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 It was inevitable that this blessing would be withdrawn as Green started to become more mainstream — and that’s exactly what we’ve seen, with Elsevier responding to the global growth in Green OA mandates with a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?
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 :-)