Open access: ‘no evidence’ that zero embargo periods harm publishers

Debate around embargo periods heightens as Plan S deadline draws near

April 23, 2019
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Embargo periods for sharing open access articles put up “unnecessary barriers” for authors and could be coming to an end, according to experts who argue that removing embargoes has no negative impact for publishers.

As academic and publishing communities around the globe await the results of a consultation review of the incoming Plan S guidelines, a recurring discussion point has been around the value of green open access models – whereby authors must wait a set period of time after publication to share their work on open repositories.

Open access advocates including Robert-Jan Smits, the former lead architect of Plan S, are openly opposed to the green model, arguing that it delays access unnecessarily. But some commercial publishing groups and learned societies maintain that embargoes are necessary to protect business models.

At a public forum in Westminster this month, Tom Merriweather, executive publisher (open access) at SAGE Publications, said he had found “no evidence to say zero embargo periods negatively affect subscriptions”. To remove them completely, he argued, was “a friendlier policy”.

SAGE, which is independently owned, has never enforced embargo periods on its open access content. But speaking to Times Higher Education, David Ross, executive director of open access at SAGE, suggested that increasing numbers of publishing groups were following the trend.

“I think what is happening is that balance of the challenges facing the industry is changing and that may well may result in some people reassessing the relative risks and being a little more relaxed about embargoes,” he said.

The fact his own company had never enforced embargoes had stemmed organically from the philosophy, “let’s not put up unnecessary barriers to author sharing”, he explained.

“It’s hypothetically possible some libraries might cancel subscriptions with publishers as a result of authors’ accepted manuscripts (AAMs) being available with no embargo, but it’s not something we’ve experienced,” Mr Ross said.

In its public response to the Plan S consultation process, Springer Nature bosses have called for the use of six-month embargo periods to be allowed before versions of articles in highly selective journals are made freely available on other platforms.

“The majority of these high costs are incurred prior to article acceptance,” the company said. “This means immediately free and reusable access to AAMs puts at risk the ability of the publishers of these journals to sustain these investments via the subscription model and makes a Green OA approach without an embargo period very difficult and risky.”

Mr Smits, now president of Eindhoven University of Technology, said he thought the fuss around embargo periods was “much ado about nothing”, however.

“I have always been against embargo periods because they do not serve science,” he told THE. He asked what is "the benefit for the science system of having embargoes? Well, there is none. Embargoes are just there to serve the interests of the publishers.”

In 2017, Emerald made the decision to scrap embargo periods across all its titles, allowing all accepted papers to be immediately distributed for free. Tony Roche, publishing and strategic relationships director at Emerald, said the decision had been “a great step in [the company’s] progression” and prompted positive feedback from authors.

Most recently, the Wellcome Trust announced in its updated open access guidelines that medical research papers funded by the organisation must be made immediately and freely available even before publication – through pre-print form – in the interests of international health.

With a review of the feedback generated still under way, Robert Kiley, intermediate head of the coalition group behind Plan S, said the group hoped to publish its updated guidance to reflect the concerns of the community in late May.

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Reader's comments (1)

It's great to see more sense over embargoes - as a librarian I've repeatedly said libraries are not suddenly going to start cancelling subscriptions if there are no embargo periods for green open access. However, I need to take issue with the assumption in this article that green open access by definition requires an embargo - no, it does not, so saying that Robert Jan-Smits "opposes" green open access is wholly inaccurate. Green open access is self-archiving via a repository, ideally with no embargo at all.