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The publishing industry is fraught with conflicting opinions on open access (OA). Is it socialism or a lofty free exchange of ideas? It’s both. And neither. Academic publishers are familiar with funding challenges, so the idea of free access to research is inducing anxiety in editorial boardrooms. As The Scholarly Kitchen notes, “It has never been possible, in my experience, to purchase, license, or otherwise make available all of the content that the community needs.” The free exchange of information is a welcome idea, but publishing is a business. Can publishers satisfy demand for OA and maintain financial health?

Open access pros and cons

The pros of OA are easy. The Budapest Open Access Initiative, which first defined OA, refers to OA’s potential for “unprecedented public good.” Academic librarians report increasing interest in open access content since the start of the pandemic, “due in part to a lack of access to physical materials and a desire to keep textbook costs low.” OA has also been useful for distributing public health information faster and with fewer barriers. And in the digital age, OA frees research material from the confines of peer-reviewed publication. Online and multimedia presentation options mean credible research and analysis can include text, video, static images, and raw or processed data.

Publishers are aware of OA’s advantages — and afraid of potential disadvantages. Cons can include:

  • Author reluctance
  • Direct competition with large publishers — and their budgets
  • Limited financial resources
  • Copyright vulnerability
  • Difficulty gathering accurate and relevant data

But securing alternate funding remains among the biggest challenges — and highest priorities — for publishers contemplating an OA model.

Open access funding models

There is no firm definition or consistent terminology in the OA realm, and operating models vary drastically. Broad alternative funding options for OA initiatives include:

  • Collective funding. A subscription approach is a logical transition model in which an institution pays to ensure OA for its members. Access may refer to reading, publishing, or both. This model supports research and publication requirements for university students and faculty.
  • Subscribe to open (S2O). S2O is a distinct subscription model in which OA is guaranteed to the subscriber — and maintained for public benefit — as long as they continue to subscribe.
  • Campus-based publishing. A university press or library can provide OA publishing channels for scholar-led, society, and student research initiatives. OA publishing for journals, monographs, and new-form digital research publications contribute to an expanding network of alternative outlets.
  • Publishing cooperatives. This model combines the forces of societies, libraries, researchers, and funders to provide scalable, cost-effective OA publishing.
  • Membership/partnership. These models are distinguished from S2O by offers of additional access or extra content as benefits of paid membership.

Whether you’re switching from an established pay-to-play model or starting an OA operation from scratch, you’ll need reliable workflows and stable infrastructure to manage your publishing model. It is possible to generate revenue with an OA model, but these general guidelines are only the beginning. Don’t be afraid of innovation. Brainstorm and implement your own OA solutions; just be sure to share the secrets of your success.

What’s next for open access?

New State of Journal Production and Access report findings show OA is likely here to stay — 86% of publishers have OA models in place with plans to do more in the future. Only 19% of publishers surveyed nationally report no plans to increase OA efforts. The data favors OA as a force with which the publishing industry must reckon sooner rather than later — and whether we like it or not.

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