 2021 CHORUS Forum. For example, organizations flipping journals via TAs will need to report on the proportion of OA articles they are publishing over time. And organizations using a Subscribe-to-Open (S2O) model will want to collect institutional usage statistics. To promote financial transparency, some funders, like the members of cOAlition S, are also beginning to encourage or require publishers to provide data breaking down the cost of their publishing services and any associated fees.

Regardless of the OA publishing model you choose, you should ideally also collect readership analytics to determine whether your audience is growing over time and how. This includes article page views, download counts, and referrers. You can even share article-level readership data with authors to help them demonstrate alternative impacts of their work.

Find the right tools to streamline your publishing workflows and scale them over time

The success of any OA journal or program will depend, in large part, on the tools and systems used to run it. As noted in the previous section, during OA journal launches, it’s imperative to choose publishing solutions that will be logistically sustainable. And journal flips can also be a prime opportunity to reevaluate your current publishing software and services mix.

Some key considerations when looking for or reevaluating journal tools and services include:

  • Technical barriers and available support: It’s best to avoid tools with high learning curves or that require advanced technical knowledge unless you have an IT team. For most journals/publishing programs, software that is easy to set up, has minimal upkeep, and that comes with technical support for editors (and ideally authors and reviewers) will be the best option.
  • Level of manual work required: Manual tasks can make scaling your journal difficult and increase room for error (especially when you wade into more technical territory like depositing metadata into a DOI registration agency). As your publication grows, look for tools to automate peer-review tracking and affordable services you can use to outsource or automate labor-intensive aspects of journal publishing, such as DOI registration, index deposits, and XML creation.
  • Gaps between peer review and publishing: It’s important to consider how well journals are set up to move manuscripts from decision to publication. If your team can’t easily integrate the peer review, production, and publishing solutions you’re using, it may be creating extra work.
  • Real and hidden costs: Consider not only the upfront costs of the tools you’re using but also the “hidden” costs of your organizations’ technical resources and time.

Be sure to outline your organization’s specific needs before exploring new or alternate peer review and publishing solutions.

Develop journal promotion and discovery strategies to attract readers and authors

At any stage of OA journal publishing, organizations should also work to expand the reach and reputation of their publications to attract more readers and submissions. To do this effectively requires a mix of journal promotion and discovery strategies.

Let’s start with promotion. With more competition for readers than ever, there’s no question that promotion is essential to building and retaining a journal following. Your team should actively promote new and timely content, calls for papers, and even calls for reviewers on a regular basis. There are many possible promotion outlets to explore, including:

  • Becoming active on social media platforms like Twitter and LinkedIn
  • Starting a publication blog or podcast
  • Setting up an RSS feed or email alerts for your latest content

You can find examples of how different publishers are approaching journal promotion here. Like when selecting publishing tools and services, keep in mind the real and hidden costs of different promotion channels and aim to select the most efficient mix for your team. Journals that collect publishing analytics can use that data to help inform their promotion decisions by tracking which of their chosen channels are resulting in readers and which aren’t.

When starting or flipping an OA journal, there’s another aspect of marketing and promotion to consider — authors’ awareness and understanding of the benefits of OA publishing. Depending on the level of uptake in your discipline, authors may be more or less versed in the concept of OA publishing. It’s a good idea to conduct some market research (e.g., via interviews, surveys, or social listening) to gauge the level of interest in OA among scholars in your field and what steps your team may need to take to help educate potential authors about OA publishing. For example, the American Physiological Society (APS) recently ran an author survey and accompanying webinar on “Open Access: What Researchers Need to Know Now.”

Moving to content discovery, all journal teams should prioritize article indexing in both mainstream and scholarly search engines and databases. This will require having a solid search engine optimization (SEO) and indexing strategy — topics that require their own blog posts. You can learn more about journal SEO best practices here and indexing strategy and execution here. At the highest level, effective journal search engine optimization and indexing requires making content available in formats that machines can easily ingest and “understand,” including producing HTML articles for SEO and XML article-level metadata for indexing.

Journal SEO and indexing can get pretty technical, so you’ll likely want to seek tools and services to help. For example, Scholastica offers a digital-first production service that generates PDF, HTML, and full-text XML article files in a fraction of the time of traditional processes and an end-to-end OA journal hosting platform that includes integrations with discovery services.

Increasing journal awareness and discoverability will open the door to generating bibliometric and altmetric impacts.

Know where to find OA publishing support

Finally, as you explore different OA publishing options, know that there are many groups and resources you can look to for help. For example, there’s the Free Journal Network (FJN), Fair Open Access Alliance, Library Publishing Coalition, Society Publishers’ Coalition, and SPARC Declaring Independence resources page to name a few. As noted in the intro, Scholastica also offers many additional journal publishing resources here.

We hope you’ve found this guide helpful!

If you’re interested in learning more about how you can use Scholastica tools and services to publish an OA journal, you can schedule a demo here!

Update Note: This blog post was originally published on the 20th of August 2018. It was republished on the 4th of May 2021 with substantial updates to reflect the latest OA publishing routes and best practices.

Academic-led Publishing eBook