Annual Reviews’ 2020 Subscribe to Open Pilot Program

Richard Gallagher

Annual Reviews included five journals in the 2020 pilot program for Subscribe to Open. The decision on whether to publish the 2020 volumes open access was made just ahead of publication date, when maximum information on subscriptions was available. Our titles have publication dates spread across the year, although much of the content is made available as “Reviews in Advance” before these dates. Reviews in Advance were kept behind the paywall.

All five titles met the criterion for open access publication, which was that subscription levels would be maintained. There was a small reduction in subscribers for one title, raising the possibility of excluding it from the program. However, this title had experienced similar small drops in subscriptions in other recent years. We decided to include it, and request information from institutions that did not renew. Across the five titles we recorded a small increase in the number of subscribers.

The graphs below show usage of the five titles in 2019 and 2020, presented in order of publication dates. Note that the paywall was removed from all Annual Reviews content between mid-March and the end of June (as described in my previous post:

Volume 4 of the Annual Review of Cancer Biology was published was published open access via S2O on March 9, 2020. This is the youngest of the quintet of titles in the pilot project (one of the reasons that it was included). Usage in December 2020 was four times greater than in 2019.

Volume 23 of the Annual Review of Political Science was published on May 4, 2020; as explained above, the content had already been opened in mid-March, and it remained open thereafter. In December 2020, articles from this journal were downloaded 151,047 times, an increase by a factor of 5.6 over December 2019.

Two journals were opened on October 20, 2020: Volume 45 of the Annual Review of Environment and Resources and Volume 70 of the Annual Review of Nuclear and Particle Science.

Usage of the Annual Review of Environment and Resources in December 2020 was 79,767 downloads, exceeding that of December 2019 by a factor of 4.7.

The Annual Review of Nuclear and Particle Science enjoyed the greatest relative increase in usage of the five journals. In December 2020, there were 31,585 downloads, more than 12 times higher than in December 2019. A large portion of this increase was accounted for by usage in one country, and the range of articles downloaded in large numbers were suggestive of inclusion in an academic course. When that country was excluded from the data, the increase and pattern of usage was consistent with those of the other titles in the pilot program.

The remaining journal is the Annual Review of Public Health. We have used this journal to trial unrestricted access since April 2017, so it did not have a conversion event in 2020. Downloads paralleled 2019 usage, suggesting that the journal has settled into a “new normal.” For comparison below, 2016 usage — the last full year that the journal was paywalled — is shown.

What we learned from the pilot program:

  • A diversity of titles, representing social science, physical science, biology, and biomedicine, and ranging from recently launched (4 years) to highly established (70 years) performed similarly, both in respect to subscriptions and in the rate of increase in usage.
  • Subscriber patterns closely followed the recent trend for each journal, that is, those that have been gaining subscribers had an uptick, those that had a stable base retained that base, and the one that has lost a few subscribers in recent years had a small downtick. Thus, in this first trial, the move to S2O did not alter subscriber behavior.
  • While this stability is welcome, it does not allow conclusions to be drawn about the likely long-term attitude and support for S2O among subscribers.
  • The usage increases were consistent and strong, offering a textbook illustration of the impact of removing paywalls from scholarly publishing.
  • The above was achieved using existing processes, relationships, and budgets.
  • Overall, these findings are encouraging and warrant further exploration of S2O models, by us and other.

The next post will explore usage patterns of open content. 

Richard Gallagher ( is the President of Annual Reviews

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