Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Open Access in 2009: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

As 2009 draws to a close advocates of Open Access (OA) will doubtless be looking back and weighing up the year's events. So what has been achieved, and what have been the main OA developments in 2009? Has it been a good year or a bad year for OA? Let's consider these questions.

Green OA/Self-archiving

First, what has 2009 been like for Green OA?

There are now 137 self-archiving mandates. OA advocate Stevan Harnad has estimated that 10,000 will be needed before OA is achieved. (Although he later added that a tipping point would be reached if the top 750 to 1,500 institutions introduced mandates).

The good news

So what's the good news? Mandates are currently accelerating at a fast rate (See Alma Swan's graph). They are also beginning to arrive in bunches: during the second week of December, for instance, 26 Finnish mandates were announced in one go.

Meanwhile, in the US legislators appear to be coming around to the idea that they have a responsibility to ensure that federally-funded researchers are compelled to make their scholarly papers freely available on the Internet. In June, for instance, the Federal Research Public Access Act (FRPAA) was reintroduced to the US Senate with this end in mind.

And then in December the Obama Administration announced that it was launching a public consultation process preparatory to requiring US federal science and technology funding agencies to introduce "public access" policies.

What about repositories? OpenDOAR currently lists over 1,500 repositories, and Scientific Commons — the repository aggregator service — has over 32 million items listed in its database.

Importantly, more and more researchers are now aware of the OA movement and increasingly inclined to embrace it. (Although many remain confused as to what exactly they should be doing, and fearful that OA could damage their careers).

The bad news

And the bad news? There remains some doubt as to the efficacy of the mandates being introduced. Indeed, it is not even clear that many of the claimed mandates amount to much more than pious declarations.

Certainly many mandates appear not to be what it says on the packet. Even the much lauded Harvard mandate has not borne close scrutiny, and in the wake of criticism its architect Stuart Shieber conceded on his blog: "[T]he Harvard open-access policy could not be, should not be, and is not a mandate. I've tried to be very careful never to refer to it as a mandate (though I can’t promise I've never slipped up)."

This clearly has implications for compliance, and indeed another area of concern relates to the failure of both researchers and publishers to abide by mandates. Canadian OA advocate Heather Morrison, for instance, recently published some figures on the National Institutes of Health (NIH) mandate. Compliance levels for some Springer and Elsevier journals, she reports, are as low as 9% to 37%.

Overall, says Morrison, "NIH-funded research that is freely available after 2 years is 41% for external researchers and 50% for internal researchers. This is definitely growing; but the figure should be 100% at 1 year."

There are also worries about the nature and quality of some of the content being deposited in repositories, much of which appears not to be OA's target content (peer-reviewed papers). Certainly a search on Scientific Commons reveals broken links, non-target content, abstracts rather than full text, and some links merely point to items locked behind toll walls.

Finally, there are signs that increasing take-up of Gold OA could be being achieved at the expense of Green OA. This could slow down adoption of self-archiving mandates, and thus of OA progress overall. (Assuming, like Harnad, one believes that Green OA offers a faster route to OA than Gold OA does).

Gold OA/Publishing

What about Gold OA?

There are now over 4,500 Gold journals. As there are estimated to be roughly around 25,000 peer-reviewed journals in total, this suggests that one fifth of all scholarly journals are now OA.

The good news

What has been the good news for Gold OA? Again, the rate of progress of Gold OA is clearly accelerating. The Directory of Open Access Journals added 700 journals to its database in 2009. This, points out Morrison, is equivalent to two journals a day.

In addition, most subscription journals now offer a Hybrid OA option for some or all their journals, enabling authors to pay to have individual papers made OA even when publishing in a subscription journal. And a growing number of funders and research institutions are creating Gold OA funds to support authors who wish to pay the article processing charges (APCs) needed to make their papers OA.

Finally, in January the Houghton Report (Economic Implications of Alternative Scholarly Publishing Models: Exploring the costs and benefits) concluded that the research community could make considerable cost savings if all scholarly journals converted to OA.

The bad news

The bad news? Today's 4,500 Gold OA journals are not the best fifth. Harnad explains: "A high proportion of Gold OA journals are lesser journals. I don't want to make it sound elitist, but they are not the journals that contain the research that everybody wants and needs the most. If you look at the top journals, the ones that are likely to capture 80% of citations, most of those are not Gold OA. (I'm not talking about the hybrid Gold option, which is a cheap option for publishers, but a pricey one for authors.) So if you are talking about a tipping point for Gold OA, it will be necessary to capture the top journals."

The problem, however, may be that high-impact subscription journals are the least likely to convert to Gold OA.

What has clearly not helped Gold OA is the fact that a growing number of start-up OA publishers have attracted criticism from the research community for their poor business practices — including bombarding researchers with spam invitations to submit papers, and providing an inadequate peer review process. This, it seems, is the ugly side of OA — a product perhaps of what Harnad calls "gold fever".

But perhaps the most serious long-term problem is that it is looking increasingly possible that OA publishing may fail to solve the affordability problem — as many had hoped, particularly those librarians suffering the pain of the serials crisis.

In other words, despite the predictions made in the Houghton Report, the research community may discover that OA delivers no cost savings, and simply replaces the serials crisis with an author crisis. (We should note that the APC rates levied by some OA publishers — and most Hybrid publishers — are already higher than the Houghton estimates, and rising).

The growing trend for publishers to offer institutional membership schemes to allow institutions to convert from a subscription model to an OA model has also raised concerns about pricing. (See, for instance, the experience of the Health Sciences Library at Columbia University, and criticism of the SCOAP3 and Springer experiments).

OA broadens

There was, however, some unexpected good news in 2009: where OA has historically been seen as something of relevance only to scientific and medical (STM) journals this year has seen growing interest in OA for the humanities, and for books.

"I think there will be an increasing movement to scholarly open access monographs," says Australian OA advocate Colin Steele. "In Australia we have recently seen the establishment of the Adelaide University E-Press (with a stirring speech on their website from John Coetzee, the Nobel Prize winner). A worldwide movement in this context, reflected in developments in the US (see for example the upcoming SPARC-ACRL conference) and Bloomsbury Academic in the UK, seems likely for the transformation of the scholarly monograph situation. We must remember books and that OA is not simply STM articles."

Publishing consultant Alma Swan agrees. "OA monographs are finding their feet now, with experiments by presses (even commercial ones), establishment of viable business propositions (e.g. Open Humanities Press) and a number of formal studies going on including OAPEN, which I think may produce some useful pointers as it works through to its conclusion. It's never been nice to have to keep waving humanities to one side for another day, but now the day is here, it seems, and that is a real step forward."

