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Guest Post: Time to Check Out of the Hybrid Hotel?

Editor’s Note: Today’s post is by Rob Johnson, Founder and Director of Research Consulting

Heralded by many as a transition mechanism to full open access (OA), hybrid OA has shown impressive growth in recent years, but questions are now being asked of its sustainability. Rob Johnson considers the future prospects for hybrid publishing and argues that publishers need to get serious about offsetting arrangements, if recent progress is to continue.

hotel sign

The growth of hybrid open access

At first glance, hybrid OA publishing is a great success story. Hybrid journals are closed-access subscription journals that allow authors, institutions, or funders to pay a fee (usually in the form of article processing charges or APCs) in order to make individual articles immediately OA. The relative citation impact of hybrid OA articles and reviews published 2009-2015 was 30% above the world average.

Both the fastest-growing and the most popular journal publishing model globally, hybrid OA has underpinned rapid increases in levels of OA in countries, like the United Kingdom, which have embraced it. Between 2009 and 2016, the number of journals offering the hybrid option increased from around 2,000 to almost 10,000 and the number of hybrid articles grew from 8,000 to 45,000. It provides a relatively low-risk way for subscription journals to make some of their content OA and enables authors to comply with funder mandates, gaining increased exposure without compromising on their choice of journal. 45% of all journals in the Scopus database are hybrid, while for 40 major publishers, the proportion is as high as 73%. Indeed, a recent study we undertook for the Publishers’ Research Consortium found that many European authors now take it for granted that subscription journals will offer an OA option.

Growth of Hybrid OA
The growth in hybrid OA articles. Source: Björk B. (2017) Growth of hybrid open access, 2009–2016. PeerJ 5:e3878 https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.3878 (CC-BY)

An unfinished journey

The problem with hybrid is that what was once seen as a brief stopping point on the journey to full OA is starting to feel like a permanent destination. Originally envisaged as a transition mechanism, low levels of uptake by authors call into question the idea that hybrid journals will eventually make the move to a fully OA business model. A recent Universities UK study found that less than 10% of articles in hybrid journals are actually made OA, suggesting that the point at which most journals could ‘flip’ to an APC-based business model remains a long way off. In fact, rather than encouraging flipping from subscriptions to APC-based business models, it would seem that hybrid has instead established itself as a successful mixed business model in its own right. Subscription-based publishing is starting to feel a lot like the “Hotel California” – you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.

This creates a conundrum for funders, who are picking up the costs of a seemingly never-ending transition to OA, and there are signs that some are losing patience. Robert Kiley, Head of Open Research at Wellcome, has observed that rising OA costs are a ‘concern’, while Robert Jan-Smits, the European Union’s Special Envoy for Open Access, notes that ‘we have put ourselves into kind of a very dangerous cobweb’. As Jan-Smits has observed, publishers, researchers and libraries all have a vested interest in preserving the status quo. Yet the appetite for change in the corridors of power should not be underestimated.

Upscaling offsetting

Funders and library consortia are already starting to demand greater transparency from publishers on the ’total cost of publication’, taking into account both subscriptions and APCs. There are also longstanding concerns that hybrid articles aren’t consistently deposited and licensed in accordance with funder requirements. In response, some publishers are experimenting with a range of offsetting agreements. These deals are designed to reduce the overall cost borne by research organizations, by offsetting journal subscription and OA publication costs. Offset agreements can take different forms (such as out-and-out discounts, credits, repayments, read-and-publish bundles and so forth), with varying impacts on research organizations, depending on whether they are net producers or net consumers of research. To date, European consortia have been the driving force behind these deals, but this month’s announcement of a ‘read and publish’ agreement between MIT and the Royal Society of Chemistry indicates growing interest from North American libraries.

Managed effectively, offsetting deals can simplify the workflow for authors and remove the need to operate complex APC payment processes. However, this relies on the presence of robust, standards-driven workflows to identify authors, match them to institutions and funders, and apply the appropriate discounts or waivers. All too often, offsetting instead takes the form of a retrospective reconciliation of subscription and APC costs at the financial year end, and laborious checks by institutions to ensure that authors have not paid APCs unnecessarily.

Seeking ‘radical transparency’

For hybrid publishing to become a sustainable OA strategy, there must be both transparency around the cost of publishing for the institution, and a seamless publishing experience for the author. Institutions are entitled to expect robust reporting to enable them to evaluate value-for-money in offsetting deals, and track compliance with funder mandates. Meanwhile, publishers themselves need to be able to understand and evaluate the impact of these deals on their revenues and ensure that hybrid offers a sustainable transition pathway. This pathway is less likely to take the form of a global ‘flip’ than a gradual shift to OA, the pace of which will vary by both geography and discipline.

For the time being, at least, reports of the death of subscriptions remain greatly exaggerated. For many journals in humanities and social sciences, and highly selective publications in other fields, ‘author pays’ has yet to prove itself a viable business model. The concentration of costs on a few highly-productive institutions and countries, and potentially insurmountable barriers to publication for authors based elsewhere, means a full-OA world is likely to fall some way short of a utopian ideal.

Yet those publishers who have made the ‘hybrid hotel’ a permanent home may soon find themselves forced back onto the road to open access. The argument that subscriptions and APCs represent separate revenue streams for two distinct groups of articles is getting increasingly short shrift from libraries and funders. Some who have hitherto supported hybrid, such as the University of Manchester Library, are already choosing only to fund APCs for those publishers considered to be ‘taking a sustainable and affordable approach to the transition to OA’.  Others are likely to follow suit, with major reviews of UK research funder’s OA policies currently underway, and recent proposals for the EU’s 2021-27 R&D programme (‘Horizon Europe’) suggesting that hybrid APCs will no longer be eligible for funding. Publishers would be well-advised not to get too comfortable with the current healthy state of hybrid OA, and to prepare for more testing times ahead.

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