Green open access can work for the humanities

Transition is both desirable and inevitable, Gabriel Egan argues

June 6, 2013

As we move towards virtually cost-free digital dissemination, charging readers seems increasingly unjustifiable

We continue to witness a lot of back and forth between publishers and open-access advocates about the merits of Research Councils UK’s open-access policy - but where does it leave journal editors?

Some have echoed the publishers’ fears that open access will ruin their business models or undermine journal quality by scaring off top international authors. But not all editors share this view.

I co-edit two humanities journals: one, Shakespeare, for the large commercial publisher Taylor and Francis; the other, Theatre Notebook, for a small learned society (the Society for Theatre Research). I believe that open access is both desirable and inevitable since, as we move towards virtually cost-free digital dissemination, charging readers seems increasingly unjustifiable.

Much throwing about of brains over the past decade still hasn’t revealed how publishers might make technology their saviour rather than their nemesis. For a while the popularity of PDFs buoyed their spirits because academics believed that only specialists could create them. Microsoft killed that goose by adding “save file as PDF” options to its software.

Publishers also argued that registering digital object identifiers (a sequence of characters used to uniquely identify electronic documents) would relieve authors and librarians of the pain of ensuring long-term digital preservation. But DOIs can be registered by anyone and having one no more guarantees the availability of an article on the web than registering an ISBN number keeps a book in print.

Now publishers pin their hopes on “adding value”, by, for example, linking footnoted references to the full texts. But by automatically labelling all their articles with DOIs, they have made it easy for anyone to create such links.

A further lifeline was thrown by the support offered by last year’s Finch report for “gold” open access, whereby the journal’s official version of an article is made free to the reader in exchange for a fee paid by the author. The problem is that while scientists supported by large external grants may find a figure of upwards of £1,500 insignificant, such fees present an insurmountable barrier to publication for lone scholars in the arts and humanities.

Since its open-access policy was published last summer, RCUK has diluted its original Finch-inspired enthusiasm for gold, making clear that researchers will also be free to choose the repository-based “green” route. But the publishers are still pushing gold: Taylor and Francis’ Open Select programme, for instance, doesn’t even mention that many of its journals are also RCUK-compliant if they follow the green model.

After some of the editors threatened to resign over the publisher’s plans to charge £1,750 for Shakespeare’s gold option, the journal was permitted to opt out of Open Select. So now we don’t explicitly offer contributors an open-access option - but they can make their articles available via the green route.

Theatre Notebook explicitly invites authors to go green, trusting them (since we don’t have the resources to police it) to respect our one-year embargo.

Some will say that by promoting the green route we will ultimately put ourselves out of business by undermining readers’ incentive to subscribe. But what do we need an income for when the editors and peer reviewers of the journal receive no payment for their labours and when online dissemination costs nothing? We could run the journal as an online-only open-access offering - and that, indeed, is my long-term plan once we have ridden out this awkward transition period.

The old economics of print publication gave publishers and authors a false sense of ownership. Publishers felt entitled to make a profit from academic writing because they invested in the technology necessary for dissemination: paper, presses and warehouses. Academic authors felt they owned their writing because publishers returned to them a fraction of the sales revenue.

But scholarship ultimately belongs to the citizens who paid for its creation. Even badly implemented by a reactionary government, open access has the merit of making us confront that truth.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Reader's comments (4)

