Evolving business models in journal publishing

Page Banner
The business model of academic journal publishing is in transition. From traditional subscriptions to so-called transformative agreements, discover how libraries are shifting from paying for access to supporting publishing costs and what this means to you – the scholar.

This is an informational explainer on these changing business models. To find current license agreements that the Leddy Library has negotiated with Open Access publishing, please see here.

On this page:


Traditional subscription-based models
The traditional model of academic journal publishing relies on subscriptions for read access (either in print or digital). Under this model:
  • Libraries purchase subscriptions to journals on behalf of their users, granting access to authorized individuals within their institution. Notably, this excludes direct and immediate access to journals to people at institutions without subscriptions -- a problem especially of issue for those in the Global South. 
  • Publishers own the rights to the content (taking the copyright away from authors) and control its distribution.
  • Libraries faced, and continue to face, rising and unsustainable subscription costs as publishers bundle journals into costly packages, straining library budgets and limiting access to research.
However, in recent years, the academic community has recognized the need for change to address issues of affordability, equitable access, and restrictive publishing practices.
The rise of Open Access
In recent years, there has been growing pressure to accelerate the transition to Open Access publishing. Governments, funding agencies, and the academic community recognize the importance of openly accessible research funded by the public. Mandates for Open Access publication are increasingly being implemented worldwide.

For example, the Tri-Agency federal funding agencies have required that research publications be made openly available 12 months after publication since the mid-2010s. However, more recent requirements from funders in Europe and the US go further, demanding immediate Open Access at the time of publication.

In response to these requirements, libraries, and publishers are exploring innovative business models like transformative agreements and Subscribe to Open. These models aim to meet the Open Access mandates while ensuring sustainable and affordable access to scholarly knowledge. The outcome and shape of these efforts are yet to be fully determined.
The Article Processing Charge
With certain business models of scholarly publishing, some journal publishers have been charging authors a publication fee to make the article Open Access (OA). These publication fees are also known as article processing charges (APCs), and can be charged to publish in entirely-OA journals (Gold OA) or in journals that provide authors the option to make their article open (Hybrid OA). The majority of Gold OA journals do not publish these fees, but the fees are more common with commercial journal publishers (e.g., Elsevier, Wiley, Springer Nature, Taylor & Francis) who account for more than 50% of all papers published.

Publishing fees are problematic as they tend to be very costly for authors, who have to use their own personal funds or limited grant funding to cover these expenses. These publishing fees introduce barriers for all researchers and can be even more problematic for researchers in the Global South.

Some publishers may charge APCs for articles on top of traditional subscription agreements with libraries, in essence 'double-dipping' to increase their revenue. For all these reasons, and the broader context of changing government and funding agency policies, there are emerging models for journal publishing. 

Emerging models in journal publishing

The academic publishing landscape is witnessing transformational changes with the emergence of innovative Open Access publishing models like Transformative Agreements and Subscribe to Open (S2O). These approaches are aimed at promoting Open Access publishing and fostering greater access to scholarly research. These types of agreements work to cover the APC fees in the library's subscription to the journals.
Transformative Agreements
Transformative Agreements, also known as read-and-publish and publish-and-read agreements, represent a significant shift in the traditional subscription-based model of academic publishing. Key features of these agreements include:
  • Read-and-Publish: Libraries negotiate agreements with publishers to cover both access to journals and the publishing costs for affiliated researchers. This enables researchers to publish their work openly without paying the article processing charges, while institutions maintain broader access to research.
  • Accelerating Open Access: These agreements often include provisions that incentivize researchers to publish their work open access, facilitating a faster transition to a more open scholarly publishing ecosystem.
These types of agreements are increasingly common with commercial journal publishers, and while they are seen as a positive step towards Open Access publishing, there are some criticisms associated with this model:
  • Financial sustainability: These agreements often retain elements of the traditional subscription-based model, maintaining the control and profit margins of established publishers. Long-term financial sustainability and the redistribution of costs remain areas of ongoing discussion and scrutiny.
  • Inequities in global participation: Transformative Agreements have predominantly been adopted by institutions in high-income countries, which can exacerbate existing disparities in global scholarly publishing. This raises concerns about equity and access, as institutions from low- and middle-income countries may struggle to participate fully in these agreements.
Transformative agreements are seen as transitionary business models for journal publishers and were not intended to last forever. cOAlition S, the influential consortia of European funding agencies, ends their financial support of transformative agreements in 2025 in an effort to encourage publishers to make more permanent changes.
Subscribe to Open (S2O)
The Subscribe to Open (S2O) model is another emerging approach that aims to achieve full Open Access for a journal. S2O models are being spearheaded by non-profit journal publishers, including society publishers. Key aspects of the S2O model include:
  • Funding Open Access: Libraries contribute funds that would typically be spent on subscriptions to support the Open Access publication of the entire journal. This ensures that all articles are freely available to readers worldwide.
  • Collaborative Approach: S2O relies on collaboration among libraries, consortia, and publishers. If enough institutions commit to supporting Open Access, the journal will "flip" to become fully Open Access, benefiting the broader scholarly community.
  • Sustainability and Scalability: The S2O model promotes sustainable Open Access by reallocating existing subscription funds towards supporting publication costs. If successful, this model can be scaled up to other journals, gradually increasing the availability of Open Access content.
Transformative agreements and Subscribe to Open (S2O) are two emerging models that accelerate the transition to Open Access publishing. While these are the most popular models at the moment, other models exist, and it also important to remember that there are other paths to Open Access.
Send us a message 
Do you have questions about scholarly communications or open access?
Let's talk!