The inevitable failure of parasitic green open access

At the now famous 2001 meeting that led to the Budapest Open Access Initiative – the first time the many different groups pushing to make scholarly literature freely available assembled – a serious rift emerged that almost shattered the open access movement in its infancy.

On one side were people like me (representing the nascent Public Library of Science) and Jan Velterop (BioMed Central) advocating for “gold” open access, in which publishers are paid up-front to make articles freely available. On the other side was Stevan Harnad, a staunch advocate for “green” open access, in which authors publish their work in subscription journals, but make them freely available through institutional or field specific repositories.

On the surface of it, it’s not clear why these two paths to OA should be in opposition. Indeed, as a great believer in anything that would both make works freely available, I had always liked the idea of authors who had published in subscription journals making their works available, in the process annoying subscription publishers (always a good thing) and hastening the demise of their outdated business model. I agreed with Stevan’s entreaty that creating a new business model was hard, but posting articles online was easy.

But at the Budapest meeting I learned several interesting things. First, Harnad and other supporters of green OA did not appear to view it as a disruptive force – rather they envisioned a kind of stable alliance between subscription publishers and institutional repositories whereby authors sent papers to whatever journal they wanted to and turned around and made them freely available. And second, big publishers like Elsevier were supportive of green OA.

At first this seemed inexplicable to me – why would publishers not only allow but encourage authors to post paywalled content on their institutional repositories? But it didn’t take long to see the logic. Subscription publishers correctly saw the push for better access to published papers as a challenge to their dominance of the industry, and sought ways to diffuse this pressure. With few functioning institutional repositories in existence, and only a small handful of authors interested in posting to them, green OA was not any kind of threat. But it seemed equally clear that, should green OA ever actually become a threat to subscription publishers, their support would be sure to evaporate.

Unfortunately, Harnad didn’t see it this way. He felt that publishers like Elsevier were “on the side of the angels”, and he reserved his criticism for PLOS and BMC as purveyors of “fools gold” who were delaying open access by seeking to build a new business model and get authors to change their publishing practices instead of encouraging them to take the easy path of publishing wherever they want and making works freely available in institutional repositories.

At several points the discussions got very testy but we managed to come to make a kind of peace, agreeing to advocate and pursue both paths. PLOS, BMC and now many others have created successful businesses based on APCs that are growing and making an increasing fraction of the newly published literature immediately freely available. Meanwhile, the green OA path has thrived as well, with policies from governments and universities across the world focusing on making works published in subscription journals freely available.

But the fundamental logical flaw with green OA never went away. It should always have been clear that the second Elsevier saw green OA as an actual threat, they would no longer side with the angels. And that day has come.

With little fanfare, Elsevier recently updated their green OA policies. Where they once encouraged authors to make their works immediately freely available in institutional repositories, they now require an embargo before these works are made available in an institutional repository.

This should surprise nobody. It’s a testament to Stevan and everyone else who have made institutional repositories a growing source of open access articles. But given their success, it would be completely irrational of Elsevier to continue allowing their works to appear in these IRs at the time of publication. With every growing threats to library budgets, it was only a matter of time before universities used the available of Elsevier works in IRs as a reason to cut subscriptions, or at least negotiate better deals for access. And that is something Elsevier could not allow.

Of course this just proves that, despite pretending for a decade that they supported the rights of authors to share their works, they never actually meant it. There is simply no way to run a subscription publishing business where everything you publish is freely available.

I hope IRs will continue to grow and thrive. Stevan and other green OA advocates have always been right that the fastest – and in many ways best – way for authors to provide open access is simply to put their papers online. But we can longer pretend that such a model can coexist with subscription publishing. The only long-term way to support green OA and institutional repositories is not to benignly parasitize subscription journals – it is to kill them.

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5 Comments

  1. Posted May 26, 2015 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    Surprising that this post, which has generated so much discussion on Twitter, hasn’t attracted any actual comments. My own is much too long to post into someone else’s blog, so I wrote a post of my own over on SV-POW!: Green and Gold: the possible futures of Open Access.