GLOBAL GREEN OA MANDATES WILL INDUCE A TRANSITION FROM OVER-PRICED, DOUBLE-PAID FOOL'S-GOLD TO AFFORDABLE, SUSTAINABLE FAIR-GOLD Plans by universities and research funders to pay the costs of Open Access Publishing ("Gold OA") are premature. Funds are short; 80% of journals (including virtually all the top journals) are still subscription-based, tying up the potential funds to pay for Gold OA; the asking price for Gold OA is still high; and there is concern that paying to publish may inflate acceptance rates and lower quality standards. What is needed now is for universities and funders to mandate OA self-archiving (of authors' final peer-reviewed drafts, immediately upon acceptance for publication) ("Green OA"). That will provide immediate OA; and if and when universal Green OA should go on to make subscriptions unsustainable (because users are satisfied with just the Green OA versions) that will in turn induce journals to cut costs (print edition, online edition, access-provision, archiving), downsize to just providing the service of peer review, and convert to the Gold OA cost-recovery model; meanwhile, the subscription cancellations will have released the funds to pay these residual service costs. The natural way to charge for the service of peer review then will be on a "no-fault basis," with the author's institution or funder paying for each round of refereeing, regardless of outcome (acceptance, revision/re-refereeing, or rejection). This will minimize cost while protecting against inflated acceptance rates and decline in quality standards. Harnad, Stevan (2010) No-Fault Peer Review Charges: The Price of Selectivity Need Not Be Access Denied or Delayed. D-Lib Magazine, 16, (7/8)
Stevan Hannard's comments regarding the current Open Access transitional period go some way towards answering David Mainwaring's questions. I can give some specifics that complete the answer to Mainwaring: 1) "Why does the British Shakespeare Association (BSA) publish its journal with Taylor & Francis and not by itself?" When the journal was founded 10 years ago, this possibility was considered and rejected by its founders. A hybrid print/digital model met the needs of the Association. Remember, this was before many people had got used to reading on-screen with devices like the Kindle. The BSA membership wanted a journal printed on paper, and Taylor & Francis offered a deal that enabled that. The latest polling indicates that receiving the printed volume as one of the benefits of subscription is still highly valued by the BSA membership. There are subsidiary considerations that I could go into, including the large investment made by the publisher in promotion of the journal at its launch and in the creation of a digital infrastructure for its production processes. These things were and still are hard to do without a publisher, although that is (as my article tries to suggest) changing fast. As the member of the journal's editorial team most in favour of Open Access, my judgement is that working with a publisher is still the best way to produce this journal, although I'm likely to change my mind on that before my colleagues do. We move forward by consensus. 2) "What is stopping you from moving to full open access [of Theatre Notebook] now?" The considerations about paper publication that apply to the membership of the British Shakespeare Association apply equally or more so to the membership of the Society for Theatre Research. Full, no-costs, Open Access only works with purely digital dissemination, and we're not there yet. In the meantime, as Stevan says getting universities to require academics to self-archive their publications (or indeed deposit them in Institutional Repositories) would go a long way towards the desired goal of giving the citizens who pay for our research the full, unfettered access to the results of that research that they are morally entitled to.
This green/gold is so parochial, and completely without meaning outside the UK (or should that be England and Wales ?). So if the journals mentioned here only want UK contributors, and UK readers, then all this makes sense, although I do not agree with the sentiments of the main article. If not, then how will the BSA explain to, for example US scholars, the specifics, complexities, and costs of the Green and Gold models in a way which ensures they actually go along with our local, rather strange, practices ?
Ed Pentz, Executive Director of the publishing industry's CrossRef organization, claims that I've conflated CrossRef with DOIs. In fact I nowhere mention CrossRef, which is only one of the ways that DOIs can be used to automate linking between documents that refer to one another. It is Pentz himself who conflates CrossRef and DOIs, neglecting to mention that authors and readers don't need this industry organization to manage the linking process as there are other, open technologies for doing it. The CrossRef organization exists not merely to do the linking but also to monetize the linking and so provide publishers with new business models to replace the ones that digitization is rapidly killing off. The relationship between CrossRef and the big publishers whose interests it serves are detailed with disarming frankness in the document "The Formation of CrossRef: A Short History", which anyone can find by putting that title into their browser. (And the fact that you can find it that way, without a DOI, is part of my point: the publishers' views on what is necessary for things to be discoverable just aren't keeping up with the technology. Metadata are considerably less important than they claim.) Pentz writes that "No one has ever argued that the DOI System removes the need for preservation or archiving". That certainly is the false impression of DOIs that publishers have fostered. Exaggerating the capacities of its technologies is an ingrained habit of the publishing industry. Who hasn't at some time been told by a publisher that its PDFs are uneditable or that its Digital Rights Management system is uncrackable, and hence these technologies can be trusted to protect authors' works? Here's how Taylor and Francis's "Copyright Transfer FAQs" of 2 June 2005 reassured nervous journal contributors wondering why they were being asked to sign away their copyright: "You will note your published article has been assigned a digital object identifier (DOI) to assure digital copyright protection". (I can supply the original document to anyone who suspects that I'm making this up.) Of course, it's untrue that DOIs assure copyright protection, but you can see why publishers might want to give the impression that they do. Unless she's got someone fairly authoritative advising her against signing away her copyright, an academic (especially a junior one) is likely to think "I'd better do as the publisher says so they can make sure no-one rips me off."