Whether overall 2009 will turn out to have been good or bad for the OA movement doubtless rests on what happens in 2010 and beyond. Will current momentum be maintained for instance? Will the Obama Administration come up with the right formula for the public access policies it wants to see, or will those that emerge simply ape the NIH mandate (which has its detractors). Will more governments realise what needs to be done, and do it? Will OA continue to spread behind STM journals? Will OA find a way of resolving the affordability problem? For now these are necessarily matters for speculation alone.

Key developments

Below is a list of 17 notable developments that took place during 2009 (in date order). Thanks to Leo Waaijers, Gavin Baker, Alma Swan, Colin Steele, David Prosser, Peter Suber, and Heather Joseph for their input to the list:

January 21st: University of California libraries join the Springer experiment to support open access publishing. As the press release put it, "Under the terms of the agreement, articles by UC-affiliated authors accepted for publication in a Springer journal beginning in 2009 will be published using Springer Open Choice with full and immediate open access. There will be no separate per-article charges, since costs have been factored into the overall license."

Essentially this is an agreement designed to convert UC from a subscription to an OA world. Whether it will prove successful will depend not just on how it develops, but how one judges success.

January 27th: The Houghton Report — Economic Implications of Alternative Scholarly Publishing Models: Exploring the costs and benefits — is published. This concludes that the UK higher education sector could save around £80 million a year by shifting from toll access to open access publishing. It also estimates that £115 million could be saved by moving from toll access to open access self-archiving. If one projects these figures internationally it would appear that, in theory at least, OA offers the research community significant savings.

February 25th: SciELO South Africa is launched, with the objective of providing free and open access to a range of top South African science journals in order to boost the international profile of South African scientific research.

In other words, South Africa has joined the Scientific Electronic Library Online (SciELO) initiative, which was pioneered in 1997 by the São Paulo Science Foundation (FAPESP) and the Latin America and Caribbean Center on Health Sciences Information (BIREME) in Brazil.

SciELO provides "a common methodology for the preparation, storage, dissemination and evaluation of scientific literature in electronic format" and it does so on an entirely OA basis. Currently SciELO hosts over 600 journals published in the developing world.

April 1st: The Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) and e-Depot of KB Netherlands sign an agreement to ensure the long term preservation of DOAJ journals. The press release explains: "[L]ong term archiving of the journals listed in the DOAJ at KB’s e-Depot will become an integral part of the service provided by the DOAJ."

June 10th: Cornell postgraduate student Phil Davis reports on The Scholarly Kitchen blog that The Open Information Science Journal (published by Bentham Open) accepted a nonsense paper he had generated using a computer program. Davis had submitted the paper after being bombarded with spam messages from Bentham inviting him to publish a paper, at a cost of $800. The editor-in-chief of TOISJ Bambang Parmanto resigns as a result — announcing that he had not even seen the paper before it was accepted.

June 10th: US National student organisations call for Open Access to research, and release a statement on OA. Comments Open Access News' Gavin Baker: "This is the first broad-scale support for OA from student organisations."

June 12th: The Open Access Source Book (OASIS) is launched. OASIS is a new portal for educational materials on the "concept, principles, advantages, approaches and means to achieving Open Access". In particular, OASIS hopes to provide valuable information on OA to those in the developing world.

June 25th: The Federal Research Public Access Act (FRPAA, S.1373) is reintroduced in the US Senate. Commenting on the news de facto leader of the OA movement Peter Suber said: "This is an important development. FRPAA would essentially extend the NIH open-access policy across the federal government. Most federally-funded researchers would be required to deposit their peer reviewed manuscripts in a suitable open access repository at the time of acceptance for publication, and the repositories would be required to release the open access copies no later than six months after publication."

August 7th: The Open Humanities Press announces that it is partnering with the University of Michigan Library's Scholarly Publishing Office to produce Open Access books. Coupled with last year's launch of Bloomsbury Academic, many view this as a clear sign that OA is broadening beyond STM journals to encompass books, and the humanities too.

August 21st: PLoS Currents is launched. The goal of PLoS Currents is to provide a service where researchers can submit raw preprints, datasets and preliminary analyses. These are then made freely available online without first being subjected to in-depth peer review, allowing for the much more rapid dissemination of research.

Introducing the service PLoS co-founder and chairman Harold Varmus commented: "The successful development of open access publishing by organisations including the Public Library of Science (PLoS) in recent years is a dramatic illustration of how the Internet is revolutionising scientific communication. Today, after several months of work, I'm delighted to announce that PLoS is launching PLoS Currents (Beta) – a new and experimental website for the rapid communication of research results and ideas. In response to the recent worldwide H1N1 influenza outbreak, the first PLoS Currents research theme is influenza."

In many ways, it is suggested, this is the realisation of a dream Varmus first had when he was NIH director: In 1999 Varmus attempted to create a biomedical preprint server modelled on the physics preprint server arXiv. (Following intense criticism from publishers the project was significantly scaled back, the preprint component jettisoned, and the service launched in 2000 as PubMed Central).

September 15th: The Compact for Open Access Publishing (COPE) is launched. The brainchild of Harvard's Stuart Shieber, COPE founder members include Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of California, Berkeley, who jointly make a commitment to a "compact for open-access publication". Subsequently The University of Ottawa and Columbia University join COPE.

Commenting on the launch of COPE Shieber said: "Universities and funding agencies ought to provide equitable support for open-access publishing by subsidising the processing fees that faculty incur when contributing to open-access publications. Right now, these fees are relatively rare. But if the research community supports open-access publishing and it gains in importance as we believe that it will, those fees could aggregate substantially over time. The compact ensures that support is available to eliminate these processing fees as a disincentive to open-access publishing."

Essentially COPE members are asked to commit to create a Gold OA fund for their researchers in order to help pay APCs to publish in OA journals.

September 23rd: Enabling Open Scholarship (EOS) is launched. Headed up by Bernard Rentier, the Rector of the University of Liège in Belgium, EOS is an information service and a forum committed to the "opening up of scholarship and research" in line with "the growing open access, open education, open science and open innovation movements."

Commented EOS Chairman Professor Rentier: "The world of research is changing and universities and other research-based institutions must drive the change, not sit back and let it happen. Having embarked upon implementing changes in thinking and practice at my own university, I want to encourage others in my position to join the discussion and help lead the way to a better future. We will be reaching out to universities and research institutes across the world to invite them to play an active role in building better systems of scholarship for the future. EOS will provide the forum and the voice for the research community on open scholarship issues and represents a very valuable resource for those who want to join in this endeavour."

EOS appears primarily focused on Green rather than Gold OA. As such, it may offer a valuable counterweight to the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association (OASPA), which has been criticised for being more interested in promoting the interests of publishers than OA.

October 19th: The Wellcome Trust announces that it is committing an additional £2 million to its Gold OA fund. The announcement is made during Open Access Week.