  2. binay panda
    Posted May 26, 2015 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    michael, of course we all got hoodwinked by the commercial publishers in the name of green….why should it even surprise anyone?

    in our geography, and i guess in many others, the green vs gold discussion is totally meaningless and futile. all, yes all, decisions to grant research money is based on where (aka, impact factor of the journals) one publishes her/his results. unless that changes, no discussion on oa publishing is meaningful.

    btw, the way things are looking in india, plos one might face ostracism v v soon…

    binay panda

  3. Posted May 27, 2015 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

    The Inevitable Success of Transitional Green Open Access

    The Inevitable Success of Transitional Green Open Access

    I will respond to Mike [M.E.] paragraph by paragraph. Here are my first observations:

    I think it is subscription journal publishing that is parasitic on the work of researchers, peer-reviewers and their institutions, as well as on the money of the tax-payers who fund the research — not the other way round.

    Green Open Access mandates are the remedy, not the malady.

    Gold Open Access is premature until Green OA has been mandated and provided universally, so that it can first make subscriptions cancellable (as publishers anticipate — and that’s the real motivation for their Green OA embargoes).

    The reason pre-Green Gold OA is premature is that while access-blocking journal subscriptions still prevail the contents of those journals are accessible only to subscribing institutions, so those subscriptions cannot be cancelled until and unless there is an alternative means of access.

    Immediate-Deposit Green OA mandates provide that alternative means of access (and they do so even if the deposited papers are under a publisher OA embargo, thanks to the institutional repositories’ copy-request Button, which can provide “Almost-OA” individually with one click from the requestor and one click from the author).

    Until subscriptions are cancelled, Gold OA fees have to be paid over and above all existing subscription fees. Hence they are double payments, unaffordable alongside subscriptions.

    Pre-Green Gold OA fees are also arbitrarily over-priced: Post-Green, all that will need to be paid for is the editorial management of peer review (picking referees, adjudicating reports and revisions). The rest (archiving, access-provision) will be provided by the worldwide network of Green OA repositories.

    Nor is it possible for publishers to prevent Green OA by trying to embargo it. In the virtual world, research-sharing is optimal and inevitable for research, researchers, their institutions, their funders, and the tax-paying public that finances their research) — and it is also unstoppable, if authors wish to provide it.

    M.E.: At the now famous 2001 meeting that led to the Budapest Open Access Initiative [BOAI] – the first time the many different groups pushing to make scholarly literature freely available assembled – a serious rift emerged that almost shattered the open access movement in its infancy.

    Green Open Access self-archiving (before it even got that name) had already been going on for at least two decades in 2001. There had also been free and subsidized online journals for over a decade. (The names “OA,” “Green” and “Gold” came later.)

    I would say that the BOAI in 2001 accelerated the OA movement, rather “almost shattered” it. It also supplied the name for it (“OA”).

    M.E.: On one side were people like me (representing the nascent Public Library of Science) and Jan Velterop (BioMed Central) advocating for “gold” open access, in which publishers are paid up-front to make articles freely available. On the other side was Stevan Harnad, a staunch advocate for “green” open access, in which authors publish their work in subscription journals, but make them freely available through institutional or field specific repositories.

    And BOAI opted to endorse both roads to OA — originally dubbed BOAI-I and BOAI-II, then later renamed Green and Gold OA, respectively.

    M.E.: On the surface of it, it’s not clear why these two paths to OA should be in opposition. Indeed, as a great believer in anything that would both make works freely available, I had always liked the idea of authors who had published in subscription journals making their works available, in the process annoying subscription publishers (always a good thing) and hastening the demise of their outdated business model. I agreed with Stevan’s entreaty that creating a new business model was hard, but posting articles online was easy.

    There is complete agreement on the fact that there are two means of providing OA and both will be important.

    But what is hard is not just creating the Gold OA business model but making it affordable and scalable. The problem is current institutional subscription access needs. Until access to each institution’s current must-have journals is available by some means other than paid-access (usually subscriptions), Gold OA means double payment: for incoming access via subscription fees and for outgoing publication via Gold OA fees. And double-payment at arbitrarily inflated Gold OA fees, in which many obsolete products and services are still co-bundled, notably, archiving, access-provision, and often also the print edition.

