What about S2O as a new open-access model for academic law journals?

By: Claudia Holland
Library Director,
Library of the Max Planck Institute for Comparative and international Private Law, Hamburg
Member of the IALL Board of Directors

The basic idea of open access is to be able to read, download, save, link to, print and thus to use a document free of charge. A great deal has been written about it already, and no doubt there are many different paths to the same goal: different ways of granting access on one hand, different ways of paying for it on the other.

This blog post explores the financing model known as “subscribe to open” (S2O). The occasion for me to take up the topic at this particular moment is actually the current transformation of the The Rabel Journal of Comparative and International Private Law (https://www.mpipriv.de/rabel-journal), which is edited at the Max Planck Institute for Comparative and International Private Law, into an S2O publication.[1]

Libraries are signing hefty contracts with publishers to implement the transition to open access, and generally speaking these agreements place the costs of producing scholarly articles on authors, who are obliged to pay so-called “article processing charges” or APCs in order to have theirs be an open-access publication. These costs can also be covered by organizations, such as universities or research institutes, or through grants. If no such money is available, authors who can’t come up with the funds themselves are at a disadvantage.    

To counteract this, in 2017 the non-profit publisher Annual Reviews launched, and has continued to develop, “Subscribe to Open”, or S2O, as an alternative concept that unburdens both authors and readers from having to pay fees[2]. Under this model, either an online or a print edition of the journal or both continue to appear and are still received and paid for by the same folks who had a classical journal subscription before. Flush with this financing, the publisher releases the current yearly volume as an open-access publication under a Creative Commons license. If the number of subscribers begins to decline, the publisher has the option of returning to a closed-access model for the next volume the following year. This is triggered when the number of subscriptions has fallen below a particular value set in advance by the publisher as of a date certain.[3]   


s2o-infographic-progress-2021-new.pdf (annualreviews.org)

By the end of 2023, twenty publishers had signed on and begun to provide open access to more than 170 journals under the S2O model,[4] only one of which has reverted to closed access because it was deemed to have drawn too little support from subscribers.[5]

The advantage of S2O over and against other open-access business models lies in its use of pre-existing structures: the strain on library budgets stays the same because the only costs are subscription costs; from the publisher’s perspective, the additional workload in terms managing and administering data is scanty; even book sellers are still part of the delivery chain. The main thing is that authors can publish in an S2O journal regardless of whether they have institutional backing or grant money. 

More publishers have already signed onto transitioning some of the journals in their portfolios to S2O. Foremost among the German publishers who have done so are Mohr Siebeck[6] and De Gruyter.[7] This transition applies mainly to journals in the areas of humanities and social sciences.

It remains to be seen whether S2O can establish itself as a financing model that offers print journals reasonable security for the transition to open access. The time horizon for finding out will be over the next few years, depending on whether the numbers are there and on the show of experience. It is in any case a financing model that burdens neither readers nor authors with additional costs.

[1] Editorial RabelsZ; https://doi.org/10.1628/rabelsz-2024-0017

[2] https://www.tub.tuhh.de/wp-content/uploads/2023/10/Why-We-Need-Equitable-Open-Access-TUHH-OA-week-2023.pdf

[3] https://www.duncker-humblot.de/services-open-access-open-access-fuer-zeitschriftenartikel/subscribe-to-open/c-705

[4] https://oad.simmons.edu/oadwiki/Subscribe_to_Open_(S2O)_journals

[5] https://www.ascb.org/society-news/ascb-ends-journal-subscription-experiment/

[6] https://www.mohrsiebeck.com/zeitschriften

[7] https://www.degruyter.com/publishing/publikationen/openaccess/open-access-artikel/subscribe-open?lang=de

This Blog contains entries by members of the International Association of Law Libraries on issues germane to the Association’s areas of focus. Views expressed in an individual entry only represent the views of the author, and not those of the International Association of Law Libraries or the author’s employer.