Posted by: bluesyemre | April 21, 2021

Feasibility, Sustainability, and the Subscribe-to-Open Model

Male hand pressing subscription button with the word subscribe written on wooden blocks. Online registration concept.

In this post I’m going to be discussing the feasibility and sustainability of open access (OA) business model du jour: subscribe-to-open (S2O for short). Briefly put, S2O is a model whereby a journal shifts from subscription access to OA, but the libraries who were subscribers under the old model continue paying in order to keep the journal financially viable. Some publishers (such as Annual Reviews) offer a discount to supporting libraries; others (such as IWA Publishing) don’t.

As is the case with any publishing business model, there are pros and cons to this one, some of which I’ll discuss below.

Mission and Business

Before I do, though, let’s start with a possibly uncomfortable but unfortunately essential truth about the relationship between a publishing organization’s mission and its business model. As much as it may annoy us to acknowledge this fact, the latter will always constrain our ability to pursue the former. In other words, your organization’s ability to fulfill its mission is constrained by the resources available to it; all other things being equal, rich organizations are generally better positioned to fulfill their missions than poor ones. And in a worst-case scenario, if your publishing organization can’t pay its platform provider or editors, can’t pay rent on its offices, and can’t build a reserve for future needs, it’s going to go out of business and will then be unable to fulfill its mission at all. (This, by the way, is why it makes no sense for people who consider themselves mission-driven to denigrate those they call “bean-counters”: if you’re actually serious about accomplishing your organizational mission, you’d better know how many beans you have, and how you’re going to ensure an ongoing, reliable stream of beans for the future.)

Feasibility and Sustainability

That ongoing and reliable stream of beans is where the concepts of feasibility and sustainability come into play. Let’s look at each of those for a second.

Feasibility is perhaps the most fundamental, baseline criterion for any organizational initiative. The word is derived ultimately from the Latin verb facere (“to do” or “to make”) and it addresses the most basic question about any project: can it be done? Not just “is it possible in theory?”, but more acutely “can it be done in the real world under the conditions that obtain right now?”. “Feasible” is really just a fancier way of saying “possible” or “doable.”

Sustainability is subtly but importantly different from feasibility. It’s a concept that gets invoked in many different contexts to mean a range of different things, but in this context its meaning is both basic and simple: a publisher’s business model is sustainable if it’s able to be sustained over time. As we all know, there are lots of projects that are feasible as one-offs or for a short period, but which turn out not to be sustainable in the long run.

What determines sustainability? For an ongoing and open-ended project like publishing, the baseline determinant of sustainability is simple: recurring, reliable revenue. The revenue may come from selling access to content (as in a traditional subscription model), or from selling access to publishing services (as in OA publishing supported by article processing charges), or from institutional subventions (as in “diamond” OA publishing), but it has to come from somewhere and it has to keep coming consistently and reliably.

Feasibility and S2O

For a publisher, one of the most obvious attractions of the S2O model is that it preserves — in theory, at least — the revenue stream that made the traditional subscription model both feasible and sustainable. Existing subscription customers don’t have to change anything they’ve been doing; in fact, the model depends precisely on customers continuing to do exactly what they have been all along. This enhances feasibility because it minimizes disruption to an already proven process.

A closely related, and also important, strength of this model is that it largely preserves existing organizational structures and infrastructure. As long as revenues continue to flow from “subscribing” institutions, there should be little or no need for new accounting structures or management processes — although it also seems clear that the nature and mission of the publisher’s sales teams might have to change, as their message morphs from “Here are good reasons to pay for access to this content” to “Here are good reasons for you to underwrite our efforts to produce this content and make it freely available to all.”

A third important strength of the S2O model is that it doesn’t require existing customers to make new budget commitments; instead, it requires customers to continue allocating funds that have been directed towards the same publications in the past.

Because it relies on the continuation of tested and proven systems and structures and already-committed budget outlays, feasibility is one of the great strengths of the S2O model.

Sustainability and S2O

Sustainability, however, is a more complicated issue.

