Hybrid journals can advance the move towards full open access

Hybrid journals can extend open-access publishing to authors in journals with a strong reputation and that still have a stable subscription model, says Steven Inchcoombe

August 1, 2018
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At this year’s EuroScience Open Forum conference in Toulouse, Carlos Moedas, the European Union commissioner for research, science and innovation, called for a new social contract between citizens, governments and science. After the announcement on Horizon Europe, Mr Moedas said that if “you receive public money, you must publish with open access. We cannot continue to allow people to publish where the only way to access the information is to buy it. One of the main rights of the taxpayer is access to the information.”

Robert-Jan Smits, the European Commission’s open access special adviser, has gone further, both at ESOF and in other forums, and identified hybrid journals as a reason for the slow transition to full open-access publishing. 

While we are still short on detail, it is clear that a warning shot across the bow of hybrid journals has been fired. However, to what extent are hybrid journals the bogeyman of open access that they are being portrayed as? And if they are not responsible for the slow progress to full open access, what is?

I should declare my hand: I think that hybrid journals are being unfairly targeted and believe that they play an important role in helping us, publishers, funders and authors alike, transition to open access for the following three main reasons:

Author choice: hybrid journals enable authors whose funders require them to publish open access to still publish in the journal of their choice. We know that authors are motivated by their desire to be published in a relevant peer-reviewed journal with a strong reputation in their community. Open access is rarely their first concern. Our regular author surveys have shown that researchers’ top four criteria when choosing where to submit their draft manuscript are a journal’s reputation, its relevance, the quality of its peer review and its impact factor.

Funding: a recent report from Research Consulting found that gold open-access uptake by authors is largely driven by, and reliant on, the availability of funding for article processing charges. With an incredibly mixed picture internationally for open-access funding, hybrid journals – with their stable income via the subscription model – mean that we have been able to support the take up and growth of open access in this complex market in a sustainable way. 

Impact of transition: without this mixed model approach, the cost of facilitating open-access options would be significantly greater as in order to support the global research community, we would need to create new open-access journals to mirror our 1,900 subscription hybrid journals; we could not simply adapt all these existing journals. The additional cost/time/risk/disruption for the whole research ecosystem, as well as to publishers, would be huge compared with the opportunity to make progress in a more sustainable way.

I appreciate that this view needs to be backed up by evidence. Springer Nature has commissioned two reports to look into the impact of hybrid journals on open access; to inject some numbers into the debate.

We accounted last autumn that 77 per cent of Springer Nature UK corresponding authors were publishing their research with us via gold open access. A case study of the UK demonstrates that without the ability to offer authors the opportunity of publishing open access not just in our pure open-access journals but across almost the whole Springer portfolio, this number would have been closer to our global average of 30 per cent. 

Breaking down that 77 per cent further, 53 per cent of gold open-access articles with UK corresponding authors were published in our fully open-access journals, while 47 per cent were published via the gold open-access route in our hybrid journals as of 2017, again demonstrating the critical role that hybrid journals are playing in the open-access transition.   

The second report, based on a global analysis by Digital Science of more than 70,000 articles, highlights that open-access articles in hybrid journals receive high levels of citations, downloads and broader impact. 

In fact, they are actually more widely used than subscription articles in such journals. Open-access articles in hybrid journals were downloaded on average 1.6 times more by users at academic institutions and four times more by users overall, compared with non-open access articles.

In addition, open-access articles attracted an average of 1.6 times more citations and 1.9 times more news mentions than non-open access articles. The fact that they were published open access might not be the only reason for these numbers. For example, the report did not evaluate the areas of research covered, but it is likely to be a significant factor. Again, this demonstrates that hybrid journals provide choice to authors while not compromising the reach and impact that their work will have. 

This leads me on to the final question: if hybrid journals are not responsible for the slow progress to full open access, what is? To this, I have a clear answer – the lack of a joined-up, global approach by research funding bodies. Translating this mixed approach to a sustainable solution for the benefit of all is incredibly difficult when there is such a disparity of approach.  

Should, for example, the EU mandate that authors receiving funds from EU funding bodies publish only in pure open-access journals (removing their ability to publish in hybrid journals), one of two outcomes are likely: European-funded authors will have a reduced choice of journals in which to publish or, as we have a responsibility to the wider, global research community, the level of APCs will need to increase to cover the publishing costs for those researchers without APC funding. Neither of these outcomes is desirable.

Steven Inchcoombe is the chief publishing officer at Springer Nature.

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