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The future of academic publishing is open—and for many journals that means moving solely online.

Plan S and other recent mandates are accelerating the transition to open science and making it necessary for journal publishers to find ways to produce high-quality open access (OA) articles at a sustainable cost. Discontinuing print issues is one of the most immediate ways to cut journal costs in order to transition to fully OA publishing models.

What does transitioning to online-only publishing entail? And what steps should journals be taking to make a smooth switch?

In this blog post, we overview some of the primary areas to focus on when taking the leap from print to online-only publishing, including insights from past interviews with Trish Groves, editorial consultant, and former editor-in-chief of BMJ Open, and Mikael Laakso, Associate Professor at Hanken School of Economics.

Why online-only? Sustainable OA, wider reach, and a better reader experience

Before we dive into how to transition journals to online-only publishing models, let’s start with why journals should seriously consider moving online-only.

Today, despite the fact that virtually all journals publish online, many journal publishers are still holding onto printed issues. In most cases, reluctance to transition to online-only publishing stems from fear of lower-perceived publication value or backlash from readers. However, such concerns are arguably exaggerated.

Recent reports show that scholars are conducting the majority of their research online suggesting that print is no longer a priority for most readers. In fact, journals transitioning to digitally-driven publishing models - such as publishing all articles in both PDFs and responsive HTML files - would greatly benefit readers by enabling them to more easily access academic articles out in the field and while on the go using mobile devices.

“Online publishing is surely a no brainer these days, as people have less time and tolerance for reading print,” said Groves in an interview about transitioning journals to digital publishing models. “You only have to look around in any public space to know that most people now read (very) often on smartphones and tablets, and often find content via social media rather than through electronic tables of contents. Any journal that hasn’t yet transitioned should think as much about mobile as online.”

As noted above, the cost-saving benefits of online-only publishing could also help ease the transition to making journals fully OA in many disciplines. “Keeping this parallel print and online publishing system in place where you are delivering subscriptions physically even though the content is openly available on the web is not a wise decision if money is tight and you aren’t getting generous funding from another source,” said Laakso in an interview about societies flipping journals to OA. “I think it would be very liberating for journals to not have to think print first.”

Laakso acknowledged that some scholarly associations may still want to offer printed journal issues to their members. In this case, he suggests moving from doing full print runs to producing print issues on demand. “Of course most journals do format their contents to be kind of print-ready but having it actually printed out and sent out is something that should be offered as a service that kind of covers its own costs,” he explained. “So if someone wants a print-on-demand edition that should be priced so it doesn’t eat into the economics of running the journal on the OA principle.”

The accessibility opportunities that come with cutting print, both in terms of making articles more portable and OA, are compelling reasons to forgo printing.

Establish a transition plan and timeline

What does moving to online-only OA journal publishing entail? Unfortunately, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. Different journals will have to come up with different transition plans and timelines based on their particular needs. For subscription and hybrid OA journals, there is of course the question of how to adjust the journal’s funding model, which will be dependent on the opportunities available in the journal’s discipline. “It requires careful planning, and can take about a year to achieve successfully,” said Groves.

Mikael Laakso explored ways scholarly societies are converting journals to OA in “How subscription‐based scholarly journals can convert to open access: A review of approaches,” a literature review he co-wrote with David Solomon, and Bo‐Christer Björk. The review looked at various journal-flipping scenarios, including the use of article processing charges (APCs) and consortium funding or library partnership subsidies for Gold OA. Laakso discussed some of the key findings and recommendations in this interview.

Many argue that there needs to be a gradual approach to making journals OA, to give publishers time to develop sustainable funding models. This has been a resounding theme in responses to Plan S from publishers of all sizes. cOAlition S has stated that transformative agreements, or agreements to move away from subscription-based reading towards making all articles OA, are a viable option for Plan S compliance. Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe wrote a great primer on transformative agreements for the Scholarly Kitchen that you can find here, which includes a breakdown of Plan S’ transformative agreement requirements.

