Open Access in Europe: The Blind Men and the Elephant

Alas, the well-meaning Euroscientist article “Open access in Europe: the bear and the tortoise” is replete with the most common misunderstandings of open access (OA) — the very same misunderstandings that have kept OA from happening for so many years since it first came within reach.

Despite many hopeful announcements, no OA tipping point has yet been reached. (It isn’t even clear what “tipping point” means, if it doesn’t mean crossing a threshold as of which 100% OA is within sight and fast approaching.)

ERC “joining” Arxiv means providing partial payment to support the costs of a global repository that has been at the disposition of researchers worldwide since 1991. But it’s still only those researchers (mostly physicists and mathematicians) who have been depositing in Arxiv all along who continue to deposit in Arxiv. No tipping point in sight there, for the rest of the disciplines and the rest of the world.

If 62% of ERC-funded articles are OA it is because ERC has mandated OA (but the figure needs to distinguish OA itself, which needs to be immediate, from Delayed Access, which might be 6-12-24 months or even longer, after publication).

The EU Horizon 2020 Framework, too, must clarify and shore up its mandate on the question of the timing of the deposit as well as the timing of access.

Recommendations, Declarations, Statements, Invitations and Incentives to provide OA are very welcome, but alas they do not generate OA itself. Only effective OA mandates, adopted and implemented by research institutions, research funders and universities generate OA. And OA mandates are still few and (more to the point): far too weak (see ROARMAP).

No, the real problem it is not the possibility that publishers’ copyright agreements with authors can still embargo OA for 6-12-24 months or longer. The problem is that most OA mandates fail to mandate immediate deposit anyway, irrespective of how long they allow access to the immediate-deposit to be embargoed by the publisher. Once authors have done an immediate-deposit, the repositories have a Button that makes it possible to provide almost-immediate almost-OA during any allowable embargo period with one click from the would-user and one click from the author.

The UK, the worldwide OA leader since 2004, has not taken “significant steps” forward on OA recently, but significant steps backward. (The Finch Report and the new RCUK OA mandate “prefers” double-paying to publish in gold OA journals instead of letting UK authors continue to publish in their preferred journals and provide green OA by self-archiving in their institutional repositories). Other countries are in fact doing much better than the UK, most notably Belgium, with the Liège model OA green OA mandate — the one that all institutions and funders worldwide should be adopting. It requires immediate deposit in the institutional repository as the means of submitting work for research evaluation, and as a condition for research funding.

It is good that the Science Europe Statement favours OA, but as noted, the past decade has demonstrated unequivocally that statements are not enough: Effective green OA mandates (the Liège model) are needed (and the Science Europe Statement is not even a statement in favour of effective green OA mandates). Much more clarity, focus, and specificity are needed in order to get this job done.

And the first step is to stop saying and thinking that the difference between “gold OA” (publishing) and “green OA” self-archiving is that gold means instant OA whereas green means OA within 6 months: Gold OA requires authors to change journals and pay to publish. Green OA allows authors to continue to publish where they choose, at no cost, and to provide immediate Almost-OA regardless of whether and how long a publisher OA embargo is allowed. (And 60% of publishers do not embargo OA at all.)

Yes, developing countries could in principle outpace the EU and the US in providing OA to their own research output, but what both the developing countries and the EU and US need most is access to all of one another’s research output — and most urgently to the research output of EU and the US. Moreover, most developing countries are not yet outpacing the EU and the US in providing OA to their own research output.

The obstacles to OA have nothing to do with the (legitimate) need and desire of researchers to meet the quality standards of the top journals in their fields. And the solution is not just “incentives and support” (already tried many times, many places) but the universal adoption of an effective OA mandate, which is the Liège mandate — and green.