The EDP Sciences-SMAI Subscribe-to-Open programme: how is it going so far?

By Anne Ruimy (Senior Publisher, EDP Sciences) and Amandine Veber (Director of publications, SMAI)

EDP Sciences is a reputed publishing house in Science and Technology, based in France. The Society of Applied and Industrial Mathematics (SMAI) is a French learned society. We have been partners for the publication of 6 journals of applied mathematics for nearly 20 years now. One of these journals has been in open access from the beginning, while the 5 others were historically subscription journals. They have now transitioned to the Subscribe-to-Open (S2O) publication model.

How is our mathematics S2O programme going so far? As we have just launched the yearly subscription renewal campaign under a Subscribe-to-Open model for the 3rd year in a row, we are again sitting on hot coals. It doesn’t get easier waiting for subscriptions to trickle in, or surge in as agencies forward batch orders from their customers at agonizing intervals, while we field assorted questions on why one should pay for something that is already free.  

Year 1 was a breeze. Our first steps in S2O land took place during the pre-COVID days of late 2019. We trialled the new open access transformation model pioneered by Annual Reviews with one maths journal from our portfolio: Mathematical Modelling of Natural Phenomena. MMNP is a relatively small journal, receiving on the order of 200 submissions per year, and publishing around 50 papers on a wide variety of subjects, from models for cancer to analyses of fluid dynamics. The journal has a small subscriber base to match its small size. In fact it costs more to publish than it receives in subscription revenue, even before its open access transition. Along with other journals in the maths portfolio, it is partly cross-subsidized by the flagship journal in the portfolio,  ESAIM: Mathematical Modelling and Numerical Analysis (ESAIM: M2AN). So we figured that the risks of S2O for MMNP were low. At this time, Annual Reviews were transitioning the first five journals to open access under the S2O model, and the model was in its infancy. We braced for a flood of questions from subscribers. We got none. 100% subscribers renewed their subscription, and we flipped the journal. From March 2020, MMNP started publishing newly accepted papers in open access.

Emboldened by this success, at EDP Sciences and SMAI we started imagining that all maths journals in the portfolio could similarly transition to open access under this model. The French mathematics community is very much in favour of open access, but not if it means that authors need to pay to publish. The alternatives for maths publications are either moving to a low-cost open access platform, or finding a way to subsidize the publication of the journals in open access. Subscribe-to-Open is a third way to open access without Article Processing Charges, as it is based on using existing funds and workflows. In the prescient words of Ralf Schimmer et al. in 2015: “there is currently already enough money in the system.”

At the beginning of 2020, we applied for funding from the French “Fonds National pour la Science Ouverte” (FNSO, National Fund for Open Science) to operate the larger scale transition of the entire maths portfolio. Not to make up for a possible shortfall in subscriptions, but to allow us to communicate more effectively about the S2O model in general and about our lovely maths journals that deserve much better recognition. Also, we had a technical problem. Because subscription prices didn’t keep up with journal growth historically, we were limiting the number of articles we published every year. This led to a growing backlog of accepted articles waiting to be published. If S2O was successful, and we continued on this trajectory, there would have been a significant lag before we could publish our first open access articles. Our successful application to the FNSO allowed us to clear the backlog and publish 6 to 12 months’ worth of articles in supplements in free access in February 2021, in the 3 most backlogged journals – RAIRO- Operations Research, ESAIM: Control, Optimisation and Calculus of Variations, and ESAIM:M2AN. In parallel, we made our best to exchange with the community (and in particular the French community) of mathematics librarians and mathematicians to see how S2O was perceived, and how we may improve our implementation of S2O. We were now ready to transition the whole portfolio to open access.

By this time, the COVID pandemic was in full swing. While renewing MMNP subscriptions in late 2019-early 2020 had been a breeze, the 2021 subscription campaign including 5 journals in mathematics and 1 in theoretical computer science under the S2O model hit the COVID storm head on in late 2020-early 2021. It was arguably the worst time to convince libraries suffering from budget cuts that they should continue to subscribe, knowing that perhaps enough other institutions would subscribe so that the content would be open anyway – in S2O-speak: the free riders phenomenon. Our self-imposed target of 95% renewed subscriptions by mid-February came, and went. And it came, and went again, as we moved the red line by successive two-week windows, and were still short of the hoped-for 95% renewals. We reasoned that this was due to administrative delays more than pandemic-related hard budget cuts.  Indeed, subscriptions continued to slowly trickle in, much later than in previous years. However, there came a time when we could not delay making a decision any longer. 

We faced a conundrum. Our heads said that flipping to open access while our targets were not met would create a moral hazard : if subscribers realize that we open the content regardless of the outcome, there is even less incentive to subscribe. Our hearts said that flipping to open access was a much better story than not doing it, and we didn’t want to let our supporters down. We took a gamble. In mid-May, we announced that our 6 journals would be published in open access in 2021. We hoped to make the shortfall with tail-end subscriptions arriving during the remainder of the year. The gamble didn’t completely work out. As we’re nearing the end of 2021, we are still short of our renewal targets for the current year. On the other hand, SMAI’s appeal to French institutions for exceptional funding was met with very generous individual and institutional contributions, acknowledged here.

How will the S2O story unfold for our maths journals? We can’t rely forever on unspent lab funding and the goodwill of individual donors – Subscribe-to-Open is and should be a model based on libraries renewing their subscriptions year after year, or preferably committing to support the publication of journals in open access in the longer term. Are there institutions that are willing to pay to open academic content for all, and not just to avoid the threat that their own access will be cut off? Knowledge Unlatched (KU) are among those who specialize in the impossible: bringing together publishers of scholarly resources, and institutions willing to “unlatch” them for the common good. There are early encouraging results from our partnership, as a few institutions who previously subscribed to only a few of our maths titles decided to take the full package through KU, or new institutions who are strong advocates of S2O and other virtuous open access models decided to subscribe.

Another key to institutional buy-in is financial transparency. This was clearly shown by a recent survey commissioned by Annual Reviews and the S2O Community of Practice to “gauge the level of interest, understanding and support for Subscribe to Open (S2O) among librarians at different types of institutions and in different parts of the world.” Respondents who were familiar with the S2O model ranked different features which they felt would encourage their institution to participate in S2O offers from publishers. “Transparent pricing” came on top at 92.60%, much higher even than “Additional benefits to S2O subscribers”. Based on this knowledge, we published our first Transparency report for the S2O programme. This document is the result of yet another conundrum – how much financial information can we share without disclosing business-critical information? To guide us, we followed the open access mantra:  be “as open as possible and as closed as necessary”. Interested libraries are welcome to contact us for other unpublished information.

So how are we doing so far? The 2022 subscription renewal campaign is still as anxiety-inducing, but we are not alone! We relish the increased closeness that the S2O adventure has brought between EDP Sciences and SMAI. It has become even more a true partnership to publish and disseminate great maths content. The S2O model has put a media spotlight on our small structures. We have gathered around us an Advisory Committee constituted of the major players of scientific publishing in mathematics, and of open access publishing in France, to oversee the mathematics S2O programme. We are part of a strong international S2O community of practice on whom we rely for regular advice and support, and with whom we share our experiences of implementing different flavours of S2O.

And finally at EDP Sciences, we have embarked on a new adventure: introducing the S2O model to  the astronomy community, another community not only adverse to the “gold open access” model but also with a strong “green open access” tradition, with nearly 100% of preprints available on arXiv. Let the dice roll!

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