From here to there: a proposed mechanism for transforming journals from closed to open access

David C. Prosser
Director, SPARC Europe
© David C. Prosser 2003

ABSTRACT: A major barrier to the greater take-up of an open access model for journal publishing has been the concern of many journal owners that they will not easily be able to migrate from the current subscription-based model to open access. This paper presents a potential migration path which should significantly reduce the financial risk to journal owners, while allowing them to offer open access to their authors.


There has been a great deal of debate recently regarding open access journals. In particular, the last twelve months have seen increasing interest in open access from academics, librarians, funding agencies and publishers, and the debate appears to be intensifying.1 Open access journals make the papers published within them freely available online to all interested readers with access to the Internet. This marks them out from ‘closed access’ journals that only allow papers to be read by somebody with a subscription to the journal (either directly or through their institution). Open access journals are not free journals – they are only free to the reader. There are costs in the peer-review process and the production of a journal (even if it is only online), and while estimates of the actual costs vary, the costs are real and must be met. Open access journals will survive only if they can raise sufficient funds to cover the costs of publication (plus whatever profit margin is considered reasonable by the journals’ owners and is supported by the market).

Many observers find the open access model attractive as it immediately and significantly extends dissemination of an author’s paper from those at a few hundred institutions worldwide lucky enough to have a subscription to all interested readers with access to the Internet. This will naturally affect the visibility and impact of papers. Initial research shows that widening access to papers increases citation frequency.2 We may see an increase in impact factors for those journals that move to open access.

Many are now convinced of the benefits of open access to researchers (both as authors and readers), to libraries and to society. However, there is widespread concern that it will be difficult to convert from the current system of subscription-based, closed access journals to an open access model. This note outlines a possible transition mechanism. (It may be worth reiterating that as peer review is independent of medium and funding model, open access journals can have the same quality standards as closed access journals. Quality concerns therefore are not necessarily relevant when considering the transition to open access.)

The problem

Imagine a well-established, relatively large, niche journal. It is financed mainly by institutional subscriptions, plus some personal subscriptions (priced at or close to cost), author colour charges and/or some page charges, reprint and offprint sales, and a small amount of advertising revenue. As well as covering costs (both direct and indirect) the journal makes a profit for its owner (part of which is retained for further investment, the other part goes to shareholders or to further the aims of the owner, for commercial or not-for-profit publishers, respectively). The journal is produced in two formats – paper and online – and online access is restricted to subscribers.

The owners of our typical journal are convinced of the benefits of open access, but they have a number of concerns regarding the transformation from one model to another:

1. Many of their authors (who come from a wide geographic spread) do not have the funds to pay for publication.
2. If the journal was available for free online, many (if not all) subscribers may decide to cancel their subscriptions, so resulting in a disastrous decrease in revenues.
3. The owners do not have sufficient financial reserves to carry the journal through a transition period until most authors have funds to pay publication charges.

The owners face a Catch-22 situation. Authors will not routinely pay publication fees until they have the funds to do so. However, funding bodies are not going to give funds to authors while there are few open access journals and the authors can publish for ‘free’ in existing journals. (I place ‘free’ in quotes as many authors are already paying for publication – through page charges, colour figure charges, etc.) The journal is ‘trapped’ in closed access.

A solution

The proposed solution presents a way to manage the inevitable transition period, with little financial risk to the owners. It is based on the model provided by Florida Entomologist published by the Florida Entomological Society ( and the journals of the Entomological Society of America ( Authors would be presented with two options:

1. To pay a publication charge – the paper is then made open access on publication.
2. Not to pay the publication charge – the paper is only made available to subscribers.

This would result in a hybrid journal in which access to each paper would depend on the authors’ willingness to pay the publication fee. This is a low-risk strategy for the journal’s owner as they would still collect subscription revenue. In year one (say 2004), authors would be invited to pay for open access. The subscription price would be set to what is required to generate the required income, even if no authors took up the offer. Any author payments would then be a bonus! In year two (2005), the subscription price would be set based on the experience in 2004. Over time, as the proportion of authors willing to pay increased, the subscription price would continue to be reduced. Alternatively, if no authors were willing to pay publication charges, the subscription price would increase year-on-year and would continue to cover the full publication costs, as it does currently.