    Universally mandated Green OA provides this other means of access, which will in turn make subscriptions cancellable, forcing publishers to cut the obsolete products and services and their costs, downsize to the peer-review service alone, offload archiving and access provision to the global network of Green OA repositories, and convert to affordable, scalable and sustainable post-Green Fair-Gold OA.

    The SCOAP3 consortial “flip” model — flipping individual institutional subscriptions to consortial institutional Gold OA “memberships” — is unstable, unscalable and unsustainable. Not only can all the planet’s ~c30K peer-reviewed journals and ~10K institutions not be consortially “flipped” all at once, but consortial memberships are evolutionarily unstable strategies, being open to institutional defection at any time, especially from institutions that publish little in a given journal, thereby raising the “membership” fee for the remaining institutions. The problem is not solved by flipping instead to individual paper-based fees either, because that faces the double-payment problem. And both models still have arbitrarily inflated prices until there is a means to jettison the obsolete print edition and offload the publisher cost of access-provision and archiving elsewhere.

    M.E.: But at the Budapest meeting I learned several interesting things. First, Harnad and other supporters of green OA did not appear to view it as a disruptive force – rather they envisioned a kind of stable alliance between subscription publishers and institutional repositories whereby authors sent papers to whatever journal they wanted to and turned around and made them freely available. And second, big publishers like Elsevier were supportive of green OA.

    I’m afraid Mike is recalling wrongly here. I have been predicting and advocating a transition from toll-access subscription publishing to (what eventually came to be called) Fair-Gold OA publishing from the very outset (1994). But this was always predicated on a viable, realistic transition scenario to get us from here to there. This always entailed an intermediate phase in which Green OA self-archiving would grow in parallel alongside subscription publishing, rather than an unrealistic attempt to make a direct transition (“flip”) to Gold: Green OA needed to become universal (or near-universal) before there could be a viable transition to Gold.

    Mike also misinterprets the references to “peaceful co-existence” between Green OA self-archiving and subscription publishing. No one can predict the future with certainty, and it is certainly true that there is no evidence yet of Green OA’s causing subscription cancellations, even in fields where it has already attained 100% Green OA for more than two decades. But I never denied my own belief that once all research in all fields had reached or neared 100% Green, subscriptions would become unsustainable and journals would have to downsize and convert to Fair-Gold OA.

    Not only was this “disruptive scenario,” already implicit in my “Subversive Proposal” of 1994, as well as in my very first posting in August 1998 to the AmSci September Forum (which eventually became the the Amsci OA Forum and then the Global OA Forum (GOAL)), but I made it completely explicit in the 2000 draft of “For Whom the Gate Tolls” in sections 4.1 and 4.2:

    “Eight steps will be described here. The first four are not hypothetical in any way; they are guaranteed to free the entire refereed research literature… from its access/impact-barriers right away. The only thing that researchers and their institutions need to do is to take these first four steps. The second four steps are hypothetical predictions, but nothing hinges on them: The refereed literature will already be free for everyone as a result of steps i-iv, irrespective of the outcome of predictions v-viii.
    i. Universities install and register OAI-compliant Eprint Archives…
    ii. Authors self-archive their pre-refereeing preprints and post-refereeing postprints in their own university’s Eprint Archives…
    iii. Universities subsidize a first start-up wave of self-archiving by proxy where needed…
    iv. The Give-Away corpus is freed from all access/impact barriers on-line…

    “…However, it is likely that there will be some changes as a consequence of the freeing of the literature by author/institution self-archiving. This is what those changes might be:

    v. Users will prefer the free version?…
    vi. Publisher toll revenues shrink, Library toll savings grow?…
    vii. Publishers downsize to providers of peer-review service + optional add-ons products?…
    viii. peer-review service costs funded by author-institution out of reader-institution toll savings?…

    “If publishers can continue to cover costs and make a decent profit from the toll-based optional add-ons market, without needing to down-size to peer-review provision alone, nothing much changes.

    “But if publishers do need to abandon providing the toll-based products and to scale down instead to providing only the peer-review service, then universities, having saved 100% of their annual access-toll budgets, will have plenty of annual windfall savings from which to pay for their own researchers’ continuing (and essential) annual journal-submission peer-review costs (10-30%); the rest of their savings (70-90%) they can spend as they like (e.g., on books — plus a bit for Eprint Archive maintenance).”