October 21st: The Confederation of Open Access Repositories (COAR) is launched. Emerging from the European project DRIVER (Digital Repository Infrastructure Vision for European Research), which was funded by the EU Commission, the objective of COAR is to network "over 1,000 global scientific repositories comprising peer reviewed publications under the principle of Open Access."

November 9th: A petition is launched in Germany calling on the German National Parliament (Bundestag) to mandate OA for publicly-funded research. The initiative of a former chemist and now science journalist from Heidelberg called Lars Fischer, the petition catches the OA movement by surprise, and Fischer is criticised for the vague wording of the petition.

Speaking to me in November Fischer responded by saying that he had had difficulty obtaining help from OA advocates. He added that he had launched the petition "to demonstrate that there is broad public support for Open Access and to promote open debate about intellectual property laws in science. As far as I see it, Open Access has always been treated — even by its supporters — as a niche topic for experts. But that is wrong. It is an issue that in the long run concerns everyone, and many people understand that."

November 17th: It is reported that the Dutch science foundation has created a €5 million Gold OA fund.

December 9th: Last but far from least, as part of its Open Government Directive the Obama Administration launches a public consultation process preparatory to developing public access policies for science and technology funding agencies across the US Federal Government. Comments can be posted on the OSTP Blog, and must be received by 7th January.

This is undeniably potentially very big. But where does it fit with FRPAA? Does it perhaps make the FRPAA moot?

No, says Heather Joseph, executive director of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC). "If the Obama Administration takes action on the executive level, FRPAA would play an important role in codifying that action into law. FRPAA would be complementary to any executive order or letter that the Administration might issue."

Suber agrees: "The Obama policies could cover much the same territory as FRPAA, depending on what the public comments recommend and how the administration decides to interpret them and act. The policies could fall short of FRPAA or surpass it. But at best they still won't make FRPAA moot. The main reason is that Obama could only implement OA mandates by executive order, which could be reversed by the next president. We'd still want legislation to make the policies permanent. But whether the Obama policies exceed or fall short of FRPAA, they can be implemented immediately, while FRPAA waits its turn for legislative attention behind healthcare reform, financial regulation, and climate change."

The above list is in date order, but I wonder what OA advocates might feel to be the top five in order of importance? Have any important events been omitted? All comments welcomed.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Open Access: Who pays? How much?

Last month the Scholarly Publishing & Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC) launched a new guide called Who pays for Open Access? The guide, says SPARC, is intended to provide, "an overview of income models currently in use to support open-access journals, including a description of each model along with examples of journals currently employing it."

The guide is a useful and informative document penned by the well-regarded publishing consultant Raym Crow. On reading it, however, I found myself wondering whether it might not signal a change in SPARC's mission, or at least its priorities — one of several issues I raised with SPARC Executive Director Heather Joseph.

While Joseph emphatically denies that the mission of SPARC has changed, she concedes that the guide could give the impression that it no longer expects Open Access (OA) to reduce the costs of scholarly publishing. Since SPARC was created to try and resolve the so-called serials crisis, this is perhaps unfortunate.

Joseph's answers to my questions also left me wondering about the likely outcome of the transition to OA, and whether the OA movement is in danger of losing sight of the need not only to solve the access problem, but to also resolve the financial conundrum at the heart of the current crisis in scholarly communication: That is, how does one create a cost-effective system for disseminating research in a networked world. The promise of the OA movement was that it would lower the costs of scholarly communication. But will it?


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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Chaos, Solitons & Fractals: Alive but quiescent

A year ago Elsevier told me that M. S. El Naschie, the founding Editor-in-Chief of its non-linear science journal Chaos, Solitons & Fractals (CSF), was retiring as editor.

The next day Nature published an article in which a number of allegations were made about El Naschie, and the manner in which he had been editing CSF.

These allegations were evidently refuted by M. S. El Naschie, and on 12th November The Press Gazette reported that he is suing Nature for libel in the English courts.

As The Press Gazette put it, "According to a writ filed with the High Court by legal firm Collyer Bristow, El Naschie claims the story alleges he used his editorial privilege to self-publish numerous papers he'd written, which would not have been published elsewhere as they were of poor quality and had received no peer review."

When I contacted Nature by email they said that at the moment they were unable to offer any comment on the matter.

But what about the journal at the heart of the dispute: what is its current status and what does the future hold for it?

After El Naschie's retirement Elsevier continued to publish around 1,000 papers that had been accepted under his editorship. Then in June the publisher announced that the journal was no longer accepting papers. Commentators were quick to conclude that this was a signal that the journal was "closing shop".

But Elsevier's Shira Tabachnikoff tells me that this is inaccurate and the journal is not closing. Below is the brief email exchange I had with her recently.

Clearly, re-establishing the journal in the wake of El Naschie's retirement is proving a slow process.

RP: Can you give me an update on the status of the journal Chaos, Solitons & Fractals?

ST: We are currently working with the editorial board and other advisors to identify a new editorial structure, as well as reviewing the aims and scope of the journal, the editorial policies and submission arrangements.

RP: The journal is not closing then?

ST: Elsevier does not have the intention to stop the publication of the journal. We are working on renewing the aims and scope, editorial structure and ensuring a transparent online submission system is in place.

RP: But you have yet to recruit a new editor?

ST: Currently there is not a new Editor-in-Chief in place for the journal.

RP: And in the meantime, submissions to the journal have been closed?

ST: All the papers handled by Dr. El Naschie have now been published and nothing further will be published until the new editorial structure is in place. We are therefore not currently accepting any new submissions to the journal Chaos, Solitons and Fractals.

Once we have a new editorial structure in place, we will open the journal up to new submissions.

Update 16th March 2010: CS&F has been relaunched with two new co-editors-in-chief, a new editorial board and refined aims and scope.

Friday, November 13, 2009

German petition takes Open Access movement by surprise

The Open Access movement was taken by surprise this week when a petition suddenly appeared on the server of the German National Parliament (Bundestag) proposing an amendment to the pending changes in German copyright law that would require all scientific publications resulting from public funding to be made "openly accessible."

In effect, the petition is asking the German government to mandate all publicly-funded researchers to make their papers freely available on the Web.

The petition, drafted by Lars Fischer, a 31-year-old former chemist and now science journalist from Heidelberg, appeared from nowhere and sent the old guard of the OA movement into a bit of spin. It was, says German OA advocate Eberhard Hilf, "an audacious move by a young man".

Hilf immediately posted details on his blog and the German Coalition for Action "Copyright for Education and Research" rapidly put together a press release (English version here) in support of Fischer's initiative.

The petition has, however, attracted some criticism from OA advocates, who argue that it is vague and imprecise, and does not state exactly what the German government should do.

Nevertheless OA advocates have been flocking to sign it, and the number of signatures has been growing at a rate of 150 an hour. The petition can be viewed in German (and signed) here.

