By Ellen Finnie

Elsewhere in this blog I’ve made the case that academic libraries should “vote with their dollars” to encourage and enable the kind of changes in the scholarly communication system that we’d like to see — those that move us towards a more open and equitable ecosystem for sharing science and scholarship.  Most recently, Jeff Kosokoff and I explored the importance of offering financial support for transitional models that help publishers down a path to full open access, and we called out Annual Reviews’ emerging “Subscribe to Open” model as a good example of one that provides a pathway to OA for content that is not suited to an article processing charge (APC) approach.  Here, Richard Gallagher, President and Editor-in-Chief of Annual Reviews (AR), and Kamran Naim, Director of Partnerships and Initiatives, explore with us the rationale for AR’s pursuit of an open access business model that is not based in APCs, provide details how “Subscribe to Open” is intended to work, and describe its transformative potential.

Can you describe the “Subscribe to Open” model briefly? How is it a particularly good fit for AR?

Subscribe to Open converts gated access journals to open access using existing library relationships and subscription purchases. Institutions and individuals that already know and value Annual Reviews content simply continue to subscribe – there are no APCs or other additional costs – and as long as subscription revenues are maintained, the year’s volume will be published open access and the back volumes made freely available. If subscription revenue is insufficient to cover costs, for example as a result of institutions deciding to “free ride,” the journals will remain gated access. Thus, Subscribe to Open can be seen as an alternative subscription offering.

Subscribe to Open is a good fit because it allows librarians and publishers like Annual Reviews to work together to achieve the common goal of delivering of high-quality OA products. We are an independent nonprofit publisher, and the motives, goals and cost structure of the model are transparent. In addition, OA models based on author fees can’t be easily applied to our publications. Annual Reviews publishes long-form review articles that are written by invited experts. It takes weeks of labor to pull together a good review and authors rarely cite funder support, so presenting an APC to our contributors isn’t a good option.

You have explained elsewhere that your Subscribe to Open model is “contingent upon the participation of all subscribers,” making it “effectively a subscription” which “allows libraries to utilize their existing subscription spends to support an OA program.”  This sounds like the kind of mechanism we need to redirect collections dollars from paywalled subscriptions to supporting open access. But can you say more about how this will work? Will there be some cutoff period each year when you determine if you have sufficient funds to make a title OA?  And how can libraries (especially those that are state funded or otherwise under tight procurement policies) explain why we need to continue to pay, if the content will be open?

The short answer to why libraries need to continue to pay is that they remain the source of funding for our journals under Subscribe to Open. Annual Reviews’ income from subscriptions closely matches our costs. So, to publish Subscribe to Open journals we need to carry all of subscribers with us or face a deficit that would become unsustainable. To keep subscribers on board we have both a carrot and a stick. The carrot is a 5% discount on the Subscribe to Open titles. The stick is that if we lose subscribers the project becomes untenable and the journals will remain gated. Thus, the choice for institutions that require ongoing access is between subscribing to open or, if they choose not to, subscribing to a gated version of journal at a higher price. It is in the economic interest of institutions, including state funded libraries and those with tight procurement policies, to choose Subscribe to Open. Furthermore, their existing subscription spending will support conversion of journals to OA, maximizing the impact of their budget beyond the campus.

Annual Reviews will have to take go/no-go decisions on Subscribe to Open titles each year. Our starting position is that in 2020 the five journals will be supported by Subscribe to Open. We will monitor customer commitments throughout the year and reassess only if we see a growing imbalance between  orders for the Subscribe to Open and the gated titles. If this gap reaches a level that we deem to be unsustainable, the titles without sufficient support will be reassigned as gated journals.

Our hope is that Subscribe to Open will succeed and quickly become normalized as an acceptable, even desirable, subscription mechanism. We also believe that the subscriber base can be expanded to include previously-non-subscribing institutions that regularly access the Subscribe to Open titles.

AR has been thinking about open access for years — indeed, Richard, I believe you came to AR with an OA agenda, is that right? — and your first move into OA was to make Annual Review of Public Health open.  How was that funded, what were the results of that effort, and why are you shifting the approach for other AR titles?