    This original transition scenario has since been further elaborated many times, starting from before BOAI in Nature in 2001, with updates to keep pace with OA developments (repositories, mandates, embargoes) in 2007, 2010, 2013, 2014, and 2015.

    M.E.: At first this seemed inexplicable to me – why would publishers not only allow but encourage authors to post paywalled content on their institutional repositories? But it didn’t take long to see the logic. Subscription publishers correctly saw the push for better access to published papers as a challenge to their dominance of the industry, and sought ways to diffuse this pressure. With few functioning institutional repositories in existence, and only a small handful of authors interested in posting to them, green OA was not any kind of threat. But it seemed equally clear that, should green OA ever actually become a threat to subscription publishers, their support would be sure to evaporate.

    I continue to laud those subscription publishers who do not embargo Green OA as being on the “side of the angels,” to encourage them. (And they are indeed on the side of the angels: Green OA mandates would be much more widely adopted and effective if it weren’t for the nuisance tactic of publishers embargoing Green OA. But the Button is the antidote, facilitating “Almost OA,” which will nevertheless be enough to carry the transition scenario to 100% Green OA and its sequel; it will just take a little longer.)

    And if and when they go over to the dark side (as Elsevier has now done), I immediately name-and-shame them for it.

    As it happens, I think Elsevier’s reneging too late: Not only will it be extremely costly to them in terms of PR. But they can no longer force the genie back into the bottle…

    So it was worth trying to keep them angel-side all these years.

    M.E.: Unfortunately, Harnad didn’t see it this way. He felt that publishers like Elsevier were “on the side of the angels”, and he reserved his criticism for PLOS and BMC as purveyors of “fools gold” who were delaying open access by seeking to build a new business model and get authors to change their publishing practices instead of encouraging them to take the easy path of publishing wherever they want and making works freely available in institutional repositories.

    The ones who were the fools were not the purveyors of the fool’s gold, but those who bought it (and, worse, those who tried to mandate that they buy it).

    And the reasons it’s fool’s gold are three: it is not only (1) arbitrarily overpriced, but, being pre-Green — meaning subscriptions cannot yet be cancelled because the Green version is not yet available — it is also (2) double-paid (incoming subscription journal fees plus outgoing Gold journal fees) and, to boot, it is (3) unnecessary for OA, since Green OA can be provided for free.

    Yes, subscription publishers that do not embargo Green are facilitating the transition to Green OA and eventually to post-Green Fair-Gold; unfortunately, pre-Green Fool’s-Gold is not.

    (The only reason to publish in any journal, whether subscription or Gold, is the quality of the journal, not in order to provide OA.)

    M.E.: At several points the discussions got very testy but we managed to come to make a kind of peace, agreeing to advocate and pursue both paths. PLOS, BMC and now many others have created successful businesses based on APCs that are growing and making an increasing fraction of the newly published literature immediately freely available. Meanwhile, the green OA path has thrived as well, with policies from governments and universities across the world focusing on making works published in subscription journals freely available.

    Agreed.

    M.E.: But the fundamental logical flaw with green OA never went away. It should always have been clear that the second Elsevier saw green OA as an actual threat, they would no longer side with the angels. And that day has come. With little fanfare, Elsevier recently updated their green OA policies. Where they once encouraged authors to make their works immediately freely available in institutional repositories, they now require an embargo before these works are made available in an institutional repository.

    There was no fanfare but there’s plenty of spin, to make it seem that withdrawing an agreed author right was being done for positive reasons (research sharing) rather than negative ones (insurance policy for Elsevier’s current income levels). And this is because there was an (accurately) perceived need for a justification. It would have been much easier to sell embargoes to the Elsevier author community if self-archiving had never been allowed. So I’d say that Elsevier’s 8-10 years on the side of the angels has served OA well.

    Nor is it over. Elsevier and its legal staff have rightly sensed that finding rules that have their intended effect and are accepted by the author community is not so easy to do.

    In fact I am quite confident that it is impossible. The virtual genie is out of the bottle and there is no way to get it back in. Stay tuned.

