Open Access: Going for Gold?

Tonight the Science Communication Forum at Imperial College held a debate called Open Access: Going for Gold? with Stephen Curry (Imperial) and Mark Thorley (NERC, RCUK). The debate was chaired by Richard Van Noorden (Nature News).

Update 2 (28th September): you can listen to the debate on Figshare and here’s a useful link to RCUK’s open access policy (PDF).

Lots of things were discussed but a couple things in particular stuck in my mind writing this on the way home.

RCUK require for CC-BY for gold, but only CC-BY-NC for green

Under the new RCUK policy researchers must either pay a fee to publish in a gold open access journal or alternatively publish in a closed access journal and then deposit the article in a repository within 6 months [1].

Gold articles must be published with a CC-BY licence. This is good as it means anyone can do what they want with the work as long as the original authors are attributed. However, green articles deposited in a repository after the embargo period are only required to have a CC-BY-NC licence, meaning that you cannot use the work for commercial purposes.

This is very disappointing. Sadly it wasn’t discussed in the debate. CC-BY-NC is, as tweeted during the debate, a licence of fear. All it says is that the authors couldn’t think of a way to make money out of the work, so they’ll be damned if anyone else does. The work might as well have never happened.

Thorley talked about open access benefiting “UK PLC”, but CC-BY-NC is at complete odds with this. CC-BY-NC stifles innovation and progress. Furthermore, if the state funded the research, then the state and the rest of society should benefit from it. Under CC-BY-NC, no one benefits.

Green is of poorer quality than gold?

A couple of people doubted the quality of papers published straight to repositories like arXiv. I’m not so convinced. Firstly, they assume the reader is stupid and can’t work out for themselves if a paper is a load of nonsense. Secondly, it assumes that peer review weeds out all the bad papers. It doesn’t. Someone suggested a kitemark to say that a particular paper in a repository is trustworthy. I hope I don’t have to explain why that’s an awful idea.

Thorley did at one point say something about gold papers being better for the lay person. Curry looked quite suprised. This is a completely different debate. Just because a paper is literally accessible to the public doesn’t mean the information contained within it is intelligible to the public. But if someone is interested enough to be reading papers I don’t think gold/green will really make that much of a difference to them—not enough to justify an APC. I wonder what percentage of papers even undergo any major revisions between submission and publication.

Concluding thoughts

CC-BY-NC for green is a real disaster. I sincerely hope RCUK revise their policy so that it’s the same as gold.

I still can’t make up my mind about green versus gold. On the one hand, I think everything should go straight into repositories like arXiv. Forget journals and use the money we save to help fund and develop repositories, (although I know this is really very unlikely to ever happen). But on the other, if we are going to pay journals to publish work, we should expect more in return. Not just PDFs, but high quality (interactive?) documents including data and code in reuseable formats and tools to help us do things like text mining. I can’t help but think there’s very little innovation in publishing, especially considering the size of their profit margins.

It’s clear a lot more will happen in the open access debate. As Thorley said, this isn’t an event, it’s a journey. Hopefully it won’t be too arduous.

Update: gold—a free market for innovation?

Having slept it on it I can see where RCUK are coming from with their preference for gold, but I think they’re overestimating what publishers actually offer at the moment. Do most journals currently add enough value for it to be worth the APC? I’m not sure. I get the feeling people tend to think that every journal produces papers as beautiful as NPG. Authors will be paying the journal to publish, therefore we should expect more in return—especially considering the tidy profit margins. At present, I don’t think gold is that much better than green in that respect.

If, as Curry said, scientists end their addiction to impact factors (increasingly likely as HEFCE will be enforcing their ban on them), gold might lead to a more free market-like situation. Scientists will look around for journals that offer the best value for money. This could really drive innovation in scientific publishing as publishers are going to be competing in terms of what they can offer scientists rather than what the journal can do for an author’s career.

(Updated on 09:02 on 27th September 2012 with additional section.)

[1]: Thorley said that the embargo periods vary in length from publisher to publisher. He was pretty clear about 6 months and said 12 months was “a joke”. Personally I think 6 months is still far too long. It also raises the question: do publishers only add such little value that its only worth 6 months? Why bother with it in the first place?

5 thoughts on “Open Access: Going for Gold?”

  1. Like you, I am ambivalent on Green-vs.-Gold. I can see either working, or both together. This matter of tactics must not be allowed to obscure the much more important issue of whether what gets “openly” published really is Open Access. Because if a non-commercial clause applied, than it’s not and we’re all wasting our time.

    Green clearly works in astrophysics, where everything goes to a single well-known place (arXiv) that everyone trusts. So far, it’s not worked at all in biosciences, where depositions are rare, and when they exist are spread across a wide range of archives that come and go and that have confusing and contradictory terms of service. I think that for Green to work, we will need a lot more centralisation. My favourite approach would be to find some money for the arXiv people and get them to extend their coverage to all of science.

  2. One may be choosing ‘green’ OR ‘gold’, but if one chooses ‘gold’, it always is ‘gold’ AND ‘green’. An article is published with true open access at source only if covered by a CC-BY licence and deposited. In the words of the Bethesda Statement on Open Access, as part of the definition: “A complete version of the work and all supplemental materials, including a copy of the permission as stated above, in a suitable standard electronic format is deposited immediately upon initial publication in at least one online repository that is supported by an academic institution, scholarly society, government agency, or other well-established organization that seeks to enable open access, unrestricted distribution, interoperability, and long-term archiving (for the biomedical sciences, PubMed Central is such a repository).”

  3. Ideology vs pragmatics: reach first for the reachable.

    One step at a time, and in a realistic order.

    Free online access (Gratis OA) to all articles is lacking and needed for all articles in all fields.

    Gratis Green OA can be mandated, and has by far the fewest publisher obstacles (just embargoes, which have work-arounds).

    The difference between the access to the author’s peer-reviewed final draft and access-denial is the difference between night and day for users. (Difference between access to the author’s final draft and access to the publisher’s version of record certainly is not — and has much more obstacles.)

    Article data-mining/re-use/re-publication rights (CC-BY, Libre OA) are urgently needed in a few fields (e.g. crystallography), but not in most other fields, and, again, they face much bigger obstacles.

    The fastest, cheapest and surest way to have all of these things is to reach for the reachable: Mandate Green Gratis OA globally (funders and institutions) and then let the inevitable knock-on effects generate the transition to Libre Gold OA with all the CC-BY authors and users want and lead.

    Over-reach now, for ideological reasons, instead of grasping what is already within immediate reach — keep calling it a “disaster” instead of the godsend it really is — and we will all continue for another decade getting next to no OA at all:

  4. Ross: Thank you very much. I would like to point out that my post wasn’t meant to be a comprehensive summary of the evening, just what I thought was important.

    Mike: You’re absolutely right, NC is a waste of time.

    I like the idea of expanding arXiv to cover all sciences too. It is very odd that pre-print servers are practically unheard of outside of physics. In the past I’ve asked colleagues (chemists) what they think of arXiv and they haven’t even heard of it. After explaining it they usually seem a bit suspicious because it doesn’t have (pre-)publication peer review. But that’s another can of worms…

    Steven: I see your point about no access at all vs access after embargos. However, I don’t think CC-BY will come along on its own from green OA. Publishers are (usually) businesses and by their very nature aim to make money. They’ll pick NC just in case they (or someone else) comes up with a way to make money from publications. It’ll stop innovation. Lumping it along with ideology is a bit unfair.

    As Jan as has also said, CC-BY rather than CC-BY-NC is important. It’s not proper open access otherwise.

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