Symptoms of Premature Gold OA — and their Cure

Gold” Open Access (OA) journals (especially high-quality, highly selective ones like PLOS Biology) were a useful proof of principle, but now there are far too many of them, and they are mostly not journals of high quality.

The reason is that new Gold OA journals are premature at this time. What is needed is more access to existing journals, not more journals. Everything already gets published somewhere in the existing journal quality hierarchy. The recent proliferation of lower-standard Gold OA journals arose out of the drive and rush to publish-or-perish, and pay-to-publish was an irresistible lure, both to authors and to publishers.

Meanwhile, authors have been sluggish about availing themselves of a cost-free way of providing OA for their published journal articles: “Green” OA self-archiving.

The simple and natural remedy for the sluggishness — as well as the premature, low-standard Gold OA — is now on the horizon: Green OA self-archiving mandates from authors’ institutions and funders. Once Green OA prevails globally, we will have the much-needed access to existing journals for all would-be users, not just those whose institutions can afford to subscribe. That will remove all pretensions that the motivation for paying-to-publish in a Gold OA journal is to provide OA (rather than just to get published), since Green OA can be provided by authors by publishing in established journals, with their known track records for quality, and without having to pay extra — while subscriptions continue to pay the costs of publishing.

If and when universal Green OA should eventually make subscriptions unsustainable — because institutions cancel their subscriptions — the established journals, with their known track records, can convert to the Gold OA cost-recovery model, downsizing to the provision of peer review alone (since access-provision and archiving will be done by the global network of Green OA Institutional Repositories), with the costs of peer review alone covered out of a fraction of the institutional subscription cancellation savings.

What will prevent pay-to-publish from causing quality standards to plummet under these conditions? It will not be pay-to-publish! It will be no-fault pay-to-be-peer-reviewed, regardless of whether the outcome is accept, revise, or reject. Authors will pay for each round of refereeing. And journals will (as now) form a (known) quality hierarchy, based on their track-record for peer-review standards and hence selectivity.

I’m preparing a paper on this now, provisionally entitled “No-Fault Refereeing Fees: The Price of Selectivity Need Not Be Access Denied or Delayed.”

Stevan Harnad
American Scientist Open Access Forum