Intrigued by events, I contacted Fischer to find out more. He told me that he had tried to get help and advice from the OA movement when drafting the petition, but although some had shown initial interest they had subsequently "dropped the ball", leaving him to produce the final text.

No doubt it did not help that there is still no OA Foundation, or central organisation, to whom people with good ideas can turn for support — a point I made three years ago.

Below I publish my email conversation with Fischer.


Lars Fischer

RP: Who are you, what is your occupation, and why did you start the petition?

LF: I am a chemist working as a science journalist. I'm also editor at the German-language science blog portal, which is operated by Spektrum der Wissenschaft, the sister magazine of Scientific American.

The petition began with something called the Heidelberg Appeal, which was effectively a smear against Open Access. I learned that many scientists were as outraged as I was about the falsehoods in that document.

Because of that I prepared a draft that began a lively discussion in my blog. A few months later, during "Open Access Week" I submitted my text to the Bundestag server, where it was published last Monday.

RP: Last time I looked there were over 8,600 signatures. How quickly is the number growing?

LF: At one point there were about 150 new signatures being added each hour. Currently the rate has dropped somewhat, to about one per minute. I expect it to pick up a bit after the weekend.

RP: How does the petition process work: As I understand it if you get 50,000 signatures by December 22nd it gets debated in the German Parliament? Is that right?

LF: The goal is to get as many signatures as possible. The Bundestag FAQ says that if 50,000 signatures are reached within three weeks, the petition will be discussed publicly in the Bundestag Petition Committee, in a session where I'm entitled to take part. But even if fewer people sign, every accepted petition will be reviewed by two members of the Committee, so every vote counts.

Actually, other petitions have been accepted with far less than 50,000 votes, notably a dark sky petition this year, which had about 8,000 signatures. As far as I understand it, a hearing in the committee may lead to a legislative initiative, which will then be voted on by the Bundestag.

RP: Can the petition be signed by anyone in the world, only German nationals, or what?

LF: Signatures can be from anywhere in the world, but as far as I know only German nationals are counted. There are already signatures from Great Britain, France, USA, Australia and others, as well as from the German-language European countries.

RP: Do you think your proposal would succeed if it was debated?

LF: I don't know. I think it depends not only on the number of signatures, but also on the support of major scientific organisations and political parties.

RP: What is the purpose of the petition?

LF: The purpose is to demonstrate that there is broad public support for Open Access and to promote open debate about intellectual property laws in science. As far as I see it, Open Access has always been treated — even by its supporters — as a niche topic for experts. But that is wrong. It is an issue that in the long run concerns everyone, and many people understand that.

RP: As you say, your petition calls for Open Access. How would you define Open Access?

LF: There are two kinds of Open Access. My petition is about the so-called "green road to open access". This means that scientists always retain the right to make their publications freely available to the public, e.g. on their website or in some kind of repository. And they would be required by law to do so, too.

This doesn't change anything about the way scientific journals operate. Many publishers already offer such agreements to scientists.

The other option is the "golden road to open access", which means that the journals themselves offer their publications free of charge. This is not the goal of my petition.

RP: What exactly are you proposing?

LF: My proposal would require publications that came out of taxpayer-funded research to be available to the public. I also propose establishing a central digital repository that is searchable in a number of different ways. This would be to make the work of German scientists more accessible, since experience shows that papers that are publicly available and easy to find get cited more often.

That is another idea behind the petition: to help German scientists to stay competitive internationally.

RP: Is your proposal just meant to apply to government research-grant-funded research, or also for government-funded institutions?

LF: The petition only deals with research that is funded with taxpayer's money. I don't think it would be helpful, or indeed possible, to force such a policy on academic institutions — at least right now.

RP: How do you envisage your proposal being achieved in practice?

LF: I will need the help of experts and members of parliament to create the exact legislative proposal. That is the purpose of the hearing in the Petition Committee, I guess.

RP: Would I be right in thinking you are proposing that Germany introduce a scheme similar to the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) mandate (which includes a 12-month embargo on authors making their papers freely available), or something different?

LF: This is the basic idea. I think it is best to stick to what is known to be working. There may be some differences due to the different structure of research funding. Personally I’m no fan of an embargo, though.

RP: You talk of creating a central digital repository. You don't think researchers should make their papers available in institutional repositories then?

LF: In principle institutional repositories would probably be sufficient, but a central archive would certainly be in the best interests of German scientists.

RP: Why is Open Access necessary? Do you think that the issue is about a) researchers getting access to research papers; b) members of the public getting access; or c) both groups?

LF: Currently the publishing system requires scientists to give away their research to publishers, who sell it back to universities and libraries in the form of journal subscriptions. These subscriptions have become so expensive that even major libraries can't afford all of them anymore, thereby considerably reducing access, even for researchers at well-funded research institutions.

Open Access offers a way around this problem. I don't think there is much of a choice in this matter anyway. The Internet is changing the way the world works, and the increased importance of Open Access is part of this change. Science depends on openness and exchange of information, between researchers as well as between science and society. Thus, Open Access in some form comes natural to science.

RP: What does the petition mean when it says, "The general structure of the scientific publication system is not affected by this petition."

LF: It means that there is nothing entirely new in the proposal. Many scientists, publishers and institutions already practise "green" Open Access to a certain extent. The petition aims at expanding already available options.

RP: By, as you say, making it compulsory. I.e. a government mandate on researchers to self-archive their papers. Do you believe this would offer any threat to science publishers? Does that matter?

LF: Open access offers a fundamental challenge to scientific publishers. But the current trend toward Open Access is driven by technical innovation and economic realities, not by petitions. I recently did an interview with Bora Zivkovic of PLoS ONE, in which he discusses the matter at length.

The petition only acknowledges those realities and proposes a way to deal with them. Scientific publishers will have to deal with those changes, too, one way or another. The fate of the petition doesn't matter in this bigger picture.

RP: While the leaders of the international Open Access movement support your petition, there has been some criticism of it. For instance, Stevan Harnad has said, "Lars Fischer's statement is vague and thereby poses some risk of having no practical effect unless it is made clear exactly what the Bundestag is being asked to do, why, and how."

And the de facto leader of the OA movement Peter Suber commented to me: "While the petition points in the right direction, it's a missed opportunity to be more specific and useful. It doesn't help OA supporters in parliament understand what steps would most help the cause. This matters, unfortunately, because experience has taught us that some of the steps that occur to people first don't help and could hurt (for example, mandating green OA with a loophole for resisting publishers or mandating gold OA). Moreover, it does less than a more focused statement could to answer the many misunderstandings about OA circulating in Germany as a result — but also as a cause — of the Heidelberg Appeal. I've signed the petition and support the strategy to sign it and add clarifying statements. But I wish the original language had been stronger from the start."

