Green and Gold: the possible futures of Open Access

May 26, 2015

Provoked by Mike Eisen’s post today, The inevitable failure of parasitic green open access, I want to briefly lay out the possible futures of scholarly publishing as I see them. There are two: one based on what we now think of as Gold OA, and one on what we think of as Green OA.

Eisen is of course quite right that the legacy publishers only ever gave their blessing to Green OA (self-archiving) so long as they didn’t see it as a threat, so the end of that blessing isn’t a surprise. (I think it’s this observation that Richard Poynder misread as “an OA advocate legitimising Elsevier’s action”!) It was inevitable that this blessing would be withdrawn as Green started to become more mainstream — and that’s exactly what we’ve seen, with Elsevier responding to the global growth in Green OA mandates with a regressive new policy that has rightly attracted the ire of everyone who’s looked closely at it.

So I agree with him that what he terms “parasitic Green OA” — self-archiving alongside the established journal system — is ultimately doomed. The bottom line is that while we as a community continue to give control of our work to the legacy publishers — follow closely here — legacy publishers will control our work. We know that these corporations’ interests are directly opposed to those of authors, science, customers, libraries, and indeed everyone but themselves. So leaving them in control of the scholarly record is unacceptable.

What are our possible futures?

Gold bars

We may find that in ten years’ time, all subscriptions journals are gone (perhaps except from a handful of boutique journals that a few people like, just as a few people prefer the sound of vinyl over CDs or MP3s).

We may find that essentially all new scholarship is published in open-access journals such as those of BioMed Central, PLOS, Frontiers and PeerJ. That is a financially sustainable path, in that publishers will be paid for the services they provide through APCs. (No doubt, volunteer-run and subsidised zero-APC journals will continue to thrive alongside them, as they do today.)

We may even find that some of the Gold OA journals of the future are run by organisations that are presently barrier-based publishers. I don’t think it’s impossible that some rump of Elsevier, Springer et al. will survive the coming subscription-journals crash, and go on to compete on the level playing-field of Gold OA publishing. (I think they will struggle to compete, and certainly won’t be able to make anything like the kind of money they do now, but that’s OK.)

This is the Gold-OA future that Mike Eisen is pinning his hopes on — and which he has done as much as anyone alive to bring into existence. I would be very happy with that outcome.


While I agree with Eisen that what he terms “parasitic Green” can’t last — legacy publishers will stamp down on it as soon as it starts to be truly useful — I do think there is a possible Green-based future. It just doesn’t involve traditional journals.

One of the striking things about the Royal Society’s recent Future of Scholarly Scientific Communication meetings was that during the day-two breakout session, so many of the groups independently came up with more or less the same proposal. The system that Dorothy Bishop expounded in the Guardian after the second meeting is also pretty similar — and since she wasn’t at the first meeting, I have to conclude that she also came up with it independently, further corroborating the sense that it’s an approach whose time has come.

(In fact, I started drafting an SV-POW! myself at that meeting describing the system that our break-out group came up with. But that was before all the other groups revealed their proposals, and it became apparent that ours was part of a blizzard, rather than a unique snowflake.)

Here are the features characterising the various systems that people came up with. (Not all of these features were in all versions of the system, but they all cropped up more than once.)

  • It’s based around a preprint archive: as with arXiv, authors can publish manuscripts there after only basic editorial checks: is this a legitimate attempt at scholarship, rather than spam or a political opinion?
  • Authors solicit reviews, as we did for for Barosaurus preprint, and interested others can offer unsolicited reviews.
  • Reviewers assign numeric scores to manuscripts as well as giving opinions in prose.
  • The weight given to review scores is affected by the reputation of reviewers.
  • The reputation of reviewers is affected by other users’ judgements about their comments, and also by their reputation as authors.
  • A stable user reputation emerges using a pagerank-like feedback algorithm.
  • Users can acquire reputation by authoring, reviewing or both.
  • Manuscripts have a reputation based on their score.
  • There is no single moment of certification, when a manuscript is awarded a “this is now peer-reviewed” bit.

