Sunday, December 11, 2011

Hybrid journals – double or quits?

Hybrid journals – journals that combine toll access to some articles with open access to others – do not generally enjoy a good press. Terms such as 'double-dipping' are used. This is not justified, as a general rule. I can't guarantee that double-dipping never happens, but I don't think it is generally the case. Publishers could do more to disabuse the library and research communities of the notion that it is, though.

That said, it is difficult, because even the basic understanding of how a subscription system works is often lacking outside (and even sometimes inside echelons of) the publishing community. One of the difficulties is that deciding on the price of subscriptions depends on a number of prior assumptions. There are possibly more than these three, but they are the most important ones: 1) how many subscriptions will we be able to sell; 2) how many submissions will we get and how many of those will be accepted for publication (i.e. what will the costs be); and 3) what margins can we expect to contribute to overheads and profit (or surplus, in the case of a not-for-profit publisher).

Typically, a publisher will have a portfolio of journals of which some do well, some just break even, and some make a loss if all costs, including overheads, are fully allocated. Hybrid journals will be found in all three categories. So what does 'double-dipping' mean? Are loss-making journals 'half-dipping'? Is 'double-half-dipping', in the case of those loss making journals, just 'single dipping'? Does it even make sense to think in those terms?

I think not. The objective way to look at it is to see the subscription price as the price to be paid for the non-OA articles that are published in a hybrid journal. That may be low or high if expressed in subscription price per non-OA article, but that is what a subscription to a hybrid journal is. Incidentally, comparing subscription prices per article (p/a) across a library collection will show a very wide range, and the inclusion or exclusion of hybrid journals is not likely to make any difference in the distribution of p/a in that range.

It may be helpful to think of a hybrid journal as twin journals sharing the same title, Editor, Editorial Board and editorial policy: one subscription-based, and one OA.

The OA articles in a hybrid journal are just as much OA as in any OA journal as long as they give the reader/user the same rights (of access and re-use), i.e. as long as they are covered by a licence such as the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC-BY) or the CC Attribution and Share Alike License (CC-BY-SA) and not the CC Attribution Non-Commercial License (CC-BY-NC). Sticking to CC-BY-NC licences, which does happen, is a sign of insecurity on the part of a publisher or of a lack of understanding as to what the purpose of open access actually is. Though there may be a number of cases where the publisher has overcome that insecurity but just hasn't thought about changing the licences yet.

As said above, hybrid journals do not generally enjoy a good press, but I have heard positive comments about them as well in the scientific community. Those relate to the notion that the editorial policy (the acceptance/rejection policy) of hybrid journals is not influenced by the potential financial contribution coming from the authors. The 'open choice' is typically given as an option only after the article has passed peer review and is accepted. I don't think acceptance and rejection policies of any respectable OA journal are influenced by the prospect of authors paying, and I certainly don't know of any such practices at the OA publishers I am familiar with, but it is an extra assurance hybrid journals offer that that is indeed not the case.

Jan Velterop


  1. Hi,

    This: Subscription journals with Open Access options may be of interest.


  2. Although I haven't been involved in this particular debate, I would think that "double-dipping" is a fair charge, in the sense that the journal both gets a subscription fee and then gets an OA fee for some particular article, i.e. they get paid on the way in and on the way out.

    I think the way to argue against this charge is to see if some journals that allow individual OA arrangements have gone down in price since they started doing this, and if that reduction in price can be correlated meaningfully with the number of OA articles that appear there in the course of a year. Do you know of any such studies?