Tuesday, May 10, 2022

The OA interviews: Richard Gallagher, President & Editor-in-Chief, Annual Reviews

Annual Reviews (AR) recently announced that over the next 18 months it aims to make its entire portfolio of 51 academic journals freely available under a new journal publication model known as Subscribe to Open (S2O).

Annual Reviews is a pioneer of S2O, having first trialled it in 2017 with its journal Annual Review of Public Health. A number of AR’s other journals have subsequently been converted to S2O and the publisher is now hoping to migrate its entire journal portfolio to the new model.

What is S2O? The S2O Community of Practice web site describes it in this way:

S2O allows publishers to convert journals from subscriptions to OA, one year at a time. Using S2O, a publisher offers a journal’s current subscribers continued access. If all current subscribers participate in the S2O offer (simply by not opting out) the publisher opens the content covered by that year’s subscription. If participation is not sufficient – for example, if some subscribers delay renewing in the expectation that they can gain access without participating – then that year’s content remains gated.”

The web site adds, “The offer is repeated every year, with the opening of each year’s content contingent on sufficient participation. In some cases, access to backfile content may be used to enhance the offer.”

In light of AR’s announcement, I emailed a number of questions to the President & Editor-in-Chief of AR, Richard Gallagher. Those questions, and Gallagher’s replies, are published below.

The Q&A begins

RP: Annual Reviews (AR) is the pioneer of Subscribe to Open (S2O). It began, in 2017, with a pilot funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in which the Annual Review of Public Health journal was made open access, including all the backfiles from 1980-2016. Further AR journals were later released under the S2O model and Annual Reviews has announced that over the next 18 months it hopes to migrate all 51 of its journals to S2O.

Can you talk me through the journey AR has undergone, what has been learned, and why it now wants to convert all its journals to S2O?

RG: When I joined Annual Reviews in 2015, review articles didn’t figure on the to-do list of the OA movement. A senior figure at one OA-pioneering research funding agency told me that he regarded writing review articles to be an out-of-hours activity that did not qualify for APC support.

The lack of recognition of reviews was understandable given the relatively small numbers published each year, but it was also frustrating because I felt that, from a practical point of view, reviews should be among the top priorities for open access.

Usage increased in that one year by a factor of 4, and these were readers, not bots


Our big break came with the 2017 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grant that you mentioned. It had two components: to cover the cost of the Annual Review of Public Health for one year, allowing us to assess the impact of removing the paywall; and to fund the development of a viable OA model for reviews, since APCs and Read and Publish couldn’t be adapted to our needs.

Usage increased in that one year by a factor of 4, and these were readers, not bots. We assessed how far through articles users were scrolling and there was no difference between the open journal and our most similar paywalled journals; if bots had had an impact, the scroll patterns would have been different. 

To help develop a business model we hired Raym Crow as a consultant at the suggestion of Kamran Naim, my co-grantee and then Annual Reviews’ Director of Partnerships and Initiatives. Raym had a track record in collective funding logic, and in the very first meeting with him I realized that he was laying out a practical approach that we could try. That was in June 2017.

It took time to generate a proposal that seemed robust enough to take to our Board, Editorial Committees, select customers (and our staff!) but for the 2020 sales cycle (i.e., by mid-2019), we were ready for an S2O pilot project.

In addition to the Annual Review of Public Health (which had remained freely accessible in the meantime), a mix of established and newer titles in the physical, biomedical, biological and social sciences were selected.

We discussed the project openly, outlined our thinking in Learned Publishing and opted not to copyright the Subscribe to Open name in the hope that others pursuing similar programs would also use it.

Subscription levels were maintained for the five S2O journals in 2020 and this, combined with usage that ranged between double and quadruple that seen when the journals were paywalled, encouraged us to expand the pilot program to eight journals for 2021 and 2022.

To date, we have results from offering 15 volumes of Annual Reviews journals under S2O, and all have been successful (five in 2020, eight in 2021, and both of the 2023 volumes published so far; the remaining six are on track).

It’s promising but it isn’t a full proof-of-concept because most of our customers take multi-journal packages, and it would not have been in their financial interests to exclude the S2O titles.

Nonetheless, I believe that now is the right time to offer the entire Annual Reviews portfolio under S2O. This is partly because of an action taken in the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In March 2020, we temporarily removed the paywall on all 51 journals to ensure that subscribers would have seamless access, and usage increased by a minimum of three-fold and a maximum (for the Annual Review of Virology) of more than 20-fold. That experience generated urgency to move forward.

