The worst of both worlds: Hybrid Open Access

The worst of both worlds: Hybrid Open Access

*** This article was originally posted on the OpenAIRE Blog ***

** Thank you to Mikael Laakso for the excellent feedback **

A couple weeks ago, the European Commission (EC) announced that starting with their new funding programme, Horizon Europe, they will no longer reimburse publication fees for hybrid Open Access. Previously, the EC had excluded hybrid APCs when they first introduced Open Access funds during the FP7 (Post-Grant) Open Access Pilot, but later covered hybrid Open Access in the following funding programme, Horizon 2020 (2014-2020).

Hybrid Open Access describes an publishing model where some articles are made openly available, against the payment of an Article Processing Charge (APC), while other articles remain closed access, and the journal as a whole subscription-based. The first hybrid journals launched with Springer Open Choice and Wiley Online Open in 2004. Two years later, the publishing model was incorporated through Elsevier Open Access, Sage Choice and Taylor & Francis Open Select, and Nature Publishing Group (NPG) Open followed in 2007. Since then, the number of hybrid OA journals has skyrocketed and crossed the 10k mark, the leading 5 publishers owning the majority.

Number of hybrid Open Access Journals 2009-2017 [Source]

Björk attributes the recent increase “to two major changes in the funding infrastructure. Firstly, several leading research funders have set up centralized funds for paying APCs and secondly, a new type of consortial electronic subscription licenses which also include the payment of hybrid APCs has stated to emerge” (Björk, 2017). Additionally, several funders have introduced Open Access mandates, requiring beneficiaries to make their research outputs openly available within a certain time frame (e.g., six or twelve months for Horizon 2020 depending on the discipline), which might not comply with the publisher’s embargo period, typically ranging from 6 to 24 months. Interesting, however not surprising is the observation that with the increasing number of Open Access mandates, institutional and funding, restrictions around self-archiving have increased as well (see Laakso, 2014 and Gadd et al., 2016).

As a comparison, from 2005 to 2015, the number of institutional and funding Open Access policies rose from 123 to 830 (see ROARMAP). [Image Source]

With the increased availability of hybrid journals, the number of hybrid articles has continuously increased as well. Now, you might say “More Open Access research papers? Awesome!”, but there are a few problems with the hybrid model.

For easier navigation, jump to: Double Dipping | The Price | The Value | The Bottom Line

Double Dipping

Double dipping, as defined by the RLUK, “arises if a publisher seeks an unwarrantable increase in revenues by levying article processing charges (APCs) for publication in a hybrid journal, while not providing a proportionate decrease in subscription costs.” To be fair, the major publishers have issued statements that measures were put in place to prevent double dipping, and that list prices are reduced proportionally. But..

  1. How are subscription prices calculated?
  2. How do reductions of list prices affect subscription rates when these are negotiated as part of “Big Deal Bundles”?
  3. How can consumers be certain that subscription rates are being reduced, and to what extent, when the details of Big Deal negotiations are hidden behind non-disclosure agreements?
  4. How are APCs calculated?

For universities and libraries to manage their resources effectively, it is extremely important to have a complete overview of the costs involved in subscriptions and Open Access publishing. However, the complete lack of transparency, prevents this and places them at a disadvantage when negotiating with publishers.

The Price

I will limit the price issue to solely APCs, and exclude subscription prices. APCs for hybrid journals average around $2,700 and can often exceed $5,000, as compared to an average of $2,000 for fully Open Access journals by subscription-based publishers and $1,400 for Open Access publishers (Björk and Solomon, 2014). To be clear, setting up the hybrid option is generally low risk and inexpensive for publishers as they are not dependent on the APC revenue stream but maintain the journal through subscriptions. Why then is the price for hybrid Open Access so much higher than for full Open Access?

To give a more practical example, in October 2015, the editors and editorial-board members of the hybrid Open Access journal Lingua resigned from their positions after negotiations with Elsevier about a fair pricing model, retention of copyright, and ownership of the journal had been unsuccessful. While Elsevier stated “the article publishing charge at Lingua for open access articles is $1,800 USD. The editors had requested a price of 400 euros, an APC that is not sustainable,” Lingua’s former editorial staff founded a new journal, Glossa, funded by the Open Library of Humanities and LingOA, and being sustainable at an APC of $400.

Publishers have been marketing hybrid Open Access as a way to gradually flip their well-established, prestigious, subscription-based journals to full Open Access. However, for this to be viable option, the APCs must fully cover the journal’s operational costs and, in the case of for-profit publishers,  generate profit. In some fields, subscriptions outside of the academy (mostly read-only, with only little publishing) make up a notable part of the profits, which would, however, be reduced or lost entirely if the majority of articles was Open Access. As Laakso et al. note, “Although it may be possible to generate enough income to cover the cost of publication, it would be difficult to convince publishers to give up the profits these journals receive from subscriptions outside of academia.”

