Open Access confusion

Open-access terminology needs to be employed accurately, argues Cameron Neylon

March 28, 2013

Source: Marcus Butt

Given broad acceptance that the UK should move towards wider access to research, the debate has naturally moved on to the question of implementation. The details matter, including the words we use. The problem is that the terminology is being systematically misused.

For veterans of the open-access movement, the terms “green” and “gold” have very specific technical meanings. They refer to mechanisms of access: “green” means access provided through repositories to author manuscripts; and “gold” means access provided to the final published version of papers in journals.

They explicitly do not refer to business models. Gold does not necessarily mean that article fees apply. The majority of outlets registered on the Directory of Open Access Journals website do not charge any fee, and some of these are very prestigious in their fields. According to a definitive 2012 study by Mikael Laakso and Bo-Christer Björk of the Hanken School of Economics in Helsinki, at least 30 per cent and possibly as many as 60 per cent of articles made immediately accessible on publication are in journals that do not charge article fees. Yet, over the past 12 months, reports, arguments and parliamentary questions have all uncritically repeated the assumption that public access through journals entails such fees.

PLOS, alongside other successful open-access publishers in the biomedical sciences, operates by charging article processing fees and makes a modest surplus (which, as a non-profit organisation, we reinvest in programmes in support of our mission). We believe it is important to acknowledge that scholarly communication has real costs and should be funded as a core part of the costs of research. We also support the view of the UK government and the Finch report that the best result would be a sustainable system through which published research is immediately made available in its final published and peer-reviewed form.

But the transition will be complex, and poor use of terminology can shape and limit our thinking about how to get there. By talking simplistically about two routes to open access - one where manuscripts go into repositories and another in which article fees buy public access through journals - we reduce the potential for truly innovative approaches.

The terms “green” and “gold” are now so debased that we should simply stop using them. Let’s talk instead about channels of publication, repositories and journals, and new blends that blur these distinctions. Let’s talk about the services we want and whether they are best delivered by commercial providers or by the community: peer review, copy editing, archiving and indexing. And let’s talk about the full range of sustainable open-access models and how they are appropriate, or not, in different research domains and settings.

What, for example, about repositories that charge article fees to cover their costs? Or journals that offer peer review but where the content is hosted in a repository? We already have open-access journals that are supported, in kind or in cash, by their communities, and organisations that have traditionally subsidised small, specialised journals are looking to move on to an open-access footing. What can we learn from these successes - and failures?

It is worth noting that although Research Councils UK requires its new institutional block grants to be spent primarily on article fees, they may also be used for other purposes that support the long-term goals of immediate access with re-use rights. Smart institutions will be considering how to use some of that money for publishing experiments. These might include supporting the development of new kinds of journal, or working with other institutions to create pools of shared support to help humanities journals in the transition to open access.

As well as poisoning the debate, the lack of care in terminology is symptomatic of the paucity of good evidence available to government, Parliament and the scholarly community. Assertions have been made about the effect of embargoes of various lengths on journal viability, even though the best published data we have show no effect. However, these data are incomplete and anecdotes are emerging that point in a different direction; for a robust scholarly debate to proceed, we need more evidence to be published and reviewed.

A wealth of expertise already exists in delivering sustainable and affordable open access. Hundreds of thousands of articles from across the disciplines are already available through repositories and in journals that are fully compliant with all existing and proposed UK, European and US policies.

We at PLOS would never presume that the models we have built are suitable for all scholars in all places, but we do believe that our experience of the journey to sustainability and success will have value in guiding other domains of scholarship in theirs. So let’s stop mangling our terminology, let’s get the right data on the table, and let’s talk.