This model has a number of advantages for the journal owner who is considering a transfer to open access:

1. Authors who are willing and able to pay receive the benefits of open access (wider dissemination, higher citation, greater kudos, etc.).
2. Authors who are unwilling or unable to pay for open access can still publish in their journal of choice.
3. The benefits to authors of open access can be accurately measured – comparisons can be made in downloads and citations for open and closed papers in the same journal.
4. As the benefits of open access become clear, authors will place pressure on their funding bodies to provide grants for publication. No author will want to be at a disadvantage compared to their peers who have funds for publication and consequently whose papers have a wider dissemination and readership.
5. As the proportion of open access papers increases, so should the journal’s impact factor.
6. The owner is provided with a smooth transition period as the decline in subscription revenue is matched to the increase in revenue from publication charges.
7. The journal moves at the same rate as the international research community. It is not left behind (as other open access journals proliferate) or bankrupted (as subscription revenues fall without a matched increase in other revenues).


1. The journal becomes split with different access conditions for different papers [but this can be turned into an advantage – see (4) above].
2. It is possible that libraries will cancel their subscriptions if a significant proportion of the journal is available for free online (even if the subscription price has been reduced proportionately). As the journal becomes less reliant on subscriptions (as the subscription price decreases), this should be a declining risk. Also, it is unlikely that many libraries will cancel until a very large proportion of the journal is open access.
3. If the subscription price is calculated using the previous year’s take-up of publication charges, there is a risk that there will be a revenue shortfall if the proportion of authors willing to pay the charge falls.

Additional points

1. One criticism of the model as implemented by the Entomological Society of America is that the publication charge does not reflect the actual costs of publication.4 I would suggest that the publication charge should be set at or near the total required for online publication of that paper. I see no advantage in starting with an artificially low figure as authors will resent a rapid increase in publication costs over time. However, each publisher will naturally be free to set the publication fee at whatever level they see fit.
2. The owner may wish to factor in the cost of making payment waivers to certain authors (e.g. those from developing countries). If it is expected that 10% of published papers will be from authors who will not be able to afford the charge the publication fee should be increased by 10% for those that can pay.
3. The discussions above have assumed that revenue comes almost exclusively from either subscription or publication costs. There are, however, a variety of alternative revenue sources that may contribute to the financial health of the journal. An excellent expansion of this point can be found in the guides to business planning for open access journals put together by the SPARC Consulting Group on behalf of the Open Society Institute.5 The degree to which alternative revenue sources are available will depend on the individual journal and its subject area (in the same way that non-subscription income currently varies greatly from journal to journal).


It may be useful to outline briefly a number of potential scenarios following adoption of this model:

1. No authors take advantage of the opportunity to pay for open access. In this case subscriptions continue to generate the majority of revenue and papers continue to be accessible only to subscribers.
2. Low uptake (less than, say, 20%). Subscriptions cover most of the costs. Over time subscription price held or slightly reduced. Only a small proportion of papers is open access from publication. Owner begins to keep statistics on variations in usage and citations between open and closed access papers.
3. Medium uptake (20–80%). Subscription price can be reduced more quickly as authors take up open access option. Owner can acquire more interesting usage and citation statistics (as there are more open access papers).
4. High uptake (greater than, say, 80%). Subscription price falls significantly. Publication charges cover online publication costs. Publication charges made compulsory?

As can be seen, the reduction in the journal subscription price can be matched to the increase in publication charge revenue. No indication of timescale is given in each scenario – it may be that the transition will happen very quickly, or it could be many years for the journal to move from (1) to (4). The speed of transfer will probably depend on a number of factors (including discipline, quality of the journal, page charge culture, etc.), but during the process the journal owner will be assured of continued revenue to maintain the financial health of the journal.


There is a growing realization that open access publication can offer immense benefits to both authors and readers, and so to the furtherance of research in general. It is hoped that this note will help provide a way for those journal owners who see these benefits to begin the transition from closed to open access for their journals.


1. For an overview see Also, presentations from September’s ALSPS /OSI ( meeting and a recent INIST meeting in Paris ( are available.
2. See Steve Lawrence’s work at
3. For a description of these journals and the model see
4. For example,