Tutorial 19b: Open Access definitions and clarifications, part 2: Gold and Green

November 16, 2012

Last time, we looked at what the term “open access” actually means. We noted that its been widely abused, so that when you need to be specific about the full meaning you need to say “BOAI-compliant”; we recognised that much of what is described as OA is really only “gratis OA”, or as Ross Mounce called it, “gratis access”; and we noted that the term “libre open access” is literally meaningless and should be avoided.

At the moment, the big argument within the open-access movement is about Gold vs. Green open access. This time, we’ll look at what these terms mean, what they don’t mean, and some of the pros and cons of each.

What Gold and Green mean

Gold open access means that that publisher, which creates the final published form of the paper (i.e. usually a PDF) makes that final published form freely available.

Mostly that means they will host it on their own site, as for example BMC and PLOS (two Gold-OA publishers) do. In some cases, the papers may be hosted off-site: for example, eLife doesn’t host its own papers at the time of writing, but leaves them for PubMed Central to host. The key point is that the publisher is responsible for making the work freely available.

Well-behaved Gold-OA publishers will also do things like ensuring the papers are indexed in reference databases like PubMed, and that they are archived in schemes like LOCKSS and Portico.

Green open access means that the publisher locks the final published form of the paper behind a paywall, but the author takes steps to ensure that it’s freely avalaible elsewhere.

The form of the paper that is made available varies: ideally it’s the final published form; sometimes it may be the final accepted manuscript, as it was when the author last touched it, before the publisher typeset it.

Often, Green OA uses institutional repositories (IRs). Another common option is a subject repository, of which the best known is arXiv — the vast preprint archive for maths, physics and astronomy, and occasionally palaeontology. Another (rather weak) form of Green OA is individual researcher collections on web-pages, such as Matt’s and mine. There may be other options, such as uploading the manuscript into a torrent space, and letting the world mirror it. The key point is that the author has to make this happen, rather than leaving it to the publisher.

Gold and Green are strategies

The first and most important thing to understand is that Gold OA and Green OA are not two different goals. They are two complementary strategies for reaching the same goal — which is open access.

A given downloaded paper is not a Gold OA paper, or a Green OA paper. It’s just an open access paper. It’s true, of course, that it reached its user by means of the Gold or Green routes. But by the time it’s arrived at its destination, the route it took is no more interesting than whether I took the M40 or M4 on my journey to London. Being in London is what matters.

This is why the loathing that some Green advocates seem to feel for Gold is so misplaced. We want to get to London. I may find the M40 route more convenient, but I really don’t want to get into a situation where I’m insulting those who chose to drive down the M4.

“Gold” does not mean “higher quality” or “more open”

In retrospect, it may be a bit of a shame that the Gold strategy was given the name Gold, which connotes quality, rather than a more value-neutral colour such as blue. You sometimes read people writing about Gold OA as though it’s the gold standard — the best OA you can get! But of course that’s not true.

The best OA you can get is OA that complies to the original definition of the Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI): that is, open access that permits all kinds of reuse as well as merely reading. You can achieve BOAI-compliant OA by the Gold or Green routes. And you can also take the Gold or Green routes to a paper that is merely “gratis access” — i.e. free to read, but with all other rights reserved. Whether the Gold or Green route was taken tells you nothing about what rights you have.

Advantages and disadvantages of Gold and Green

So why does it make any difference whether Gold or Green is used? Well, there are a few things:

  • Green requires more work from the author
  • Gold may require the author (or, more usually, her institution) to pay a publication fee.
  • Green may undermine publishers’ businesses. [Whether that is an advantage or disadvantage may be open to argument.]
  • In the common case where Green provides only the author’s final manuscript, there are two versions of the paper out there, which can cause confusion.
  • In that case, you don’t generally know the final published version’s page-numbers when working from the author’s manuscript, which means you can’t cite pages.
  • Fragmentation of papers across many Green repositories causes problems:
    • It can be hard to find a paper — there is no good cross-IR aggregator, and who wants to find the lead author’s institution’s IR on the way to discovering the paper?
    • Different IRs impose different bizarre and unnecessary reuse conditions, often preventing BOAI compliance.
    • Coverage of IRs is surprisingly patchy, and some very well-respected universities doesn’t seem to have one at all.