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Reader's comments (5)

Thank you for this timely article. Cameron is right to call for a correct use of the terminology. I would say though that what is "poisoning the debate" is not necessarily an imprecise usage (or rather, understanding or application) of 'Green' and 'Gold', but a certain unwillingness to a) have engaged with open access before it became a governmental imposition and b) accept that open access always-already posits that the traditional business model of paid-subscription or paywalled journals is not working. Even I may have myself referred to 'Green' and 'Gold' as 'business models' within the context of the Finch report, but not because I ignore the fact that as Cameron rightly points they do not refer to business models proper if by that we understand the charging of article processing fees. In the traditional and conservative discoursive universe around the Finch report, there are no journals other than the traditional journals that would not embrace open access unless they charge APCs (this is a generalisation of course, since not all traditional journals will/would go this route). For many, 'Gold' equals 'Unpayable APCs For Which Almost Nobody Have Funding For'. In my view, this (alas, incorrect and biased) definition is rooted in this unwillingness to interrogate the academic publishing system as a whole, including the reasons why people publish in paid-subscription journals in the first place, and the many years in which the structural inequality of access to academic knowledge (by limiting access to mostly elite institutions in the 'developed' West) remained unquestioned. So yes, indeed, Green and Gold does not equal business models if by that we mean whether authors will have to pay to publish or not. The question is why this definition has become so widespread, and I would suggest one reason is the lack of imagination and even courage to dare a more thorough transformation of the academic publishing landscape. This does not mean that OA advocacy of this type is calling for the 'destruction' of academic publishing as we have known it, as some anti OA colleagues may suggest. On the contrary, it means calling for a renovation of the sector in the context of the radical transformations to the conditions of production and reproducibility of academic knowledge in the age of the Web. Indeed, equating Gold OA with paying APCs is incorrect and it undermines the OA ethos, because it merely shifts the economic burden from libraries to individual authors. This is not the point, and it only bound to promote a kind of inequality which OA also seeks to tackle. In the end, Open Access is more than an ethical stance, it is a technology and a specific redefinition of traditional publishing business models, because it poses that charging ridiculously expensive institutional subscription fees, alienating non-elite academics and non-elite-academic taxpayers, leaving them in many cases without access to content that either discusses their own situation, authored by them or they funded indirectly through their taxes. Proposing that publicly funded research should be open accessible by the taxpayers who funded it is a business model. Proposing that academic publishing currently has a business model which is very likely to become unsustainable and that in many cases exploits the labour of academics and that therefore something has to be done is a call for the discovery of new business models. New business models often require radical exercises of imagination: we cannot make a successful transition to OA by leaving things as they are, reacting by imposition rather than will, and without a desire (importantly, from Early Career Researchers as well) to interrogate the most-obvious foundations of academic publishing, and innovate accordingly.
I wish I could go back and edit my comment, but alas, I can't. So my apologies for some typos and what appears as a long sentence without a predicate. Thanks for your understanding.
Great piece by Cameron here. Another issue that seems to be popping up lately is an alleged conflict between open access and academic freedom. i can't see that there's really a problem here, and i've tried to sort out the claim, the arguments, and the answers recently, in: 4 ways open access enhances academic freedom
Besides the terms "Gold" and "Green" being misused, the term "Open Access" (or "open access") itself is a battleground between factions as well. Differing visions of future publishing, and differing strategies of how to progress, both play out upon it. For example, John Wilbanks' article in the current special issue of Nature ("The future of publishing") argues that "for an article to be considered truely open access, it has to meet the...definition in the Budapest Open Access Initiative," preferably expressed by the CC-BY license. ( However, "Open Access" is being pervasively applied to practices which don't meet the BBB (Budapest, Berlin, & Bethesda declaration) definitions -- e.g. embargoes, NC or ND license restrictions. Is this allowing the pollution and undermining of the movement, or is it reasonable accommodation to circumstances, and steps towards the longterm goal -- bringing various communities together in common cause, around a more capacious understanding of the principle? In political terms, is there more need for Big Tent, or message descipline? If positions on this aren't well-considered, it can lead to similar problems as misuse of "Green" and "Gold": language getting in the way of issues, sound and fury, people talking past each other, distrust and distraction. While the great ocean of opportunity lies mostly undiscovered before us. ---- Tim McCormick @tmccormick / / Palo Alto, CA, USA
What biology and medicine needs is some equivalent of arXiv. Publishing on the web costs very little, perhaps £200 - £300. Some journals manage it entirely free. Even PLOS charges a good deal more than that. I imagine that the reason that the Finch report didn't tackle the crucial matter of cost was that, if the real costs where charged, it would mean that a lot of people employed by publishers would become unemployed. That's sad, but times change and it seems inevitable. Science, scholarship in general and the public would all benefit from the demise of Elsevier and even the Nature Publishing Group (though Nature would persist as a news magazine).

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