Do you, in hindsight, wish that you had consulted with the leaders of the international OA movement before drafting the petition? Might you not have had a better chance of achieving your objective if you had done?

LF: In fact I tried to get the attention of a number of German Open Access initiatives. I mailed several organisations about this, none of which responded. The petition was also open for discussion in my blog for several weeks and after that in a wiki. The issue came up several times on Twitter and was re-tweeted several times.

I completely agree that there could have been a better petition with expert help. But there was none, and not for lack of trying on my side. With hindsight I could have contacted the international movement, but that didn't occur to me at the time.

Nevertheless I'd like to express my thanks to the German Open Access Community and especially the Coalition for Action "Copyright for Education and Research" for the support they are giving now that the petition has gone public. I think, with the movement now behind the petition, we will make an impact and demonstrate that Open Access has considerable public support.

RP: Thank you for your time. And good luck!

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Open Access: Profile of Eberhard Hilf

Eberhard (Ebs) Hilf is a true veteran of the Open Access (OA) movement. A theoretical physicist based in Oldenburg, Hilf began his advocacy at least eight years before the term Open Access was coined. Yet in contrast to prominent OA advocates like Stevan Harnad and Peter Suber, Hilf was until relatively recently little known in the movement outside his native Germany. Richard Poynder explains why.

Eberhard Hilf

Although a dedicated OA advocate, Hilf's main focus from the very beginning has always been on the broader issue of how the Web can improve scholarly communication. OA, he says, is just the first step to enabling a bigger revolution.

Thus while he has approached OA from this broader perspective, Hilf's assumption has nevertheless always been that OA needs to be viewed as a given. As he put it to a group of physicists and mathematicians in Halle (East Germany) in June 1994, in an online world all scholarly papers "should be free for all to read".

(By a strange accident of timing Hilf gave his presentation on the very same day that — on the other side of the Atlantic — Stevan Harnad posted his "Subversive Proposal" calling on all researchers to start making their papers freely available on the Web).

The seeds of Hilf's advocacy were sown in an incident that occurred a year earlier (in 1993), when a student came into his office and remarked: "You professors sit in here while outside a revolution is going on — the World Wide Web."

The student in question was Heinrich Stamerjohanns, at that time an assistant to Tim Berners-Lee, the British computer scientist who — with Robert Calliau — is credited with having invented the World Wide Web in 1991.

When Stamerjohanns explained what he meant Hilf immediately saw the potential it offered to revolutionise scholarly communication and asked Stamerjohanns to create Germany's first web server, in his department at the University of Oldenburg.

Hilf then embarked on a fact-finding tour of America. There he visited scholarly publishers, US universities and a bunch of technology companies — including Microsoft, where he was reliably informed that the Web had no future, and so there was no point in engaging with HTML!

Fortunately, Hilf took this advice with a pinch of salt, not least because one of his other stop-off points in the US was the Los Alamos National Lab (LANL), where he called in on fellow theoretical physicist Paul Ginsparg.

In 1991 Ginsparg had created a centralised electronic service to allow physicists to share their preprints with one another. Subsequently renamed arXiv, it began life as an email-based service, but was subsequently ported to the Web. There it went on to become an essential component in the process of scholarly communication for physicists — and today many physicists, as a matter of course, post their preprints in arXiv prior to sending them to a publisher.

Currently arXiv hosts over half a million papers, and around 5,000 new ones are added each month. Moreover, it is no longer restricted to physics alone: arXiv now accepts papers in mathematics, computer science, quantitative biology, quantitative finance and statistics as well.

Recalling his visit to Ginsparg, Hilf says, "At that time the entire content of arXiv was still on a single PC under Paul's desk in his office, a small room at LANL."

Arriving back from his trip in a jetlagged and somewhat febrile state, Hilf rushed to the lecture hall at Oldenburg University, ripped up the physics lecture he was scheduled to give, and enthused excitably for an hour about arXiv.

"As a result we all started reading papers on arXiv," says Thomas Severiens, then one of Hilf's students." He adds: "They weren't much use to sixth term students, but we read them with interest nevertheless." ...


If you wish to read the interview with Eberhard Hilf please click on the link below. The PDF file that will download includes both the interview and this introduction.

I am publishing the interview under a Creative Commons licence, so you are free to copy and distribute it as you wish, so long as you credit me as the author, do not alter or transform the text, and do not use it for any commercial purpose.

If after reading it you feel it is well done you might like to consider making a small contribution to my PayPal account. I have in mind a figure of $8, but whatever anyone felt inspired to contribute would be fine by me.

Payment can be made quite simply by quoting the e-mail account: It is not necessary to have a PayPal account to make a payment.

What I would ask is that if you point anyone else to the article then you consider directing them to this post, rather than directly to the PDF file itself.

If you would like to republish the article on a commercial basis, or have any comments on it, please email me at

To read the interview (as a PDF file) click here.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Interview with BioMed Central Publisher Matthew Cockerill

Matthew Cockerill

The growing success of Open Access (OA) publishing has raised a number of issues. Perhaps one of the more contentious issues is how OA publishers ought to market their journals.

Under a subscription model, publishers sell subscriptions to libraries; with OA journals, by contrast, publishers sell a publishing service to researchers. This change has implications for the relationship between publishers and researchers, which surely becomes more complicated. And it is not entirely clear that everyone has fully thought through the implications.

To get ahead of the competition, for instance, some OA publishers are launching hundreds of new journals in a relatively short space of time. And the number of OA publishers continues to grow. As a result, it is estimated that two new titles are added to the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) each day.

Clearly these programmes require that publishers recruit editorial boards, reviewers, and author submissions quickly, and in large numbers. This has seen OA publishers engaging in large-scale bulk emailing programmes, with researchers often receiving multiple invitations.

The practice has angered some of the recipients. In March last year, for instance, one researcher — Gunther Eysenbach — became sufficiently angry about the flood of invitations he was receiving that he began posting them on his blog (e.g. here and here) in an attempt to name and shame the publishers concerned. At one point he also threatened to sue one publisher for "spamming" him, arguing that its activities were both unethical and illegal.

And as the publisher of his own journal (The Journal of Medical Internet Research), Eysenbach also played a leading part in the founding of the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association (OASPA).

When OASPA was launched Eysenbach commented on his blog: "OASPA has some important missions. One is to set standards and keeping the standard of OA publishing high (e.g. by creating and enforcing a code of conduct, which includes for example standards against spamming)."

Other co-founders of OASPA (which recently held its first conference) include OA publishers Public Library of Science, Hindawi and BioMed Central (BMC).

Since BMC is a founder member of OASPA I was surprised when, on 16th July, I received an email from one of its journals — Theoretical Biology and Medical Modelling — inviting me (a journalist) to submit a paper.