So the equation is a fairly complex one, and it’s perhaps not too surprising that some OA advocates prefer Gold on balance, while others feel that Green is better. (I may have my own opinions on this issue, but I’ll leave them out of this post.)

Green and Gold in open-access mandates

The best-known and most influential open-access mandate is that of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the USA, which requires that authors “Submit papers to PubMed Central (PMC) and approve public release”. This is is of course a form of Green OA, with a particular repository wired in.

The great majority of subsequent open-access mandates, whether from funding bodies or universities, have followed the NIH’s lead in requiring Green OA. Why? I don’t really know — mandating organisations don’t tend to discuss their reasoning. But one obviously appealing aspect of the Green route is that no-one has to think about money. In particular, funders don’t have to find more of it to pay for publication.

Against this backdrop it’s been encouraging to see that many of the more recent mandates are neutral on which route should be taken, caring only that open access is achieved. An obvious example is the new RCUK policy, which describes both Gold and Green (though without using either term).

[It’s true that RCUK has expressed a preference for Gold (and is providing money to make it possible), but they are clear that the choice is one for authors to make. The specific reasons given for preferring Gold in the linked post seem spurious, as I noted in my comment there, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t legitimate reasons.]

The Finch report strongly favours Gold

Finally a word on the Finch report, recently written to guide UK open-access policy. This report was produced by a committee containing researchers, librarians, administrators, and — crucially — publishers. Now publishers hate Green OA, because it doesn’t generate revenue for them. And it seems that the publisher lobby nobbled the otherwise excellent report by excising all mention of Green OA. My feeling is that expressing a preference for Gold would have been reasonable, but that pretending Green doesn’t exist was misleading and irresponsible.

The very unfortunate consequence of this has been that certain open access advocates who strongly favour the Green route have become very noisy with articles and comments that give the impression they’re opposed to open access — because the Gold emphasis of the Finch report (and the mild Gold preference of the RCUK policy) is different from the way they would like to do things. Folks, please stop this. It doesn’t help anyone, with the possible exception of Elsevier.

The real point here is that the world needs open access. How it gets open access is a very secondary issue in comparison.

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30 Responses to “Tutorial 19b: Open Access definitions and clarifications, part 2: Gold and Green”


  1. Great post, thanks!

    Particularly like the
    “Gold” does not mean “higher quality” or “more open” point

    True, and often left unsaid. ‘Gold’ is just one means by which one can achieve Open Access, its connotations of superiority are indeed unfortunate and a more neutral label in retrospect would have been better (but far far FAR too late to change that now!).


  2. Jean-Claude Guédon wrote in 2004 that ‘The “green” and “gold” terminology itself seems to have been invented by Stevan Harnad while discussing the results stemming from the RoMEO study.’ http://openaccess.nettools.be/media/docs/Gu%C3%A9don.pdf

    RoMEO, the “Rights Metadata for Open Archiving” project, is at http://www.sherpa.ac.uk/romeo/

    The terms Gold & Green open access were used by Harnad on email lists as early as November 2003: http://users.ecs.soton.ac.uk/harnad/Hypermail/Amsci/3148.html

    These terms were popularised during 2004 by, for example, this Nature debate about open access: http://www.nature.com/nature/focus/accessdebate/21.html

  3. Mike Taylor Says:

    Thanks, Matt, useful context.

    It’s ironic that the current tendency towards favouring Gold, which I suspect comes at least in part because of the incorrect but seductive “gold standard” connotation, may be be largely due to terminology chosen by Harnad — the very person who most noisily promotes Green to the exclusion of Gold.


  4. [...] to make is that it really doesn’t matter. Green and Gold OA are not two different things; they are just two complementary strategies to achieve the same goal. So whether we get there by the Green or Gold route is much less important than that we get there. [...]

  5. Matt Wedel Says:

    Another possibility: Gold OA is provided by publishers, and usually paid for by authors or funding agencies, so ‘gold’, which connotes coins, is appropriate. Green OA is provided by authors, and is therefore more organic, or ‘green’. I haven’t read anything by Harnad, but those seem like obvious implications of the terms. If that’s actually what he had in mind, it was a bit prophetic, given how ‘green’ has become such a universal meme a decade later.

