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Saturday, November 10, 2007

More on JAM about the NIH policy

Jan Velterop, JAM tomorrow, The Parachute, November 9, 2007.  Excerpt:

On Wednesday November 7, 2007, in an entry called ‘More JAM about the NIH policy’, Peter Suber alerts us all to the fact that Nature, The Washington Post, Slashdot, and many others, got it wrong: the NIH policy is not about mandating its grantees to publish in OA journals, it is just about mandating them to deposit their articles, that is to say an “electronic version of their final, peer-reviewed manuscripts” in PubMed Central “upon acceptance for publication to be made publicly available no later than 12 months after the official date of publication”.

Indeed, as Suber says correctly, "The policy would require deposit in an OA repository (PubMed Central), not submission to OA journals. It's about green OA, not gold OA."

Unfortunately, in the perception of many – Nature, The Washington Post, and Slashdot surely don’t have a subversive agenda, but just report what is widely perceived – this distinction is of a level usually associated with copyrightlawyerly hairsplitteralcy....

Is it really just “ignorance and misunderstanding” that leads to this quite persistent confusion? Or is there perhaps something subliminal or too subtle in the distinction between ‘green’ and ‘gold’ that wrong-foots otherwise intelligent people?

Applied to OA, ‘green’ and ‘gold’ are qualifiers of a different order. ‘Gold’ is straightforward: you pay for the service of being published in a peer-reviewed journal and your article is unambiguously Open Access. ‘Green’, however, is little more than an indulgence allowed by the publisher. This, for most publishers at least, is fine, as long as it doesn’t undermine their capability to make money with the work they do. But a 'green' policy is reversible.

This is not to say that the NIH policy isn’t going to be effective in bringing OA closer. It may very well be. But quite possibly not via ‘green’ (is it not time to realise that ‘green’ isn’t the fast and sure way to open access that it is often made out to be?).

Embargoes are the policies that will bring OA closer. Why? An embargo carries the risk for a publisher that both the reader (read: librarian) and the author can just afford to wait. Especially if embargoes should get shorter than 12 months. And if they can afford to wait, there is no need or incentive on either side to pay anything to anybody. For publishers, there are only two ways out, and neither involves ‘green’: to refuse articles from NIH grantees unless they come with some form of cash payment or exclusive rights. ‘Gold’ publishers already do that; they get paid in cash when they accept and publish an article. No cash, no publication. Subscription publishers get paid in the form of rights that are transferred to them. Copyrights, mostly, or at least exclusive publication rights (if and where there is a difference between those two). And those rights will look a lot less exclusive and therefore lose a lot in value under an embargo regime. So actually, it comes down to just one way, since the exclusive rights route is a mere cul-de-sac leading nowhere, all but closed off by embargoes. Or perhaps the other is stopping journal publishing altogether.

For hitherto ‘green’ publishers, to turn to ‘gold’ and join the already existing OA publishers in only inviting submission of manuscripts by NIH grantees that, should they be accepted for publication, come with publication fees in one way or another, will be an increasingly attractive option.


  • I agree with Jan that JAM is not due to a "subversive agenda" but simply to misunderstanding.  But the innocence of the mistake doesn't make it any less regrettable or in need of correction. 
  • It's one thing to say that people often misunderstand the distinction between green and gold, but quite another to say that the distinction itself is "copyrightlawyerly hairsplitteralcy".  It's not that hard to grasp.  Gold is OA through peer-reviewed journals, and green is OA through archives or repositories which don't themselves perform peer review.  But while these repositories don't perform peer review themselves, they can host manuscripts peer reviewed elsewhere.  The NIH policy doesn't even use the green/gold language --which admittedly is not self-explanatory--, but simply talks about depositing a certain version of the manuscript in PubMed Central, regardless of where the article was published.  That's not hypersubtle and we can certainly expect journalists at the Washington Post and Nature to get it right.  They get much subtler policies and concepts right every day. 
  • On the other hand, Jan may be right that there is " the distinction between ‘green’ and ‘gold’ that wrong-foots otherwise intelligent people".  I've tried for years to understand why otherwise intelligent people so frequently get it wrong.  Last month I put it this way (p. 46):  "The fact is that green OA has always had to fight for recognition.  Its novelty makes it invisible.  People understand OA journals, more or less, because they understand journals. But there's no obvious counterpart to OA archiving in the traditional landscape of scholarly communication. It's as if people can only understand new things that they can assimilate to old things."
  • "‘Green’, however, is little more than an indulgence allowed by the publisher."  Some is and some isn't.  When publishers permit self-archiving, as most do today, Jan is right that this is an indulgence.  Publishers may revise or revoke their permission at any time.  But funder policies to mandate green OA needn't depend on publisher permission at all.  There are at least two ways to do this.  (1) One is to take advantage of the fact that funders are upstream from publishers.  If the funding contract requires deposit in an OA repository, then grantees are bound by this contract and can only sign subsequent copyright transfer agreements with publishers subject to the terms of the prior funding contract.  This approach was pioneered by the Wellcome Trust and has since been taken up by by the Medical Research Council, JISC and HHMI.  (2) The other way is for a public funding agency to use a license specially approved by the legislature to disseminate the results of publicly-funded research.  In the US there are two such licenses, one from 2003 for all the agencies within the Department of Health and Human Services (including the NIH) and one from 2005 for all federal agencies whatsoever.  FRPAA would have used the latter.  It's too early to say which approach the NIH will take, but it certainly need not rely on the indulgence of publishers.  And if it is serious about achieving a compliance rate approaching 100%, then it will not rely on the indulgence of publishers.
  • "This is not to say that the NIH policy isn’t going to be effective in bringing OA closer. It may very well be. But quite possibly not via ‘green’ (is it not time to realise that ‘green’ isn’t the fast and sure way to open access that it is often made out to be?)."  Three quick points.  First, the NIH policy will certainly bring OA closer, just as other OA mandates have done at other funding agencies.  Second, it will do so entirely through green OA, since that is the only kind of OA the policy requires.  Third, green is unquestionably a "fast and sure" way to bring about OA, especially when mandated by a funder or university.  Mistakes by journalists and others in understanding green OA count for nothing once an agency has well and properly implemented a policy requiring green OA.  If these mistakes are used as an objection to implementing such a policy, supposedly on the ground that they show that green isn't a fast and sure path to OA, then the objection begs the question. 
  • I have no opinion on Jan's view that embargoes (or OA mandates plus embargoes) will nudge green journals into converting to gold, but I do hope he's right about that.