Why Green OA Needs To Come Before Gold OA: A Reply to Jan Velterop

Jan Velterop wrote:

(1) Stevan trades off expected speed of achieving OA against quality of the resulting OA. It’s his right to do that. I just point out that that’s what it is. That’s my right. He calls it ‘deprecating green OA’; I prefer to call it ‘comparing outcome’.

(2) My ‘jumping with a closed parachute’ is not in any way a criticism of green OA or advocating green OA. It is a criticism of presenting green OA (in which the publication of articles being paid for by subscriptions) as the only way until all scholarly literature is available as green OA, and only then consider alternatives to the subscription system. I consider that deeply unrealistic, utterly unfeasible and not viable, and I favour developing gold OA as a replacement of the subscription system alongside green OA, gradually replacing the subscription system.

(3) The agreement reached at the BOAI to pursue both strategies (later called green and gold) proved short-lived. This has been most unfortunate, in my view. Stevan has introduced the idea that gold and green are rivalrous. They aren’t. They both contribute to growing OA. They both come with a transition price. In one case the price is lower quality of the resulting OA; in the other it is money.

Green vs. Gold is not a question of rivalry, it’s a question of priority.

The reason Green has to come first is very simple: (i) Gold OA journal publishing is vastly over-priced today and (ii) the money to pay for it (even once it has been downsized to a fair, affordable price) is still locked into institutional journal subscriptions.

Besides providing 100% OA, Green OA (which is now only 25% when unmandated, but can be increased to 100% when mandated) provides the way both to release the subscription money to pay for Gold OA and to force journals to downsize to a fair, affordable, sustainable price for Gold OA (namely, the price of managing peer review alone, as a per-review (sic) service: no more print edition; no more online edition; all access-provision and archiving offloaded onto the worldwide network of Green OA institutional repositories):

Institutions can only cancel subscriptions when the subscribed content is available as Green OA. Until then they can only double-pay (whether for hybrid subscription/Gold journals or for subscription journals plus Gold journals).

And publishers will not unbundle and cut costs to the minimum (peer review service alone, nothing else) until cancellations force them to do so.

And (before you say it): If a new Gold OA journal enters the market today with a truly rock-bottom price, for the peer-review service alone, the money to pay for it is still over and above what is being paid for subscriptions today, because the subscriptions cannot be cancelled until most journals (or at least the most important ones) likewise downsize to the bare essentials.

And most journals are not downsizing to the bare essentials.

And institutions and funders cannot make journals downsize.

All institutions and funders can do is pay them even more than what they are paying them already (which is exactly what the publisher lobby has managed to persuade the UK and the Finch Committee to do).

I do not call that a “parachute” toward a “soft landing”: I call it good publisher PR, to preserve their bottom-lines. And for most institutions and funders, it not only costs more money, but it is even more unaffordable and unsustainable than the serials status-quo today (which is reputedly in crisis).

The promise from hybrid Gold publishers to cut subscription costs in proportion to growth in Gold uptake revenues, even if kept, is unaffordable, because it involves first paying more, in advance; and all it does is lock in the current status quo insofar as total publisher revenue is concerned, in exchange for OA that researchers can already provide for themselves via Green, since publication and its costs are already being fully paid for — via subscriptions.

Nor is “price competition” the corrective: Authors don’t pick journals for their price but for their quality standards, which means their peer-review standards. It would be nothing short of grotesque to imagine that it should be otherwise (think about it!).

The corrective is global Green OA mandates: That — and not “price competition” between Gold OA journals — will see to it that the huge, unnecessary overlay of commercially co-bundled products and services that scholarly journal publishing inherited from the Gutenberg (and Robert-Maxwell) era is phased out and scaled down, at long last, to the only thing that scholars and scientists really still want and need in the online era, which is a reliable peer review service, provided by a hierarchy of journals, in different fields, each with its own established track record for quality — hence selectivity — at the various quality levels required by the field.

So what’s at issue is not a trade-off of “speed” vs. “quality” (whether peer review quality, or re-use/text-mining rights) at all, but a trade-off of speed vs. the status quo.

And yes, that’s speed, in the first instance, toward 100% free online access (Gratis OA) — of which, let us remind ourselves, we currently have only about 25% via Green and maybe another 12% via Gold — because that is what is within immediate reach (although we have kept failing to grasp it for over a decade).

The rest of the “quality” — Gold OA and Libre OA — will come once we have 100% Green OA, and publishers are forced (by Green-OA enabled subscription cancelations, making subscriptions no loner sustainable) to downsize and convert to Gold.

But not if we keep playing the snail’s-pace game of double-paying pre-emptively for Gold while research access and impact keeping being lost, year upon year — all in order to cushion the landing for the only ones that are comfortable with the status quo (and in no hurry!): toll-access publishers.

And please let’s stop solemnly invoking the BOAI as a justification for continuing this no-sum, no-win game of no-OA unless you double-pay.

Publication costs are being paid, in full (and fulsomely) today. What’s missing is not more revenue for publishers, but OA.

And Green OA mandates will provide it.

The rest will take care of itself, as a natural process of adaptation, by the publishing trade, to the new reality of global Green OA.

Stevan Harnad