Few things have disrupted the world of journal publishing like the digital age. One of the biggest areas for change has been in content delivery models, namely subscriptions versus open access (OA). Partly because of the perceived low cost of digital delivery, growing amount of academic research, and rising outcry that publicly funded research should be freely available to the public, many in the industry predicted subscriptions would give way to the OA model. But despite the growth of OA, subscription models are thriving.
The subscription model lives
Although the subscription model for scholarly publishing has changed over the years to one primarily concentrated in institutional site licenses and bundled subscription deals, it continues to thrive despite the increasing availability of freely accessible OA content. Several reasons are behind continued subscription or toll-access model success.
- Subscriptions and memberships mean recurring revenue. Such recurring revenue allows publishers to be aggressive in customer acquisition efforts. Once they build subscriber bases, they have reliable revenue streams. Because of this security, investors are trusting their money to publishers with dependable recurring revenue models.
- Many perceive subscription-based journals as being higher quality and having more value than free content. Some OA content — green or self-archived — may not have gone through rigorous peer review.
- Researchers often prefer to submit their articles to subscription-based journals. Because of their prestige, the competition for coveted faculty positions and grant funding makes publishing in a higher-impact subscription publication more desirable.
- OA content complements rather than replaces subscription content. The availability of similar free content does not reduce the value of subscription content. In addition, libraries will likely continue to subscribe: Although their funding is shrinking, libraries are transferring their book funding to purchasing journal subscriptions.
Subscription model benefits and challenges
OA models do little to hinder subscription models, so subscription model stability is enticing for publishers. Because this model focuses on pleasing readers, it inspires innovation: Publishers are always striving to make their content and services better. However, in an industry in which impact is related to accessibility, subscription models may be at a disadvantage. Access to content is limited to those who can afford subscriptions or have access to university-licensed content. Such barriers to access can mean research is not distributed as widely as researchers intend. OA content, on the other hand, is available to anyone with access to the internet. In addition, researchers cite OA articles more often than subscription content, leading to wider distribution.
Publishers using the subscription model must choose between setting subscription costs that barely cover their publishing costs or high subscription prices that produce greater profitability but risk customers cancelling subscriptions. Alternatively, OA publishers often cover their publishing costs through a pay-to-publish model, which can be prohibitive to some authors.
Another differentiating factor between subscription and OA models is author rights. Some subscription journal publishers retain all rights and prohibit researchers from publishing articles they author on their own websites or archiving them in repositories. Other publishers are open to granting authors some publication rights, but this is more common in OA publishing.
Subscription or OA — which is better?
No right or wrong answer exists as each publisher and publication is different. Opting for one model for a specific publication does not exclude a publisher from pursuing a different model for another. Both models have benefits and challenges, and scholarly publishing has room for both.
Is higher profitability more important than wider dissemination? Do you want exclusive publishing rights? Will you allow open access after an embargo period? Does your journal content rely heavily on dissemination speed?
With either model, managing the integrity and reputation of your publication is paramount. With the proliferation of predatory journals that lure authors with deceptive tactics and lack quality controls, it’s important to differentiate yourself. Make sure you have a rigorous peer review process in place, whichever model you choose.
To ensure you make the right choice for your publication, seek the help of experts in journal publishing. They can help you not only analyze your options but also help you implement the model right for you.