Against Squandering Scarce Research Funds on Pre-Emptive Gold OA Without First Mandating Green OA

From: Stevan Harnad <amsciforum_at_GMAIL.COM>
Date: Fri, 15 May 2009 18:21:32 -0400

*** Apologies for Cross-Posting ***

Pre-Emptive Gold OA. There is a fundamental strategic point for Open
Access (OA) that cannot be made often enough, because it concerns one
of the two biggestretardants on OA progress today -- and the
retardant that has, I think, lately become the bigger of the two. 

(The other major retardant is copyright worries, but those have
shrunk dramatically, because most journals have now endorsed
immediate Green OA self-archiving, and the ID/OA mandate can provide
immediate "almost-OA" even for articles in the minority of journals
that still do not yet endorse immediate OA.)

The biggest retardant on OA progress today is hence a distracting
focus on pre-emptive Gold OA (including the conflation of the journal
affordability problem with the research accessibility problem, and
the conflation of Gold OA with OA itself, wrongly supposing that OA
or "full OA" means Gold OA -- instead of concentrating all efforts on
universalizing Green OA mandates.

Conflating the Journal Affordability Problem with the Research
Accessibility Problem. Although the journal affordability problem
("serials crisis") was historically one of the most important factors
in drawing attention to the need for OA, and although there is
definitely a causal link between the journal affordability problem
and the research accessibility problem (namely, that if all journals
were affordable to all institutions, there would be no research
access problem!), affordability and accessibility are
nevertheless not the same problem, and the conflation of the two, and
especially the tendency to portray affordability as the primary or
ultimate problem, is today causing great confusion and even greater
delay in achieving OA itself, despite the fact the universal OA is
already fully within reach.

The reason is as simple to state as it is (paradoxically) hard to get
people to pay attention to, take into account, and act accordingly:

Just as it is true that there would be no research accessibility
problem if the the journal affordability problem were solved (because
all institutions, and all their researchers, would then have
affordable access to all journals), it is also true that the journal
affordability problem would cease to be a real problem if the
research accessibility problem were solved: If all researchers
(indeed everyone) could access all journal articles for free online,
then it would no longer matter how much journals cost, and which
institutions were willing and able to pay for which journals. After
universal Green OA, journals may or may not eventually become more
affordable, or convert to Gold OA: It would no longer matter either
way, for we would already have OA -- full OA -- itself. And
surely access is what Open Access is and always was about.

It is this absolutely fundamental point that is still lost on most OA
advocates today. And it is obvious why most OA advocates don't notice
or take it into account: Because we are still so far away from
universal OA of either hue, Green or Gold. 

Green OA Can Be Mandated, Gold OA Cannot. But here there is an
equally fundamental difference: Green OA self-archiving can be
accelerated and scaled up to universality (and this can be done at
virtually zero cost) by the research community alone -- i.e.,
research institutions (largely universities) and research funders
-- by mandating Green OA. 

In contrast, Gold OA depends on publishers, costs money (often
substantial money), and cannot be mandated by institutions and
funders: All they can do is throw money at it -- already-scarce
research money, and at an asking-price that is today vastly inflated
compared to what the true cost would eventually be if the conversion
to Gold OA were driven by journal cancellations, following as a
result of universal Green OA. For if universal Green OA, in
completely solving the research access problem, did eventually make
subscriptions no longer sustainable as the means of recovering
publishing costs, then (a small part of) the windfall institutional
savings from the journal cancellations themselves -- rather than
scarce research funds -- could be used to pay for the Gold OA.

So instead of focusing all efforts today on ensuring that all
institutions and funders worldwide mandate Green OA, as soon as
possible, many OA advocates continue to be fixated instead on trying
to solve the journal affordability problem directly, by wasting
precious research money on paying for Gold OA (at a time when
publication is still being fully paid for by subscriptions, whereas
research is sadly underfunded) and by encouraging researchers to
publish in Gold OA journals. This is being done at a time when (1)
Gold OA journals are few, especially among the top journals in each
field, (2) the top Gold OA journals themselves are expensive, and,
most important of all, (3) publishing in them is completely
unnecessary -- if the objective is, as it ought to be, to provide
immediate OA. For OA can be provided through immediate Green OA
self-archiving. Worst of all, even as they talk of spending what
money they have to spare on Gold OA, the overwhelming majority of
institutions and funders (unlike FWF) still do not mandate Green OA!
Only 80 out of at least 10,000 do so as yet.

"Gold Fever." That is why I have labelled this widespread (and, in my
view, completely irrational and counterproductive) fixation on Gold
OA and journal affordability "Gold Fever": trying to pre-emptively
convert journals to Gold OA -- to buy OA, in effect -- at a time when
all that is needed, and needed urgently, is to mandate Green OA, and
then to let nature take care of the rest. 

