Can an Open-Access Revenue Model Work for Your Journal?

While there has been a push for open-access journals, concern about lost revenue has left many associations reluctant to try it. The American Society for Cell Biology is testing the “subscribe to open” model to maintain revenue while still providing the benefits of open access.

For many years, there have been calls for scholarly journals to be open access, or free to readers. While open access benefits both authors publishing their work and the public at large, it tramples the subscription revenue model that has propelled journals to success.

Much like other organizations, the American Society for Cell Biology has struggled with these competing principles of revenue and access. Recently, ASCB announced it is adopting a “subscribe to open” plan that maintains revenue, while allowing the journal to be open access.

“We want to get the revenue in, but we also want to help our members get their research out,” said Erika Shugart, PhD, CEO of ASCB. “Our bottom line is, this allows us to remain smart in our business and keep the revenue while still achieving our mission.”

To understand the new model, it’s important to know how the old subscription model worked. “Libraries pay for subscriptions and that gives them access,” Shugart said. “It is closed to access unless you have a subscription.”

Because of the push for open access, many journals have maintained subscriptions but allowed the content to become free after a certain amount of time. For example, an article might be subscription-only for the first nine months of publication, and then open access after that. ASCB does this currently, opening access after only two months.

The new plan would allow immediate open access if subscribers—libraries—agree to pay for a discounted subscription with the understanding that it will be an open access to the public. “We give a discount to libraries that agree to go to subscribe to open,” Shugart said. “If a certain percentage of libraries agree to subscribe to open, it opens to the world.” Libraries that don’t agree would still pay to subscribe, but not receive a discount.

Shugart said the key is getting enough libraries—many of whom have been staunch advocates of open-access journals—to agree. “It requires the libraries to participate in order for it to get open, so there is this safety net for us,” she said, noting that ASCB doesn’t want to disclose the percentage of current subscribers who must agree for the group to move forward with open access.

ASCB hopes to know by early next year if they have enough subscribers to move to subscribe to open, or if they will continue under their current subscription model. The group explored open access because members want it. “Our members are very interested in having our journal open,” Shugart said. “They really do want their research to get out.”

Model Must Be the Right Fit

While there are other open-access models out there, ASCB did not pursue because them because they weren’t right for its membership.

“In some open-access models, the authors pay,” Shugart said. “It really shifts where that burden of cost is. Yes, [our members] really want it to be open, but we don’t want to burden them with the cost.”

To figure out the model it wanted to adopt, ASCB asked, “How do we get to a model that is open and helps the society remain economically viable?” They came up with the subscribe to open, believing the current journal size provides high-quality, select articles needed for a subscription. “When you are selling something that is a subscription, it has to be a quality work,” Shugart said.

Maintaining revenue, while being open access, is key for ASCB in today’s environment. “Our journal does bring in more revenue than it costs,” Shugart said. “We take that revenue and use it for the society at large. It helps with professional development; diversity, equity, and inclusion; and programs for young scientists.”

What types of open-access models has your association considered? Share in the comments.


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Rasheeda Childress

By Rasheeda Childress

Rasheeda Childress is a former editor at Associations Now. MORE

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