Monday, March 25, 2013

The Debate is About Implementation

Joe at Fragile Interstices asked whether or not there should even be a debate over open access. The benefits are clear, what's there to talk abot? Respectfully, I think there is a debate. Let's start with where we agree: well, we agree pretty much completely. Every benefit of OA he lists is true, and I'm not disputing them. I am an Open Access advocate. However, the debate comes into play when we talk about implementation, because if implemented in the wrong way I think OA could create new problems even as it is solving old ones (and, to be fair, I'm sure Joe knows this, and I'm creating a strawman Joe because that's easier to debate against).

Let's start with the gold/green distinction. For those not in the know, "gold" is publishing in an Open Access journal, while Green is publishing in a traditional journal that allows the author to make a copy of the article (pre-print or post-print) available online, often in an institutional repository (Harnad et all 2008). Both forms of Open Access are currently in use, but there is considerable debate as to which should be prioritized and what benefits can be achieved but also what damage might be caused. Stevan Harnad strongly advocates pushing green OA over gold, for the present moment. He has a number of reasons for this. Green can be easily mandated, such as Harvard's mandate, and thus gets us more quickly to universal OA, while under gold we could stay in a mixed OA/non-OA environment. He also feels only green OA actually solves the serials costs problems. To explain this, we have to talk article-processing charges (APCs). A common method for gold OA journals to make money is through APCs, where in order to publish in the journal an author (or their institution) pays the journal in order to get the work published. Harnad believes that these APCs will not get paid until after universal green, because at that point institutions can cut their serials budgets (if you are subscribed to a traditional journal important to a field and only 2/3 of its articles are green, then you'll keep paying for it to get that last 1/3), and the money can be used to pay APCs.

Is Harnad right here? Well, yes and no. In presuming that only authors or institutions will pay APCs, he leaves out an option: grants. Can research grants cover the cost of APCs? Well, they do right now, at least in some fields. For natural sciences research, grants will sometimes cover APCs, at least at higher rates than in social sciences or humanities (Solomon & Björk 2012). If we push gold over green, we run the risk of further advantaging the natural sciences over all others. I think we also run the risk of harming researchers at smaller, more teaching-oriented institutions (as well as independent researchers), again especially humanists and social scientists, who under a universal gold OA environment may finally have access to all the research they want but now find they cannot afford to publish it. However, even here we have different models. On one extreme, we have Taylor & Francis making the pathetic offer to make the Journal of Library Administration less restrictive (as far as I can tell, not even fully OA) at the fucking insane outrageous cost of $3k per article, prompting the board to resign. On the other extreme, we have the Forum of Mathematics, a gold OA journal, which promises that if you cannot afford the APC they will still publish your work, no questions asked. Now, of course, we have no idea whether Forum can survive if it let's researchers skip the APC. This could be unattainable. That's the point. We have yet to successfully create a fully OA environment, and until we do, there will be a debate about how to do it. And, if we choose wrongly, we could end up doing some people a lot of harm.

Harnad, S. (2010). Gold Open Access publishing must not be allowed to retard the progress of green Open Access self-archiving. LOGOS: The Journal Of The World Book Community, 21(3/4), 86-93. doi:10.1163/095796511X559972

Harnad, S., Brody, T., Vallières, F., Carr, L., Hitchcock, S., Gingras, Y., ...Hilf, E. (2008). The access/impact problem and the green and gold roads to Open Access: An update. Serials Review, 34(1), 36-40. doi:10.1016/j.serrev.2007.12.005

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
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