Whether a journal should keep printing issues during the transition to OA is another matter. While some argue print subscriptions should be phased out gradually, others like Laakso say publishers shouldn’t wait to move their journals fully online. “My perception of the economics of journal flipping is that it would be good if flips could be more of an immediate thing where journals embrace OA and also align costs accordingly to very much reduce or get rid of unnecessary expenses like the paper edition of the journal,” he explained.

Ultimately, the decision of how to transition to online-only publishing, whether immediately or gradually, is up to the journal’s publishing organization. The choice will involve weighing budgetary and operational factors.

Focus on professionalizing your online publications

In the transition from print to online-only publishing, journal professionalization should remain top of mind including maintaining a professional journal appearance and upholding core publishing standards. Groves noted that rather than being concerned about losing the luster of printed issues, journal publishers should focus on producing articles of the highest quality in online mediums. “PDFs seem to have largely replaced print pages in the researcher’s heart,” said Groves. “A journal that switches from print to online without making its PDFs beautiful does so at its peril, and should be prepared for dismayed complaints from authors as well as readers.”

Groves added that beyond article appearance, journal publishers should also prioritize making clear their commitment to the highest publishing standards. “Perhaps the biggest challenge for reputable, high quality, online-only OA journals now is bad behavior of a growing minority of predatory and fake journals. To avoid being lumped together with the bad guys, good journals should ensure they promote, follow, and continue to develop principles of transparency and best practices in scholarly publishing,” said Groves.

Among core publishing standards to follow are those of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), which journals will be required to fulfill in order to meet the Plan S implementation guidelines.

We break out professionalization steps in the main areas that all journal publishers should be focused on—article production, website hosting and design, archiving, and indexing—in our Digital OA Journal Publishing Professionalization Checklist.

Have an archiving plan in place

In the past, one of the primary concerns about publishing articles online-only was a perceived lack of permanence. But today, that is no longer the case. Persistent Digital Object Identifiers (DOIs) are enabling journals to have uncontested versions of record for all articles and publishers can ensure access to their journals in perpetuity, in the event of a publication becoming compromised, by depositing articles into a dark archive. Dark archives, such as Portico, guarantee that content will remain accessible to readers in the case of a “trigger event” such as confirmation that a journal is no longer available. In the transition to online-only publishing, journal publishers should ensure that all of their articles have DOIs with current metadata and that all articles are being deposited into a dark archive.

Adopt more digitally-driven publishing processes

The move to online-only publishing can also open up previously unavailable publishing opportunities. For example, for journals that have strict print page limits moving to online-only publishing could be an opportunity to accept lengthier articles. When PNAS announced that it would discontinue its print edition it was able to adopt more flexible article page limits stating “the preferred length of articles will remain at 6 pgs; flexible length limits up to 12 pgs will be allowed.”

Online-only journals can also publish articles on a rolling basis rather than waiting to compile articles into issues. The BMJ adopted a rolling publishing model in 2008 and Groves said it resulted in benefits for the publisher and readers. “Until we flipped to continuous online first publication - or the rolling publishing model - for all content in 2008, our processes and schedules were still dominated by the need to deliver a weekly print journal. In the rolling model all articles are published online as they’re ready,” said Groves. Journals can either break away from the issue model altogether or publish rolling articles and compile them into issues retroactively at set times throughout the year (e.g. bi-annually).

Another more technical aspect of transitioning from print to online-only journal publishing is moving from print-based archiving and indexing conventions to digital best practices. Groves said this means shifting one’s mindset from thinking in terms of printed pages to spans of digital content. She recommends that online-only journals discontinue the use of page numbers in article IDs.

“This is how the BMJ became a fully online-first journal with all content published continuously online and with the online versions being canonical,” said Groves. “This liberated the journal, allowing us to slice and dice our content in all kinds of ways to meet the needs of readers.”

Think in terms of the value online-only publishing will add

While many journals have reservations about discontinuing their printed issues, it’s worth taking a step back and thinking about online-only publishing from a value-based perspective. While forgoing print is a change that could be seen as a loss, publishing online-only can also create many new opportunities for journals and their readers beyond cost savings, such as mobile accessibility to articles, the chance to publish longer submissions, and the ability to publish articles on a rolling basis so research can start having impacts sooner.