When I contacted BMC's publisher — Matthew Cockerill — he said that I had received the message because, in 2002, I had signed up to receive updates from BMC. During the registration process, he added, I had expressed an interest in biotechnology.

I was not myself conscious of ever having opted in to receive invitations to submit papers, although I had signed up for the BMC Update, and I had signed on to its journalist list. I was also intrigued that — out of the blue and seven years after I had first registered my name on the BMC site — I should suddenly receive this invitation.

So I suggested to Cockerill that we do a formal Q&A interview. He agreed, and we began to swap questions and answers by email. With the summer holiday period intervening this proved a somewhat protracted process, but I am now able to publish the interview.

While Cockerill was away on his summer break I received two more email invitations from BMC. On 17th August I received an invitation to submit a paper to Microbial Cell Factories, and on 4th September I received one inviting me to submit a paper to Biotechnology for Biofuels. These messages were not sent to my current email address, but to one I rarely use now, an address Cockerill subsequently told me that I had used in 2005 when registering with another publisher altogether — The Scientist.

"At that time," explained Cockerill, "BioMed Central and The Scientist were part of the same group of companies and shared website systems, and a registration was valid across the entire BioMed Central and The Scientist network."

There is no suggestion that BMC is doing anything improper, or unethical. But one does wonder whether the email invitations being sent out by OA publishers are not in danger of proving counter-productive. After all, researchers have shown themselves to be somewhat sensitive to email solicitations from publishers (e.g. here).

What also seems evident is that the bulk emailing activities of OA publishers inevitably lead to a number of other questions: questions (as I said) about the relationship between publisher and author in an OA environment, but also questions about the relationship between editorial decisions and commercial decisions, and indeed questions about the relevance of the traditional journal format on the Web, and the role of commercial publishers in this brave new world.

I explored some of these wider issues in the interview with Cockerill. In doing so I was struck by one thing in particular that he said: "OA is not a religion. It's not just a 'movement' any more, either. It is a working, legitimate and sustainable business model for publishing."

Would everyone would agree with that definition of OA I wonder?


If you wish to read the interview with Matthew Cockerill please click on the link below. The PDF file that will download includes both the interview and this introduction.

I am publishing the interview under a Creative Commons licence, so you are free to copy and distribute it as you wish, so long as you credit me as the author, do not alter or transform the text, and do not use it for any commercial purpose.

If after reading it you feel it is well done you might like to consider making a small contribution to my PayPal account. I have in mind a figure of $8, but whatever anyone felt inspired to contribute would be fine by me.

Payment can be made quite simply by quoting the e-mail account: It is not necessary to have a PayPal account to make a payment.

What I would ask is that if you point anyone else to the article then you consider directing them to this post, rather than directly to the PDF file itself.

If you would like to republish the article on a commercial basis, or have any comments on it, please email me at

To read the interview (as a PDF file) click here.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Compact for Open-Access Publishing Equity: Mistaking intent for action?

The recent launch of the Compact for Open-Access Publishing Equity (COPE) has attracted both plaudits (e.g. here and here) and criticism (e. g. here and here).

What is COPE? It is a call to universities and research funding agencies to "recognise the crucial value of the services provided by scholarly publishers, the desirability of open access [OA] to the scholarly literature, and the need for a stable source of funding for publishers who choose to provide open access to their journals' contents."

Signatories to COPE are asked to commit to, "the timely establishment of durable mechanisms for underwriting reasonable publication charges for articles written by its faculty and published in fee-based open-access journals and for which other institutions would not be expected to provide funds."

Specifically, signatories are invited to create Gold OA Funds to assist researchers to pay to publish their papers in OA journals — which instead of charging readers to read (via a subscription), impose an author-side article processing fee (APC). The deal is that by paying a fee an author can ensure that the publisher will make his or her paper freely available on the Web for anyone to read, and thereby increase its impact.

COPE is the brain child of Harvard's Stuart Shieber, a professor of computer science, and director of the university's Office for Scholarly Communication. Shieber outlined the thinking behind COPE in an article published in August in PLoS Biology. COPE is necessary, he explained, because OA journal publishing is currently "at a systematic disadvantage relative to the traditional [subscription, or Toll Access (TA)] model".

The implication is that authors would be willing to publish their papers in an OA journal, if someone else was prepared to pay the associated publishing fee.

Universities need to support OA publishing, concluded Shieber, in order for it to become "a sustainable, efficient system". Only then, he added, can the two journal publishing systems (OA and TA) "compete on a more level playing field."

To date five universities have signed up to COPE, including Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cornell, University of California at Berkeley, and Dartmouth University.

Bigger picture

What's the bigger picture here? For the past several decades scholarly journal publishing has been in the grips of the so-called serials crisis. This has made it increasingly difficult for research institutions to fund subscriptions to all the journals that their researchers need to do their work properly.

This is both an affordability problem (since it means that each year universities have to reduce the number of journals they subscribe to due to a shortage of funds) and an access problem (since researchers cannot read papers published in journals for which their institution has no subscription).

Open Access publishing (Gold OA) was devised as a way of overcoming these problems — by shifting costs from the reader side of the publication process to the author side by charging a one-off publication fee.

Although the access and affordability problems are part and parcel of the larger serials crisis if we want to understand the current situation more clearly, and assess the likelihood of COPE resolving matters, it may help to view them as two separate problems.

There are two reasons for doing this. First, as a result of pressure brought to bear on publishers by OA advocates the majority of TA journals now permit authors to self-archive copies of their papers in their institutional repository. Known as Green OA, this practice ensures that copies of papers published in TA journals can nevertheless be made freely available on the Web.

However, since universities still need to pay subscriptions to access all the papers that have not been self-archived, Green OA is unlikely to have any substantial impact on the affordability problem, at least in the short term. It does, however, hold out the promise of solving the access problem.

Indeed, so far as access is concerned Green OA has a significant advantage over Gold OA, because if all researchers began self-archiving their papers it would be possible to make 100% of the global research output freely available on the Web practically overnight. By contrast, it would take a considerable amount of time and effort to convert all journals to Gold OA — even assuming that publishers agreed to the conversion.

However, in practice today only around 15% of research is being self-archived by authors. And while research institutions can require self-archiving, very few have yet introduced self-archiving mandates, and it is not at all clear yet whether the growth in mandates will accelerate in the near future.

Moral hazard

What are the origins of the serials crisis? It is partly a consequence of a continuous growth in the number of journals, but mainly a result of price inflation, which appears to be endemic to the scholarly journal market.

Hyperinflation, argues Shieber is the result of "systemic dysfunctionalities" inherent to a subscription business model when applied to scholarly journals. As in insurance-based health markets, he says, it leads to moral hazard — "the phenomenon of overconsumption of a good by a consumer who is insulated from the good's cost".

