Previous studies on the development of OA have indicated a slow but steady growth in article volume of around 1.0–1.5% per year relative to subscription journals during the last decade [18
]. Such bibliometric studies have usually been based on snapshots of the OA status of the general journal and article population at a given point in time, whereas status changes of individual journals over time have rarely been acknowledged. Due to this methodological aspect, the bigger picture shows continuous growth of OA with time, while journal-level patterns remain mostly unknown. In the absence of research directly related to reverse flips, we position our study within the broader field of scholarly publishing and build on existing research on journal flips from closed access to OA, as well as research on the activity lifecycles and sustainability of OA journals.
2.1. Journal Flips to OA
Since the OA publishing model first emerged, it has evolved and matured, so that today journals employ a multitude of distinct models and practices to provide free access to scholarly literature on the Web. In many cases, journals operate on a subscription model for years before converting to OA, whereas others are born-OA venues (i.e., OA since their launch). The act of converting a subscription journal to a fully OA venue is often referred to as “flip”, suggesting a sudden, quick transformation, although the actual flip is often part of a longer transition process. During this transitional phase, journals sometimes implement more restrictive OA practices (e.g., delayed OA) while working towards a permanent model that follows a more comprehensive and immediate approach to OA. However, despite being a critical aspect in the history and ongoing evolution of scholarly publishing, our empirical understanding of the processes behind the implementation of OA publishing models remains low. The most comprehensive quantitative study on OA journal lifecycles was conducted by Solomon et al. [25
], which determined the initial publishing model of 1995 OA journals. The authors [25
] found that 53% of these journals had flipped from closed access to OA, whereas the remaining 47% were born-OA venues.
Besides Solomon et al.’s study [25
], most of the information about changing publishing models is spread across brief editorial announcements of journals that converted to OA [26
], case studies in information science journals [31
], or various types of reports [34
]. The main limitation of these sources is that they are often narrow in scope and do not consider factors outside of the immediate relevance to the journal at hand. Moreover, the sources that are publicly available are also biased towards successful endeavors; accounts of failed attempts are difficult to obtain. Due to the limited availability of source material and the fragmented nature of research on journal flips, cumulative knowledge-building around the dynamics involved has been constrained. Solomon et al. [37
] provide a comprehensive review of the scattered literature on journal flips, coupled with expert interviews to clarify the arguments presented in the literature. The report [37
] presents various circumstances and motivations behind the flips, ranging from increased revenue and financial viability, to gaining independence, and a desire to increase publication volume [37
] (pp. 22–28). However, since the individual circumstances surrounding the flips vary greatly, making generalizations is difficult. The report does not include a wide-scale bibliometric analysis, so the quantitative scope and patterns of journal flipping remain largely unknown. To fill this gap in the literature, our study assesses the measurable scope of reverse-flip journal conversions and closely examines their bibliometric patterns.
2.2. Sustainability of OA Journals
The sustainability of OA publishing models partly depends on author attitudes towards OA, and although most researchers can easily relate to the rationale behind making scholarly literature freely available, author-side costs associated with APCs are a contested issue [38
]. The main argument against APCs centers on the obscurity of how the fees are calculated—Ubiquity Press [41
] and eLife [42
], for example, are exceptions to the rule—and what accounts for the price variation between journals ranging from $
0.20 to $
] (p. 33). The acceptability of APCs varies between academic disciplines and often depends on common publishing practices and the availability of funding sources (e.g., personal research funds, discretionary research funds, departmental or other institutional funds, library OA funds, grants). Accordingly, authors from fields with well-established self-archiving practices, such as the physical sciences and mathematics (PSM), are more likely to object to high publication charges as they can make their research openly available for free [40
]. Moreover, researchers from better-funded disciplines, such as the life sciences (LS), are more willing to pay for OA than researchers from the social sciences and humanities (SSH) who have less access to funding [39
]. A recent qualitative study by van der Graaf et al. [44
] confirmed that OA publishing is largely driven by, and reliant upon, external funding since there is great resistance among authors to use discretionary budgets for APC payments.
Sotudeh and Horri [45
] were the first to recognize the reverse-flip phenomenon, although not defining it as such, and established manual verification as an essential methodological step for identifying such cases. Analyzing the longitudinal stability of 284 OA journals, the authors find 22 fully OA titles that converted to more restrictive access models, such as delayed OA, hybrid OA, or entirely toll access. In a similar way, Laakso et al. [46
] discovered reverse flips as part of a study on the longitudinal development of OA journal publishing, and found that, between 2002 and 2009, 14 of the 303 journals in their sample had reverse-flipped to a subscription model.
