Your Invitation to the Open Access Debate

I said the open access debate had been torrid. And it continues apace in the wake of last week’s announcements from the UK government and RCUK, the organisation that represents the common interests of Britain’s Research Councils.

This week at the Guardian, Paul Ayris, the director of library services at University College London, has taken a rather dim view of the UK’s new-found enthusiasm for the gold model of open access (in which the author pays up front for immediate access with minimal restrictions on reuse), whereas I have tried to be more sanguine. Some would say ‘idiotic’ but that’s the Guardian comment thread for you (actually rather tame in this instance).

The key point for the moment is that, despite the announcements, nothing has been fixed in stone, so now is an ideal opportunity to work out how we shape the implementation. Much has been left for research institutions to decide for themselves. There is a fairly robust discussion going on underneath my Guardian piece. I think it’s important that we have these arguments — and that as many stakeholders as possible are involved, if only to prepare themselves for discussion within their own institutions. I don’t claim any special knowledge and have found the debate (over the course of these past few months) very illuminating. I invite you to join in.

And as if that were not enough, have a look also at Cameron Neylon’s thoughtful post on how to resolve the particular challenges of OA to learned societies who rely heavily on subscription income that now appears to be under threat.

Finally, while I’m linking to things, there are fine pieces on open access in the Telegraph (by Mark Henderson) and the Economist; and two divergent opinions in the letters page of last week’s Nature (PDF; paywall).


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7 Responses to Your Invitation to the Open Access Debate

  1. Jim says:

    The first thing that strikes me is the term ‘gold model’. Who came up with this? It’s such blatant spin that it immediately sets off my BS detector. The ‘gold model’ still leaves academics paying publishing firms for their own research, for doing virtually nothing (authors supply pdf docs, reviewers work for nothing). There’s a substantial cohort of grumpy academics who won’t accept this. The ‘green model’ is already in operation (arxiv etc) and works well.

    • Frank says:

      Jim – the colour code in open access derives from SHERPA, the site that collates information about publisher’s OA policies. They used green, blue and yellow to denote different archiving policies. I note that their website though says that the gold category “is a later development independent of RoMEO categories, and is used to describe publishers of open access journals”. I don’t recall who first coined “gold” or why.

    • Stephen says:

      Jim – Could I suggest that you turn off your BS detector, since it doesn’t seem to work. I recommend instead spending some time with Peter Suber’s excellent book.

      ArXiv works well for a few sub-disciplines of physics and mathematics but it hasn’t yet won over the whole of research. It’s worth considering why that hasn’t happened. I don’t know why arXiv hasn’t swept the world —something to do with cultural resistance in the areas of science untouched by it. But since it isn’t winning hearts and minds as a model, I suggest alternatives that do work need to be advanced.

      Plus, you are overlooking the fact that under the present system academics are already paying publishers for their own research; go ask your chief librarian how much your institution pays for subscriptions, how fast those costs have risen in recent years and whether they are sustainable? In the UK, those funds currently come from the research budget, paid to institutions via HEFCE. The cost of periodical subscriptions is presently something like £130m per year.

      The problem with the publishing system at the moment is that it is a sellers market, since the primary users — the research community — are largely ignorant of costs. The benefit of gold OA is that it will (ultimately) use the same funds in a different way. Placing the decision on what price to pay for an APC in the hands of authors, shifts the system more towards to a buyers’ market which, by having greater cost transparency, will work better to drive costs down.

      Even Steve Harnad, one of the most prominent advocates of green OA, realises that it is not likely to be sustainable in the long term and that a transition to gold is inevitable. Where I differ from him is on whether the transition should be orderly or disorderly.

      • Jim says:

        This is a hugely complicated question that can’t be resolved in a couple of blog posts, and different resaerch fields think differently on it. I haven’t overlooked the costs of the present system – this is a slightly different question from OA. I am not defending the current system, where as you say costs of journal subscriptions have increased. Again it is the maths and physics community that is leading the way here, see Tim Gowers blog and the Elsevier boycott. There is an increasing move towards publishing in journals run by academic societies (with much lower charges) or even completely free journals run by academics themselves.

        A final point which I am sure has been made before – ‘gold’ may be fine for people (like you?) with plenty of research grants but would be a problem for others, for example many humanities departments.

        • Stephen says:

          “This is a hugely complicated question that can’t be resolved in a couple of blog posts, and different research fields think differently on it.”

          Totally with you on that — I’ve now written more than 20 posts on the topic and still don’t feel I’ve mastered all the complexities! Which is why part of the point of my article in the Guardian (and this post) was to urge more researchers to get involved in discussion of this issue, particularly now, as their institutions start to think about how to implement the new policy. Subscription costs may not be quite the same question as OA, but they are intimately linked and need to be considered together.

          Alas, I don’t hold ‘plenty of research grants’ but I’m getting by for now. I’m well aware that my viewpoint is largely influenced by the fact that I operate in the relatively well-funded life sciences and that the challenges faced by humanities researchers may well be tougher. They have been less well catered for by Finch which has, for example, left the question of how to make scholarly monographs open access unresolved.

