Green, Gold, Platinum or Puce: How the misuse of OA terminology is colouring the debate

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Given broad acceptance that the UK should move towards wider access to research, the debate has naturally moved on to the question of implementation. The details matter, including the words we use. The problem is that the terminology is being systematically misused. And that misuse is poisoning debate.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 The terms “Green” and “Gold”, have a very specific technical meaning. They refer to mechanisms of Open Access:“green” means access provided through repositories to author manuscripts; and “gold” means access provided to the final published version of papers in journals.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 They explicitly do not refer to business models. Gold does not necessarily mean that article fees applie. The majority of journals registered in the Directory of Open Access Journals do not charge an APC, and some of these journals are highly prestigious in their fields. According to a 2012 study by Mikael Laakso and Bo-Christer Björk of the Hanken School of Economics in Helsinki, at least 30 per cent and possibly as many as 60 per cent of articles made immediately accessible on publication are in journals that do not charge article fees12. While the proportion of DOAJ journals charging fees may be rising, it is still a long way from 100%

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Yet, over the past 12 months, reports, arguments and parliamentary questions have all uncritically repeated the assumption that public access through journals entails such fees. If this were merely a question of definitions it would be embarrassing but the problem goes far deeper than that. As we are often reminded, not least when Lord Krebs reminded us in referring to the German Wissenschaft in opening a debate in the UK House of Lords3, our choices of words can shape, and limit, our thinking. The false dichotomy between supposedly free “green” and APC-driven “gold” is poisoning an important debate.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 It is true that many successful Open Access publishers in the biomedical sciences operate by charging APCs and are sustainable based on this revenue. It is important to acknowledge that scholarly communication has real costs that should be funded as a core part of the costs of research. And I have always believed that the ideal final state is a sustainable system through which published research is immediately made available in its final published and quality assured form.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 But the transition will be complex and poor use of terminology can shape and limit our thinking about how to get there. By talking simplistically about two routes, one where manuscripts go in repositories, one in which APCs are paid for access through journals, we limit our imaginations and reduce the potential for truly innovative approaches.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 The terms “green” and “gold” are now so debased that we should simply stop using them. Let’s talk instead about channels of publication, repositories and journals, and new blends that blur these distinctions. Let’s talk about the services we want and whether they are best delivered by commercial providers or by the community: peer review, copy editing, archiving and indexing. And let’s talk about the full range of sustainability models and how they are appropriate, or not, in different research domains and settings.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 What, for example, about repositories that charge APCs to cover their costs? Or journals that offer peer review but where the content is hosted on a repository? We already have open access journals that are supported, in kind, or in cash, by their communities, and organisations and institutions that have traditionally subsidised specific classes of journals are looking to move to an Open Access footing. What can we learn from successful innovations that step beyond the false divide? And, of course, from the failures?

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 But the problem is not just limited to the debate on implementation. The lack of care in terminology is symptomatic of a paucity of good evidence available to governments, funders and the scholarly community. Because the arguments focus on this false choice, so does the evidence we are collecting. Datasets focus on the effect of repository copies on publisher page views rather than the value being created, captured and lost. The analysis of administrative costs contrasts repository deposit with the management of publisher invoices lumping a host of wildly disparate publishers into one bucket.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 With the collection of data focussed on shoring up the arguments of one camp or another we have little better than anecdotes pointing in different directions. A scholarly debate depends on reliable published data that addresses the real problems at hand. Our collective problem is planning a viable transition. We need the right data collected to support difficult decisions and we need that data published and reviewed so we can identify where we need further experiments and data gathering.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 A wealth of expertise already exists in delivering sustainable and affordable open access. Hundreds of thousands of articles from across the disciplines are already available through repositories and in journals that are fully compliant with all existing and proposed UK, European and US policies.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 We should never presume that the models we have built so far are suitable for all scholars, in all places, but I do believe that our experience of the journey to sustainability and success will have value in guiding other domains of scholarship and science, in its continental sense, to theirs. If we’re going to do that, we need to start by getting our terminology right.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 Notes

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 This originally appeared in public as an Opinion Piece in the Times Higher Education Supplement as “Open Access Confusion” in 2013. I prefer my original title, even it was born of frustration. This version is a mix of my original text and that finally published. It has also been modified to make it a little less UK-centric.

  1. 15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0
  2. Laakso, M, Björk, B-C (2012), Anatomy of open access publishing: a study of longitudinal development and internal structure BMC Medicine, 10:124 http://dx.doi/10.1186/1741-7015-10-124
  3. See also Walt Crawford’s comprehensive survey of Open Access journals published somewhat after this piece http://walt.lishost.org/2015/03/the-open-access-landscape-1-background/
  4. Krebs, H (2013) Hansard, HL Deb, 28 February 2013, c1196 http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201213/ldhansrd/text/130228-0001.htm
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