Comparing Carrots and Lettuce

These are comments on Stephen Curry’s
The inexorable rise of open access scientific publishing“.

Our (Gargouri, Lariviere, Gingras, Carr & Harnad) estimate (for publication years 2005-2010, measured in 2011, based on articles published in the c. 12,000 journals indexed by Thomson-Reuters ISI) is 35% total OA in the UK (10% above the worldwide total OA average of 25%): This is the sum of both Green and Gold OA.

Our sample yields a Gold OA estimate much lower than Laakso & Björk‘s. Our estimate of about 25% OA worldwide is composed of 22.5% Green plus 2.5% Gold. And the growth rate of neither Gold nor (unmandated) Green is exponential.

There are a number of reasons neither “carrots vs. lettuce” nor “UK vs. non-UK produce” nor L&B estimates vs. G et al estimates can be compared or combined in a straightforward way.

Please take the following as coming from a fervent supporter of OA, not an ill-wisher, but one who has been disappointed across the long years by far too many failures to seize the day — amidst surges of “tipping-point” euphoria — to be ready once again to tout triumph.

First, note that the hubbub is yet again about Gold OA (publishing), even though all estimates agree that there is far less of Gold OA than there is of Green OA (self-archiving), and even though it is Green OA that can be fast-forwarded to 100%: all it takes is effective Green OA mandates (I will return to this point at the end).

So Stephen Curry asks why there is a discrepancy between our (Gargouri et al) estimates of Gold OA — in the UK and worldwide (c. <5%) -- the estimates of Laakso & Björk (17%). Here are some of the multiple reasons (several of them already pointed out by Richard van Noorden in his comments too):

1. Thomson-Reuters ISI Subset: Our estimates are based solely on articles in the Thomson-Reuters ISI database of c. 12,000 journals. This database is more selective than the SCOPUS database on which L&B’s sample is based. The more selective journals have higher quality standards and are hence the ones that both authors and users prefer.

(Without getting into the controversy about journal citation impact factors, another recent L&B study has shown that the higher the journal’s impact factor, the less likely that the journal is Gold OA. — But let me add that this is now likely to change, because of the perverse effects of the Finch Report and the RCUK OA Policy: Thanks to the UK’s announced readiness to divert UK research funds to double-paying subscription journal publishers for hybrid Gold OA, most journals, including the top journals, will soon be offering hybrid Gold OA — a very pricey way to add the UK’s 6% of worldwide research output to the worldwide Gold OA total: The very same effect could be achieved free of extra cost if RCUK instead adopted a compliance-verification mechanism for its existing Green OA mandates.)

2. Embargoed “Gold OA”: L&B included in their Gold OA estimates “OA” that was embargoed for a year. That’s not OA, and certainly should not be credited to the total OA for any given year — whence it is absent — but to the next year. By that time, the Green OA embargoes of most journals have already expired. So, again, any OA purchased in this pricey way — instead of for a few extra cost-free keystrokes by the author, for Green — is more of a head-shaker than occasion for heady triumph.

3. 1% Annual Growth: The 1% annual growth of Gold OA is not much headway either, if you do the growth curves for the projected date they will reach 100%! (The more heady Gold OA growth percentages are not Gold OA growth as a percentage of all articles published, but Gold OA growth as a percentage of the preceding year’s Gold OA articles.)

4. Green Achromatopsia: The relevant data for comparing Gold OA — both its proportion and its growth rate — with Green come from a source L&B do not study, namely, institutions with (effective) Green OA mandates. Here the proportions within two years of mandate adoption (60%+) and the subsequent growth rate toward 100% eclipse not only the worldwide Gold OA proportions and growth rate, but also the larger but still unimpressive worldwide Green OA proportions and growth rate for unmandated Green OA (which is still mostly all there is).

5. Mandate Effectiveness: Note also that RCUK’s prior Green OA mandate was not an effective one (because it had no compliance verification mechanism), even though it may have increased UK OA (35%) by 10% over the global average (25%).

Stephen Curry: “A cheaper green route is also available, whereby the author usually deposits an unformatted version of the paper in a university repository without incurring a publisher’s charge, but it remains to be seen if this will be adopted in practice. Universities and research institutions are only now beginning to work out how to implement the new policy (recently clarified by the RCUK).”

Well, actually RCUK has had Green OA mandates for over a half-decade now. But RCUK has failed to draw the obvious conclusion from its pioneering experiment — which is that the RCUK mandates require an effective compliance-verification mechanism (of the kind that the effective university mandates have — indeed, the universities themselves need to be recruited as the compliance-verifiers).

Instead, taking their cue from the Finch Report — which in turn took its cue from the publisher lobby — RCUK is doing a U-turn from its existing Green OA mandate, and electing to double-pay publishers for Gold instead.

A much more constructive strategy would be for RCUK to build on its belated grudging concession (that although Gold is RCUK’s preference, RCUK fundees may still choose Green) by adopting an effective Green OA compliance verification mechanism. That (rather than the obsession with how to spend “block grants” for Gold) is what the fundees’ institutions should be recruited to do for RCUK.

6. Discipline Differences: The main difference between the Gargouri, Lariviere, Gingras, Carr & Harnad estimates of average percent Gold in the ISI sample (2.5%) and the Laakso & Bjork estimates (10.3% for 2010) probably arise because L&B’s sample included all ISI articles per year for 12 years (2000-2011), whereas ours was a sample of 1300 articles per year, per discipline, separately, for each of 14 disciplines, for 6 years (2005-2010: a total of about 100,000 articles).

7. Biomedicine Preponderance? Our sample was much smaller than L&B’s because L&B were just counting total Gold articles, using DOAJ, whereas we were sending out a robot to look for Green OA versions on the Web for each of the 100,000 articles in our sample. It may be this equal sampling across disciplines that leads to our lower estimates of Gold: L&B’s higher estimate may reflect the fact that certain disciplines are both more Gold and publish more articles (in our sample, Biomed was 7.9% Gold). Note that both studies agree on the annual growth rate of Gold (about 1%)

8. Growth Spurts? Our projection does not assume a linear year-to-year growth rate (1%), it detects it. There have so far been no detectable annual growth spurts (of either Gold or Green). (I agree, however, that Finch/RCUK could herald one forthcoming annual spurt of 6% Gold (the UK’s share of world research output) — but that would be a rather pricey (and, I suspect, unscaleable and unsustainable) one-off growth spurt. )

9. RCUK Compliance Verification Mechanism for Green OA Deposits: I certainly hope Stephen Curry is right that I am overstating the ambiguity of the RCUK policy!

But I was not at all reassured at the LSHTM meeting on Open Access by Ben Ryan’s rather vague remarks about monitoring RCUK mandate compliance, especially compliance with Green. After all that (and not the failure to prefer and fund Gold) was the main weakness of the prior RCUK OA mandate.

Stevan Harnad