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

Pandemic Usage Validates S2O Effort

Richard Gallagher

As part of our response to the Covid-19 pandemic, Annual Reviews made all journals available without access control between mid-March and the end of June 2020. This was done to facilitate access by researchers, faculty and students at subscribing institutions. We did no promotion of the removal of the paywall.

For 50 of the 51 titles, usage at least doubled during the freely accessible period, and in many cases tripled, quadrupled or more. These increases were seen across the social, physical, biological and biomedical sciences. Below is an example from each category.

Usage of the Annual Review of Anthropology by month, 2019 and 2020

Usage of the Annual Review of Fluid Mechanics by month, 2019 and 2020

Usage of the Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution and Systematics by month, 2019 and 2020

Usage of the Annual Review of Microbiology by month, 2019 and 2020

These immediate, dramatic increases in usage underline the value of moving all Annual Reviews journals to open access, a goal that we are trying to achieve as quickly as possible.

The journal that didn’t show an increase in March through June 2020 was the Annual Review of Public Health, which has been open since 2017. Usage of this journal throughout 2020 mirrored that of 2019. To illustrate the long-term impact of an Annual Reviews journal being open, the graph below compares usage by month and cumulatively for 2016, the last year that the Annual Review of Public Health was toll access, with 2020.

Usage of the Annual Review of Public Health by month and cumulatively in 2016 and 2020

Although the blue bars look very low, they represent 15,000 – 27,000 downloads per month. The cumulative total for 2020 through November (gold bars) is more than 1.7 million uses.

One last item of interest: there was a disproportionate rise in usage in low-income countries when the content was freely available March-June. This occurred despite the fact that Annual Reviews makes its content available in these countries via Research4Life ( Below are the usage data for an exemplar, Bangladesh.

Annual Reviews usage in Bangladesh, 2019 and 2020

Note the rise of relative increase in usage in the second half of 2020, a consequence of five Annual Reviews journals being published open access using Subscribe to Open.

I will add a blog post about 2020 usage of our five Subscribe to Open titles in January.

Richard Gallagher ( is the President of Annual Reviews

S2O CoP Inaugural Blog Post

Publishers and academic libraries share an interest in promoting open access (OA)—free access without use restrictions—to peer reviewed scholarly and scientific journals. Although article processing charges (APCs) have become the prevalent model for funding OA articles, many authors and publishers find APCs unacceptable or unworkable. In many disciplines, especially in the humanities and social sciences, the funding available for APCs is quite limited. Article fees are also ill-suited to funding some types of research content, including commissioned review articles and other editorial content, such as book reviews and other content.

Subscribe to Open (S2O) represents an innovative approach to flipping existing subscription journals to open access without the use of APCs. Pioneered by the nonprofit publisher Annual Reviews, the model is now being implemented by a growing number of nonprofit and commercial scholarly publishers worldwide.

We have launched this community of practice to support publishers in implementing S2O, to promote experimentation with variations on the model, and to explain the model to academic libraries, research funders, and others interested in innovative open access approaches. We will use this space to discuss strategies for increasing S2O participation over time, for launching new open access journals, and for adapting S2O to  manage participation over time.

We encourage all members of the community—including both publishers and librarians—to contribute to this blog to share experiences, pose questions, and offer their insights about S2O.