In other words, he explains in PLoS Biology, "The 'consumers' of scholarly articles (the readers, typically faculty, students, and researchers at universities and other research institutions) are insulated from the cost of reading, that is, from the subscription fees paid by the institutions' research libraries."

This is a problem that anti-trust economist Mark McCabe outlined to me seven years ago. As he put in 2002, "One distinctive aspect of this market is that end users do not pay for the material they use since the actual purchases are mediated by the libraries. This means that the principals (the professors, the scientists, the researchers of a particular institution) ask their agent (the library) to buy whatever they need, and the agent has no way of enforcing price discipline on the users. So there is a disconnect."

The second reason for treating access separately from affordability is that while Gold OA could in theory eventually produce 100% OA (and so solve the access problem) it is not at all clear that it can solve the affordability problem.

Since COPE proposes Gold OA as a solution to the predicament that the research community finds itself in, a key question, therefore, is whether Gold OA can avoid the systemic dysfunctionalities characteristic of TA publishing.

Currently the signs are not good.


When pioneer OA publisher BioMed Central (BMC) launched, for instance, it charged $525 to publish an article. Today its standard APC is nearly three times higher, at $1,535; and authors can pay anything up to $2,365 to publish an article in a BMC journal like the Journal of Biology.

Similar increases have been evident with other OA publishers. When Public Library of Science (PLoS) launched its first journal, for instance, it charged an APC of $1,500; today it charges nearly twice as much, with costs ranging from $2,250 to $2,900. (PLoS ONE charges $1,350, but is not a traditional journal).

Moreover with most researchers unable to fund the cost of paying APCs themselves a number of alternative payment options have been devised. This has led to the creation of Gold OA funds like those envisaged by COPE (there are currently 21 Gold OA funds, plus an ambitious project called SCOAP3 that hopes to convert the entire particle physics literature from a subscription model to Gold OA), and to the so-called "institutional membership scheme". Inevitably such schemes involve paying APCs from centralised funds.

Institutional membership, for instance, involves a research institution bulk-buying the right for all its researchers to publish their papers in any of a specific Gold OA publisher's portfolio of journals — with the costs generally charged to the library budget. Essentially, it is a quasi-subscription.

As a quasi-subscription institutional membership creates a similar "disconnect" between user and purchaser as occurs with TA publishing. Gold OA funds will inevitably have the same effect. As Shieber points out, the danger is that "since authors would not now have to pay the processing fee, they would over-consume in a price-blind fashion, and processing fees would hyperinflate just as the subscription fees."

It seems that this is not just a theoretical danger. In August 2007 unrest erupted over the institutional membership scheme operated by BMC, leading to the science and medical libraries at Yale University publicly announcing that they were discontinuing membership.

Explaining their decision Yale librarians pointed out that the university had been asked to pay BioMed Central less than $4,700 to publish articles in BMC journals in 2005, but that the figure had grown to $31,625 in 2006. "This experiment in open-access publishing has proved unsustainable," the librarians concluded.

A further fifteen universities also cancelled their BMC membership scheme.

BMC responded by saying that the price hike was a consequence of a rapid rise in the number of papers published in its journals. This is no doubt fair comment, but appears to confirm that OA publishing suffers from the same disconnect between principal and agent as is evident with TA publishing, and that this results in the same inflationary spiral.

In discussing this issue earlier this year I concluded that OA publishing funded with Gold OA funds, or institutional memberships, is likely to produce the same hyperinflationary effect that Shieber worries about. In other words, while Gold OA funds could eventually solve the access problem, it is far from clear that they can resolve the affordability problem.

OA advocate Peter Suber challenged my conclusion. "As soon as we shift costs from the reader side to the author side, then, we create market pressure to keep them low enough to attract rather than deter authors ... [and] ... precisely because high prices in an OA world would exclude authors, and not merely readers, there is a natural, market-based check on excessive prices."

Besides, he added, the majority of OA journals do not currently charge an APC. As he put it: "It's relevant to point out here that most OA journals charge no publication fees or institutional memberships at all. I've argued that even fee-based Gold OA is not the threat that Richard seems to think. But even if I'm entirely wrong about that: fee-based gold OA is a minority of Gold OA, and no-fee Gold OA doesn't pose any of the threats that Richard describes."

Shieber likewise cites evidence showing that the number of OA journals currently charging APCs is low. Writing in PLoS Biology he reported that fewer than 25% of the open-access journals in the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) are listed as charging a publication fee, "the remainder relying on other sources of direct or in-kind support."

Can we assume that this will continue to be the case?

Shieber thinks not. For this reason he reaches a slightly different conclusion to Suber: "[P]rocessing fees are likely to be an important revenue model for open-access journals, as they scale beyond the tiny fraction of overall journals that they currently constitute; processing fees are the only revenue source that inherently scales directly with the publishing services provided by a journal. The importance of the processing-fee model can be seen in the fact that of the open-access journals of sufficient standing to have an Institute for Scientific Information (ISI) impact factor, the proportion charging processing fees rises above 50%."

Putting a cap on it

Shieber nonetheless suggests that Gold OA can avoid the hyperinflation that has plagued TA publishing — if research institutions impose a cap on the money made available to authors when reimbursing their publishing fees.

With a cap, he explains, authors "would have to trade off whether using a certain amount of their limited allocation of funds for a given journal was appropriate in relation to the services and imprimatur that the journal provides, thereby reintroducing exactly the economic trade off that is missing from the current system."

He concludes, "In essence, the caps would act as inverse deductibles still allowing the economic signal to pass through to authors. In this approach, decisions about what is a reasonable fee are delegated to authors who choose on the basis of a market mechanism; the institution needn't stipulate reasonableness a priori."

This invites us to wonder what constitutes a reasonable fee, and whether a researcher would know a reasonable fee when presented with the bill. But would a cap work? "On the plus side," says Suber, "a cap will give authors a reason to husband their resources, or their allocation, introducing a note of price competition into their decision about where to submit a new work."

On the other side, he adds, "[A]fter an author spends her allocation, she might just submit subsequent work from the same fiscal year to a no-fee journal (OA or TA). That's compatible with price competition for the first article; but it's also compatible with disregarding price competition even for the first article. It's compatible with OA for the subsequent articles; but it's also compatible with TA for the subsequent articles."

However, the more important point, perhaps, is that universities will inevitably struggle to provide sufficient money to allow a Gold OA fund to ameliorate the predicament the research community currently finds itself in. This point was graphically demonstrated by Cornell doctoral student Phil Davis in May, when reporting on the plan of COPE signatory Cornell to make $50,000 available for a Gold fund.

"Considering that the Cornell University Library spends nearly $18 million dollars on collections, $50K seems like pocket change," he said. "From an management standpoint, it may take much more than $50K in staff and faculty time to administrate and process author charges one article at a time."