The Value

APC Cost vs. APC Price [Image Source]

One of the reasons publishers can set their APCs fairly high to cover operational costs and maintain (or increase) their profit margins of ~35%, is because of the publication’s (perceived) value to the researcher. So what does hybrid Open Access offer?

  1. Immediate Open Access
  2. Publication in well-established, prestigious journals

Over the last few years, an increasing number of research funders have implemented Open Access mandates. The individual mandates can, however, differ in terms of Open Access route (i.e., gold/immediate Open Access or green Open Access/through depositing the article in an Open Access repository) and time frame (i.e., until when beneficiaries need to provide Open Access). As a response to the change in funding policies, publishers have increased not only the number of fully Open Access journals, but of hybrid journals as well. To comply with their funders’ requirements to provide Open Access immediately or within a time frame that deceeds the publisher’s embargo period, researchers might choose hybrid Open Access. The reason researchers were, or still are, able to publish in those venues and publishers can keep hybrid APCs at a very high level, is because many funders have generously paid for Open Access without any price restrictions.

Hybrid Open Access journals offer researchers something that many fully Open Access journals cannot: prestige and tradition. Hybrid journals are already well-established and, over the years or decades, have accumulated a certain reputation within the research community. Whereas, Open Access still isn’t the norm and might, in some cases, even be seen as risky. If researchers regard more traditional publication venues as beneficial or even necessary for their advancing their career, hybrid journals seem like a safe and easy choice to provide Open Access while following the rules to move up the ivory tower.

But due to a lack of discoverability, hybrid Open Access might not offer authors the best value afterall. Discovery and link resolution services traditionally work on the journal level, which means that hybrid Open Access articles might not be indexed by search engines or picked up by library electronic resource management and discovery systems, but remain hidden behind a paywall. In addition, there have been repeated cases where hybrid Open Access articles have been incorrectly licensed, sold as closed access content, and their reuse has been restricted. See Paywall Watch for recent examples.

The Bottom Line

Short-term effects of hybrid Open Access Long-term effects of hybrid Open Access
Provides immediate Open Access to articles published in subscription journals, which often can’t be achieved through self-archiving, in fields with a low availability of well-regarded Open Access journals. Marketed as a revenue-neutral transition phase, while publishers have financial incentives to maintain the hybrid system.
Decreased discoverability than compared to fully Open Access journals. Publishers have not started to flip journals large-scale due to the uptake of hybrid Open Access.
Institutions/funders spend money on hybrid, which could otherwise be invested into innovative and more sustainable publishing models. Institutions/funders spend money on hybrid, which could otherwise be invested into innovative and more sustainable publishing models.
High market concentration around major publishers, and high barriers for new venues to enter the market. Slows down the transition to Open Access, and to Open Science in general as it clings to tradition.
Discriminatory against low-income countries and lesser-funded institutions/scholars because of high APCs and unavailability of fee waivers. Ever increasing APCs as they are not sensitive to the market, but closely connected to the perceived value.


The Open Access movement was meant to provide universal access to knowledge, however the hybrid model seems to defeat this point by hindering the discoverability of hybrid Open Access articles, and creating more difficulties to disseminate knowledge. What actions can we take to create a fairer system, or to move away from hybrid Open Access?*

Funders & institutions

  1. Stop using the impact factor as a proxy indicator for an article’s quality and/or impact.
  2. Assess the quality of the individual research, and do not base it solely on the journal’s reputation.
  3. Encourage and reward (e.g., by including in funding/promotion/tenure decisions) open practices such as collaboration, public engagement, and publishing null and negative results.
  4. Do not fund hybrid Open Access APCs. OR only fund hybrid APCs that meet certain requirements, such as a price cap, short embargo periods, and transparent pricing models.


  1. Check which (low-cost) Open Access journals exist in your field. Check again when your next paper is ready to be submitted, new journals might have been launched, others might have been flipped from closed to Open Access, and some might have acquired an impact factor. (Note: I do not support using or promoting the impact factor, however I am very much aware that unfortunately, in some cases, researchers are still dependent on high-impact journals to advance their careers or to receive grants.)
  2. Negotiate your contract with your publisher and provide them with an author addendum (e.g., by SPARC) to retain your author rights when publishing in closed access journals. If that is not possible, check Sherpa/Romeofor publishers’ self-archiving policies, and deposit a copy of your manuscript in an Open Access repository.


  1. Make pricing models – subscriptions, APCs, offsetting – transparent.
  2. Change the current offsetting system, and instead of reducing journal list prices, make deductions institution-specific.
  3. Improve discoverability of hybrid Open Access articles, for example by adding standard metadata elements for copyright and license.


*I don’t think that a system completely based on APCs is the best solution either, but rather that when returned to and led by the scholarly community, Open Access publishing could become a sustainable reality. However, as long as the current system prevails, I think the green Open Access route offers a viable alternative.

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