Business of Academic Publishing

Transitioning Your Journal to Open Access: Tips from Claire Moulton

As journals move away from subscription to open access models, they run into various challenges. Today, we discuss these challenges and ways to overcome them, with Claire Moulton. Claire holds a PhD in molecular biology from the University of Edinburgh. She is a scholarly publishing veteran, with over 30 years’ experience in various roles ranging from journal editor to publishing manager. She is currently the Publisher at The Company of Biologists, a not-for profit publisher whose journals were the first to be afforded Transformative Journal status, and an early adopter of the transformative route to open access for its three hybrid journals: Development, Journal of Cell Science and Journal of Experimental Biology.

1. How did you prepare your journals, including journal staff and editorial boards, for the transition from a hybrid model towards fully Open Access?

We’d been offering Open Access options on the journals since 2004 but, after a period of growth, author take-up had plateaued. Almost certainly this reflected a similar plateau in funder / institution Open Access mandates. So the big change really came when cOAlition S introduced a new set of mandates. Our Directors (practising scientists) and editorial boards have always focused on our journals providing options that allow authors to comply with funder mandates, so we had to reconsider what we were offering.

We decided on a two-pronged approach: Transitional Agreements (Read & Publish) alongside Transformative Journal status. Transformative Journals make a number of commitments, including being proactive champions for Open Access and meeting annual Open Access growth targets. The growth itself is generated by our Read & Publish agreements, which allow corresponding authors from participating institutions to publish fee-free Open Access articles (uncapped).

Our Directors and editorial board were very supportive of the resulting options, which allow author choice and continue to support those authors who are not yet ready for Open Access publishing.

They were also delighted that we’d entered into an agreement (through EIFL) to support fee-free Open Access publishing for authors from 30 developing and transition economy countries.

In a small organisation like ours, almost every member of staff was involved in some way. We significantly increased our Sales team to handle the extra work required for our Read & Publish initiative, editorial staff worked hard to incorporate new steps into our workflows, and the Marketing team ramped up their focus on Open Access for both library and author customers. Personally, I found myself doing much more strategic work with funders and libraries/consortia as well as working with other publishers to share best practice.

2. What impact did the transformative route have on your journals’ readership and authorship?

Our aim has always been to allow any author to publish with us while complying with their funder / institution mandates, so in one sense this didn’t change at all – it just required a lot more work!

Although the % Open Access content has increased significantly in our journals, the majority of authors still publish non-OA (articles are behind a subscription paywall for 6 months, then are free to read by all). This, combined with the disruptions to our authors over the pandemic period, make it difficult to accurately assess impact, but it’s clear that we’re still transitioning and have a way to go. 

3. How did you navigate the financial considerations of the transformative route, such as funding models and article processing charges?

Our Read & Publish offering to libraries / consortia is a generous one, offering more for the existing library spend. A library that only subscribed to one of our journals, for example, would now receive access to all of our journals through the agreement at the same cost. Librarians appreciate our transparency and are supportive of this sort of approach to a sustainable transition, so this initiative has been a big success.

In terms of authors, the focus of our Read & Publish initiative is to provide them with fee-free Open Access options. We are also careful in setting the Open Access fees for those authors taking a paid route and we review our Article Processing Charges against market rate and against costs annually. Our Article Processing Charges do not currently cover the full costs of quality publishing in our journals and this is something that we will continue to review. Given that quality is important to us, we will probably have to increase the APCs to cover costs this year.  

4. A criticism of OA is that journal editors may be under pressure to prioritize publishing more articles, in order to meet financial targets. As a not-for-profit publisher, what steps did you take to safeguard the quality and reputation of your journals during the period 2021-24?

We already had strong principles in place that focused journal editors on the quality of content and the fair evaluation of submitted work. Our stated policy is that “Editors will base decisions on the importance of the work and not on its potential effect on the Journal’s commercial success.” Given that our portfolio already includes two fully Gold Open Access journals (Disease Models & Mechanisms and Biology Open), we’d also ensured that journal editors do not have access to any financial transactions relating to authors.

5. How did you communicate about the transformative route to your existing subscribers and authors, and what feedback did you receive?

We were very clear and transparent about the Read & Publish offer and created a library hub for librarians and consortia heads to access more detailed information. In addition to the obvious information and FAQs, this includes a section on transparent pricing, a toolkit for librarians (including materials to help them communicate with their researchers), and a collection of videos recorded with our library partners, journal editors and author community. We also presented – alongside our library partners – at a number of library meetings to spread the word. Feedback was very positive with the following being particularly well received: our transparency on cost, the uncapped nature of the publishing arrangements, our engagement with initiatives around transparent metrics, and that our Transformative Journal status showed a genuine desire to transition the journals.

Communication with authors started with Editorials and videos about our Transformative Journal status – this was well received, especially because we continued to offer non-Open Access options as well. Spreading the word about our Read & Publish agreements was in some ways harder, especially at the start of the transition period, because only a subset of our authors was eligible depending on whether their library had signed up to an agreement with us. It was therefore essential that our workflows and in-house teams identified authors who were eligible for fee-free Open Access publishing, rather than expecting authors to know that they were eligible – it usually came as a surprise. I took the time to meet with some of those early authors to gather their feedback – in a nutshell, they were absolutely delighted to be offered fee-free Open Access (supported by their librarians).

When a library signs up to a Read & Publish agreement with us, we email eligible authors (who’ve published with us before) to ensure that they’re aware that they’re now eligible for fee-free Open Access publishing in our journals. Now that it’s becoming better known, we’re focusing on additional author communications, such as promoting the benefits of Open Access publishing. Through our comparative metrics (comparing Open Access and non-Open Access articles within the same journals), we can see that Open Access articles receive higher usage, a citation advantage and an Altmetrics boost.

6. In 2021, all three of The Company of Biologists’ hybrid journals met or exceeded their OA targets. In fact, the Journal of Experimental Biology saw +15% growth in OA content. What do you think contributed to this?

The growth in our Read & Publish initiative is the driving force behind this increase in Open Access content. [R&P shown in green in the charts below.] Our agreements cover more institutions each year, so even more authors are delighted to be offered fee-free Open Access. Journal of Experimental Biology started at the lowest level of Open Access content and so saw the biggest jump up. All three journals met their OA targets again for 2022 and we’re really pleased with the progress we’re making.

7. Looking forward, what do you think will be the future of scholarly publishing, and how is The Company of Biologists positioning itself to meet these changes?

As we’re talking about Open Access transformation, I’ll highlight initiatives (such as those from OASPA and cOAlition S) to bring equity to OA publishing. Outcomes may include fairer approaches to APCs alongside a greater push towards models for fee-free OA. We’ll continue to innovate in the OA area as well as pursuing other EDI projects.  

The impact of preprinting is extending – The Company of Biologists already has a preprint commenting service, preLights, but it will be interesting to see how journals adapt to potential roles in preprint peer review and curation.

Sustainability will become an essential area for publishers to address. At The Company of Biologists, we have just launched an exciting new biodiversity initiative – The Forest of Biologists – to create, restore and preserve precious woodland habitats.

As we look forward to the centenary of The Company of Biologists in 2025, we’ve been thinking deeply about our contributions to biology and biologists. The most important thing is that we continue to listen to the scientific communities we serve so that we can continue to make a positive difference.   

All images in this article were provided by the interviewee and have been shared with her permission.

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