Read our COVID-19 research and news.


Publishers roll out alternative routes to open access

In the push for “open access” (OA)—making scientific papers immediately free to everyone—it’s easy to forget that publishing costs haven’t vanished. They have simply shifted from subscriptions paid mostly by university librarians to fees charged to authors. Those article-processing fees (APCs), which can be several thousand dollars per paper, raise concerns of their own. Universities fear they could end up paying more to help their scientists publish their work than they do now for subscriptions. Scientists who have small research budgets fret that they won’t be able to afford APCs. And some nonprofit scientific societies that publish journals worry APCs won’t generate enough revenue to support other activities, such as meetings and training.

Now, two nonprofit publishers of prominent journals have debuted new ways to support OA journals without shifting the burden entirely to authors. “Everybody that we work with is watching these two [new models] closely,” says Michael Clarke, managing partner of the consulting firm Clarke & Esposito, which advises publishers. “There is not currently a good solution.”

One approach, called Subscribe to Open and implemented today by Annual Reviews, would transform the nature of subscriptions. To make a journal freely available, institutions would be asked for a contribution equivalent to their previous subscription—minus a 5% discount that Annual Reviews is offering to retain a critical mass of paying institutions. To deter freeloading, Annual Reviews says it will reimpose paywalls and rescind the discount if not enough subscribers renew each year. It is planning to pilot the approach in up to five of its 51 titles, many of which are widely cited.

The Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) launched a different approach earlier this year. ACM is asking the institutions that publish the most papers in its 59 journals to pay more than they do now for subscriptions—in some cases about 10 times as much, or $100,000 per year. The higher fees will allow all researchers at participating universities to publish an unlimited number of papers in ACM journals without paying APCs. The average cost per paper will beat the average market rate for APCs, the society says. ACM is betting the approach will sustain its journal revenue while it transitions to making all the 21,000 peer-reviewed papers it publishes annually free to everyone.

So far, both approaches are getting a positive response. At Annual Reviews, some 90% of subscribers have signed deals that include the Annual Review of Cancer Biology, says Richard Gallagher, president and editor-in-chief. That allowed the journal to become the first in the pilot to remove its paywall, on 9 March. Annual Reviews could roll out OA for up to four additional journals this spring if other librarians accept the model, Gallagher says. Curtis Brundy, a library administrator at Iowa State University, which is participating in the pilot, believes that “hands down, Subscribe to Open is our best option as an alternative to APCs. It’s simpler to implement, and we don’t have a lot of other models.”

Universities are also starting to embrace the ACM model. In January, several that produce the most ACM papers, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Carnegie Mellon University, signed 3-year deals that lock in the higher payments. (Carnegie Mellon publishes more articles in ACM journals than any other publisher’s.) ACM is optimistic more universities will follow.

Still, both publishers concede there are risks. A big one is the free-rider problem. “People will start to ask themselves, especially if we experience budget cuts in a given library, ‘Why am I paying for this when other people aren’t?’” says Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe of the University Library at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

Getting some institutions to pay more is another challenge. ACM saw that need because two-thirds of its subscription revenue comes from about 1700 institutions that publish three papers per year or fewer in any ACM journal. The rest comes from the roughly 1000 institutions that each publish more than three papers annually. The 1700 institutions will have an incentive to drop subscriptions once the journals become free, and ACM concluded that APCs couldn’t replace the lost revenue.

Instead, under ACM’s pricing plan for OA, the 11 schools that publish more than 75 papers per year in ACM journals would pay the highest rate, $100,000 annually, a 10-fold increase. In one of the less costly tiers, the roughly 90 universities that publish 20 to 29 papers annually would pay $35,000 annually. Overall, ACM estimates that if half of the top 1000 institutions sign on, their journals can make a full transition to OA within 5 to 7 years while remaining solvent. Whether the pricing structure works might not be known for at least 3 years, when the initial contracts expire, says Scott Delman, ACM’s director of publications.

Even if the models succeed, it’s not clear how widely they would spread. The journals published by Annual Reviews, for instance, are unusual: Although each appears just once a year and contains only review articles, some are among the world’s most highly cited journals, making them must-haves for many libraries.

The new experiments underscore that the search for viable pathways to OA publication continues. The road to success likely runs through university librarians, such as Brundy, who are willing to dedicate some of their tight budgets to testing new arrangements. “We want to support experimentation,” says Brundy, who worked with ACM, the University of California, and other institutions to develop ACM’s new model. Iowa State recently accepted the terms, which double the institution’s annual payment, to $17,500. “It comes down,” he says, “to how much of a commitment a library has to open access.”

To fix an imbalance between paying and publishing …

The 1000 institutions that publish the most papers in the Association for Computing Machinery’s (ACM’s) journals provide a disproportionately small share of subscription revenues.
Institutions that publish the most% of all ACM papers published% of all subscription revenues
Top 100305
Top 2505010
Top 5006520
Top 10008030
Other 17002070
Association for Computing Machinery

… ACM proposed a new pricing model

To sustainably finance a move to make all its journal articles free to read, ACM wants to raise prices for the high-publishing institutions and base them on publishing volume. Institutions participating in the new deal will get unlimited publishing and reading. Now, most ACM subscribers pay similar amounts—about $8000 annually.
Number of articles published annuallyOpen-access plan price
*Decreases as portion of content published open access increases
Association for Computing Machinery