The Green Road to Open Access: A Leveraged Transition

Stevan Harnad harnad at
Wed Jan 7 08:45:45 EST 2004

In the following posting I follow the suggestion of Gerry Mckiernan
(he is not the anonymous interlocutor) to sketch out in some detail
the scenario for a leveraged "green" transition to OA:

[Identity deleted] wrote:

> Dramatic moves within WHO are planned for the Mexico Summit on health
> research planned in November, 2004. I do like your self-archive
> suggestion very much indeed. It seems intuitively right.

It is very good news that there will be dramatic moves in WHO next

But my guess is that those moves will still be focussed only on the
prospect of a direct transition from toll-access (TA, "white") journals
to open-access (OA "gold") journals. The golden road is the more radical
road to OA, and hence the slower and more uncertain one. My own point
is that this is all taking far too long, insofar as both immediate
feasibility as well as cumulative lost research impact are concerned:
The research community need not and should not wait.

That is why I strongly urge that the far less radical transition from
white TA journal policy to "green" TA journal policy -- a policy of
formally endorsing author-self-archiving -- should be the one adopted
first, now, by publishers. This is a far less risky step -- hence it is
a far less reluctant step and for that reason less likely to be opposed
and held at arm's length by delays of the kind David Shulenburger
proposed -- than direct steps toward conversion to the OA (author-end)
cost-recovery model.

    "Shulenburger on open access: so NEAR and yet so far

The "green" option allows the number of OA *articles* (not journals) to
grow anarchically, rather than journal by journal, allowing TA journals
to adjust gradually to any changes that might arise as the number of
self-archived OA articles grows.

There is, for example, far less risk of library cancellation for any
particular TA journal when OA is not growing journal by journal, but,
growing anarchically, article by article: The libraries too will only
learn gradually whether it is safe to cancel any particular journal,
for it will not be clear what proportion of any particular journal's
articles is OA as yet.

But this gradual green option is at the same time serving the immediate
best interests of research, right now, for it allows the individual
author to have immediate OA for his own work, today (thereby immediately
augmenting its visibility and impact).

David Shulenburger's "shrinking embargo" proposal -- which was based on
envisioning an eventual direct transition from white to gold, but with
the embargo interval gradually reduced -- would not provide OA at all
for a long, long time to come, because, as I have noted, most of the
benefits of OA derive from research's "growth tip" (starting from the
pre-refereeing preprint stage to about a year after the publication of
the postprint).

Nor does a shrinking embargo provide a buffer against catastrophic
cancellation (as the embargo period approaches zero); nor does it
provide a gradual transition scenario for converting to the OA (gold)
cost-recovery model (author-institution charge per outgoing article)
from the TA cost-recovery model (user-institution access-tolls per
incoming journal).

In contrast, the green option offers the research community the option
of immediate OA (but via author/institution self-help, rather than
publisher-conversion) and it allows journals the time to prepare for a
possible -- though not necessary -- leveraged transition to gold:

*IF* growing competition to the journals' TA versions of articles
from their authors' self-archived plain-vanilla OA versions does start
to produce some cancellation pressure -- note that this would not be
wholesale cancellation of a particular journal by all libraries, because
of the anarchic nature of OA growth, article by article instead of journal
by journal, but anarchic individual cancellations, by some libraries,
of some individual journals -- *THEN* TA journals can gradually adapt
to it, first by cutting costs (by cutting out the features that are no
longer essential) and then, perhaps (if it proves necessary) by converting
to the OA journal cost-recovery model.

The biggest uncertainty about the direct transition to gold today is
whether the gold cost-recovery model is viable. Will author/institutions
be willing to pay, and where will they find the funds? (Subsidies to
pay for the small number of gold journals that exist today are not a
realistic predictor: would a subsidy model scale up to all 24,00 journals,
should they all go gold?) Nor is it yet clear *how much*
author/institutions will have to pay, because no one knows what the
essentials for gold journal publishing will be, and what inessential
features and their costs could be cut:

    "Online Self-Archiving: Distinguishing the Optimal from the Optional"

    "Separating Quality-Control Service-Providing from Document-Providing"

    "Distinguishing the Essentials from the Optional Add-Ons"

    "The True Cost of the Essentials (Implementing Peer Review)"

    "The True Cost of the Essentials

    "Re: The True Cost of the Essentials (Implementing Peer Review - NOT!)"

