The Simplest of Models for Open Access to Research Proves Itself: Welcome to Subscribe-to-Open

I’ve got blog-worthy good news. So good, in fact, that I’m persuaded to take a break from my consecutive blogs on amending American copyright for open access (my developing case here). Instead, I devote this blog to a far more here-and-now breakthrough in increasing public access to research.

It arises out of the work of a half-dozen anthropologists (and me), who think that, given their study of people and society, they have a moral duty to share that work with those people and that society. This group, Libraria by name, has worked over the last two years with Berghahn Books, a social science publisher of books and journals. Like other scholarly publishers these days, Berghahn is part of the open access consensus on the value of this approach to research, while still exploring how best to get to there.

For 2020, Berghahn and Libraria agreed to try out an idea that I introduced in a 2017 SLAW blog post on tapping into research libraries’ strong support for open access by asking them – wait for it – to actually subscribe to open access. That is, what if libraries agreed to continue paying the subscription fees to journals that they were already subscribing to, only the journals flipped to open access. The libraries would be subscribing to open access by supporting journals to which they were already subscribing, providing those journals with a path to open access.

The advantages of a subscribe-to-open model go beyond this simplicity: The journal moves overnight to complete, immediate open access. No article processing charges (APC) for authors to pay (as in many other open access journals). No 12- 36 month embargoes before the work is open. No revenue loss or quality reduction for publishers. No additional expense for libraries. And no – this one’s a complicated new one – use of a publisher’s subscriptions fees to pay for its APCs to allow a limited number of authors from the subscribing country to make their articles open, which is known as Read and Publish (often requiring months if not years of negotiation).

Now, to be sure, libraries could still say “No thanks” to renewing their subscribe-to-open subscriptions. But then the journal would have to revert to its traditional subscriptions and the libraries would be no further ahead and a little behind in their support for open access.

Sounds good in principle, you say? Enter the bold Vivian Berghahn, Managing Director of Berghahn Books, who said let’s pilot subscribe-to-open and see if it’s good in practice.

Vivian pulled together thirteen of her anthropology journals last spring to create a Berghahn Open Anthro package that would be offered for 2020 to existing subscribers on a subscribe-to-open basis. She set a subscription price for 2020 with the typical increase and a package discount for taking all thirteen. She, her subscription agents, and Knowledge Unlatched reached out to libraries over the last six months of 2019 with this new offering. And we waited patiently to see what would happen.

At around the same time, Kamran Naim, assisted by Raym Crow, led a similar initiative at Annual Reviews, where the publisher Richard Gallagher gave the concept the snappy title “subscribe to open” (S2O), and they piloted the S2O concept with five of its annual reviews for 2020, with their results expected in March.

Then, in January of this year, Vivian Berghahn announced that the subscribe-to-open pilot has worked. The thirteen journals are now open for 2020. It may just be the largest disciplinary journal flip to open access since CERN’s remarkable 2012 move of a dozen high-energy physics journals to open access with SCOAP3 with the support of 3,000 libraries (I’d welcome news of flips greater than a baker’s dozen).

The 281 libraries that agreed to subscribe-to-open with Berghahn Open Anthro are to be commended in their support for open access, as are the journal editors and board members of the 13 titles, as well as other anthropologists, who were so inspired by the prospect of open access that they reached out to libraries. Now, most libraries simply renewed their subscriptions. Yet three libraries were brand new subscribers to the full 13-title package. Seven libraries upgraded from less than five journals to the full thirteen. There were a dozen new subscribers to the individual titles. And almost all fourteen of the full-package subscribers signed on for three years in a strong expression of support for this model. Why? Because it is fair to all authors, as one librarian indicated, and required no further resources on their part to support open access to a journal they valued. That open access can build markets and activate editorial board and faculty support is noteworthy.

Now, Vivian has made it clear that this first highly successful round of subscribe-to-open, for all its simplicity, called for extra effort, additional presentations, mailings, and repeated calls. It took a great deal of explaining and much discussion among librarians – with a few still needing time, at this point before deciding – and there were a few kinks in the subscription process. But that’s what pilots are for. They guide us through uncharted territories. They make the next run that much easier. Pilots do raise questions about scalability, but there are no inherent limits to the number of journals, and as for concerns about it sustaining existing subscription prices, I recommend considering the copyright reform proposal I cited above.

Although it’s too early to say what’s up for 2021, Libraria is working with other publishers who were eagerly awaiting these very results before making their call, as well as with existing open access journals to create a model for them (along the lines of Open Library of the Humanities), and Berghahn is not one to stand still. Stay tuned.


  1. Hopefully there will be continued success to this exciting initiative.