The progress of Open Access (OA) is often measured by the proportion of journals that have transitioned to OA publication models. However, a number of journals have made the opposite choice and moved from open to closed access models. In this post Lisa Matthias, Najko Jahn and Mikael Laakso report on findings from the first study of journals that have made this reverse flip and assess what this phenomenon says about the wider ecosystem of research communication.
Scholarly publishing is in a state of disruption the likes of which we have not seen since the advent of the printing press. The Internet has made it possible to disseminate information and knowledge quickly and cheaply and for the last 25 years we’ve been slowly transitioning towards a vision of a fairer and more equitable system of scholarly publishing – Open Access. Today, around 28% of all scholarly journal literature is legally OA: the rest remains behind expensive paywalls. Scholarly publishing is a complex ecosystem, with many vested and conflicting interests – represented by scholarly publishers, librarians, research institutes, academics, and learned societies. Whilst there has been much discussion about the scale and pace of this transition towards OA, one phenomenon that sheds light on these wider systemic changes is the opposite transition – the reverse flip.
What the flip?
A “reverse flip” happens when an OA journal converts to a closed-access model, either purely subscription-based, or hybrid OA. Surprisingly, no database (yet) exists to track this phenomenon. So, in order to identify reverse flips, we drew on several data sources, including Scopus title lists, journal title lists provided by publishers, title lists by the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ), and the Open Access Directory’s list of reverse-flip journals. In essence, we compared snapshots taken of the publishing landscape a set number of years apart, and figured out what had gone missing. We then verified our findings using The Internet Archive, which proved to be an invaluable tool.
As we set out in our recently published study (yes, it’s OA), we found 152 of such reverse-flips in the last 13 years, across a range of disciplines and publishers. This number is likely an underestimate of the true scope of this phenomenon, largely because of the difficulty in systematically assessing this data at scale retroactively.
Now, your first reaction might be that these are small-scale changes within a publishing landscape of between 12,000 and 70,000 scholarly journals: And you would be right. However, the fact that these journals seem to be moving against the prevailing movement towards OA, suggests they highlight key tensions within the scholarly publishing system that stem from the different interests involved and need to be resolved, in one way or another, if a full transition to OA is to be successful.
The bizarre double role of scholarly societies
Of all the 152 reverse-flip journals in our sample, 59 were affiliated with a scholarly society (an additional 48 journals were affiliated with research institutions). Of these society journals, 42 now operate on a hybrid OA model, typically charging between $1,500-3,000 per article to authors to publish.
Fig.1 Reverse-flip journals’ affiliations with scholarly societies or research institutions, grouped by publisher.
This link reflects the difficult and contradictory situation facing scholarly societies. While most scholarly societies publish journals, either themselves or through publishing partnerships, they also have additional responsibilities to their members, disciplines and the general public, such as conference organization, grant giving and acting as public advocates for their discipline. These activities are to varying degrees subsidized from publication revenues (subscriptions and publication fees). The large number of reverse-flipped society journals, suggests societies are hard pressed to deliver particular forms of OA over the long term. How societies might adapt to OA and in particular Plan S, therefore seems to be an open question, one which a joint ALPSP, UKRI, Wellcome study may shed light on.
One symptom, many likely causes
The riddle here is why would journals choose to revert back to a closed-access model? And honestly, with the data we have right now, we just do not know. We know that a lot of the time the reverse flip coincided with a publisher change, and from there we might assume that; wanting to be seen as more competitive within the present landscape, demand for a change in revenue stream, or even just preference from the journal management were important factors.
One key issue here might be that OA journals that do not charge APCs, or have low APCs, are seen to be ‘low quality’, or even ‘predatory’, in comparison to the more prestigious (higher price) journals associated with larger publishers and societies. It is difficult to project an image of higher quality while giving away your services for free, especially within a culture that is addicted to journal brands and prestige. This factor might partially explain why at least 21 currently hybrid journals operated by a learned society flipped from an APC-free ‘diamond OA’ model to one leveraging APCs in excess of $1,500.
Although launching OA journals seems to be relatively easy, consistent and stable publication over several years is not, especially if financial support is lacking and the journal is largely dependent on the voluntary labor of scholars. Developing and strengthening support mechanisms for the sustainability and growth of existing scholar-led OA journals is essential in this regard.
Moreover, we also found that in some cases, research articles originally published as OA were put behind a paywall when the journal reverse-flipped. This was not the main focus of our study, but we do want to raise the issue of proper content licensing and emphasize its importance to increase the likelihood that materials remain in open circulation and decrease uncertainties regarding their reusability.
We suspect, the OA model is not the root cause of these problems, but rather other problematic aspects of the scholarly publishing system; for example, the prestige-driven evaluation system, and the increasing concentration of journals within a few large commercial entities. However, with initiatives such as Plan S, it is clear that for many scholarly publishers it will no longer be business as usual. As new stakeholder groups, including researchers, policymakers, NGOs, and academic and library consortia become increasingly engaged with scholarly communication, it remains critical that we have a sound, evidence-informed view of how the landscape is changing. Reverse-flip journals represent one small but critical part of this and we encourage others to pool their resources, efforts, and data to help to create a more holistic understanding of the global scholarly publishing ecosystem, and ultimately a more sustainable open scholarly infrastructure.
This post is based on the authors’ coauthored paper, The Two-Way Street of Open Access Journal Publishing: Flip It and Reverse It, published in Publications
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Impact Blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our comments policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.
About the authors
Lisa Matthias is a PhD candidate at the Graduate School of North American Studies at Freie Universität Berlin, Germany, and a visiting scholar at the ScholCommLab at Simon Fraser University, Canada. Her PhD project focuses on the media’s politicization of the US Supreme Court; she also takes a deep interest in open science, scholarly communication, and mental health.
Najko Jahn works as a Data Analyst at the State and University Library Göttingen, Germany. His particular focus is on supporting workflows and decision-making around scholarly communication using open data and tools. Najko is actively contributing to open source communities around the statistical programming language R, particularly to the development and maintenance of two rOpenSci packages as well as to training activities.
Mikael Laakso works as an Associate Professor at Hanken School of Economics in Helsinki Finland. He has been researching the changing landscape towards openness in scholarly publishing by studying combinations of bibliometrics, web metrics, business models, science policy, and author behaviour. He is also active in open science advocacy as part of national and international working groups.