Whether all 51 titles are published OA in 2023 is, of course, in the hands of the customers. We are taking nothing for granted.

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

OA and fiscal sponsorship: Interview with SPARC’s Heather Joseph

Scroll down to go direct to the interview with Heather Joseph

The Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC) was founded in 1998 as a program area within The Association of Research Libraries (ARL). Since then it has gone on to become the world’s most influential open access advocacy group.

As SPARC’s activities grew, however, there were concerns that its success could jeopardise ARL’s tax-exempt status. In 2014, therefore, it signed an administrative agreement with New Venture Fund (NVF), a non-profit fiscal sponsorship organisation located in Washington, DC.

Although this change took place eight years ago, I have seen little or no commentary about it until recently (although I may simply have missed it).

At the end of last year, however, a disgruntled OA advocate pointed me to some tweets critical of SPARC and its association with NVF; and earlier this month I was alerted to a post published in 2018 that also seems to be critical of SPARC. (It is paywalled).

Dark money

Recent interest in SPARC’s relationship with NVF appears in part to have been sparked by news coverage of an unsuccessful bid for Tribune Newspapers by Swiss philanthropist and billionaire businessman Hansjörg Wyss.

Last year, for instance, the New York Times published two (paywalled) articles (here and here) about Wyss and his funding activities. Wyss donates to politically liberal and environmental causes in the United States through the Wyss Foundation, a charitable organisation he founded in 1998 and which has more than $2 billion in assets.

In its coverage the NYT noted that The Hub Project – an organisation started by the Wyss Foundation in 2015 – “is part of an opaque network managed by a Washington consulting firm, Arabella Advisors, that has funnelled hundreds of millions of dollars through a daisy chain of groups supporting Democrats and progressive causes.”

NVF would appear to be part of that network. As the NYT, put it, “The Hub Project it is not a stand-alone organisation for tax purposes, but is housed within two Arabella-managed non-profits, New Venture Fund and the Sixteen Thirty Fund, which pay Hub Project employees.”

In a second article, NYT noted that Arabella Advisors and the organisations it manages operate a funding model that uses so-called dark money. This sees donor money channelled through non-profit organisations like NVF, which in the US are not required to disclose their donors. Arabella’s network, said the NYT, is a leading vehicle for doing this on the left.

As I understand it, this allows funders to donate to a non-profit that then distributes the money to different groups without it being publicly known who the donor was. As part of this process Arabella Advisors provides administrative services to organisations like NVF, much in the way that NVF provides such services to SPARC. Unlike NVF, however, Arabella is a for-profit organisation.

The money channelled through NVF is not insubstantial. “Between 2007 and last year,” the NYT reported, “the Wyss Foundation donated roughly $56.5 million to New Venture Fund.” (This figure is based on tax returns and voluntary disclosures).

Neither NYT article mentions SPARC, but it is one of around 150 “projects” that have administrative agreements with NVF. In doing so they become part of a non-profit mother ship that confers non-profit status on them too.

Referred to as fiscal sponsorship this practice has been increasing in popularity in recent years. And it is a model that a number of open access organisations have begun to use.

What is not clear to me is how many OA advocates are aware that OA organisations have started to use fiscal sponsorship and, if they are, whether they fully understand how it works and are comfortable with it.

I confess I had myself barely registered the fact that SPARC had decoupled from ARL. And as I think will be apparent, I do not fully understand how fiscal sponsorship works, or the implications it might have for the OA movement if widely adopted by OA organisations and initiatives. I do, however, have some thoughts on it.

Wikipedia says this of the model: “Fiscal sponsorship refers to the practice of non-profit organisations offering their legal and tax-exempt status to groups – typically projects – engaged in activities related to the sponsoring organisation’s mission. It typically involves a fee-based contractual arrangement between a project and an established non-profit.”

I think it is worth repeating that while the groups it manages are non-profit, Arabella Advisors is itself a for-profit organisation.

Small organisations can undoubtedly benefit from outsourcing their administration in this way. However, Wikipedia points out that there are risks too. For instance, it says, “the benefits of immediate tax-exempt status and administrative support must be weighed against the lack of autonomy and fees typically charged by the sponsor.”

It seems to me that any OA organisation signing a fiscal sponsorship agreement that wishes to remain true to its principles ought really to make a special effort to be transparent about its finances and activities. The risk is that it could end up embracing a degree of darkness that belies its commitment to openness.