  6. Mike Taylor Says:

    I’m sure, Matt, that these are the connotations that were intended when the terms Gold and Green were coined. Unfortunately, the word “gold” comes pre-loaded with all sorts of brainware, and simply will get misinterpreted as “best” by a lot of people.


  7. [...] we saw last time, the appeal of the Gold route to open access is that the publisher does the work of making the [...]

  8. Vertebrat Says:

    There are really two green/gold distinctions here. One is whether the open-access publication comes from the Official Publisher or from somewhere else; this is only interesting when people care about Official Publishers. The other is the practical issue of whether stable OA publication happens automatically as part of the usual publication process, without requiring additional effort from the author. This is more likely to remain relevant — trivial inconveniences matter!

    Physics seems to have made the former irrelevant, and reversed the burden of the latter, by adopting the green-OA Arxiv as the “normal” publication process. Official Publication has become a desirable extra that isn’t always done because it’s more work.


  9. [...] series. In part 1, we looked at what open access means, and what terms to use in describing it. In part 2, we considered the Gold and Green roads to open access. In part 3, we touched on zero-cost Gold OA, [...]


  10. Thinking that the road to open access does not matter as much as open access itself has an obvious shortcoming: the APCs may prevent valuable research to be published. While you rightfully point out that building barriers to access of papers is harmful, it seems to me that equally obviously, building barriers to publishing that are not based on scientific relevance is harmful.

    You’ll probably answer : waivers. I think they won’t do it, just like current specific programs to give cheaper access to developing countries do not solve the access problem (if only, because access is a problem also in the richest countries).

    This issue might seem negligible in every science where no research can be done without consequent funding ; but in many theoretical areas (like mine, fundamental mathematics), one can do good research without much financial support, and the burden of APC would be difficult to deal with for every department that has currently problems subscribing sufficiently many journals.

  11. Mike Taylor Says:

    I will say several things. “Waivers” is one, and note that some important OA publishers including PLOS offer no-questions-asked waivers to any author who requests them, not only those from LEDCs. Another is “PeerJ” — a one-off $99 fee to publish free Gold OA once a year for the rest of your life (or $299 for unlimited publications). Another is “arXiv” — no-fee deposition in the world’s most recognised and respected academic archive. And let’s not forget that over half of all Gold-OA journals are no-fee.

    So there are plenty of options for authors without institutional funding to pay for APCs. (For the record, I am one of those authors myself.)


  12. “In that case, you don’t generally know the final published version’s page-numbers when working from the author’s manuscript, which means you can’t cite pages.”

    Now I wouldn’t expect this from a hip-groovy-up-with-the-times modern scholar! You really need page numbers to cite things in a paper? (whoops, let me turn the sarcasm off…) If the paper is written properly, it should stand alone, and have internal pointers to the structure, rather than relying on some vague process that means you can only cite a specific section of a paper once the journal has published a (possibly paper) copy. And with the recent trend towards ‘online first’ versions, they can be available from the publisher’s website for months before being assigned page numbers. See e.g. http://plms.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2012/06/19/plms.pds028.short (or http://arxiv.org/abs/1102.4388). For those that can’t access the OUP version, pages are referred to as ‘n of 25′, and articles *actually published* in an issue of the journal get sequential page numbers, like p891, p892 etc. It makes referring to specific pages tricky.

    But, and this is the joy of proper document design, I can refer to example 3.9 of the above linked paper, and it is example 3.9 in the arXiv version, in the ‘online first’ version, and it will be in the published version. This is also structure that wasn’t changed between the ‘accepted version’, the one that publishers generally let you post online in some form, and the publisher’s ‘version of record’, so that references in other papers that are written before this one is assigned page numbers will not be obsolete.

    Now the above example is fairly standard for mathematics. Some authors (generally French) go so far as to number sections down to almost single paragraphs, so that one has better resolution than page numbering. For example in http://www.math.univ-toulouse.fr/~dcisinsk/winfax.pdf I *could* refer to page 114, or I could refer to any of Proposition 1.1.7 (and/or it’s proof), section 1.1.8, Proposition 1.1.9, Corollaire 1.1.10 or Corollaire 1.1.11. Or I could talk about section 1.1 as a whole, or even section 1.
    Also note that different ‘environments’ (as we say when talking in (La)Tex) are numbered consecutively, so that there isn’t a mad non-linear progression of numbers.