With APCs costing up to $3,000 per article (and some, like Cell Press, charging as much as $5,000), pocket change like this can hardly be expected to make much impression on the serials crisis. And since most of a library's budget will inevitably remain locked up in traditional journal subscriptions — which can be expected to continue to increase in price each year — it is hard to see how COPE-like initiatives will have much impact on either the affordability or the access problem.

"The notion of a COPE cap on the amount that funders and/or universities commit to subsidising authors for Gold OA fees is predicated on the enthymeme (i.e. the unstated or unrealised premise) that publishers abandon subscriptions and convert to Gold OA publishing," says Harnad.

In a post on Liblicense Harnad adds: "There are 25,000 journals, most of them not Gold OA, let alone equitably priced Gold OA, publishing 2.5 million articles a year from 10,000 universities worldwide. The tacit hope of COPE is to persuade all journals to abandon subscriptions and convert to equitably priced Gold OA by offering to pay for equitably priced publication today."

In short, COPE could only prove efficacious if universities cancelled all or most of their journal subscriptions and reallocated the money to pay for Gold OA (which they cannot risk doing), or of publishers voluntarily converting their journals to Gold OA. But as Harnad points out, "publishers have no reason to stop charging successful subscriptions just because some universities and/or funders commit to offering authors a capped Gold-OA subsidy."

In response to a claim on the Liblicense mailing list that COPE is a key OA initiative, and will allow "a smooth and successful transition to Open Access, Harnad responded: "it is just a very expensive way of generating some OA for a small fraction of a university's research output."

Like Harnad, Executive Editor for Social Sciences at Penn University Press Sandy Thatcher is doubtful that Gold OA funds will achieve very much. Commenting on a press release that the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC) posted on Liblicense extolling the creation of Gold OA funds at the University of Calgary and the University of California at Berkeley, Thatcher said: "I wonder how such initiatives really will change the economics of the system overall, especially in the short term. Universities will still be paying for subscriptions for many journals and [are] now adding fees in addition."

Primary objective

In short, for so long as universities have to continue paying constantly increasing subscription fees to traditional publishers they cannot hope to buy OA for more than a handful of their researcher's' papers.

This, of course, is the crux of the systemic disadvantage that Shieber bemoans: research institutions cannot force a transition to Gold OA if their library budgets are already committed to traditional journal subscriptions. But it is far from clear that COPE can do anything to resolve it. Once again, we have to conclude that not only will COPE fail to resolve the affordability problem, but it will have little impact on the access problem.

Indeed, not only are budgets already seriously over-stretched, they face further cuts as a result of the current financial crisis. At least two of the COPE signatories — Cornell and MIT — are in the process of reducing their library budgets. There must therefore be doubts as to how long Gold OA funds can be supported. One of the first Gold OA funds to be created was introduced at the University of Amsterdam in 2007. Earlier this year, however, it was closed — "Due to a precarious financial situation."

Asks Harnad: "Would it not be more timely and useful (for OA) to encourage every university to provide OA for its own research output, by mandating Green OA self-archiving, rather than making formal or financial commitments before or instead of doing so?

Green OA, after all, is easy to implement, incurs no additional costs, and offers a much quicker route to OA.

As it is, he says, only two of the five signatories to COPE (Harvard and MIT) have introduced mandates, suggesting that COPE signatories may have lost sight of the primary objective — to make as much research OA, as quickly as possible.

COPE, says Harnad, is, "in effect simply encouraging universities to put up the cash today and then just sit and wait to see whether offering the capped subsidy will take the bait. Meanwhile, access continues to be lost, year after year."

Let a thousand flowers bloom?

One can of course argue that COPE does have the virtue of drawing attention to OA and the way in which the research community is being held hostage by scholarly publishers. Is that not a valuable thing to do? In any case, what's wrong with experimentation? Should we not let a thousand flowers bloom?

Sure, says Harnad, people are free to experiment, and they are free to speculate; but the first step of any institution serious about OA should be to do the most obvious and rational thing: introduce a self-archiving mandate. "With Green OA mandates safely seeing to access, we have nothing to lose in getting into speculative economics. But without Green OA mandates we lose our very raison d'être, OA, in favour of speculative economics."

Besides, he adds, taking a scattergun approach simply disperses the energies of the research community, and distracts them from the goal — to achieve OA as quickly as possible. And that, he says, is precisely what Green OA can do. "This is definitely not a case for 'let a thousand flowers bloom,' in parallel. It is much too late in the day for that, especially with the Green OA mandate option fully within every university's reach."

For Harnad, therefore, achieving OA should be treated as a serial process, with Green OA taking priority over Gold OA. Suber disagrees, arguing that there is no reason why Gold and Green OA initiatives should not be pursued simultaneously. "I do think the two can and should run in parallel."

Suber adds however: "[A]ny university willing to launch a fund to support Gold OA should also be willing to adopt a Green OA mandate. More: one of the primary arguments for a Gold OA fund (namely, to provide OA to a larger fraction of the university's research output) applies even more strongly to a Green OA mandate."

Consequently, he concludes, "I'd like to see universities support both Green and Gold OA with strong, effective policies. If they do, I don't care whether they adopt the Green policy first and then the Gold, or vice versa. But I do worry [that] when a university adopts a Gold OA policy without seeing that its reasons for doing so are even stronger reasons to adopt a Green policy as well."

All in all there are good reasons to be highly sceptical about the likely efficacy of COPE. For as long as library budgets are tied up with subscriptions it is hard to see how Gold OA funds can break the logjam, unless they are accompanied by Green self-archiving mandates.

The COPE signatories have perhaps mistaken intent for action.

Step back?

The good news is that it would take very little to turn COPE from a well-meaning but probably ineffectual initiative into one with real teeth. All that is needed is to require that, in addition to creating a Gold OA fund, COPE signatories commit to introduce a Green OA mandate. Not only would this have the merit of pleasing both Harnad and Suber, but it would be far more likely to help the research community achieve OA (as in access).

As it is, COPE gives the impression of being a step back from the historic moment last year when Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences became the first university department in the US to adopt a Green mandate — an initiative that was also masterminded by Shieber.

That said, although adding teeth to COPE could help solve the access problem it is not certain that it would do much to address the affordability problem — since there is no evidence that either Green or Gold OA are capable of reducing the costs of scholarly communication (as currently conceived).

Consequently affordability will doubtless remain a continuing concern for the research community, and for taxpayers — the people who ultimately fund scholarly communication.

It may be that if Green mandates multiplied they would eventually generate enough OA to induce subscription cancellations, releasing the subscription funds to pay for — and hence encouraging publishers to convert to — Gold OA. But that is speculation. It is also a discussion for another day!