Unpicking Subscribe to Open

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Tricia Miller and Andrea Lopez explain how the model benefits everyone in the scholarly community

Subscribe to Open (S2O) is an innovative open access (OA) model, developed by nonprofit publisher Annual Reviews. The way S2O works is that existing institutional customers continue to subscribe to the journals. With sufficient support, every new volume is immediately converted to OA under a Creative Commons license and is available for everyone to read and re-use. If support is insufficient, the paywall is retained. The ethos of the model is “equity”: there are no fees to publish and no barriers to readership, and it can be applied by journals in any field of research.

For academic libraries with a commitment to OA, S2O provides them with an opportunity to realize this by immediately converting gated journals to OA. The process is straight-forward, using existing scholarly publishing processes and infrastructures and it follows recommended principles on pricing transparency. S2O relies on the support of institutional subscribers for its success; by simply renewing annual subscriptions or by becoming new subscribers, they support OA.  

Virginia Steel, long-time OA advocate, librarian and former chair of the SPARC (the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition) Steering Committee, said “A model like S2O is something that librarians have been asking for, for many years. That’s why libraries are stepping forward to support S2O as it aligns with their institutional values. It is inspiring them.”  

The model benefits everyone in the scholarly community, researchers, funders, educators and reaches beyond it to include the general public.

Impact and usage

As soon as the paywall is removed, article access doubled or tripled and continues to rise, with usage not just from subscribers but from local governments and businesses, foundations, professionals and interested members of society. The increase of usage in low- or middle-income countries (LMIC) is especially notable. The journals included in the pilot phase, for which we have citation data, have seen doubling a more of the number of citations. In sum, the conversion to open access using S2O has yielded immense practical benefits for authors, libraries and, most importantly, readers.

Since S2O immediately converts articles to OA and publishes them under a CC BY license, everyone can read and reuse them. Types of organisations that have benefitted from the expert content since making the switch include police departments, tax offices, family services, education boards, courts of appeals, high schools, meteorological offices, public health authorities, hospitals, and many more.

Global South and developing countries

Previously, those in LMIC either didn’t have access to the research literature or were required to use special portals to consume it. S2O goes some way to leveling the playing field between those in the global south and north in terms of facilitating the right to read and learn. S2O also provides equitable publishing options for those without or without enough grant funding to cover APCs.

In the last year that Annual Reviews journals were behind a paywall, usage peaked at 850,000 article accesses per month. In March 2023 (the latest data available at the time of writing), there were two million accesses. Projections indicate that this will rise to four million per month before the end of the year. So far, usage in Western countries (UK, US, Germany, for example) where Annual Reviews has large numbers of subscribers, has doubled. In India, the increase is threefold. In LMIC the rate of increase is much higher. For example, in Indonesia it is 12 times greater, in Ecuador and Uganda 22 times, and in the Dominican Republic 33 times greater. 

The model has been adopted by other publishers with the support of the S2O Community of Practice, a diverse group of librarians, researchers, publishers, and funders working together to advance the model.

At the time of writing, at least 157 additional journals from 19 other publishers covering topics as diverse as anthropology, mathematics, ecology and medicine, also use S2O to make content open access. The approach has also been adapted by the publishers of academic books and monographs. This amplification has been steered by the S2O Community of Practice. We believe that

S2O is becoming established as a viable approach to OA alongside Article Processing Charges and Read and Publish agreements. It has notable advantages in terms of equity and simplicity over the other two.

Ambitions for the future and Knowable Magazine

Our first ambition is to end this year with all 2023 journal volumes converted to OA using S2O. However, access to content is only the first step of several steps we want to take to embed research knowledge in policy, business and civil society generally. Accessibility, meaning the way we explain science and its implications to a broad general audience, is essential if society is to respond optimally to, for example, mitigating climate change or preventing the next pandemic. This is one reason we launched Knowable Magazine in 2017 and Knowable en español in 2022, to ensure that everyone can understand global problems and be part of the solution.

Andrea Lopez is a Director of Annual Reviews; Tricia Miller is Marketing Manager for Sales, Partnerships, and Initiatives