For years, advocates of Open Access have wrestled with how to openly disseminate scholarly research in an equitable and financially sustainable way. One model – Subscribe to Open (S2O) – is emerging as a promising approach that can expand the reach of journals and provide clear benefits to international audiences eager for access to life-changing knowledge.
It is a practical approach to let publishers convert journals from subscriptions to open, one year at a time, says Raym Crow, senior consultant to SPARC for more than 20 years and architect of the S2O model. It was developed in response to the collective action problem of how to get publishers to flip their journal models to open.
S2O works by appealing to a journal’s existing subscribers. If the vast majority agree to participate, merely continuing with their current subscription, then the publisher opens the content after its threshold is met. If participation is not sufficient—for example, if some subscribers delay renewing in the expectation that they can gain access without participating—then that year’s content remains gated.
Every year, the offer is repeated. Opening of content is contingent on sufficient participation. To motivate subscribers to participate, the publisher may offer additional content, a modest discount, or other incentives (whether the offer succeeds or not).
The concept was first piloted in 2020 with two publishers and 19 journals. It has since taken off, with 76 journals from eight publishers offering the S2O model to subscribers in 2022. An S2O Community of Practice has been created with a website and forum for publishers interested to learn more about flipping their journals with the innovative approach.
“S2O opens up the content without adding cost. It’s the most equitable model for Open Access,” says Richard Gallagher, president and editor-in-chief of Annual Reviews, the publisher that pioneered the offer. “It applies equally wherever you are in the world, whatever stage of research you are at, and whatever subject you work in. It’s really inclusive.”
In 2017, Annual Reviews, which had a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to explore the impact of open access reviews, began working with Crow to develop what they hoped would be a sustainable business model. Gallagher’s organization had recently adopted a broader mission statement beyond its work to advance progress in science to also include the idea of working to benefit society.
“Any change to an established business model entails great risk but we felt obligated to explore how we could move our content from being only available to subscribing institutions — which essentially means the tip of the iceberg,” says Gallagher. “Every review article that we publish has potential readers across all academic institutions, and outside of academia as well.” For instance, Annual Reviews’ research on public health can be useful to city public health departments; articles on agriculture could be of interest to farmers; and articles on social justice of interest to advocacy organizations that are trying to advance equity.
When the paywall was taken down for the Annual Review of Public Health in 2017, content usage increased four-fold overnight. Now ten times as many people are accessing the content, downloading articles from all over the world leveraging the latest science to make more well-informed decisions, Gallagher says.
“We’ve seen a massive impact with all the titles that we have moved to open access,” says Gallagher. Eight of Annual Reviews’ 51 journals have expanded their audiences (increasing usage by four to seven times) under S2O. “We really appreciate the support of our library customers in making this possible,” he adds.
For S2O to succeed, librarians continue to buy the subscription for their institution – no additional money is needed to make it open – and they make it available to everyone with an interest.
Virginia Steel, university librarian at UCLA, says she has concerns about the inherent inequities of the Article Processing Charge (APC) model and S2O offers an easier way to make articles open without putting a burden on faculty to pay. “The appeal from a library perspective is pretty straightforward. We don’t have to change our workflows in any significant way. It’s a more equitable approach,” says Steel, who has participated in the new model with a handful of journals at her institution in the past two years.
S20 is built on a foundation of collaboration and cooperation that has gone on in the library community for decades, says Steel.
“This model is relying on the community to continue to support the costs of publication so that authors can publish freely, wherever they choose, and their work is open,” she says. “It takes collaboration to the next level. It relies on the participation of the entire community because if some of the major players don’t participate, then the content ends up being paywalled.”
Steel has been involved with monthly calls as part of the S20 Community of Practices, where fellow librarians, publishers and other S2O supporters share concerns, discuss how to measure the impact of the model and strategies to build awareness.
“I don’t think in the foreseeable future, we’re ever going to be in a place where we have only one model for open access,” says Steel. “But I am quite hopeful that Subscribe to Open will become one of the prevalent models and publishers will be interested in it because it will be easier for publishers to manage as well.”
“Most librarians are behind the idea of Open Access. They want high-quality information to be freely available, especially when there is so much misinformation around,” Gallagher says. “Academic institutions embrace this broader social role, and here’s an effective way of doing it.”
Gallagher says taking down the paywall has been impactful in countries where most institutions did not previously been able to afford access, such as Bangladesh, and where access to current science is vital for development.
By offering an alternative to APCs, the S2O model appeals more broadly to researchers from a variety of disciplines and backgrounds.
“APCs don’t work from a mission and equity standpoint,” Crow says. In disciplines without heavy research funding, such as the humanities, or in parts of the world where universities lack resources, the fees can be unaffordable. APCs might provide access to research results, but they present a significant barrier for authors and limit the ability of diverse voices to contribute while S2O works equitably.
“APCs either reinforce existing inequities or create new barriers,” says Kamran Naim, head of open science at CERN in Geneva who previously worked at Annual Reviews when it was piloting S2O. “Scientific knowledge should be free to everybody to achieve a global equal playing field.”
While there are waivers available with APCs, Naim does not like that people need to apply for charitable consideration. “In our models, we need to design for dignity. Collective-based approaches can help us confer dignity to researchers around the world as equal members of the scientific conversation.”
With the S2O model, funding streams, budgets and subscriptions remain unchanged, which is appealing to librarians.It leverages existing relationships between publishers and customers.. Not every library has been able to start an OA fund, and this was a simple way to support a new OA model.
At Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, a new Mellon Foundation grant is enabling Project MUSE, an aggregator of content from 700 journals, primarily in the humanities and social sciences, to explore the S2O model.
“It’s a delicate balance for publishers managing risk,” says Wendy Queen, project director. “It is very hard for publishers on the MUSE platform interested in pursuing OA. To do so as an individual title or a small grouping of titles seems insurmountable. So we’re looking at a model that through an aggregation can work better because it’s sort of a shared responsibility, a shared community to go into with a larger pool of titles and opportunities.”
MUSE is in the early stages, but some publishers have expressed interest and Queen expects other journals with Open Access as part of their mission to be looking forward to a potential solution through S2O.
Crow says he hopes as more nonprofit journals embrace S2O that it will embolden other universities and society to try the model.
“Overall, the model is being well received. It’s conceptually simple, but you have to get around the misperception that it’s a voluntary payment,” Crow says. “This approach allows a publisher to control its risk and let an S2O offer fail if participation isn’t sufficient. There’s still more short-term risk than remaining with a conventional subscription, but the risk can be monitored and controlled. I think there’s a real opportunity, and I’m optimistic.”