I think it’s very possible that, instead of the all-Gold future outlined above, we’ll land up with something like this. Not every detail will work out the way I suggested here, of course, but we may well get something along these lines, where the emphasis is on very rapid initial publication and continuously acquired reputation, and not on a mythical and misleading “this paper is peer-reviewed” stamp.

(There are a hundred questions to be asked and answered about such systems: do we want one big system, or a network of many? If the latter, how will they share reputation data? How will the page-rank-like reputation algorithm work? Will it need to be different in different fields of scholarship? I don’t want to get sidetracked by such issues at this point, but I do want to acknowledge that they exist.)

Is this “Green open access”? It’s not what we usually mean by the term; but in as much as it’s about scholars depositing their own work in archives, yes, it’s Green OA in a broader sense.

(I think some confusion arises because we’ve got into the habit of calling deposited manuscripts “preprints”. That’s a misnomer on two counts: they’re not printed, and they needn’t be pre-anything. Manuscripts in arXiv may go onto be published in journals, but that’s not necessary for them to be useful in advancing scholarship.)


So where now? We have two possible open-access futures, one based on open-access publishing and one based on open-access self-archiving. For myself, I would be perfectly happy with either of these futures — I’m not particularly clear in my own mind which is best, but they’re both enormously better than what we have today.

A case can be made that the Green-based future is maybe a better place to arrive, but that the Gold-based future makes for an easier transition. It doesn’t require researchers to do anything fundamentally different from what they do today, only to do it in open-access journals; whereas the workflow in the Green-based approach outlined above would be a more radical departure. (Ironically, this is the opposite of what has often been said in the past: that the advantage of Green is that it offers a more painless upgrade path for researchers not sold on the importance of OA. That’s only true so long as Green is, in Eisen’s terms, “parasitic” — that is, so long as the repositories contain only second-class versions of papers that have been published conventionally behind paywalls.)

In my own open-access advocacy, then, I’m always unsure whether to push Gold or Green. In my Richard Poynder interview, when asked “What should be the respective roles of Green and Gold OA?” I replied:

This actually isn’t an issue that I get very excited about: Open is so much more important than Green or Gold. I suppose I slightly prefer Gold in that it’s better to have one single definitive version of each article; but then we could do that with Green as well if only we’d stop thinking of it as a stopgap solution while the “real” article remains behind paywalls.

Two and a half years on, I pretty much stand by that (and also by the caveats regarding the RCUK policy’s handing of Gold and Green that followed this quote in the interview.)

But I’m increasingly persuaded that the variety of Green OA that we only get by the grace and favour of the legacy publishers is not a viable long-term strategy. Elsevier’s new regressive policy was always going to come along eventually, and it won’t be the last shot fired in this war. If Green is going to win the world, it will be by pulling away from conventional journals and establishing itself as a valid mode of publication in its own right. (Again, much as arXiv has done.)


Here’s my concern, though. Paul Royser’s response to Eisen’s post was “Distressing to see the tone and rancor of OA advocates in disagreement. My IR is a “parasite”? Really?” Now, I think that comment was based on a misunderstanding of Eisen’s post (and maybe only on reading the title) but the very fact that such a misunderstanding was possible should give us pause.

Richard Poynder’s reading later in the same thread was also cautionary: “Elsevier will hope that the push back will get side-tracked by in-fighting … I think it will take comfort if the OA movement starts in-fighting instead of pushing back.”

Folks, let’s not fall for that.

We all know that Stevan Harned, among many others, is committed to Green; and that Mike Eisen, among many others, has huge investment in Gold. We can, and should, have rigorous discussions about the strengths and weaknesses of both approaches. We should expect that OA advocates who share the same goal but have different backgrounds will differ over tactics, and sometimes differ robustly.

But there’s a world of difference between differing robustly and differing rancorously. Let’s all (me included) be sure we stay on the right side of that line. Let’s keep it clear in our minds who the enemy is: not people who want to use a different strategy to free scholarship, but those who want to keep it locked up.

