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Open Access is the New Black: Case Study Data on Journal Transitions from Subscription Models to Open Access

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Serial crisis, growing resistance to subscription models as well as increasingly widespread and binding Open Access (OA) mandates have incentivized numerous publishers to consider converting paywall-based journals to OA.

A Blog Article by Beata Socha.


Flipping a journal into Open Access (OA) naturally involves numerous challenges but it is a path increasingly travelled by publishers. In 2014 De Gruyter converted a portfolio of 14 journals from the subscription model to OA. In 2017, three years on, rather compelling observations can be made as to how to make the transition smooth and successful. This post is based on the webinar that De Gruyter has organized for the Open Access Week, for which it is possible to register at this link to find out more.

The ever-increasing prices of subscriptions have led to the so-called serials crisis, which resulted in many libraries being forced to cancel some of their journal subscriptions, as they could no longer afford them.

Journal subscription prices vs. CPI (1987-2005) | Source: Data from Association of Research Libraries.
Journal subscription prices vs. CPI (1987-2005) | Source: Data from Association of Research Libraries.

The discontent among librarians, researchers and journal editors has led to the birth of Open Access as an alternative model to subscriptions. According to various estimates, Open Access is growing at an annual rate of approximately 12-17%. Most subscription journals already offer a hybrid option, with article processing charges (APCs) usually set at $2,000-$3,000 USD. Between 2014 and 2015, the share of purely OA journals in the publishing sector of science, technology and medicine (STM) journals increased from 10% to almost 13%. In the same period, the share of hybrid journals increased from 67% to 68.5%, while the percentage of subscription only journals fell, from 23% to 18.5%.

STM Journals | Source: Auclair, D. (2015). Open Access 2015: Market Size, Forecast, and Trends. Outsell Inc., Berlin.
STM Journals | Source: Auclair, D. (2015). Open Access 2015: Market Size, Forecast, and Trends. Outsell Inc., Berlin.

Despite the fact that currently most subscription journals offer the Open Access route, the share of OA articles published in hybrid journals is still very small (a little over 2.4%).

Even more staggering is the difference in the revenues of Open Access journals versus subscription ones, with the OA market segment accounting for less than 4% of the entire academic publishing market, worth approximately $10 billion. In 2016, the total value of APCs collected was estimated at $398 million.

Articles | Source: Johnson, R., Fosci, M., Chiarelli, A., Pinfield, S., & Jubb, M. (2017). Towards a Competitive and Sustainable OA Market in Europe. Research Consulting, OpenAIRE.
Articles | Source: Johnson, R., Fosci, M., Chiarelli, A., Pinfield, S., & Jubb, M. (2017). Towards a Competitive and Sustainable OA Market in Europe. Research Consulting, OpenAIRE.

So why should editors and journal owners consider changing the publishing model? For one, the mandates pushing for Open Access in many countries have been increasingly coming into force in recent years. The Netherlands and the United Kingdom (UK) have been leading the way to Open Access, with nationwide policies supporting OA and strongly encouraging universities to negotiate, albeit with varying success, OA deals with top-ranking journal publishers.

Revenues | Source: Auclair, D. (2015). Open Access 2015: Market Size, Forecast, and Trends. Outsell Inc., Berlin.
Revenues | Source: Auclair, D. (2015). Open Access 2015: Market Size, Forecast, and Trends. Outsell Inc., Berlin.

The rationale for flipping journals to OA is clear from the libraries’ perspective. Launching new OA journals does not save libraries costs of acquiring journal portfolios, unless they substitute already existing subscription journals which can be in turn discontinued. Conversely, each journal that has been flipped to OA means one less item on the libraries’ budget without limiting access to the journal’s scientific value. From the publisher’s perspective, flipping to OA is a less risky endeavor as the converted journal continues the legacy of the former subscription-based title, by bringing their readership, authors, editors, reviewers as well as quality standards and reputation to the newly established OA journal. Meanwhile, a newly launched journal has to build its credibility, reputation and research community from scratch.

In this respect, De Gruyter’s experiences with converting its portfolio of 14 journals to Open Access since 2014 can be instructive. Three years into this change, valuable insights can be derived as to how to make the transition to OA as seamless as possible. First, the introduction of APCs will likely have a temporary negative impact on the number of manuscript submissions, but with adroit management, the publication figures can rebound rather quickly, as can be seen in the case of Open Mathematics.

Open Mathematics – Articles | Source: De Gruyter.
Open Mathematics – Articles | Source: De Gruyter.

One of the largest uncertainties in the process of flipping a journal from a subscription-based model to OA is whether the journal can maintain its quality. A widespread consensus exists that OA brings more citations as compared to articles behind paywalls. In the case of Open Mathematics, a significant positive impact of OA on journal visibility can be clearly discerned. The transition of this journal to OA has led to its impact factor’s (IF) rise after 2014.

Open Mathematics – Impact Factor | Source: De Gruyter.
Open Mathematics – Impact Factor | Source: De Gruyter.

Finally, there is the dilemma of whether a transition to OA makes sense financially. While there are a number of journals that would find it difficult, if not impossible, to recoup their subscription revenues through APCs, in some cases revenues can rise beyond the ones observed in the subscription model. This is often the case with younger journals and those that to some extent struggled in the subscription model. The case of Open Geosciences is an example of a journal that managed to excel in the Open Access model compared to the subscriptions-based one. In Open Geosciences, APCs were introduced in 2016. In that year, the journal already managed to exceed the revenue levels recorded in the subscription model. In 2017 the revenue increased more than two-fold.

Open Geosciences – Revenues | Source: De Gruyter.
Open Geosciences – Revenues | Source: De Gruyter.

One of the key aspects that journal editors and journal owners considering the plunge into Open Access, thus, need to consider is how and to whom to communicate the change. Marketing efforts need to be well-tailored and suited to the Open Access model, with SEM, SEO, Google Adwords and Article-level PR playing a vital role in helping the journal grow and increase its visibility. It is possible to find out more at De Gruyter’s Open Access Week webinar about the transition to Open Access.

By Beata Socha


Featured Image Credits: Aquatic Conditions, May 5, 2008 | © Courtesy of  Thomas Hawk.

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