While the last two studies affirm the relevance of our paper by addressing reverse flips as secondary research results, we draw on the following two for interpreting our findings. Björk et al. [47
] examined the OA status and publishing activity of 250 independent born-OA journals founded prior to 2002 (independent defined as not being published by a professional publisher). In 2014, 115 journals were still active and fully OA, 100 journals had ceased publication, 23 had disappeared from the Web completely, and the remaining 12 journals had reverse-flipped to subscription access. Likewise, Crawford [48
] studied 86 journals that were classified as OA in 1995, and found 49 (57%) of the journals to still be publishing in 2000. Crawford [48
] observed a common pattern among the discontinued or comatose journals, coined the “arc of enthusiasm”, where a new journal thrives for two to five years, but the flow of articles begins to decline after the highs of the first and second year. We turn to these studies when considering the time frame within which reverse flips occurred, with particular attention to newly founded OA journals. In both Crawford [48
] and Björk et al. [47
], most journals remained active during the first two to five years, whereas the mortality rate rose during the critical six to nine-year period. After that, the number of ceased journals decreased sharply and journals still actively publishing at that point had reached higher stability. In addition to briefly reporting observations on reverse flips, Björk et al. [47
] highlight that maintaining momentum in publishing activity is a common trait among surviving journals, whereas it is rare for journals to recover after a period of inactivity.
Only a couple of other studies have moved beyond primarily bibliometric analysis and approached the issue of sustainability through exploring OA factors from alternative perspectives [49
]. Investigating the economic viability of OA publishing for scholarly associations, Willinsky [49
] used the tax return information of 20 U.S. non-profit scholarly associations to gauge the potential impact of introducing OA to their journals. The study reveals the complex economic circumstances of journals affiliated with scholarly associations: Although OA would promote the associations’ goals and serves their membership better, providing free access to their journals could diminish incentives for membership and result in losing revenue from library subscriptions. Willinsky [49
] revealed that in some cases subscription income not only covers the publishing costs but also generates a surplus that can be reinvested in the associations’ other activities. Hence, a sustainable flip to OA often requires reducing publishing costs (e.g., through omitting the print edition or using open source publishing software) as well as finding alternative revenue streams to cover the loss of subscription income (e.g., library consortia financing).
] study is based on interviews and focus groups with representatives from 15 small scholarly led journals, including seven OA journals. The respondents explain, “The most common barrier to OA (...) is figuring out how to make ends meet” [50
] (p. 86), as several journals heavily rely on subsidies, grants, and other types of external funding to implement and remain OA. A significant drawback of these external funding sources is competitive funding schemes or otherwise uncertain continuity, so that many journals find it challenging to obtain the resources they need to stay afloat. Moreover, under certain circumstances, the dependence on external funding can make journals vulnerable to outside influences, such as commercial interests—through advertising [51
]—or changes in the political climate in the case of public funding sources [52
Based on the research reviewed in this section, we assume that the decision to reverse-flip is likely related to the journal’s sustainability. Although transferring the publishing duties of an OA journal to a professional publisher and converting it to a subscription journal entails the end of free universal access, this change might bring other benefits, such as reducing the volunteer labor needed to operate the journal and enhancing the prestige of the venue through association with a well-established publishing house.
While studying journals as independent and isolated cases is necessary to capture context-specific details, we realize that journals do not exist in a vacuum, but within a dynamic environment characterized by competition for high-quality manuscripts. Since peer-reviewed publications are still the key to academic career progression, a journal’s value is closely connected to the prestige it brings to authors [53
]. As a proxy indicator for journal prestige and quality, citation metrics and journal rankings can influence how the scholarly community perceives competing journals, and we therefore include journal-level metrics, such as Source Normalized Impact per Paper (SNIP) [55
], in our analysis.
2.3. Research Questions
Until now, reverse flips have only been observed as secondary research findings. By setting them as the primary study objective, the present study aims to explore this phenomenon in greater scope and depth. Due to the scarcity of previous research, we do not know how common it is for journals to change their publishing model from fully OA to a subscription-based. We take this as our starting point to examine the greater context in which these transitions occur, such as publisher, subject area, article volume, and citation metrics. We are specifically interested in answering the following research questions:
How many OA journals have reverse-flipped to a subscription model?
To provide a general overview,
How thoroughly are these journals indexed in major bibliometric databases?
Which academic disciplines do the journals belong to?
How many articles did these journals publish between 2000 and 2018?
Under which publisher did the reverse flip occur? Who currently publishes the journals?
How many journals are affiliated with scholarly societies or research institutions? In which countries are these societies and institutions based?
How old were the journals at the time of the reverse flip?
Before the reverse flip,
How many journals had been subscription venues before converting to OA?
How many journals were APC-based, and at what price levels?
After the reverse flip,
Which access model have the journals operated on?
Has the publication volume changed?
Have journal-level citation metrics changed?
For reverse-flip journals that currently operate on a hybrid model,
How do the APC levels differ before and after the flip?
What is the uptake of hybrid OA articles?
How long are the embargo periods for self-archiving?
Our study is of limited scope, since the motivation behind reverse flips cannot be affirmed through bibliometric research alone. Such highly complex decision-making processes and unique circumstances would best be studied through an additional qualitative study based on interviews. Nevertheless, this article lays the necessary foundation for such an inquiry.