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The Berghahn Open Anthro Journey: Embarking on a discipline-driven equitable open access initiative, Part I

by Vivian Berghahn, Managing Director and Journals Editorial Director

In 2021 Berghahn Open Anthro entered its second year as a ground-breaking three-year pilot. In this two-part blog post we will share how its journey has brought together various stakeholders to realize the goal of attaining an equitable path to open access using the subscribe-to-open (S2O) model. 

Our intention is to outline how stakeholders have supported the pilot: as a researcher by urging their library to maintain subscriptions for the journals they value as a reader and author; as a librarian by advocating that budgets remain allocated to those journal(s) in order to support their faculty needs; as a funder by endorsing the model and channeling block grant funds to supplement strained library resources; and as a publisher considering their next steps for open access, by implementing the model for those journals that fit.  

These actions all contribute to furthering a model that offers a path to open access that can be sustainable, especially for journals in the social sciences and humanities, with this kind of ongoing support.  

In Part I of this post, we first set out the broader open access publishing environment a publisher like Berghahn finds itself in and how and why the APC-free solution of S2O resonated. We will then share the range and forms of librarian participation and researcher support this model draws from. Finally, in Part II, we will share the disciplinary foundations of our particular pilot and conclude with an update on where we are now and where we should all be headed. 

Part I 

Multiple models ensure a diverse publishing ecosystem 

In the wake of open access (OA) mandates, such as those executed by cOAlition S under PlanS, the acceleration of open access publishing has been fueled by APC-centric models and “transformative” deals. As a result, in recent years the publishing landscape has been dominated by announcements of deals between the largest publishers in the scholarly publishing space and those well-funded and organized library systems that are leading the charge on OA transitions. The current predominance of the Read and Publish Big Deals that reward scale and clout are bad news for many other publishers, including self-published societies, who are unable to compete at that level or at the pace required of Plan S. It is especially problematic for disciplines for whom APC-derived OA funding mandates will hinder rather than help the dissemination of scholarship in their fields. 

Not only are PlanS targets currently falling short of the ambitious timelines that were set, but some unintended, yet not wholly unforeseen, consequences have now become increasingly evident: further consolidation in the publishing industry and increasing regional inequities in knowledge production. These trends can certainly be connected back to the underlying facets in scholarly publishing that early open access campaigns set out to remedy, albeit still from within the market dynamics of the commercial publishing industry, and so for some not radical enough. To avoid these pitfalls, the availability of multiple OA models across native OA and traditional publishers alike, is paramount to maintaining a diverse, dynamic, and enterprising publishing ecosystem.  

For publishers like Berghahn, recent developments to tackle some of these pervasive trends are promising – and directly relevant for the S2O model: 1) A report commissioned by cOAlitionS and the Association of Learned & Professional Society Publishers (ALPSP) that led to commitments from key stakeholders to work with smaller publishers to help broker open access deals; and 2) the endorsement of Subscribe to Open as an effective model for transitioning journals to open access. 

The Subscribe-to-open model 

In January 2020 Berghahn announced a significant step for our publishing program by committing to publish thirteen core anthropology journals as open access starting with their 2020 volumes. We could do so – using the subscribe-to-open model – thanks to strong renewals and the endorsements we received throughout our 2019 outreach campaign and once the pilot had launched. Since then, library facilitators, such as Knowledge UnlatchedLyrasis, and JISC alongside subscription agents like EBSCO, have provided key support for the model in order to further streamline library participation across publishers.   

The model’s origins lie with the publisher Annual Reviews, who have generously shared their experiences in their own implementation of S2O. As the appeal of the model grows, there is now a Community of Practice for Subscribe to Open that brings together those stakeholders engaged in S2O in order to discuss the latest developments as the participating publishers roll out their respective offerings. The group reflects a diverse range of members and includes not only publishers using the model, but subscription agents, librarians, and funders – all vital proponents for maintaining a collaborative ecosystem within which our journals thrive. 

We found that the model resonated with the range of libraries that publishers of our smaller size and specialized fields encounter, because any library of any size, budget, and region can contribute to facilitating the OA ambitions of a journal. The mechanisms for doing so are “simply” by “subscribing” to the journal(s) their faculty advocates for, or where demand and resources allow, to the larger collection. Under this approach – where even a single subscription counts towards enabling open access for the whole journal – every library has a role to play in realizing the success of a journal – just as they did under traditional subscriptions. Furthermore, the workflow remains within the acquisition processes that are already well established through the intermediaries who facilitate orders and renewals and so avoids the often-costly administrative investments needed by both libraries and publishers to establish and process article-level open access transactions.  

As such, this is a model that transforms entire journals to open access, not merely one single select article at a time. This is especially important when one keeps in mind the diversity of content found in social science and humanities journals – vibrant parts of a journal issue, such as forum sections or its books review segments are otherwise not APC-funding eligible and yet contribute to rounding out the journal’s remit through the diverse ways in which researchers exchange scholarly information. In some cases, for the price of one APC, the entire Berghahn Open Anthro collection could be funded by a library for multiple years. 

The S2O funding environment 

Our ability to move ahead with the pilot was thanks to support from a range of libraries, especially those already active in the open access space across a range of models and publishers. In S2O, they found another model that, when paired with the right publisher, works too. These libraries have not only been theoretically supportive of more diverse approaches to OA, but in practice have allocated resources to support our pilot at the collections level, many upfront for the full three-year duration. That gave us a vital foundation, which was further bolstered by strong library renewals – and even new orders – across single holdings and multiple titles. 

A very immediate test for our pilot’s success came to the fore, soon after we launched, in the form of COVID-related budget cuts that added a further blow to the already strained budgets in library spending. The risks of budget cuts leading to attrition are risks we face every day in the subscription world, especially those tied to cross-publisher blanket cancellations – and this model certainly does not avoid them.  

Yet, at the same time that libraries faced these unprecedented cuts, the unique value proposition of supporting open access content became apparent and the value of immediate access to open science was amplified. There were also logistical benefits for ensuring continued access for libraries that had to close their physical doors and struggled to support off-campus faculty and students with remote access to their paywalled holdings. The experience of COVID underscored the strength of a model that offers open access solutions at budget-conscious price points. The message we consistently heard was that if we continue to publish our journals – as specialized as they are – at the same quality and of the same relevance and to the same demand of their research community then libraries were prepared to continue to allocate the resources necessary for as long as they have them.  

Read Part II Here