The biggest and most obvious weakness of the S2O model is that it’s built on a tenuous assumption: that libraries will be willing and able to continue paying indefinitely for content that has become free to access. It requires customers to continue behaving as if nothing has changed about the business model, even when the model has, in reality, changed radically. Advocates for the model like to say that it’s “a subscription model, not a voluntary donation.” But I would suggest that this is obfuscatory at best; if I’ll continue getting access to the content regardless of whether I continue paying, it’s tough to see how the model involves a “subscription” in anything like the sense traditionally understood in scholarly publishing. I’ll come back to this issue in a moment.

The second weakness is related to the first: not only is it unclear to what degree libraries will be willing to continue paying for access under S2O, but it’s even less clear to what degree new customers or supporters will be willing to sign on. If a publisher wants to expand its offerings over time, or even just provide for the inevitably increasing costs of doing business, new or expanding streams of recurring revenue are going to be necessary. Under an S2O model, will these be realized by asking existing subscriber/supporters to pay more? Or by gaining new ones? There does not seem to be a third option.

Three Errors of Analysis

Let’s return to the issue of libraries’ willingness to pay. In this regard, I think it’s important to avoid three related (and potentially fatal, from a sustainability standpoint) errors of analysis:

Error #1: Confusing high use of open content with evidence in support of any particular open-access business model.

When publishers experiment with making their content open, they invariably find that when the content is open, it gets higher rates of use. No surprise there, of course — one would hardly expect usage either to stay the same or to go down if the only change to the content is that it becomes free.

But this finding provides evidence of pent-up demand; it doesn’t provide evidence that OA is a sustainable access model for the publisher in the long run, and still less does it constitute evidence that any particular funding model for underwriting OA would be better than another. Expanded readership doesn’t make a business model more sustainable unless it results in more (or more reliable) recurring revenue.

Error #2: Confusing librarians’ enthusiasm for OA generally, and for S2O in particular, with enthusiasm on the part of those who allocate funds to libraries.

I cannot stress this point enough: while libraries have money to spend and are given a great deal of latitude in how they spend it, this money has traditionally been given to libraries to use for the purchase of things that cost money. Furthermore, libraries don’t generally have pots of money available that they can spend without accountability. (The exception might be expendable balances of unrestricted endowments, which typically represent a very small portion of a library’s available funding.) What this means is that while the librarian you talk to may enthusiastically support S2O, and may express a sincere intention to support that model into the indefinite future, the librarian’s intention to do so will matter only to the degree that the library’s sponsoring institution remains willing to continue allocating funds to the library for that purpose. When it comes to any subscription model it’s essential to bear in mind that the library is only the proximate subscriber; the library acts as an agent of the ultimate subscriber, which is the library’s host institution.

One obvious objection to this observation is “Come on; do university administrators really ask the library to account specifically for every purchase they make with allocated funds?” And the answer to that question is, of course, no. However, every year the library asks the provost for more money, and has to explain how the current allocation is being used. And 24 years of library management experience have led me to adopt a few rules of thumb, one of which is: “If a program or practice relies for its viability on the fact that your boss doesn’t know what you’re doing, that program or practice is doomed in the long run.”

Here is an entirely realistic scenario to illustrate what I’m warning about:

A provost attends a higher-ed leadership conference. One breakout session is dedicated to the topic of the future of scholarly publishing. A panelist outlines exciting innovations in open access, including the S2O model, mentioning that this model is growing in popularity.

The provost returns home, and in her next meeting with the library director, asks about this model. They have the following conversation:

Provost: “Are we participating in any S2O programs?”
Librarian: “Yes.”
Provost: “How much money are we talking about?”
Librarian: “We’re spending $100,000 a year supporting S2O with Publisher X.”
Provost: “So just to be clear: if we stopped paying that money, would we lose access to the journals?”
Librarian: “Well, no — but of course, if enough subscribers cancel then the whole system falls apart and the journals would no longer be free.”
Provost: “At which point, presumably, the journals would go back to a toll-access model and we’d have to start paying for the content again.”
Librarian: “Right.”
Provost: “Except that we’re paying for the content now, even though it’s free.”
Librarian: “Well, what we’re doing is supporting the publisher in making the content free to everyone.”
Provost: “Hmm.”

