November 20, 2017


This feature article is part of our Open Access in Action series, sponsored by Dove Press, which tracks the evolution of important open access (OA) issues through a library lens by presenting regular original articles, video interviews, news, and perspectives. To learn more about how librarians like you are driving practice across the lifestyle of open access, be sure to visit Open Access in Action.


Flipping Journals to Open Access

OA_JournalFlipping_2_600pxMandates from governments, funding sources, and institutions, have made the switch to open access all but inevitable. This puts increasing pressure on traditional journals to change, a process commonly known as “flipping,” but a new study reveals the many ways to convert from subscriptions to OA.

Publishers are understandably cautious. Paid subscription models were established before the advent of the Internet and OA, to support the many services required to produce a peer-reviewed article. Every traditional publisher must navigate the transition with care—and on the basis of its own, unique circumstances.

One Size Does Not Fit All

The theory behind journal flipping is described in a recent study by the Max Planck Society. Kathleen Shearer, currently the Executive Director of the Confederation of Open Access Repositories (COAR) says, “There are some strong proponents of flipping, which are mainly countries with well-funded library subscription budgets and strong national licensing agencies.” “For them,” she says further, “it seems feasible to redirect funds designated for subscriptions, and negotiate with publishers to use those same funds, in an open access model as Article Processing Fees or APCs.”

However, Shearer made it clear that the APC-focused model is problematic in many other countries, especially those without national licensing agencies or other types of collective bargaining power. It is also not as straightforward in every scientific discipline, for regions where publishers and institutions are small or under-funded, and in situations where paid subscribers greatly outnumber article contributors.

“Journal flipping with the APC model could have other, unintended consequences,” Shearer said. “One of these is the barrier to publish for researchers from countries or institutions that have fewer resources and smaller budgets.”

A More Nuanced Approach

Some traditional publishers have adopted a hybrid approach, offering authors of articles in subscription-based journals the option of publishing their individual article OA by paying an APC. Many journals also make all subscription-based articles OA after a set embargo period, retaining an incentive for maintaining subscriptions. However, there is still considerable resistance to wholesale transition.

One source of this resistance may be due to a limited understanding of what flipping entails. So, in 2015, Peter Suber, Director of the Office of Scholarly Communication at Harvard, initiated a comprehensive literature review of cases involving journals transitioning to the open access model. A draft of the study, Converting Scholarly Journals to Open Access: A Review of Approaches and Experiences, has been online for public comment since March, and the final version will be published this summer.

“Many publishers labor under a misunderstanding,” Suber said. “They think there’s only one way to transition to OA, namely to start imposing article processing charges.” The study identified at least 15 conversion scenarios, including many not involving APCs.


The study also covers several goals for journal flipping, including increased readership, submissions, quality, and revenue. It also documented multiple conversion scenarios and issues encountered. “I wanted to give publishers a larger menu of different ways to do this,” Suber said. “I wanted them to see how other journals like themselves had done it. No matter their size, or whether they’re in the global north or global south, or in science or the humanities, there are journals like them that have converted from subscriptions to OA. The goal is to inform publishers so they can make smarter decisions, and so they don’t abandon the idea because they only investigated models that won’t work for them.”

Suber described the many different motivations behind different journals’ decision to flip. “Some do it as a survival strategy, because they are excluded from big deals. Some do it to serve their mission as nonprofits supporting research in their field. Some do it to increase submissions, which allows them to be more selective and increase their quality. Some even do it to increase their revenue.”

Not all the examples in the study were successful, but the large number of successes will guide similar journals in their efforts to achieve their distinct goals. The less successful or unsuccessful examples also yield lessons about what doesn’t work, or at least what doesn’t work in certain scholarly niches.

One of the report authors was Mikael Laakso, Assistant Professor at the Hanken School of Economics in Finland. Laakso described the project as taking a “bottom-up approach” of collecting and reviewing additional material from around the world.

“We had no pre-existing ‘skeleton’ of how the different scenarios and circumstances related to each other,” Laakso said. “We just started mapping them out. Some scenarios work on a publisher level, where the publisher may have several journals and transitions them one at a time. It depends on how you look at it. A single journal is not always the smallest ‘molecule’ when it comes to decision making.”

Laakso noted some of the more common patterns, notably differences based on geography, the level of scholars’ direct involvement in the publishing process, and of course varying business models and the level of government support.

Suber believes this study will help more publishers decide to flip, eventually, but does not expect that to be universal. “There will be a day when most journals are open access. But I don’t see a day when all journals are OA,” he said. “Must-have subscription journals could hold out forever, at least during good behavior,” alluding to recent price-gouging incidents.

“It’s far from true today that all research worth reading is OA. But this is becoming true as the world shifts to OA,” Suber said. “I don’t see a massive, simultaneous conversion of all the world’s subscription journals to OA, let alone conversion by any single method or pathway. I see large-scale conversion as a continual, piecemeal process, motivated by journal self-interest. At the same time the process will be informed by reports like this one, which map the conversion pathways through what many publishers might see as a wilderness.

“Librarians can help by reminding journals of the larger picture,” he continued.  “Librarians are forced to cancel journals every year for budgetary reasons alone and can be candid and constructive about the consequences. For all stakeholders, converting to OA is better than cancellation, and converting to OA can be financially viable.”

Open Access In Action



  1. Mark C. Wilson says:

    Should note that comments for the report are closed – I wasted a bit of time until I worked that out.