And here ends my uncharacteristic attempt to position myself as The Nice, Reasonable One in this discussion — a role much better suited to Peter Suber or Stephen Curry, but it looks like I got mine written first :-)

23 Responses to “Green and Gold: the possible futures of Open Access”

  1. Pandelis Says:

    Dear Mike,
    I am happy to see that the “Green” community is gradually converging towards a solution that we proposed in our paper “Natural Selection of Academic Papers” (, published back in 2010, where we proposed the “author-guided peer review model”. An important difference is that we actually do not need a single Preprint server, but an open peer review plugin offered as an overlay service in every institutional repository. The use of standardised protocols will allow the harvesting of reviews, review and reviewer ratings, and article scores by meta-repositories and search engines from individual repositories. Since most repositories are built using one of three software packages (DSPACE, E-Prints, Invenio), it is relatively easy to develop an open peer review plugin for each of these packages. This way we avoid the concentration of power in one or a few publication platforms and avoid the games of power and prestige that brought us in the current miserable situation. At the same time we take advantage of the existing infrastructure and manpower of institutional repositories, which solves the sustainability problem. We are currently working towards this solution and will soon have the first repositories integrating an open peer review service. It will be very interesting then to see the reception by the community of researchers, who, at the of the day, are the one to decide where the future of scholarly communication will move towards…

  2. Mike Taylor Says:

    That all sounds good, Pandelis, thanks for sharing.

    BTW., I should also have mentioned that the systems in use at F1000 Research and Science Open have much in common with the Green-based approach I outlined.

  3. Pandelis Says:

    Yes, there are some excellent peer review systems around. I have had very positive experiences with F1000 and Frontiers both as author and reviewer. What I don’t like in publishers is the exclusivity that leads to an absurd and unnecessary competition. It is this exclusivity over the quality control and the publication of the content that generates the games of power that are so harmful to the process of knowledge creation and exchange.

  4. binay panda Says:

    mike, we are not touching the real problem here. publication is one of the means to an end, which is getting grant money, promotions and gaining prestige/awards etc. unless we address the core issue, any discussions on publishing model has v little meaning. and precisely this is the reason why oa publishing model has not gained wider acceptance in the academic community. i have been trying to educate the academic community, students and granting agency in india on the benefit of publishing research output in oa journals for the last 4yrs but will v little effect on the ground. the growing list of predatory oa publishers and john bohannon’s science article of 2013 have not helped the cause either.

    in india, and i guess in many others, the green vs gold discussion is totally meaningless and futile. all, yes all, decisions on who to give research grant money is based on where (aka, impact factor of the journals) one publishes her/his results. therefore, scientists will publish in those journals that has higher impact factor. if tomorrow f1000research gains an impact factor of 30, everyone will publish there, be it through green or gold or any other model. we must address the root cause of the problem. unless we change the way research output is incentivized, no discussion on publishing model is meaningful.

    binay panda

  5. Frosted Flake Says:

    I think it entirely predictable that those who derive advantage from the status quo should invent rude names for those who do not and are unsatisfied. Predictable too that those rude names should actually resemble those slinging them more that the targets of said slurs. It shows that they are aware of the issue and seek to co-opt it.

    I’d go further to say I agree and disagree with the assertions of the author of this post. Specifically. I disagree with the suggestion it would be better to go along with the folks making the money. Science is not about making money. It’s about making progress. And I would expect the man in the middle to point out how valuable he is. But I would not expect anyone else to buy in to it.

    It has been clearly noted that control of information is an industry and a profitable one. And that said industry does not busy itself promoting the dissemination of new information, quite the opposite. That industry corrals new information and doles it out drop by drop in exchange for MONEY.

    Let us briefly meditate on the substance of evil.

    Now, If I may, I would like to briefly sketch my view of a good future for the project, not the business, of publishing science.

    Notice the example provided by Wikipedia. Anyone can publish anything, and anyone edit anything. Both with the caveat of making plain who said what, when and changed what, when.

    Clearly, this is not quite suitable. But it is very, very close to what is needed. And not a publisher to be seen , anywhere. No money involved. No profit taken. And no embargo imposed. Can I get Hallelujah? Or at least a glimmer of hope.

    With slight alterations the Wiki model can serve as a (dare I say the word?) free publishing center. Free in every sense of the word. Anyone, scientist or charlatan, can publish anything. Anyone at all can say anything at all about any of it. And everyone interested can see it all, including the evidence. If there is any. And make up their own minds about it.