    And anyone who has read Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (http://people.umass.edu/phil335-klement-2/tlp/tlp.html#bodytext) would know that sometimes single sentences are numbered, but this is perhaps overkill for a general article.

    Anyway: page numbers? I bite my thumb at them…

  13. Mike Taylor Says:

    Well, David, what we have here is a clash between two different scientific cultures — and there is no question at all that yours is the better of the two in this respect. I come from a software engineering background, where documents that I write have a clearly stated hierarchical structure with faceted section numbers — which makes individual sections easy to cite at a better resolution that page numbers. I have never understood why that’s not done in palaeo, but it never is. It’s on my looong list of Dumb Publishing Practices To Change.


  14. “I have never understood why that’s not done in palaeo, but it never is.”

    Not even in your recent arXiv’ed paper, I see. Will the editors at the paleo journal, in the process of making your paper universally understandable, remove section numbering because it offends their sensibilities? :-)

    Also, if you use the right software, managing section numbers and internal cross references is not hard (clearly Word is rubbish, I’ve written enough reports for my previous, non-academic employer to detest Word).


  15. By the way, I hope it is clear I am talking not just for the benefit of you, Mike, and also slightly taking the mickey.

  16. Mike Taylor Says:

    You’re right, I omitted section numbering from our arXiv submission. That’s probably because we first formatted it for submission to a journal, which wouldn’t have allowed them if it had accepted the ms. — which it didn’t. Perhaps I will put them in for the next submission anyway, and see what happens. But most journals’ guidelines are clear about how they want headings to look.

    As for what text-editor to write in: my first submission to a palaeo journal was in troff (using pic and tbl). As far as I know, this was not part of the reason it was rejected without review :-) I’ve written a small computer-science paper and some much longer unpublished reports in LaTeX. I routinely write software manuals in DocBook XML, and specifications in raw HTML. I’m fairly happy with all of these. But for palaeo, I pretty much need to use MS-Word or its equivalent (LibreOffice in my case) not only because it’s what journals expect to receive, but also because co-authors in this field wouldn’t have a clue what to do with a LaTeX source file.


  17. [...] often been noted that under the author-pays model of publication (Gold open access), journals have a financial incentive to publish as many articles as possible so as to collect as [...]


  18. [...] gradual implementation, the acceptance of longer embargoes and a toning down of the preference for Gold over Green. (While there is case for Green in the abstract, the form of Green required by the RCUK policy is [...]


  19. [...] an analysis of the difficulties of Green OA, this is admirably precise. But my eye was caught by that phrase “funds needed to manage peer [...]


  20. [...] on open access has recently come under fire, particularly from humanities scholars, for favouring Gold OA over Green. For various reasons — and I won’t, for now, go into the question of which of these [...]


  21. [...] near the end, the chair asked for a show-of-hands vote on whether the best approach to pursue is Gold or Green open access — not just as a long-term goal, but as the immediate short-term approach. The [...]


  22. […] House OSTP’s recent memo on open access — a huge step forward that extends an NIH-like Green OA policy to all US federally funded research. It was a triumph for common sense, an explicit […]


  23. […]   Often called ‘gold’ open access.  This leads into a whole other discussion of green vs gold open access and the definitions of which we won’t touch on […]


  24. […] Open Access definitions and clarifications, part 2: Gold and Green – an article on svpow.com which briefly explaining the main differences between Gold and Green Open Access and provides useful information about their advantages and disadvantages. […]


  25. […] Publish our own work open access (whether Gold or Green) […]


  26. […] (OA) provides a solution; free access to, and reuse of, research online for everyone through either Gold or Green OA systems.  Without paywalls, greater accessibility to articles will help accelerate scientific research. […]


  27. […] Open Access definitions and clarifications […]


  28. […] preprints are option #1. Number 2 is Gold Open Access: publishing in an open-access journal such as PLOS ONE, a BMC journal or eLife. As a matter of […]


  29. […] Well, wouldja lookit that. Looks like I just invented Gold Open Access. […]


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