Stuart Taylor reports on our open access journey and the progress of our Transformative Journals.

Butterfly cocoon

In May last year, we announced the next phase of our open access journey following a review of our publishing by the Society’s Council; a public commitment to switch our four hybrid research journals, Proceedings A, Proceedings B, Interface and Biology Letters to fully open access when their proportion of open access articles reached 75%. They would then join our two existing open access journals, Open Biology and Royal Society Open Science. This decision was made in the context of the global drive towards open access to research outputs, and our role as the UK’s national academy of science with the mission to recognise, promote, and support excellence in science and to encourage the development and use of science for the benefit of humanity. 

A large number of research funders around the world have added a great impetus towards an open future, in particular the group of funders known as cOAlition S through an initiative called ‘Plan S’ (announced in 2018). In order to drive the transition of our hybrid research journals to full open access, we embarked on an ambitious program of developing so-called transitional ‘Read & Publish’ agreements with institutional libraries and consortia around the world. Many other publishers have been developing similar arrangements with their institutional customers. We put in place over 170 such agreements in the first year (2021) and this year we already have over 300 agreed. Our aim was to make open access publishing in our hybrid journals easier for researchers by having their open access charges covered centrally by their institution, rather than having to meet them individually or through their project grants. In so doing, we expected the proportion of open access articles in the journals to increase more rapidly than the steady, incremental increases we had seen since we started offering open access in 2006.

We can now report on the results of our first complete year of these transitional agreements. In 2021, we reached the significant landmark that over half of all our published articles were open access (53%) - free to access and with liberal re-use rights under the Creative Commons CC-BY licence. All but one of our hybrid journals increased the proportion of open access articles in 2021, in most cases by a significant amount;

   2020  2021
 Proceedings A  16.5%  27.3%
 Proceedings B  28.2%  41.9%
 Interface  27.7%  48.7%
 Biology Letters  24.3%  24.9%
 Interface Focus  27.9%  59.7%
 Notes and Records  13.5%  10.3%
 Philosophical Transactions A  18.9%  28.2%
 Philosophical Transactions B  24.8%  33.9%

These impressive increases in open access have been achieved despite the fact that we have a liberal ‘green’ open access policy which allows authors to deposit their accepted manuscript in a repository without embargo. We initially had some concerns (along with many other publishers) that such a liberal green policy might undermine the effectiveness of our Read & Publish deals to deliver open access growth in our hybrid journals. 

When Plan S was first announced, its funders would only financially support hybrid journals which are included in a transitional deal with the lead author’s institution. However, in 2020, cOAlition S introduced the concept of the ‘Transformative Journal’ as an additional route to compliance for journals outside such deals (in recognition that not all publishers were having the same level of success in setting them up). A ‘Transformative Journal’ is a hybrid journal which publicly commits to;

a) flip to open access once it reaches the point at which 75% of its articles are open access; 
b) offset subscription income from open access charges (to avoid ‘double dipping’);
c) to grow the proportion of open access articles each year by 5% in absolute terms or 15% in relative terms (whichever is the greater).

Plan S funded authors publishing in such a journal can still have their APC covered by their funder even if they are outside a transitional deal. Our four hybrid research journals were granted Transformative Journal status in 2021 and we published the OA growth targets they were expected to achieve as a result. We are pleased to report that three comfortably exceeded their growth targets (Proceedings A, Proceedings B and Interface). Biology Letters did not achieve the required growth target, but will nevertheless retain Transformative Journal status for a second year according to the first year exception rule set out by cOAlition S. We will publish the 2022 targets for all four journals shortly.


  • Stuart Taylor

    Stuart Taylor