16 May 2012

Gold open access: getting over the line

Last week I attended the excellent NECOBELAC Dublin workshop on promoting scientific writing and open access publishing in Public Health. Thanks to the speakers, all in the IPH and NECOBELAC for their involvement and a great day (summary of the workshop). For librarians and indeed anyone who makes use of scientific research, the benefits of open access are obvious: seamless and costless access for the user; greater visibility and potential citation advantage for the researcher; more opportunities for data sharing and collaboration; and on a broader level, positive externalities and social benefits such as improved health literacy of citizens.

Green OA - a pragmatic solution?
Consequently it feels like we should be pushing an open door when it comes to promoting the OA routes to publication, but I feel the reality is still somewhat different. Green open access is an easy sell in theory, providing that submitting to repositories is a painless one-click process for authors (which it has become to an extent in some cases). For the 30% or so of publishers who do not allow self-archiving of post-prints, we need to ensure that authors are aware that they should keep a copy of the pre-print so it can still be archived. Self-archiving essentially needs to become a routine part of the scholarly publishing workflow.

When green OA works well (and this includes support for text- and data-mining) it's an effective and achievable way of opening up information. Indeed some advocates argue that green OA is 'good enough' and pure gold OA is perhaps over-reaching beyond that which is achievable in practice (in the short-run at any rate). However, what about those publishers who don't permit self-archiving until after an embargo period, or only support pre-print archiving which is far from ideal? Or the confusion for researchers in knowing which version (pre-, post- or final) to upload to the IR, which may discourage them from self-archiving altogether? How do we solve the problem of the extremely low levels of spontaneous self-archiving and low compliance rates even where self-archiving is mandated? What about the researchers in smaller organisations who don't have access to an institutional repository for archiving their work? What if publishers simply decide they don't want to allow self-archiving anymore because libraries are cancelling too many journal subscriptions and their revenue is dropping to such a level where the profits are not worth the effort any more?

Gold OA - the ideal solution?
The ideal long-term situation is therefore arguably the gold open access route, supported by a sustainable 'author pays' (or more accurately in practice, 'funder pays') model which reflects the real costs of publishing. But selling this model in the short-term, and seeing it grow in practice, may not be so easy. Peter Binfield recently left PLoS ONE to start up Peerj.com, with the aim of driving down the costs of gold OA publishing for researchers. PLoS are a non-profit OA publisher charging relatively reasonable APCs of around $1700 to cover their costs – Binfield now seems to be chasing a fee of around $100. However, I wonder if even driving down APCs to the bare minimum will have any substantial effect on the decision to publish in OA journals? After all, are APCs the biggest barrier that gold OA faces?

Right now the exponential increase in the volume of scientific research, combined with the intense pressure to compete for scarce research funding and academic jobs, means that publishing in the ‘right’ journals is still a big factor for researchers. Indeed if researchers can now publish for $99 in gold route journals, no doubt this will lead to a much larger volume of research being published on a gold OA basis. Great news for the scientific community, society and libraries who won’t have to pay to provide access to such articles for their users. But if you are a researcher struggling to make your work stand out from the crowd and build your personal brand in order to enhance your reputation, you will probably still want to submit your manuscript to a more traditional, frontline, ‘prestigious’ journal – and then you are back to the green model in most cases. 

Getting over the line
A recent paper by Solomon & Bjork (2012) found that the traditional factors of journal fit and perceived quality still greatly outweigh open access in authors’ journal selection criteria. In fact even among authors who had previously published in OA journals, only 60% judged OA as either “very important” or “important” when choosing where to publish their research. In this context, we may have a harder job that we think we should have when selling the OA agenda to researchers. 

It requires a cultural change at all levels of the research chain, which includes funding agencies and authors explicitly recognising the costs of publishing OA, academic and research institutions actively acknowledging and endorsing the credibility of OA journals and repositories, and libraries working to increase an awareness of the huge benefits of OA publishing to undergraduates, research students and staff. In the same way that traditional publishers spend a small fortune in branding and promoting the value of publishing in their flagship titles, all stakeholders in the OA process need to invest similar time and energy in marketing and selling OA in order to compete with the commercial might of non-OA publishers. Not an easy task perhaps, but clearly a necessary and valuable one.

Solomon, D. J., & Björk, B.-C. (2012). Publication fees in open access publishing: Sources of funding and factors influencing choice of journal. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 63(1), 98-107. doi: 10.1002/asi.21660


  1. ... and a rather apt paper I came across today:

    Open access papers get twice as many citations as non-open access papers. http://arxiv.org/pdf/1001.0361v2.pd:

  2. Some researchers looking for articles just want full-text. They don't consider who pays for it. If you send TOCs already to your users, include some relevant OA journals to start with!

  3. Thanks for the suggestion MCC! I agree that the disconnect that often exists (for the researcher) between the concepts of full-text and subscription costs seems to be tricky obstacle in the effort to push OA forward, but hopefully gradually building an awareness will help.