    M.E.: This should surprise nobody. It’s a testament to Stevan and everyone else who have made institutional repositories a growing source of open access articles. But given their success, it would be completely irrational of Elsevier to continue allowing their works to appear in these IRs at the time of publication. With every growing threats to library budgets, it was only a matter of time before universities used the available of Elsevier works in IRs as a reason to cut subscriptions, or at least negotiate better deals for access. And that is something Elsevier could not allow.

    I think Mike is completely mistaken on this. It was exactly the other way around. The global immediate-Green-OA level for any journal today is still under 30% — probably a lot under, since no one has accurate timing data — which is certainly no basis for cancelling a journal. Green OA mandates are not yet having any effect on institutional subscriptions, but, because Elsevier began to worry that they eventually might, they first tried, in their pricing deals, to persuade institutions that in exchange for a better price deal they should agree not to mandate Green OA. That failed, so they next tried to embargo only mandatory Green OA. That failed too — and was rightly seen as so arbitrary and ad hoc that they have now tried to make their embargoes “fair” by embargoing everything — but they still had to have a sugar coating, and that was “sharing.”

    Trouble is that it is precisely sharing at which the virtual medium and its software is the most adept and powerful. And Elsevier is about to discover that there is no way to contain it with arbitrary words that have no actual meaning in the virtual medium.

    M.E.: Of course this just proves that, despite pretending for a decade that they supported the rights of authors to share their works, they never actually meant it. There is simply no way to run a subscription publishing business where everything you publish is freely available.

    I agree completely that Elsevier went angel-side just for reasons of image: The OA clamor was growing, alongside all the anti-Elsevier sentiment, and they saw allowing immediate Green OA self-archiving as no risk but a PR asset. And it was.

    But this also gave Green OA a chance to grow, via Green OA mandates, which Elsevier had not anticipated in 2004 (though they were already beginning).

    So now Elsevier is using “fairness” and “sharing” as their PR ploys for camouflaging the fact that the purpose of the embargoes is purely self-interested (insuring current Elsevier revenue streams).

    Well, first, the public is not currently to sympathetic about Elsevier revenue streams (which they hardly see ass “fair”).

    But, more important, now it will be the online medium’s Protean resources for sharing that will be Elsevier’s embargoes’ undoing.

    M.E.: I hope IRs will continue to grow and thrive. Stevan and other green OA advocates have always been right that the fastest – and in many ways best – way for authors to provide open access is simply to put their papers online. But we can longer pretend that such a model can coexist with subscription publishing. The only long-term way to support green OA and institutional repositories is not to benignly parasitize subscription journals – it is to kill them.

    But there is no need at all (nor is there a means) to “kill” established, high quality journals of long standing that researchers want to use and publish in: What there is is a means to induce them to adapt to the OA era — by mandating Green OA and allowing that to force nature to take its evolutionary course to the optimal and inevitable (via the transition scenario I’ve now several times described here): First 100% Green Gratis OA, then cancellations, then obsolete-cost-cutting and conversion to affordable, scalable, sustainable Fair-Gold.

    No point waiting around instead for some unspecified assassin to kill off perfectly viable journals, needlessly…

    Stevan Harnad

  4. Posted May 28, 2015 at 3:44 am | Permalink

    Thanks Mike,
    I agree completely with everything you say.
    The Open Access movement is in imminent danger of self-destructing or (more probable) becoming marginalized by publisher actions. BOAI – which I have always supported and always will must present a coherent face. The current mess is holding back the world, costing tens of billions and costing lives. Like MikeT I shall blog this.
    The key thing is to avoid the future being even worse.

  5. Posted May 31, 2015 at 5:49 am | Permalink

    Hasn’t all this Green/Gold discussion been made superfluous by the spectacular rise of Blue Open Access (i.e. Academia.edu and ResearchGate) in recent years? In my field (theoretical linguistics), there is little that the authors do not make available via their Academia site. And for books (still quite important in linguistics), one can go to one of the Russian websites where they can be downloaded for free. I don’t see how traditional publishing can survive long, because sooner or later the administrators will notice and will force the librarians to cancel subscriptions (probably one of the reasons subscriptions aren’t being cancelled in larger numbers yet is that librarians are afraid of losing their jobs).

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