Open Access News

News from the open access movement

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

More on paying for green OA

Dieter Imboden, Publishers divide and rule on open access, Research Research, March 29, 2007.  Imboden is a professor of environmental physics at ETH Zurich, the president of the Research Council of the Swiss National Science Foundation (Switzerland's chief public funding agency), and vice president of EuroHORCs, the European Heads of Research Councils association.  Not even an abstract is free online, at least so far.

In the still-dominant “reader-pays” publishing world, there exists (or existed until recently) an implicit agreement between funders and research institutions that the former pay for the direct costs of research, the latter for the necessary infrastructure, including libraries....The tacit agreement is that funded researchers have access to the scientific literature through the institutional library.

When libraries began to cancel journal subscriptions for financial reasons, funders saw an important pillar of their research policy dwindling....

Many journals permit this already, although with various restrictions on embargo time and the final editing of the article. This “green way” of open access sustains the traditional division of responsibility between funders and institutions....Both the European Research Advisory Board and the new European Research Council have issued recommendations along these lines....

[T]he Wellcome Trust and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute...ask their grantees to publish exclusively in pure or hybrid open-access journals, with free online access to author-paid articles.

As a result, HHMI has agreed to pay Elsevier to make research articles published in Elsevier and its Cell Press journals freely available within six months, if the research was supported by HHMI. The Wellcome Trust has similar agreements with its clients and is ready to pay the fee for freely available publications.

From the funders’ point of view, several issues now need careful analysis. First, in contrast to pure open-access journals, hybrid journals (with both reader-paid and author-paid articles) do not relieve the strained budgets of libraries. If a library pays for online access, it means access to articles supported by HHMI or the Wellcome Trust is paid for twice....

Secondly, changing to a total open-access world would shift the financial burden from institutions to funders, hopefully at constant or lower total costs. Although such a shift might seem reasonable to the research system as a whole, the distribution of public money for research (whether national or European) would have to change accordingly—either by reducing support to institutions or by increasing the budgets of funders.

I believe the most severe problem is the way agreements between publishing companies and individual research funders are achieved....If every funder, small or large, weak or powerful, has to negotiate individually with the various publishers, we will be back where we began—in a publishing world where economic power dictates the deals between libraries and publishers....

What can we do instead? It is not the fault of publishing companies that serious publishing is not cheap. We cannot even blame them for engaging in these kinds of contracts. “Divide and rule” has always been a good tactic to govern, and one that also works in the economic world. Remember: the main issue is not to save money, but to provide fairer access to scientific information. So, funders and institutions together should proceed together on the route to open access. The green route is easy and without major problems, but a good and just strategy for the golden route is still missing....

Not all the funders have the same opportunities. Not all the disciplines are as powerful as particle physics, which, according to CERN director Robert Aymar, can easily finance the transition of the few journals in the field to complete open access.

Let us—scientists, funders, institutions, libraries and publishers—talk together, before too many new boundary conditions make a rational solution difficult.


  1. It's not true that the Wellcome Trust and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute require grantees to publish exclusively in pure or hybrid OA journals.  They only require grantees to publish in journals that permit green OA, or OA archiving, on the funder's terms (for version and embargo period).  For example, the recent deal between HHMI and Elsevier clears the way for HHMI-funded authors to publish in Elsevier journals, even though most Elsevier journals are neither full OA nor hybrid OA.
  2. I agree that hybrid OA journals will not relieve library budgets, and made the same point in an April 2005 article.  However, full OA journals will relieve library budgets, at least if they are converts from TA journals to which the library formerly subscribed.
  3. I share Imboden's objections to the pay-for-green model and provide my own critique of it in the current SOAN.
  4. I wouldn't conclude as quickly as Imboden that the CERN project for gold OA in particle physics will not transfer to other fields.  As I argued in January 2007, "The question is not whether other fields have their own CERNs (they don't), but whether they can build the kind of coalition [among universities, libraries, funders, and publishers] that CERN has built."  Or as I put it in December 2006, "other fields don't need a CERN-like institution with great wealth or research dominance, only an institution with great convening power."
  5. I share Imboden's view that "the green route is easy and without major problems...."  That's why we should use it fully as we can while we experiment with different models for supporting gold OA.  The strategy I recommend could be called asymmetric parallel processing:  deliberations about gold should not slow down activity for green, but activity for green should accelerate deliberations about gold.