Gold OA Costs: Pre-Green vs. Post-Green

Claudio Aspesi, BernsteinResearch: ?We estimate that a full transition to OA could lead to savings in the region of 10-12% of the cost base of a subscription publisher.?

Richard Poynder, on the Global Open Access List (GOAL): “The key question: if that estimate is accurate, will those savings be passed on to the research community?”

I think that what Richard is worrying about here is whether the cost-cutting that a transition from subscription publishing to Gold OA publishing would make possible (e.g., curtailing the print edition) would be reflected in lower Gold OA charges to the author/institution or they would simply be absorbed by the publisher (Aspesi’s (2012) test case being Elsevier), leaving Gold OA charges higher than they need to be.

I join this speculation and counter-speculation only reluctantly, for two reasons:

(1) I think there are significant transition factors that none of the economic analyses has yet fully taken into account, and hence that the potential savings are still being considerably underestimated.

(2) I also think this focus on predicting the costs of Gold OA just reinforces the excessive preoccupation with estimating the costs and benefits of pre-emptive Gold OA rather than the costs and benefits of OA itself, and what is needed, practically, for facilitating a transition to OA itself, rather than just a direct transition to Gold OA in particular.

Post-Green Gold will cost far less than the pre-emptive pre-Green Gold that the economic analyses keep estimating.

We keep counting the “savings” from generic Gold OA publishing without reckoning how to get there, and whether the transition itself might not be a major determinant in the potential for savings (from OA as well as from Gold OA).

I am not an economist, so I will not try to do anything more than to point out the main factor that I believe the economic analyses are failing to take into account:

If Green OA self-archiving in institutional repositories is mandated globally by institutions and funders, this will have two major consequences:

I. First, not only will globally mandated Green OA provide universal OA (and all of its benefits, scientific and economic) alongside subscription publishing, at minimal additional cost (because (a) repositories are relatively cheap to create and maintain, (b) most research-active institutions have created repositories already, and (c) have done so for multiple purposes, OA being only one of them).

II. Second, mandating Green OA globally (unlike pre-emptive Gold OA) also puts competitive pressure on subscription publishers to cut obsolete costs, because the universal availability of the Green OA version makes it much easier for cash-strapped institutions to cancel their journal subscriptions.

Not only can the print edition and its costs be phased out under cancelation pressure from global Green OA, but so can the publisher’s online edition and version of record: The worldwide network of Green OA repositories and their many central harvesters are perfectly capable of generating, hosting, archiving and providing access to the version-of-record. No more PDF or XML needed from the publisher; nor archiving; nor access provision; nor marketing; nor fulfillment. Nor any of their associated expenses.

All that’s needed from the publisher is the service of managing the peer review (peers review for free) and the certification of its outcome with the journal’s title and track-record.

That’s post-Green Gold OA publishing. Compared to that, all the economical estimates of savings are under-estimates.

Nor will there be any need — with post-Green Gold OA — for mega-publishers (like Elsevier), publishing vast fleets of unrelated journals; nor for mega-journals (like PLoS ONE), publishing vast flocks of unrelated articles. There are many narrow research specialities, a few wider ones, and a few even wider, multidisciplinary ones. They each have their own peers, and they each need their own peer-reviewed journals; depending on the size of the field, some fields will several journals, forming a pyramid of quality standards, the most selective (hence smallest) at the top.

There may have been economies of scale for multiple journal production, in the Gutenberg days. But in the PostGutenberg era, with post-Green Gold OA journals, providing only the service of peer review, there will be no need for generic refereeing being mass-marketed by generic editorial assistants for mega-publishers or mega-journals, where no one other than the referee (if competently selected!) knows anything about the subject matter.

So besides scaling down to the post-Green OA essentials, post-Green Gold OA journals will also revert to being the independent, peer-based titles that they were before being jointly bought up for by the post-Maxwellian publisher megalopolies. The online-era economies will come from restoring journals’ own natural speciality scale rather than from agglomerating them into generic multiple money-makers.

Aspesi, C (2012) Reed Elsevier: Transitioning to Open Access – Are the Cost Savings Sufficient to Protect Margins? BernsteinResearch November 26

Harnad, S. (2007) The Green Road to Open Access: A Leveraged Transition. In: Anna Gacs. The Culture of Periodicals from the Perspective of the Electronic Age. L’Harmattan. 99-106.

Harnad, S. (2009) The PostGutenberg Open Access Journal. In: Cope, B. & Phillips, A (Eds.) The Future of the Academic Journal. Chandos.

Harnad, S. (2010a) No-Fault Peer Review Charges: The Price of Selectivity Need Not Be Access Denied or Delayed. D-Lib Magazine 16 (7/8).

Harnad, S. (2010b) The Immediate Practical Implication of the Houghton Report: Provide Green Open Access Now. Prometheus, 28 (1). pp. 55-59.

Houghton, John W. & Swan, Alma (2012) Planting the green seeds for a golden harvest. Comments and clarifications on ?Going for Gold?