After the meeting, the provost spends some time pondering this question: Is effectively donating $100,000 a year to a publisher so that the publisher’s content can be made freely available the best way for the university to fulfill its mission? Or should the university gamble that it could redirect those funds to other mission-critical programs (scholarships for underrepresented students, lab renovation, that diversity and equity study they’ve been meaning to do) and be reasonably confident that other institutions will continue supporting the publisher sufficiently to keep the journals open?

I would suggest that the right answer to this question is not immediately obvious. I would further suggest that this scenario is by no means far-fetched, nor is it even merely hypothetical. Provosts are constantly — constantly — wrestling with exactly these kinds of questions, and are currently doing so in an environment of troubling economic prospects for higher education. When putting oneself in the provost’s shoes here, it’s worth bearing in mind that the worst-case scenario of free-riding on an S2O journal is not that the university will lose access to the content, but rather that it will have to go back to paying for the content as it was before. Consider how this translates into risk assessment: no longer having to pay is all upside; resuming payment is merely a return to the status quo ante.

Error #3: Assuming that renewals immediately following an initial S2O pilot constitute evidence of long-term sustainability.

This is an error of analysis that I’ve encountered more than once in conversations with publishers and S2O advocates.

If you’re a publisher considering trying out S2O, the question you need to be asking yourself is not “If we make the journals open in 2021, will libraries renew in 2022?”. The question you need to be asking is “If we make the journals open in 2021, will libraries still be renewing in 2029?”. Inertia is a powerful force, but it’s not infinitely powerful, and it weakens over time. S2O will fail if it depends, in the long term, on its surface similarity to a traditional subscription model. Back to my earlier rule of thumb: if the host institution is giving the library money with which to buy things that cost money, and the library is instead using that money to underwrite the publishing of content that could be had at no cost, that arrangement is not sustainable—because eventually it will become clear that the library and its host institution are out of alignment, and a realignment will take place. (A wise library leader will ensure alignment at the beginning, counseling with her provost as to the institution’s willingness to participate in S2O using campus funds.)

If You’re Considering S2O

Whether you’re a publisher considering adopting an S2O program, or a library contemplating participating in one, there are some important questions your organization should consider.

For publishers, these questions are largely about sustainability. For example: how will you provide for the inevitably increasing costs of doing business from year to year? If you find that renewals are flagging as time goes on, what are you willing to sacrifice in order to maintain S2O — will you publish fewer journals? Will you make editorial sacrifices? Will you look for philanthropic support? If none of those strategies works, will you consider going back to a toll-access model or adopting a different OA business model? (An important variant on this question would be: what are you not willing to sacrifice in order to keep your S2O program afloat?)

For libraries, some of the most fundamental questions are political: given that the money you’ll be feeding into the S2O model is vouchsafed to you by a host institution, is your institution on board with supporting that program, or would the institutional preference be to take the risks of free ridership and redirect those funds toward other, also worthy, purposes? Does the library have endowment expendables that could be used for S2O support, thus largely obviating the institutional-preferences question? How big a risk would free ridership represent — if the S2O model fails for the journal or journals in question, would the library and its institution be worse off than it was before S2O was adopted?

By recommending these questions, I’m not proposing that every publisher or library will answer them the same way. Political and economic situations differ from case to case, and due diligence will lead different organizations to make different decisions. But I do think asking these questions and considering these factors are essential if you want your program to be both feasible in the short run and sustainable in the long term.

Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson


Rick Anderson is University Librarian at Brigham Young University. He has worked previously as a bibliographer for YBP, Inc., as Head Acquisitions Librarian for the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, as Director of Resource Acquisition at the University of Nevada, Reno, and as Associate Dean for Collections & Scholarly Communication at the University of Utah.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: