Hybrid open access journals offer options to publish scientific articles in both open access format and the conventional pay-to-access, paywalled model.
Open access offers free public access to all of a journal’s articles, while subscription-based journals require readers to pay for access to the journal or to specific articles.
Hybrid open access journals were created as a bridge between these formats. But do they actually serve that function? And what advantages do they offer. That’s what this article will cover.
What you’ll learn in this post
• What hybrid open access is.
• How hybrid open access is different from fully open access and conventional paid access.
• Whether it’s a good idea to choose the hybrid open access option for your next publication.
• The future for hybrid open access amid an increasingly open access publishing world.
• How to get expert advice on choosing the right journal for your manuscript; whether paid/paywalled, hybrid, or fully open access
What is a hybrid open access journal?
Hybrid open access journals (or just “hybrid journals”) combine the conventional subscription-based publication model with open access articles that are not behind a paywall. Journal subscribers can access the full content of all the journal’s articles, while non-subscribers can only read the open access articles in full.
Open access is an option offered to authors whose work is accepted for publication. (Related article: Why Publish in an Open Access Journal?)
The European Journal of Neurology is an example of a hybrid journal. The journal’s website shows a subscription is needed to access its volumes and most of its articles. But articles such as this one on intercranial aneurysms are open access. You’ll also see an “open access” indicator above the article’s title.
Publishing in a hybrid open access journal requires paying an article processing charge (APC). Open access is offered as an option upon being accepted for publication, so that’s when you’d pay this fee.
A brief history of hybrid journals
Amid the emerging Internet and various forms of open access publication, the concept of hybrid open access journals was proposed in 1998 in American Scientist. Entomology researcher Thomas Walker proposed a paid option for extra visibility.
Walker had The Florida Entomologist, where he served as editor, publish its articles electronically. In the process, it became the first journal to use this hybrid publishing model. This model was later extended to other journals by the Entomological Society of America.
The idea of hybrid journals entered the mainstream from 2003, when major publishers such as Elsevier and Wiley started incorporating this publication model at $3,000 per article. The hybrid model was predicted to facilitate the eventual switch to completely open access journals.
Since 2013, roughly more than 5,000 journals from 73 publishers have applied the hybrid model. However, because of non-standardized reporting practices (i.e., delayed open access), it’s difficult to estimate the exact number of articles published in this format.
How is hybrid open access different from fully open access?
The main difference between hybrid open access and journals that are fully open access is in how the articles are accessed. Entirely open access journals, such as PLOS ONE and BMC Open, let anyone access any article free of charge and often free of most copyright and licensing restrictions. Hybrid open access journals, however, place more limitations on free access.
As mentioned, hybrid journals offer open access publication as an option. So you can let anyone read it, or keep it subscription-based and paywalled. Fully open access journals are just that – 100% open access, with no paywalls.
Some hybrid journals give their publishing options with “gold open” or “green open” access as the most common. Gold provides immediate open access upon publication. Green also makes an earlier version of your manuscript available online (similar to a preprint, but more like a near-finished product). The final version usually becomes available after an embargo of about 6–24 months.
What are the advantages of hybrid open access?
Hybrid open access journals have some advantages over subscription-based journals. Among the key advantages are…
More visibility and higher impact
When anyone can read your article instead of those privileged to get access, your work is more visible. And that may also mean it makes a bigger impact (not to be confused with impact factors).
An article openly accessible in a hybrid journal is viewable for free to all readers, irrespective of subscriptions. So it’s easier to access, read, and share. That bigger and broader scope of readers can increase the impact your work has on society and the scientific community.
Imagine you’re researching the effects of substance abuse on those suffering from bipolar disorder. You start by searching for publications for your literature review. You may find this article with full text and this article with only partial text as a starting point. Which one are you more likely to read and cite?
The open access article is consumable and usable immediately – no need for a subscription or searching gateway databases in your university library.
Open access articles vs. paywalled articles are 1.6 times more likely to be downloaded by users in academic institutions, and four times more likely by all users overall.
Open access articles also attract more attention and are more likely to be mentioned in the news than non-open access articles. This suggests the overall impact open access articles make is greater than those behind a paywall.
This unhindered access to your work also increases the chances your article is cited. That, in turn, improves your citation score and your research career in general.
The availability of an article online in journals with free access may increase citations 157%. Another study analyzing over 70,000 articles published in Springer Nature hybrid journals, found that open access articles are cited an average of 1.6 times more than non-open access.
As in the example above, if you use the open access article on bipolar disorder and substance abuse, you’ll then give it a citation. That citation owes not only to the study’s value but also to its easy availability. You might also recommend it to your colleagues and other connections working on bipolar research, who then might also cite it.
Suddenly, that author’s citation score has greatly improved. That’s thanks to open access.
Copyright plays a role in any type of publication. Usually, when you get your paper published, the copyright is transferred to the journal, so it’s now the publisher’s property. This means you can’t, for instance, legally share the article’s full text on your personal website or a social network like ResearchGate.
However, hybrid open access journals may let authors retain a copyright on their article under a Creative Commons license. This license allows others to freely access, copy, and use your work provided you’re correctly cited. This lets you enjoy the prestige of publication while being able to share your work more freely.
For example, this article on cancer survivors is published under a CC-BY license in The Lancet Oncology. Because the authors can freely distribute their work under this license, they also added a downloadable full-text copy on their ResearchGate profile.
Be sure to check the journal requirements for specifications about the type of copyright retention offered. You may find it justifies the open access fees.
The option to publish the article as open access in a hybrid journal is usually given after the article has passed peer review and been accepted for publication.
So, all articles, whether or not they end up being open access, undergo the same rigorous scrutiny by the scientific community. This helps to maintain article quality at the same standard required of conventional paywalled articles.
Additionally, because the decision to be open access comes at the end of the publication process, your article undergoes professional proofreading and typesetting by the editorial team of the journal.
This means that all quality controls checks are the same for both regular subscription articles and those that end up being open access.
What are the disadvantages of hybrid open access?
Publishers introduced hybrid journals as a bridge from traditional subscription-based to contemporary open access journals. But this model attracts criticism and seems to have disadvantages.
The main criticism of the hybrid model is that publishers profit twice, also known as “double-dipping.” Authors pay APCs while subscribers such as universities pay journal subscription fees. The research community, thus, pays twice for the same content.
For example, if you subscribe to the hybrid journal Annals of Neurology, you’d pay roughly $1,000 for an annual subscription to the journal. Then, if you wanted to submit your article in open access format, you’d need to pay an added $3,610 APC. That’s a double profit for the publisher.
Publishers claim these two costs are kept separate (i.e., that they don’t charge twice for the same thing), which is only guaranteed by an honor code that may not always be respected. One study showed the hybrid model does not provide transparent checks on the pricing and revenue streams. Thus, it’s impossible to tell whether they are truly separate unless publishers underwent independent audits.
Hybrid journals also won’t grant open access until the APC is processed. This leads to articles remaining behind a paywall when they’re supposed to be open access. During this period, publishers can make money off articles intended for open access. This further blurs the line between the supposed separation of these two income streams.
Different levels of access
For readers, only a subset of articles in a hybrid journal is open access. The rest are subscription-based and paywalled. This haphazard mix of paywalled and open articles can confuse and frustrate readers. It may also give the perception that open access articles may be of lower quality than paywalled ones; in other words, a price tag represents greater value.
When readers don’t easily know which articles they can or cannot access, they can only truly benefit from a hybrid journal by subscribing. This lessens the supposed function of hybrid journals providing open access, and for the researchers, diminishes the money they invest in the open access option.
Different levels of access to hybrid journals can also hinder useful academic discourse. Authors may have to wait for their article to become openly accessible, and, therefore, for their research team to share the work with others. Naturally, peer-reviewed and validated research should be seen as soon as it’s approved. Hybrid journals may be seen as obstructing this.
Fees for hybrid journals tend to be more expensive than fully open access journals.
Data from 2021 from OpenAPC show that the average APC has dramatically increased for hybrid journals from $3,370 (£2,770) vs. $2,152 (£1,768) for fully open access journals. And some APCs can even go as high as $5,000. Some may wonder if these prices accurately represent the value given.
In the academic community, this has led to various initiatives, such as Plan-S, that criticize hybrid journals. They instead argue that scarce and valuable research funding shouldn’t be spent on such an expensive business model, and they call for journals to be fully open access.
Another major criticism of hybrid journals is that they crowd out newly emerging fully open access journals. They thus limit development and innovation in the publishing world.
Current data suggest that most funding for hybrid open access goes to major publishers. This means that there is less funding available for fully open access journals providing immediate open access and lower fees.
Some newer journals offering fully open access solutions also may not want to take the riskier route of offering lower charges and risking lower profits and/or a perception that they have less value or credibility. If they’re not as successful as hybrid or subscription-based journals, they might not last long.
Does not necessarily transition to open access
Hybrid models were expected to pave the way to a fully open access model, with the APC replacing subscription costs. Yet over two decades later, this doesn’t seem to be happening, at least not yet.
Data showed that only 69 subscription journals from Elsevier and 23 from Wiley had converted to a fully open model. These publishers, however, had more than 4,000 journals combined. Most hybrid journals, thus, aren’t making the switch.
Publishers also don’t ensure that APC charges replace subscription income, which would validate their conversion from hybrid to fully open. By continuing to double-dip, they simply maintain the status quo rather than try to transition.
Moreover, hybrid journals present to-be-published authors with open access as an option. This, in turn, leaves the decision to the author. And this indicates there’s no push or incentive to mandate the change to open access. For authors on small budgets and/or from smaller economies, the fee may serve as a disincentive to pursue open access. Especially when they are under pressure to keep publishing.
What’s the outlook for hybrid open access?
Although the hybrid open-access model enjoyed rising popularity between the early 2000s and mid-2010s, evidence suggests it may be falling out of favor.
The European Research Council (ERC) indicates publication fees for articles in hybrid journals will no longer be eligible for reimbursement for the authors. Researchers are instead encouraged to submit to fully open access journals.
This decision marks a major change in funding policy to favor fully open access journals which offer immediate access to scientific material. This also suggests that for scholars and journals to comply with the EC’s open access mandates, which are specific EC aims that support open access, you will have to be fully open access.
This decision was made because of the extremely high APCs that hybrid journals charge. The failure of many hybrid journals to make a real transition to fully open models also came into play.
The current hybrid model will likely remain in place for some time, but more initiatives and incentives are being offered for journals, authors, and readers alike to become fully open access. For example, OA2020 is a global initiative to push open access forward by transforming journals from the classic paywall system to new open access publishing models that promote transparency and unrestricted access. And LYRASIS Open Access Community Investment Program (OACIP) is a community-driven group that enables many stakeholders (i.e., funders, libraries, authors) to evaluate and fund open access content.
With so many global initiatives, we may be on the verge of a large-scale transition in the publishing world to fully open access journals. With scientific research available to everyone, for free.