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A defense of OA journal funds

Stuart Shieber, The argument for gold OA support, The Occasional Pamphlet on Scholarly Communication, June 11, 2009. Excerpt:

Are green and gold open access independent of each other? In particular, is worry about gold OA a waste of time, and are expenditures on it a waste of money? Stevan Harnad has brought up this issue in response to a recent talk I gave at Cal Tech, and in particular my remarks about a potential "open access compact”. I will take this opportunity to explain why I think that the answer to both questions is "no”.

Enaction of green OA policies at universities requires the broad support of faculty and administration, and careful attending to their wholly reasonable concerns. Chief among these is the following argument against a green OA policy: The services that the journals provide are important, as are the scholarly societies that publish many of the journals. They constitute a good to the scholarly community. But now consider the following dystopian scenario. Suppose the green OA policy being proposed were to be adopted universally, and further that it were widely followed so that the vast majority of scholarly articles were thereby openly available (though admittedly in the deprecated form of author's final manuscript rather than publisher's version). This might lead some libraries to feel freer about canceling subscriptions, which would lead to price pressure on journals. This price pressure might become so great that publishers might not even be able to recoup their costs by sale of subscriptions. In the absence of other business models, the publishers will have no choice but to shut down their journals....

This worry is by far the most common one that I encountered in working with three Harvard faculties in passing green OA policies, and still encounter as I work with the remaining faculties at Harvard and talk with other institutions.

Of course, there are a lot of "might”s in the worry. But, it doesn't matter that there is no evidence that such a scenario will transpire, and that there is in fact evidence against it. (The case of physics is well known.) ...What is important is that...it is widely perceived as being a real possibility....

Let me first dismiss two inadequate responses [to these faculty concerns]:

  • "Once mandates become universal, even if the journal affordability problem is left entirely unaltered, that problem immediately becomes far less urgent, since all of its urgency derives from the accessibility problem, which universal mandates will have solved, completely!”

If all that journals provided were access, then this response would be entirely correct. However, access is the least important of the services that journals currently provide - least important because teechnological advances have led to the ability to provide access at essentially zero marginal cost by the authors themselves. The important and valuable services that publishers provide in greater or lesser quantity are management of peer review, a variety of production services, and imprimatur. Of these, the last is by far the most important to the authors, but all are valuable to the scholarly community. If universal green OA were to make journals unsustainable by not addressing the affordability problem, and the dystopia ensued, then all of these services (other than access) would be lost. This potentiality introduces its own urgency. We cannot postpone the urgency until the dystopia ensues, as its mere possibility impedes the enactment of green OA policies right now.

  • "If good sense were to prevail, funders and universities would just mandate Green OA for now, and then let supply and demand decide, given universal Green OA, whether and when to convert from subscriptions to Gold OA, and for what product, and at what price.”

A response that "the market will solve this problem down the line” is not sufficient for two reasons. First, markets are not magic. They solve problems by virtue of the behaviors of their participants and within rule systems that surround them. It therefore behooves us as participants to make sure that our behaviors and rule systems are set up to allow salutary changes to occur. If eventual conversion to gold OA publishing is the way that the problem (if it arises) ought to be eventually solved, then we must make it possible for a publisher to convert a journal to a gold OA business model. Currently, publishers cannot feasibly do so, as gold OA journals are at a systematic disadvantage against subscription-based journals from the point of view of attracting authors, since universities and funding agencies subsidize the subscription-based journals through their library subscription payments, whereas they do not subsidize article-processing charges for gold OA journals.

I return to the underlying issue, which is assuaging the worries of faculty considering green OA policies who are imagining the possibility of the dystopian scenario. The natural response is to assure the worrier that there is a reasonable alternative business model in the wings, namely gold OA. And to make that assurance plausible, we must address the viability of gold OA journals in a realistic way....That is what the open access compact that I discussed at Cal Tech and elsewhere is intended to do.

In summary, a university that commits to the open access compact will more easily be able to answer objections against green OA policies specifically because it has an approach to long-range support for gold OA publishing, not in spite of it. The two models are inextricably tied. I, like Professor Harnad, am interested in facilitating the adoption of green OA policies. I proposed the open access compact in large part because I expect that adoption of the compact will lead to more green OA policies. The open access compact is therefore contributory to the promotion of green OA, not a sidetrack to it. I of course encourage universities to adopt green OA policies before gold OA support, but given that dystopian fears of faculty are preventing adoption of such policies, an open access compact that might assuage these worries should not be delayed.

Let me conclude by arguing against a view that support for the open access compact is at best "a needless waste of scarce research funds.” At least in the near term, the cost of the open access compact as I have proposed it is minimal. Universities implementing the compact would not underwrite hybrid gold OA fees, would not pay fees where grants had funded the research, and would be able to set up market mechanisms to ensure that economic signals from the fees are passed on to authors. A university supporting the open access compact may even choose to implement it by limiting its application to faculties falling under a green open access policy (as I hope and expect we will do at Harvard)....

Insofar as the open access compact increases the odds of establishing green OA policies, it is ipso facto not a waste of the minimal funds that it requires.

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