Open Access News

News from the open access movement

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Will OA progress lead to Pyrrhic victory?

Richard Poynder, Open Access: Whom would you back?  Open and Shut? March 10, 2009.  This is a long article making a sustained argument.  I can't excerpt enough of it to show the full argument without trespassing too far on Richard's good will.  So I'll start with a short excerpt setting the stage and then in my comments quote individual sentences to which I'd like to respond.  Excerpt:

...[A]s the OA movement has developed an interesting question has arisen: should Green and Gold OA be viewed as concurrent or consecutive activities?

This is not an issue of intellectual curiosity alone: it has important strategic implications for the OA movement. It requires, for instance, that the movement decides whether to treat Green and Gold OA as complementary or competitive activities; and if they are competitive, then where the OA movement should focus its main efforts.

Speaking to me in 2007,...Peter Suber took a characteristic "big tent" approach: The two forms of OA, he said are complementary, and should be developed in tandem.

In this way, Suber believes, the OA movement will maximise its chances of success, and achieve OA more quickly. As he put it, "OA archiving and OA journals are complementary and need to proceed simultaneously, much as an organism develops its nervous system and digestive system simultaneously and cannot do one first and the other second."

By contrast, OA advocate and self-styled archivangelist Stevan Harnad views the two roads as competitive. Moreover, he says, Green OA must prevail before the movement puts any significant effort into Gold OA.

This is important, he argues, not only because Green OA can be achieved much more quickly and easily than Gold OA, but because it will force publishers to downsize, and so squeeze unnecessary costs out of the current system of scholarly communication....


  • "[I]t seems that Gold OA could marginalise, and eventually overtake, Green OA."  I didn't see the argument for this conclusion.  Richard gives us a wealth of detail on the rise of gold OA, but I didn't see him tie it back to this thesis and show that those developments are setbacks for green OA. 
  • "Hybrid OA was set to become...a tool that would enable publishers to infiltrate the movement, and appropriate Gold OA. And today it looks as though it could defang the OA movement at large."  I saw no evidence for this statement either.  Again, Richard documents the spread of hybrid OA.  But I didn't see him argue that hybrid OA was harming green OA or non-hybrid gold OA. 
  • "[W]hile most subscription publishers had by now agreed to sanction author self-archiving (for political reasons alone), they invariably insisted on an embargo period, from six to twelve months, sometimes longer."  I believe this is untrue.  Publishers who insist on an embargo for green OA are still a small minority of publishers who allow green OA.  We shouldn't confuse publisher permission policies, which generally do not use embargoes, with funder OA policies, which generally do use embargoes. 
  • Richard identifies two stages in the "publishers' strategy to ambush the OA movement".  Note that he's talking about OA publishers here (full or hybrid OA), not TA publishers.  Stage one is the advent of institutional memberships.  Stage two is the sort of deal Springer struck with the Max Planck Society and the U of California to build publication fees for affiliated authors into the cost of subscriptions.  Richard shows that some membership fees have been high enough that some institutions dropped them, though of course other institutions retained theirs.  He also shows that the Max Planck model (actually, first used by Springer with a Dutch library consortium and the U of Goettingen) allows Springer to continue charging for subscriptions.  But both strategies have their advantages, for OA and not just for Springer --primarily in paying for gold OA without making authors pay out of pocket.  These advantages may coexist with disadvantages, but I didn't see an argument that they net out as an "ambush [of] the OA movement". 
  • Richard seems to assume that Max Planck is paying significantly more for subscriptions, now that author-side publication fees are built in, than it paid before.  But I don't know whether that's true and would like to see some evidence, either from Max Planck or from the other institutions where Springer has struck a similar deal (Universiteitsbibliotheken en de Koninklijke Bibliotheek, U of Goettingen, or U of California).  I'm not criticizing Richard for omitting this evidence.  It may be unavailable.  But if the new model covers reader-side and author-side access at the same time, and does so without a significant increase, then it might be closer to a bargain than an ambush.
  • "The upshot is that publishers now appear to be well positioned to migrate to an OA environment, without any significant impact on their profits, and without having demonstrated that their prices are justified."  It's one thing to worry about whether gold OA prices are justified.  But it's another to worry that gold OA publishers might be making profits.  The goal of the OA movement --to me-- is to provide OA to a larger and larger body of research literature, not to put publishers out of business.  (As I put it in my OA overview, "The consequences may or may not overlap --this is contingent-- but the purposes do not overlap.")  We should worry about excessive prices for gold OA, but we should also worry about the inverse problem of insufficient revenues.  Part of the solution is to show that gold OA can be profitable --which has now been done by Hindawi, Medknow, the Optical Society of America, BMC, and PLoS ONE.  We will never develop gold OA across all disciplines and countries without harnessing self-interest. 
  • While we explore the many gold OA business models, and look for ways to make the revenues high enough to cover expenses without excluding authors, it's critical to remember one thing.  Green OA doesn't face these problems, can be achieved faster and at lower cost than gold OA, and is not undermined by the progress of gold OA.
  • Richard seems to agree on the urgency, speed, and efficiency of green OA, but he seems not to agree that it's under no threat from gold OA.  Indeed, like Stevan Harnad, Richard may think the virtues of green OA make it unnecessary to pursue gold OA at all, or unnecessary to pursue gold OA until green is further along.  But that's where we diverge.  We should pursue both at once, and I still haven't seen a good reason not to.  For a short version of the argument, see Richard's interview with me from 2007:

    [p. 51] PS:...I do know, from talking to policy-makers, that OA journals do help the case for OA archiving. Everyone wants to be reassured that OA peer-review providers exist before they put toll-access peer-review providers at risk....Green is not sufficient. It hasn't caused journal cancellations in physics but it might cause journal cancellations in other fields, eventually, as OA archiving rates approach 100%. If so, then we'll need OA peer-review providers to replace the TA peer-review providers overthrown by OA archiving. By the way, Stevan acknowledges this too, and it's perfectly consistent for him to do so.