Right from the off (I started at Annual Reviews four years ago) it seemed to me that OA fit with the organization’s mission, which is to support the progress of science and the benefit of society. Annual Reviews is a major repository of scientific knowledge that we feel needs to be available to everyone – and not just the entire research community, but also legislators, lawyers, patients, parents, and so on – anyone looking for a thorough and accurate insight into a scientific topic.

A grant from The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation allowed us to test the value of this idea. The grant replaced subscription revenues for the Annual Review of Public Health for a year, and the 2017 volume was published OA. Usage skyrocketed. In 2016, the last full-year of gated access, there were 315,145 article downloads, while in 2018, there were 1,256,117, an increase of 300%. And it continues to rise: February 2019, usage is increased 560% over February 2017.

To explore who is now using the journal, we commissioned PSI to analyze usage log data for a five-month period (Jan-May 2018) using their IP registry.  Articles were accessed from almost 10,000 institutions located 132 countries worldwide, compared to a maximum of 2,000 institutions pre-OA. And while there were many more universities, we also counted research centers, public health offices, government and state agencies, NGOs, corporations, schools, hospitals, and even prisons, among the users.

The second component of the grant from Robert Wood Johnson was to develop a sustainable model for Annual Reviews to convert titles to OA. After considering a number of options, we selected the approach described above, and named it Subscribe to Open. Great credit for this goes to Raym Crow, the consultant who proposed the idea and who co-developed it with us, indeed with the entire management team at Annual Reviews.   

That data regarding increased reach and access when you made Public Health open access is eye-popping.  Do you see the Subscribe to Open approach being attractive to other publishers who wish to expand usage and audiences by moving to OA,, particularly for publications where the APC is not a good fit?   Does this seem to be a transformative model that is generalizable?

As much as Subscribe to Open was designed with Annual Reviews in mind, the underlying principle of redirecting existing subscription spending could work for other publishers. Given the diversity of content types, disciplinary concerns and availability of funding in the scholarly publishing landscape, a diversity of approaches will be required to attain the open research goal. Subscribe to Open could certainly be one of these.

Beyond that, do you see this model helping to address concerns some have about the APC approach potentially increasing barriers to publishing, even as it reduces barriers to access, for example in fields that are not heavily grant-funded, or parts of the world where waivers to APCs would be required in order to publish?

Subscribe to Open model avoids certain pitfalls of the APC model, including the marginalization of researchers in the low-income countries and communities. It places no additional financial burden on institutions or authors from low-income countries, and as such creates no new barriers to publishing.

It’s very exciting to see a thoughtful, strategic, and transparent approach to OA for important scholarly content like AR, especially one that provides a path for publications where APCs are not a viable approach.  How do we participate? When will libraries first see a call, for which titles, what if any choices will be offered, and where will the information be directed? Collections, scholarly communications, and acquisitions staff will all be interested — how will you get the word out beyond your typical billing address contacts?

Subscribe to Open launches on March 15. A lot of information, including a slidedoc, an infographic and an FAQ, can be found on the Annual Reviews website.

The five Subscribe to Open titles for 2020 are the Annual Review of Public Health, the Annual Review of Environment and Resources, the Annual Review of Nuclear and Particle Science, the Annual Review of Political Science, and the Annual Review of Cancer Biology.

The success of Subscribe to Open is in the hands of the libraries. Subscribing librarians can best participate by continuing to renew their Annual Reviews agreements, and by encouraging their colleagues to do so. Annual Reviews sales staff will discuss Subscribe to Open with subscribers, and we would be delighted to receive feedback directly at  [email protected] and [email protected]

Thank you so much Richard and Kamran.  It’s energizing to hear about your plans for opening up AR, particularly given how important AR is to understanding the latest and most significant science and scholarship in areas of great concern globally.   

We greatly appreciate the opportunity to present Subscribe to Open to IO readers. We’d like to acknowledge the input of the many librarians who helped shape the development of Subscribe to Open and address issues that it raises. Publishers and librarians working together make a powerful team!

Ellen Finnie

Leads the MIT Libraries’ scholarly communications and collections strategy, including efforts to influence models of scholarly publishing and communication in ways that increase the impact and reach of MIT’s research and scholarship and which promote open, sustainable publishing and access models. She is a strong supporter of therapy dogs in libraries!

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