(Universal Green OA will eventually make subscriptions unsustainable
and induce publishers to cut costs, jettison the print edition,
jettison the online PDF edition, offload all archiving and
access-provision onto the distributed network of Institutional and
Central Repositories, downsize to just providing the service of
peer-review alone, and convert to the Gold OA model for cost recovery
-- but at the far lower price of peer review alone, rather than at
the inflated pre-emptive asking prices that are being needlessly paid
today, without the prerequisite downsizing to peer review alone).

In other words, to see or describe Green OA as only a partial or
short-term solution for OA is not only (in my view) inaccurate, but
it is also counterproductive for OA -- retarding instead of
facilitating the requisite universal adoption of Green OA
self-archiving mandates: 

If universal Green OA were just a partial or short-term solution,
for precisely what problem would it be just a partial or short-term
solution? For universal Green OA is a full, permanent solution for
the research accessibility problem; that in turn removes all of the
urgency and importance of the journal affordability problem -- which
can then eventually, at its own natural pace, be solved by
institutions cancelling subscriptions once universal Green OA has
been reached (since all research is thereafter freely accessible to
all users universally), thereby inducing journals to downsize and
convert to Gold. 

Instead trying to promote the Gold OA publication-charge model now,
pre-emptively, is not only unnecessary and wasteful
(spending more money, at an arbitrarily high asking price, instead of
saving it), but it distracts from and blurs what is the real, urgent
need, and the real solution, which is to mandate Green OA, now,
universally. That -- and not pre-emptively paying Gold OA's arbitrary
current asking price -- is what needs to be done today!
            See:  "Gold Fever" and "Trojan Folly."

OA Books? The third most important distraction and deterrent to
universal Green OA is to conflate OA's primary target -- journal
articles, which are all, without exception, in all
disciplines, author give-aways, written solely for the sake of
research uptake and impact, not for royalty income -- with books,
which are not OA's primary target, are not written solely for
research uptake and impact, have immediate cost-recovery implications
for the publisher, book by book, are not nearly as urgent a matter as
journal-article access for research, and will, like Gold OA, evolve
naturally of their own accord once universal Green OA has prevailed.

But for now, conflating OA with book access is simply another
retardant on the urgent immediate priority, which is Green OA
mandates (of which -- as we should keep reminding ourselves -- we
still have only 80 out of 10,000, while we keep fussing instead,
needlessly, about Gold OA, journal affordability, and book OA).

(Having said that, however, it must be added that of course the
funder has a say in attaching conditions to the publication of a book
whose publication costs the funder subsidizes! But then the greatest
care should be taken to separate those special cases completely from
OA -- whose primary target is journal articles -- and Green OA
mandates, whose sole target is journal articles.)

Data-Archiving. Like book OA -- and in contrast to OA's urgent,
primary target: refereed-journal-article OA -- data OA is not yet a
clearcut and exception-free domain. Please see these postings
on data-archiving.

Unlike articles and books, data self-archiving is not restricted by
copyright transfer from the researcher to the publisher. In itself,
this would seem to be a good thing: Authors can already archive their
data if they wish to; they need not worry that it might violate their
publisher's policy or rights.

So -- we should ask ourselves -- why don't most authors do it yet?

The answer is two-fold: If the author does not first provide OA to
the journal article that describes and analyzes the research, the
author's data are far less useful. So Green OA itself will facilitate
and incentivize data-OA.

But, even more important, not all (perhaps not even most)
researchers want to make their data OA, at least not until they have
had all the time they need and want to data-mine it themselves (and
sometimes that can require years). The incentive to gather data would
plunge considerably if researchers were forced to declare it open
season for all researchers to analyze their hard-won data as soon as
it was gathered!

Hence institutions and funders should definitely encourage their
researchers to deposit their data in their Institutional Repositories
(IRs) as soon as they can, but to leave that up to them. In clear
contrast, institutions and funders should mandate that the final,
refereed, accepted drafts of all journal articles should be deposited
in their IRs immediately upon acceptance for publication. 

Earlier Drafts.The story is approximately the same for unrefereed
preprints as it is for data and for books: Researchers can
be encouraged to deposit their earlier drafts (and in some fields
authors have been doing so for years), but on no account should it
be required. The only thing that needs to be required is the deposit
of the refereed, accepted final draft of all journal articles.
Publishing in a Gold OA journal can also be encouraged, but again, on
no account mandated; and money need not and should not be thrown at
it either (by any funder that has not already mandated Green OA), not
only because the expense is not necessary in order to provide OA
itself, but because the pre-emptive asking price today is arbitrarily
high, subscriptions are still paying for most journals, and the
majority of existing Gold OA journals do not even charge for
publication, but continue to sustain themselves on subscriptions and

Stevan Harnad
American Scientist Open Access Forum
Received on Fri May 15 2009 - 23:31:22 BST

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