    [p. 50] RP: As we also discussed, Harnad's argument is that we need to prioritise self-archiving because it is a much quicker way of achieving open access. Is he right?

    PS: He's right that it's quicker, and that's a good reason to pursue it. But it doesn't stand alone, and that's a good reason not to pursue it alone.

  • Richard points out that institutional memberships shield researchers from the costs of publishing, just as subscriptions do, and in that sense do not change the situation in which "the scholarly journal market...[has] little or no mechanism for restraining prices."  I agree with the first half but not the second.  As more OA journals charge publication fees or institutional memberships, there's a good reason to think that competition will keep prices within bounds.  I say this even though I know that we've never seen serious price competition among subscription journals.  Subscription journals don't compete on price because they don't compete for readers.  They don't compete for readers because they are not fungible.  This is a fact about all journals, not just TA journals.  Because different journals publish different papers, you must gain access to the ones you need even if they are expensive and even if there are free or affordable journals in the same field.  But journals in the same field do compete for authors, even if they don't compete for readers.  Again, this is a fact about all journals, not just TA journals.  When OA journals charge publication fees or institutional memberships, the prices function as barriers to authors, not to readers.  As soon as we shift costs from the reader side to the author side, then, we create market pressure to keep them low enough to attract rather than deter authors.  This may look like a technical detail.  But I think it goes to the heart of Richard's argument.  If he's right that the transition from TA journals to OA journals will not reduce prices, then he's right that it could eventually exclude authors and be a Pyrrhic victory.   But precisely because high prices in an OA world would exclude authors, and not merely readers, there is a natural, market-based check on excessive prices.  BTW, I'm not saying that these market forces will keep prices within reach of all authors (as opposed to a sufficient set of authors), or that they are already at work; we may need to see many more OA journals in the same fields before price competition emerges. 
  • It's relevant to point out here that most OA journals charge no publication fees or institutional memberships at all.  I've argued that even fee-based gold OA is not the threat that Richard seems to think.  But even if I'm entirely wrong about that:  fee-based gold OA is a minority of gold OA, and no-fee gold OA doesn't pose any of the threats that Richard describes.
  • "This suggests that it may be time to push for a more radical revolution than currently envisaged by OA advocates; one focused more broadly than the issue of access alone. Perhaps it is time to re-engineer the entire scholarly communication process? If peer review has become a hostage to fortune, for instance, is it not time to try and wrest the task of managing it back from publishers?"  Two quick responses:  (1) Peer review is only a hostage to fortune at very expensive journals.  Hence, it matters whether OA journals will compete on price in their effort to compete for authors, and it's relevant that most OA journals charge no publication fees.  (2) Many OA advocates, for example, Stevan Harnad and myself, envision and even recommend the decoupling of peer review from distribution.  Research literature would still be peer-reviewed, but not by "publishers" so much as editorial boards which may be entirely unaffiliated with publishers.  Distribution could take place through any of several OA channels, including institutional repositories.  Some OA advocates recommend this decoupling independently of their interest in OA; some recommend it as a condition of further OA progress; and some merely predict it as an effect of further OA progress.  It is emerging, perhaps slowly, as a natural consequence of the internet; the rapid drop in the cost of online distribution means that editorial boards can perform their essential function without working with publishers.  We can accelerate this decoupling at any time.  But in the meantime, it's important to keep our eyes on the prize:  OA itself.  Many OA advocates are deeply concerned to reform scholarly communication in ways that go far beyond the removal of access barriers.  But there are reasons to make these efforts secondary rather than primary, or parallel rather than unified:  to avoid giving the impression that OA depends on peer-review reform, to assemble a coalition of stakeholders who agree on the need for OA even if they disagree on other reforms, and simply to accelerate progress --because nearly all of the most exciting reforms depend on OA itself.
  • One general point in conclusion:  I never saw the need to distance the access problem from the affordability problem.  It's true that they are separate problems in the sense that we could solve the access problem without solving the affordability problem (e.g. with expensive OA journals).  That is the prospect which alarms Richard.  But the urgency of solving the affordability problem has given the OA movement some of its most stalwart allies and most enduring incentives.  If Richard is saying that we should address both problems at once, I fully agree, though we may differ in some of our reasons.  We should address both at once in part to avoid the Pyrrhic victory Richard describes, in part to recruit and retain indispensable allies, and above all to apply a very elegant solution (complementary green and gold OA) to a very serious problem.

Update (3/12/09).  Also see the comments of Ivy Anderson, including her insider details on the deal between Springer and the U of California.

Update (3/17/09). Also see the comments of Steven Hall, a publishing consultant formerly with Blackwell, ProQuest, and Chadwyck-Healey.