Comment on Richard Poynder’s “Mistaking Intent For Action”

It would be churlish of me to criticize Richard Poynder’s friendly article, with most of which I can hardly disagree. So please consider this a complimentary complement rather than a cavil:

Annual institutional subscriptions for annual incoming journals do not morph in any coherent or sensible way into annual institutional “memberships” for individual outgoing articles.

This is true of the multi-journal “Big Deal” subscriptions with journal-fleet publishers, and it is even more obvious with single journals: Are 10,000 universities supposed to have annual “memberships” in 25,000 journals on an annual pro-rated quota based on the number of articles each institution’s researchers happen to have published in each journal last year? Or is this “membership” to be based on one global (and oligopolistic) “mega-deal” between a mega-consortium of publishers and a mega-consortium of institutions? (If this makes sense, why don’t we do all our shopping this way, putting a whole new twist on globalisation?) Or is it just to save our familiar intuitions about subscriptions? Wouldn’t it make more sense to scrap those intuitions, when they lead to absurdities like this?

Especially when they are unnecessary, as we can see if we remind ourselves what OA is really about. Open access is about access: about making all journal articles freely accessible online to all users. It is not about morphing institutional-subscription-based funding of publishing into institutional-membership-based funding of publishing. Indeed, it isn’t about funding publishing at all, since it is not publishing that is in a crisis but institutional access.

Here’s another way to look at it: The “serials crisis” is the fact that institutions cannot afford access to all the journal articles they need. They have to keep canceling more and more journals, thereby making their access less and less. If all institutions had free online access to all those journal articles then that would not make the journals any more affordable at current prices, but it would certainly make canceling them less of a big deal, because their content would be free online anyway.

And that is precisely the state of affairs that universal Green OA self-archiving mandates would deliver virtually overnight.

So why are institutions instead wasting their time and money fussing over how to fit the round peg of institutional subscriptions into the square hole of institutional memberships today, via pre-emptive Gold OA funding commitments that generate a lot of extra expense for very little extra access — instead of providing Open Access to all of their own journal-article output by mandating Green OA self-archiving today?

That “the access and affordability problems are part and parcel of the larger serials crisis” is altogether the wrong way to look at it. The OA problem is access, and affordability is part and parcel of that problem today only inasmuch as alternatives to journal subscriptions increase access today — which is very little, and at high cost, insofar as Gold OA is concerned (today).

So instead of waiting passively for journals to convert to the Gold standard, and instead of throwing scarce money at them pre-emptively to try to make it worth their while, why don’t institutions simply make their own journal article output Green OA, today? That will generate universal (Green) OA with certainty, today.

If and when that universal Green OA should in turn eventually go on to generate journal cancellations to the point of making subscriptions unsustainable for covering the costs of publication, then that will be the time for journals to cut obsolete products and services for which there is no longer a market (such as the print edition, the PDF edition, archiving, access-provision and digital preservation, leaving all that to the global network of Green OA institutional repositories), along with their associated costs, and convert to Gold OA for covering the costs of what remains (largely just implementing peer review).

Unlike today — when paid Gold OA is at best a useful proof-of-principle that publishing can be sustained without subscriptions and at worst a waste of scarce cash based on a premature and incoherent hope of morphing directly into universal Gold OA — after universal Green OA each institution will have more than enough money to pay those much reduced publication costs (on an individual article basis, not via an institutional membership) from just a small fraction of its annual windfall savings if and when they decide they can cancel all those subscriptions in which that money is tied up today.

Hence it is mandating Green OA that will rewire the “disconnect” between user and purchaser that Stuart Shieber deplores, putting paid to the inelastic need and demand of institutions for subscriptions (today) because of their inelastic need and demand for access (otherwise unavailable today). The reconnect will not come from (“capped”) Gold OA Compacts (like COPE and SCOAP3 but from the cancelation pressure that universal Green OA will eventually generate — once the demand for the obsolescent extras currently co-bundled with peer review fades out as the planet goes Green.

In other words, even if it is the affordability problem rather than OA that exercises you, the coherent way to morph from institutional subscriptions to universal Gold OA is via the mediation of universal Green OA mandates, not via a pre-emptive leap directly from the status quo to Gold via funding commitments, regardless of the price and modus operandi. Meanwhile, along the way, we will already have universal OA, at last solving the access problem, which is what OA itself is all about.

Stevan Harnad
American Scientist Open Access Forum