  2. Frank says:

    I was surprised at the mis-representation of the RCUK position in Paul Ayris’ piece. He said

    Research Councils UK (RCUK) has come out in support of the green model.

    I double-checked with one of my contacts and they confirmed the situation is rather more nuanced:

    RCUK has definitively left green open, but is favouring gold for a number of reasons, including immediate access and full re-use (CC-BY). Green OA only really works if subscriptions are still in place to support need for immediate access to literature, as Green normally involves an embargo.

    David Willetts letter last week clearly stated that the UK gov was accepting all recommendations of the Finch report. Finch was 100% Gold, and actually quite dismissive of IRs. This is not the position of RCUK.

  3. Stephen says:

    The Guardian has stopped taking comments on my article but the conversation wasn’t quite finished. The last posted comment was from Stevan Harnad, to which I promised to reply. So I have taken the liberty of copying it from the Guardian website so that I can make good on my promise.

    Here it is below. Stevan prefaces my previous comments with ‘SC’; my responses now are indented:

    Reply to @scww (Stephen Curry)

    1. There are two different and partially independent problems: research accessibility and journal affordability.

    2. It is a huge (and widespread) strategic mistake to conflate them.

    Not sure I see that, since one of the potential benefits of the shake up involved in moving to OA is to make people think about new and cheaper ways to disseminate the research literature.

    3. Green OA provides accessibility (without changing affordability).

    4. If/when Green OA, makes subscriptions unsustainable by making them cancellable, journals will cut costs, downsize to peer review management alone, and convert to Gold OA, paid for out of a fraction of the institutional subscription cancelation savings (instead of out of scarce research funds, as now).

    So we can agree that gold OA represents the best option for the long-term, post-subscription world? That seems to chime with Alma Swan’s recent analysis (PDF).

    Stephen Curry (SC) wrote:

    SC: “[Y]our analysis (as presented here) overlooks the fact that current subscription costs are unsustainable and already pander heavily to the interests of the publishing industry…”

    No, I am fully aware of that, but that is the affordability problem, and the accessibility problem can and should be solved first.

    SC: “The difficulty I see with Harnad’s proposal is that if green OA really starts to work properly, institutions will cancel subscriptions and that destroys the funding model that supports it.”

    Green OA already works “properly” when it solves the accessibility problem. If it goes on to make subscriptions unsustainable, it will also solve the affordability problem, as above.

    If it starts to emerge as sustainable — and to lead to subscription cancellations — how do you think publishers will react? Do you think authors who are members of learned societies are going to work for the destruction of their journals? There are complex dynamics here. Moreover, aren’t there are restrictions on green OA. Do all publishers permit CC-By licenses or text mining?

    SC: “There is nothing in the govt’s announcement or the RCUK policy that commits the research community to a price structure that simply suits the publishing industry.”

    Finch/Willets propose to pay publishers for Gold and phase out cost-free Green; RCUK mandates Gold and allows cost-free Green only if the publisher does not offer Gold.

    (But why wouldn’t every subscription publisher now offer hybrid Gold — which means institutions continue paying for subscription access to the journal, but individual authors can pay an extra fee for Gold OA for their article. Extra revenue at no cost or risk: Why any publisher not offer it? And especially with the prospect of a guaranteed clientele for 6% of their articles, which is the UK’s proportion of worldwide research. That should suit any publisher…)

    SC: “[G]reen OA locks in 35% profit margins for large publishers like Elsevier and delays access”

    On the contrary: Hybrid Gold does (even if the hybrid Gold publishers do as they promise, and reduce subscriptions in proportion to increased Gold uptake: the result is a lock-in of current revenues and margins even when subscriptions vanish and all that’s left, like the Cheshire Cat’s Green, is Gold OA fees.

    Those seem like real concerns. I have been relying on the idea that market forces, driven by greater transparency of the gold OA model, will keep a lid on costs. But that does rather assumes that authors and institutions will be able to break free from expensive high-IF journals. I know that’s a big ask.

    In contrast, Green OA provides competition to subscription publishing and once it approaches 100% globally, it will allow subscriptions to be cancelled, forcing journals to cut costs, downsize and convert to Gold OA to pay for the much reduced cost of managing peer review alone, paid for out of the subscription cancellation savings instead of out scarce research funds, as now.

    I’m concerned about the stability offered by this type of transition…

    SC: “There is no easy transition to OA but the gold route offers a price transparency that the research community can use to drive down prices (with the help of nimble, innovative publishers) and immediate access. But it will require us to divest ourselves of our dependency on high impact factor glamour-mags.”

    There is an easy transition to 100% OA, and that is for all funders and institutions to mandate it. That in turn will force a conversion to Gold OA at a much lower price. And what serious scholars want is to meet the exacting peer review standards of highly selective journals: quality, not glamour.

    I certainly agree that funders should exercise mandates. Thanks for the comment — am going to think some more about this transition process. Have been struck by the sagacity of the response from SPARC Europe to the Finch Report, which expresses strong reservations about relying heavily on gold OA in the transition period.

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