    Certainly, there are shortcomings. Which will need to be addressed, rather than used as excuses to dismiss the whole idea.

    1/ No one should be able to alter anothers’ prose.
    2/ A reader must be able to exclude the comments of those he deems clowns from appearing on his desktop.
    3/ The database must be searchable, both manually and automatically.
    4/ A vetting process must be defined to allow the cream to rise while the scum is somehow swept aside.

    And there is more. Much more. And not being a professional scientist excuses me personally from the task of mentioning each. It is merely a sketch of a better way for scientists to communicate with one another. The chief feature of which is that absence of a middleman making a living on not helping.

    I’d go on, but you know how much I enjoy brevity.

  6. Mike Taylor Says:

    Binay Panda posits:

    publication is one of the means to an end, which is getting grant money, promotions and gaining prestige/awards etc.

    This perspective, I wholeheartedly reject. It may feel that way to scientists trying to climb the career ladder, or indeed tying to get onto the bottom rung, but it ain’t so. The purpose of publication is increase the world’s total knowledge, and thereby to improve it. On this, I like the quote attributed to Jon Foley: “Your job is NOT to get tenure! Your job is to change the world.” When we forget this, we’re in real trouble (and so is the world).

    However: in the medium term, people who feel compelled to publish behind paywalls have literally no reason at all not to also make their work available via Green OA in repositories; and even judged purely selfishly, they have every reason to do so, since study after study has shown that open-access papers are more highly cited.

    All that said, Binay is clearly correct in saying that the way universities and granting bodies evaluate researchers (based largely on what journals their work has been published in) is at the root of much of the idiocy that pollutes modern scholarship. This is a theme — in fact I might say the theme — that the recent Royal Society #FSSC meetings kept coming back to. On this score, great credit is due to the Wellcome Trust for its statement that it is the intrinsic merit of the work, and not the title of the journal or the publisher with which an author’s work is published, that should be considered in making funding decisions. We must hope that other funders will follow suit; the SF DORA is an important step in this direction.

  7. Mike Taylor Says:

    Frosted Flake, I’m a bit confused. You say “I disagree with the suggestion it would be better to go along with the folks making the money”. Did something I wrote give the impression that I thought we should do that? I would have thought my post pretty clearly said the exact opposite?

  8. binay panda Says:

    mike, i am 100% with you and appreciate your spirit in what you say “The purpose of publication is increase the world’s total knowledge, and thereby to improve it” but in reality this is not what happens. being a part of any decision making body for research grant (i am only thinking of india here) will make it clear that when push comes to shove, most, if not all, decision makers reward those who publish in big impact factor journals. now, i must clarify, that the opposite is not necessarily always true, i.e., if you have not published in big journals your grant application may not automatically gets rejected but if you have, you increase the odds tremendously in your favor.

    this, is the crux of the mater, and this is what we need to change. once this is achieved, most scientists will look at publication through a different lens all together. i am not aware if you have a conducive atmosphere in the uk but in india, the situation is pathetic. publications in scn automatically gets you accolades/prizes and puts you right on the top. i am trying to educate others against this practice but as the old adage goes “old habits die hard”, it will take consistent efforts and time to see the change take effects on the ground.

    binay panda

  9. Michaël Bon Says:

    I agree with Binay Panda. The evaluation system is what locks everything. As long as evaluation is delivered by private interests, they can be sure that they will have an unceasing flow of scientists submitting their articles to get their impact factor and they can afford to be deaf and blind to the basic Science ethics most of us are longing for.

    The only way out (imho) is to have a new and fair evaluation gain momentum. However, to be realistic, it can only be done in a way which does not conflict with official publication, because if scientists cannot have both, they will always choose impact factor not to sacrifice their career. Thus, the idea is to have an evaluation system built on a repository, as well as a peer review interface as Pandelis suggested. Hence, we can have a place working for Science’s sake and according to its ethics, which creates an other value that has an impact among us, while still feeding the current system no to lose anything, as long as this other value is not officially taken into account.

    This is exactly what is proposed by the Self Journal of Science . Check its novel evaluation logic!

  10. Pandelis Says:

    Exactly Michael! And yes! The Self Journal of Science is the best thing I have seen around for years. So close to what we wanted to do with LIBRE You have my full support!

