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.