    "Journal expenses and publication costs"

    "Re: Scientific publishing is not just about administering peer-review"

    "Author Publication Charge Debate"

It might be, for example, that many of the added-values of TA journals
will no longer be necessary: Will author-institutions want to keep
paying the publisher for the cost of generating and distributing a print
edition, of doing XML mark-up or creating PDF, of online distribution
and archiving, even of copy-editing and proof-reading?

This cannot be decided a priori. It is only the "competition" between
the publisher's enhanced TA version and the author's plain-vanilla OA
version that can settle what is still essential and worth paying for,
and what can be dropped in the era of universal OA. It could even turn
out that a continuing market for the "inessential" added values will
be sufficient to sustain TA publishing for a long time into the OA era,
perhaps forever, with no need for the transition to gold. (I don't believe
this will be the case, but it cannot be prejudged with certainty either.)

It is more likely, though, that the eventual effect of the cancellation
pressure during the transitional "green" period in which TA journals
co-exist with growing OA-provision through author self-archiving, will
be to cause journals to downsize and cut costs by phasing out most or all
of the inessentials listed above, leaving only the costs of implementing
peer review to be recovered (offloading all text-generation onto the
author [and forthcoming XML authoring tools] and all access-provision
onto the network of interoperable institutional OAI-compliant open-access
archives of self-archived articles).

Moreover, this "green" leveraged-transition period will not only have
guided -- via cancellation pressure -- the journal-publishing community's
downsizing and cost-cutting while at the same time providing the
researcher community's all-important OA, thereby determining what the
essentials really are, and how much they really cost, but it will also
have generated the revenues out of which to pay for them (in place of
the indeterminate subsidies envisioned currently):

For the flip side of the TA "cancellation pressure" that guided the
publisher cost-cutting is of course windfall TA savings for the cancelling
institution! Those annual windfall savings were the ones that used to
pay the costs of the inessentials in the TA era. Whenever an entire journal
is cancelled, the institution saves the costs of both the essentials and
the inessentials. It follows that the fraction of the total amount that
institutions are currently paying for all *incoming* articles
subscribed/licensed via TA will be available to pay for the essentials
only, per outgoing article published -- if and when the conversion to the
gold-based cost-recovery model ever has to be made.

In other words, the funds for covering gold journals' costs are there
already ("in the system," as Peter Suber puts it), probably several
times over (depending on what does and does not turn out to be part of
the essentials). So with a gradual leveraged ("green") transition to
the gold cost-recovery model, there is no need to rely on the uncertain
factor of finding extra subsidies to cover indeterminate costs.

In contrast, the Shulenburger "NEAR" proposal has been around as a
proposal for years, has brought us no nearer to OA, and contains no
mechanism for a transition to gold with the shortening of the embargo
interval: If a timetable for gradually shortening the embargo interval
were ever actually implemented (which it has never been!), whether journal
by journal or collectively, it would only be a recipe for approaching
a catastrophe point, not for gradual adaptation and a smooth transition
to gold, as the anarchic green option is.

> [A shrinking embargo] might serve to first of all enshrine the idea
> of open-access within the minds of commercial publishers.

Emargoed access is not open access. Journal publishers know very well
that most of their revenue comes from the first year after publication,
and that they give up almost nothing in making their contents available
after that.

   Harnad, Stevan (2001) AAAS's Response: Too Little, Too Late. 
   Science dEbates 

It is not that embargoed access for only a year is not preferable
to permanently embargoed access, but open access is the antithesis of
embargoed access! So finite-embargo publishing should not be represented
as either OA publishing or a step toward OA publishing. (Finite-embargo
publishing would probably have happened anyway, in the online age,
irrespective of the possibility or the demand for OA.) And shrinking
finite-embargo publishing is either incoherent or catastrophic. (More
likely just a concept that would put OA on indefinite hold -- embargoing
it indefinitely.)