  11. Michael Richmond Says:

    I would like to echo the words of Binary Panda and Michaël Bon. As long as hiring and tenure decisions are based on publications in high-impact journals, high-impact journals will continue to thrive.

    If advocates of open publishing were the same people who make hiring and tenure decisions, then they could simply stop using impact factors in their decisions, and the journals would die. But as far as I can tell, the people making the decisions tend to be older and more set in their ways than the people pushing for open-access publishing. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

    One option is patience: wait for the current generation of decision makers to retire, then take over the positions of power and change the process. It’s almost guaranteed to work, but will take a decade or more.

    Another option is for all the people who believe strongly in open-access science to stop acting as referees for the high-impact journals, and to stop submitting to them. If the population of open-access advocates is large enough, this might bring the journals to their knees. I’m not sure that it is large enough. In any case, in the short term, this will result in some open-science advocates losing out on positions.

    Have I missed any other options?

  12. Michaël Bon Says:

    Dear Michael,
    here are my concerns about what you propose.
    1) The “patience strategy” is not guaranteed to work for two reasons :
    a) People who take the decisions are few
    b) They co-opt themselves, they are not elected
    Therefore, the majority mentality of a new generation may not be represented at the level where decisions are taken. Moreover, because of low numbers, I trust stakeholders to find an unseen way to have their interests defended.

    2) The review boycott may not work, as it is a hidden part of the system. If a lot of people boycotted it, the journal would be the only one to know, would not care and would not be “brought to its knees”. They sell impact factor, not reviewing. Actually, I got only one useful referee report out of my ten published articles. I would certainly see no difference if most anonymous careless referees I got were replaced by incompetent ones. And journals will always find enough people to provide something they call a review as there is still the hope that one will be in “good terms” with a journal by often accepting to be a reviewer for it.
    The editor boycott could work though, but it is very unlikely to happen.

    3) The other option is to build peacefully an another way to make Science public which does not conflict with the current system and that brings its own additional benefits.

  13. binay panda Says:

    we have a difficult problem at hand. i don’t know/know of a single, yes a single, scientist who thinks “making scientific output openly and widely available to the public is not a good idea”. now we must think, and think hard, why despite the fact that we, the scientific community, when unanimous in our choice act exactly the opposite way when it comes to publishing our own results!!!

    the answer is simple, the current hire/grants/promotions/tenure system is based on where one publishes. yes, michael richmond is absolutely right, we just need to wait for the current generation to retire but the question is, can we afford to wait that long? no, we can’t, we need to fight back to change the system of hire and reward.

    therefore, the real fight is not where one should publish, the real fight is to change the way we hire our faculty and the way we reward them with tenure and research grants. we must concentrate on the bull’s-eye, the rest will automatically follow.

    binay panda

  14. Marcin Says:

    To add to this topic,
    After the last exchange with Beall, it was rather eye-opening, when I recently spotted his blog’s title:

    Scholarly Open Access
    _Critical analysis of scholarly open-access publishing_

  15. Mike Taylor Says:

    I don’t get your point, Marcin: why was that title eye-opening?

  16. Marcin Says:

    Sorry for continued side-tracking:
    Eye-opening as in, it makes his stance against OA perfectly clear now. He’s not there to eradicate the wrongdoers; rather, he stigmatizes by example the whole OA movement.

  17. Mike Taylor Says:

    Oh, yes, sorry, I thought you knew that about Beall. It’s now so well-established that even the trad-publishing echo chamber that is the Scholarly Kitchen has lost patience with him. I’m afraid that at this point, pretty much nothing he says can be taken at face value.

  18. […] For big publishers that are used to 35% profit-margins, no. For most other people, yes. (I, for example, would be very happy with this outcome; though not all OA advocates would agree. It would be a good transition for scholarly publishing; but perhaps not the best possible.) […]

  19. […] by the Max Planck Institute, the scholarly world flipped from being dominated by subscriptions to Gold open access? I think there are three things to […]

  20. […] sensible commentators Mike Eisen and Mike Taylor, however, see in this the more-or-less imminent end of green open access as currently constituted. […]

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