What is open access and how to provide it?

In this post, Stevan Harnad gives his insights on an important academic topic: open access (OA). For many years, he has worked relentlessly for the promotion of open access and has been a central figure in this debate. 

He currently works at Canada Research Chair in cognitive science at Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) and professor of cognitive science at the University of Southampton. We are extremely pleased to have him share some of his extensive knowledge linked to the debate around open access, a topic we first took up on the Hedda blog in June, when Stevan came with substantial comments and clarifications. He will now further elaborate these in his 14 key points about OA. Stevan has also agreed to answer any questions and comments you might have in the comments section, so you are all encouraged to use this opportunity! 

1. Open access (OA) is not synonymous with OA publishing (gold OA). OA means free online access, and its primary target content is the 2.5 million articles published yearly in the planet’s 25,000 peer-reviewed research journals. Currently, these articles are only accessible to users at institutions that can afford to subscribe to the journal in which they were published. Research is hence losing potential usage and impact.

2. There are two ways to provide OA: The authors of the 2.5 million articles can self-archive their peer-reviewed final drafts online, free for all, in their institutional OA repository, immediately upon acceptance for publication (green OA); or the world’s 25,000 peer-reviewed journals can convert to OA publishing (gold OA), publishing all their articles free for all online, with the author’s institution or funder paying the cost of publication..

3. Providing green OA to the final drafts of their published articles is entirely in the hands of the research community, the providers of the content; providing gold OA is in the hands of the publishing community, the purveyors of the content.

4. A transition to universal green OA can be mandated by the research community (its research institutions and research funders); a transition to gold OA cannot be mandated by the research community: it depends on the publishing community.

5. The costs of publishing today are being paid for, in full, by research institutions, through journal subscriptions.

6. That means the potential funds to pay for gold OA are locked into institutional journal subscriptions today.

7. It is hence an unnecessary waste of increasingly scarce research funds to pay pre-emptively for gold OA today.

8. What the research community — research institutions and research funders — accordingly need to do today is to mandate green OA: http://roarmap.eprints.org

9. As green OA becomes universal, it provides universal OA, solving the research access problem; it does not solve the journal affordability problem, but it makes it far, far less important and urgent, since universal online access is available to all, whether or not they can afford the journal subscription.

10. If and when users find universal green OA sufficient for their usage needs, institutions will be able to cancel the subscriptions in which they were locked as long as the contents were accessible to subscribers only.

11. If green OA-induced subscription cancellations make subscriptions unsustainable as the means of recovering the essential costs of publication, publishers will cut costs, downsize and convert to the gold OA cost-recovery model and institutions will have the annual windfall savings from their subscription savings out of which they can then pay the gold OA publishing costs for their individual outgoing articles, instead of paying for access to the incoming articles from other institutions, in the form of bundled journal subscriptions, as they do now.

12. The gold OA publication cost per article, however, post-green-OA, will be far lower than the asking price for pre-emptive gold OA today, because in converting from subscription publishing to gold OA publishing under the cancellation pressure of universal green OA, publishers will have downsized substantially, phasing out their print editions (and their costs) entirely and offloading all access provision and archiving (and their costs) onto the distributed worldwide network of institutional repositories and harvesters, with the green OA version now becoming the canonical version of record.

13. Hence post-green-OA gold-OA publishing costs will have scaled down to just the cost, per paper, of managing peer review (since the peers review for free), its outcome certified by the title and track-record for quality-standards of the journal that publishes the paper (exactly as now).

14. But all of this is contingent on institutions and funders mandating green OA first, rather than paying even more for gold OA, at today’s still-inflated asking prices, while still unable to cancel the subscriptions that are essential to their users.

So what needs to be lobbied for today is the adoption of green OA self-archiving mandates by research institutions (mostly universities) and funders instead of just the spending of scarce funds on paying pre-emptively for gold OA (and fulminating against inflated journal subscription prices). This is what Southampton ECS was the first in the world to do (and urge the rest of the research community to do) in 2002.

For more information, see also: