Hard News by Russell Brown

28

Open or not?

When I saw it online yesterday, the news that the British government is to embrace the "open access" movement by requiring that all publicly-funded research be freely and promptly published seemed like a win.

The academic journal system is, in some respects, a racket. It reaps captive profits far in excess of publication shuts out researchers not associated with institutions that can afford increasingly exoensive journal subscriptions -- and laypeople like myself who simply want to occasionally refer to original research.

But the comments under The Guardian's news story suggest that the British government hasn't necessarily got it right. I don't mean the people who think it equates to "giving away" research to wealthy corporations (newsflash: wealthy corporations can afford journal subscriptions), but people who believe Britain is embarking on the wrong open access model.

This blog post by Stevan Harnad of the London School of Economics makes that case:

Open Access means online access to peer-reviewed research, free for all. (Some OA advocates want more than this, but all want at least this.) Subscriptions restrict research access to users at institutions that can afford to subscribe to the journal in which the research was published. OA makes it accessible to all would-be users. This maximizes research uptake, usage, applications and progress, to the benefit of the tax-paying public that funds it.

There are two ways for authors to make their research OA. One way is to publish it in an OA journal, which makes it free online. This is called “Gold OA.” There are currently about 25,000 peer-reviewed journals, across all disciplines, worldwide. Most of them (about 90 per cent) are not Gold. Some Gold OA journals (mostly overseas national journals) cover their publication costs from subscriptions or subsidies, but the international Gold OA journals charge the author an often sizeable fee (£1000 or more).

The other way for authors to make their research OA is to publish it in the suitable journal of their choice, but to self-archive their peer-reviewed final draft in their institutional OA repository to make it free online for those who lack subscription access to the publisher’s version of record. This is called “Green OA.”

Therefore:

... if and when global Green OA “destroys” the subscription base for journals as they are published today, forcing journals to cut obsolete costs and downsize to just peer-review service provision alone, Green OA will by the same token also have released the institutional subscription funds to pay the downsized journals’ sole remaining publication cost – peer review – as a Gold OA publication fee, out of a fraction of the institutional windfall subscription savings. (And the editorial boards and authorships of those journal titles whose publishers are not interested in staying in the scaled down post-Green-OA publishing business will simply migrate to Gold OA publishers who are.)

So, far from leading to the destruction of journal publishing and peer review, scaling up Green OA mandates globally will generate, first, the 100 per cent OA that research so much needs — and eventually also a transition to sustainable post-Green-OA Gold OA publishing.

But not if the Finch Report is heeded and the UK heads in the direction of squandering more scarce public money on funding pre-emptive Gold OA instead of extending and upgrading cost-free Green OA mandates.

Who's right here?

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