No, OA can and should be provided right now. It's already long overdue! But
it need not be had at the cost of putting TA journals at needless risk,
or asking them to make needless sacrifices. The transition to green is
low-risk. After that, nature can take care of itself.

> [Publishers] have already conceded open access with HINARI. 

HINARI is not open access! It is subsidised access (sometimes low-toll,
sometimes low-toll) for the no-market sectors of the world! It is provided
at the expense of the toll-paying sector. Hence it is by definition not
something that can generalise to open access for everyone. It is just as
incoherent (from the standpoint of a smooth and gradual transition to OA)
as the shrinking-embargo strategy!

> Let's push [publishers] further and further. My guess is that the best way
> to do so is to shame them by displaying their diminishing contribution to
> the science base of society. They will have to concede open access in
> western arenas at some point. Should we not push for something achievable
> in the short term, in other words play a longer game now (as the rules
> of backgammon always advocate!)?

But there is no *need* to wait for a still longer game! The game has
been going on for far too long already! (Emargoed access is too little,
too late, for the very *purpose* of open access, which is to accelerate
and augment research progress and productivity.)

Publishers do not have to be pushed or shamed -- or waited for! The
green strategy depends only on the research community. The only thing
the publishing community needs to be shamed into doing is giving
self-archiving its blessing, ex officio! In exchange, they have a long
grace period to see what will be the effects of growing OA-provision
via self-archiving -- with plenty of time to adapt to it.

> Dear Stevan - Yes, go ahead and anonymise! Your green solution would indeed
> break the deadlock. Surely we could all sign up to that now? Those journals
> that truly add value will survive, those that do not will not - that is
> fair. 

The Darwinian evolution under the green solution will not be journal
vs. journal but feature vs. feature! Which of journals' current features
(and their costs_ will turn out to be necessary for journal survival
and which not? Competition between the publisher's enhanced TA version
and the author's self-archived plain-vanilla OA version will settle
this. (My bet is that the only essential feature will prove to be
administering peer-review and certifying its outcome.)

> From the user's perspective, will it not be more difficult, however,
> to access material if it is distributed over many thousands of separate
> author sites? How can these sites be linked into a seamless whole - is this
> what the "semantic" web could do?

That is what the OAI (Open Access Initiative) metadata harvesting protocol
was designed for: The medatada of all OAI-compliant
archives are interoperable. That means they share the same tagging, and therefore
it is as if they were all in one global virtual archive, seamlessly searchable.
(All have the AUTHOR, TITLE, DATE, PUBLICATION-NAME, etc. metadata tags.)

This is why the free GNU Eprints software was designed:
So that universities and research institutions could immediately create their own
OAI-compliant OA Archives

The "semantic web" -- which is in reality the "syntactic web"!
-- --
is certainly a help, as are all text-analytic resources, including
citation-based search, navigation and ranking 
and google-style inverted full-text boolean search:
which the next release of the Eprints software provides (and google
already provides, if it is restricted to the OAI subset of google-space).

So the full-texts of all the 24,000 journals, across all disciplines
and languages and years (2.5 million articles per year) will be as
efficiently searchable navigable as just their abstracts and metadata
are today, in databases such as PubMed, Inspec, Chem Abstracts, Scirus,
and ISI's Web of Science -- but augmented also by google-style full-text

The only thing that's missing is those 2.5 million annual articles,
most of which still remain to be self-archived: The ball is in the
research community's court!

Stevan Harnad

NOTE: A complete archive of the ongoing discussion of providing open
access to the peer-reviewed research literature online (1998-2004)
is available at the American Scientist Open Access Forum:
        To join the Forum:
        Post discussion to: 
    american-scientist-open-access-forum at
        Hypermail Archive:

Unified Dual Open-Access-Provision Policy:
    BOAI-2 ("gold"): Publish your article in a suitable open-access
            journal whenever one exists.
    BOAI-1 ("green"): Otherwise, publish your article in a suitable
            toll-access journal and also self-archive it.

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