All Green-OA embargoes are iniquitous

March 15, 2013

We’ve seen a lot of arguments recently about the RCUK open-access policy and the length of embargoes that it allows on Green OA articles under various circumstances. When is it reasonable to insist on six months? When might publishers have cause to want to stretch it out to 24 months? And so on.

The truth here is terribly simple. There is no justification for embargoes of any length on accepted manuscripts, ever. Remember that, whatever else they do, publishers do not fund research, nor peer-review. Up to the point where a manuscript is accepted for publication, they have made no contribution, and it’s nothing short of an outrage that current policies allow them any say in what happens to the work that has been done to that point.

After a paper has been accepted, then the publication process begins. That is when publishers add their own value, through copy-editing, formatting, typesetting, etc. It is perfectly reasonable that they should have some say in what happens to the final formatted papers which they have contributed to.

But that’s all. Every accepted manuscript should be immediately made freely available with no embargo.

Any publisher that argues against this policy is saying that the value they add is inadequate. Under a zero-embargo system, libraries would still subscribe to journals if they felt that the value added by publishers was worth what they charge for subscriptions. Publishers that do a good job at a good price would not be harmed. The only publishers that could conceivably suffer under such a policy are incompetent or exploitative ones. When did it become the government’s job to protect them?

[This post is a cleaned-up version of a comment that I left on a recent Times Higher Education article.]

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10 Responses to “All Green-OA embargoes are iniquitous”

  1. Christopher Says:

    Something that’s been rolling around in my head regarding all this is the “Penny Gap” . . . the idea (not yet experimentally verified, to my knowledge) that it’s much harder to move somebody from paying zero to paying $0.01 than it is to move them from paying $0.01 to paying $0.02, and so on.

    And anecdotally, it at the very least feels true. Email, there are free options. So I’ve always used free, web-based email. I’ve never paid for email, and the one time (in the late ’90s) that my free email provider tried to force me to start paying, I jumped ship and went to another free provider.

    Cheeseburgers are never free, though . . . nobody gives out free cheeseburgers, and so “why would I pay for this” never even enters my mind if I’m after a cheeseburger. I can get a cheeseburger for $1, yeah, but I can get a better cheeseburger for $5, or $10 . . . so the few times I really want a cheeseburger, I usually go for the nicer, more expensive option rather than the dollar-menu patty.

    . . . so onto papers . . . I’m wondering, what if “free” was actually “a penny”? (Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE the idea of free papers, this is just a what-if rolling around in my head.) If you wanted to download a research pdf, you paid a single cent, Apple App Store-style. If you needed to comb through 10,000 pdfs, that would cost you $100 . . . which doesn’t to me seem prohibitively outrageous for access to that much human knowledge.

    (The penny goes to defray the hosting costs of the download site? Or could be split between paying back the government of whatever country(ies) sponsored the research, if it’s publicly-funded research? I haven’t really thought that out.)

    Anyway, once a paper costs a penny, once all papers cost a penny . . . that encourages publishers to keep their costs low still (I’m not going to pay $10,000 for research I can get online for a total of $0.30) . . . but it also encourages me as the consumer of research to be more in the cheeseburger mindset rather than the email mindset (“oh, I can get added value by paying a little more? Well, I might as well buy the upgrade, as long as I’m already paying.) I’ve already crossed “the Penny Gap”, making it a bit easier for publishers (or anybody else) to, should they actually add value, get (fairly) compensated for it.

  2. Mike Taylor Says:

    Hi, Christopher, thanks for those thoughts.

    You’re right that the penny gap is hugely important — not because the difference between 0¢ and 1¢ is more than between 1¢ and 2¢, or indeed 10¢, but because it introduces a transaction, a barrier. It fundamentally changes the relationship, by requiring that there be a relationship. But if I want to harvest 10,000 papers from 50 different publishers, I don’t want to manage 50 different relationships. I just want to get on with my work, using the data I need.

    If we’re going to make the progress we’re capable of — and if we as taxpayers are going to get the best value for the work we fund — then we need a frictionless research world, where we have as little as possible standing between researchers and their research.

    Also, pragmatically, the cost of taking 1¢ for each access would surely exceed the revenue. By not charging at all, you can avoid paying for all sorts of infrastructure — paywalls, registration systems, payment processing.

    Finally, and most important of all, you’re only talking here are cost; but the real issue is freedom. Open Access is not just about the ability to read a PDF of a paper. It’s about opening up all sorts of new kinds of research that we’ve not even thought about yet by just getting out of the damned way. All the tools and programs and schemes that publishers come up with for access to papers? No-one wants any of that. What researchers want is for publishers to publish, then get out of the way and let us get on with researching. Whatever ideas they may come up with for indexing, summarising, mining, statistical analysis, graph traversal or what have you, you can bet your lower intestine that someone else can and will make a better one if the data is freely available for them to do it. That benefits all of us — researchers, funders, medics, teachers, entrepreneurs. All of us.

    So, no, a 1¢ payment is not acceptable. We need freedom, not just low, or zero, cost.

  3. AnotherMike Says:

    But by your own argument this is easy. No one stops anyone putting up their submitted manuscript on the web – instantly available for anyone and any machine to see. If the publishers are irrelevant to the accepted manuscript then surely this solves the problem?

  4. Mike Taylor Says:

    You would think. And yet, publishers do impose embargoes on OA publication of accepted manuscripts, as absurd as it is; and crazier still, funders let them get away with it. That’s why I came up with the though experiment of unilaterally placing accepted manuscripts into the public domain before signing any kind of agreement with the publisher.


  5. […] As part of the progressive erosion of RCUK’s initially excellent open-access policy, barrier-based publishers somehow got them to accept their “open-access decision tree“, which you can now find on page 7 of the toothless current version of the policy. The purpose of this manoeuvre by the Publishers Association is to lend an air of legitimacy to continuing to deny citizens access to the research they funded for up to 24 months after publication. It’s to the House of Lords’ enduring shame that they swallowed this, when they must know that there is no justification for embargoes of any length. […]


  6. […] people whose money they’re spending, actually want: immediate low-cost BOAI-compliant OA. No delays, no ifs, buts, maybes. As always, researchers who don’t like the funder’s conditions […]


  7. […] complete non-problem of “predatory open-access publishers”, the acceptable length of Green-OA embargoes (zero), the SV-POW! decision tree, publishers’ lack of control over what you do before you […]


  8. […] imposition of the Green OA embargo is unfortunate (All Green-OA embargoes are iniquitous). Not only that, but 12 months exceeds the 6 months suggested by the better, earlier version of the […]


  9. […] would of course have wanted all embargo periods to be eliminated, or at the very least capped at six months as in the old, pre-watering-down, RCUK policy. But […]


  10. […] manuscript accepted by a publisher should be immediately made freely available with no embargo. His view (March 15, 2013):  “Any publisher that argues against this policy is saying that the value […]


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