Apr 23, 2022 - Economy

Annual Reviews announces new twist on the paywall model

Data: Annual Reviews; Chart: Jared Whalen/Axios

If you want to pay for a copy of the Annual Review of Political Science, that'll cost you $118 if you're an individual, or as much as $713 if you're a library at a top-tier university. Alternatively, as of May 2020, you can just download it for free, under an open-access Creative Commons license.

Why it matters: Annual Reviews announced this month that over the next 18 months, all of its 51 publications will go open-access — if their existing subscribers keep on subscribing, or at least if new subscriptions take the place of those which lapse. It's a fascinating new twist on the paywall model.

How it works: The publications remain open-access if and only if the subscription revenue remains broadly flat or rising. So the current subscribers — almost entirely academic libraries — know that as a group, they can’t cancel their existing subscriptions, even if one or two might be able to get away with it.

  • "The model is intended to prevent the possibility of people free-riding," Annual Reviews president (and former Nature publisher) Richard Gallagher tells Axios.
  • Most libraries aren't allowed to make donations to nonprofits like Annual Reviews. So the Subscribe to Open system is designed to ensure the subscriptions remain genuine subscriptions — ones that give access to everyone, rather than just library members.

By the numbers: So far, eight of the publications have gone open-access, and have seen massive spikes in readership as a result. Subscription revenues have held up fine.

  • The catch: Most libraries subscribe to bundles of publications, so they don't have the option to unsubscribe to the open-access ones. The real test will come when the entire bundle is open-access.

What's next: If the Annual Reviews experiment works, then other academic publishers might follow suit. "Theoretically, the entire academic publishing literature could be available to everyone at no extra cost," says Gallagher.

  • Annual Reviews has seen downloads of its open-access journals from industry, hospitals, police departments, even prisons. And from every country in the world bar North Korea. "Part of the mission of academic institutions is to spread knowledge beyond their walls," says Gallagher. "This is a way of doing that without spending any extra money."

The bottom line: There's always a temptation to free-ride. But by the same token, if non-subscribing institutions see a lot of their employees downloading many journal papers from the site, that's a great sales pitch for them to subscribe and pay it forward. Annual Reviews can now look for more philanthropic funding, too, from the likes of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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