Many subscription-based science publishers offer some form of free access to journal articles, usually after an embargo period that can range between two months and 36 months after publication.
These embargo dates were set more than a decade ago in most cases, with little supporting data and with little fear that giving away free content would put their business models at risk.
In a widely influential piece published over 10 years ago in Nature Web Debates, Martin Richardson, then Journals Publishing Director for Oxford University Press, released one of the first usage studies for electronic journals, plotting how the vast majority of article readership for the The EMBO Journal takes place within the first three months of publication. This piece of information shouldn’t have come as a surprise to science publishers, most of whom observe the same pattern in their own journals. However, what Richardson wrote next now seems, in hindsight, to be a controversial finding:
The initial results of the Highwire free access experiment indicate that there is no detectable increase in usage once free access is given.
In light of this finding, the decision for OUP and others to begin offering free access to journal articles — both from their own publishing platforms and through PubMed Central — seemed like a low-risk venture. If there was little pent up demand for free access, as the analysis revealed, publishers shouldn’t worry about giving away content.
Should they begin to start worrying?
The decision on the acceptable length of an embargo period is partly political — for many publishers, it was a reaction to the online petition to create a public library of science. It is also partly strategic — deciding how much to give away before you start compromising your ability to sell your service. Indeed, even the notion that access embargoes were harmful was considered controversial, with some arguing — even today — that minimizing embargoes increases subscription revenue, citations, and submissions.
These arguments, however, are based entirely on anecdotal evidence — uncontrolled, unscientific case studies that reflect the practices of a single journal. They are used in place of rigorous scientific studies because the rigorous scientific studies don’t yet exist. An embargo date is not something you play with, which is why most publishers have not attempted to adjust their embargo periods since they were set.
With the lack of rigorous studies on embargo periods, anecdotes have the potential to generalize individual observations that may not generalizable. For example, the fact that Molecular Biology of the Cell provides free access to its articles just two months after publication does not necessarily mean that all journals would survive with such a short embargo. Conversely, the fact that GENETICS increased its embargo period from six to 12 months does not necessarily mean that short embargoes lead to subscription cancellation.
The fundamental problem in looking at the relationship between embargoes and cancellation is that cancellation is the result of a complex decision-making process on the part of the librarian (or individual) that weighs the value of a subscription against its cost. Surveys attempting to create artificial scenarios, for example, “If the (majority of) content of research journals was freely available within six months of publication, would you continue to subscribe?” only measure the propensity to cancel through a single dimension. They are also hypothetical in nature.
Librarians indicate that usage data factors heavily in their decision to renew a subscription, so if we are seeking a causal relationship between public access and cancellation, we should look to usage statistics as an intermediary.
Access policies that require authors to provide public access to their work — either by depositing copies of their articles into PubMed Central, an institutional repository, or both — may be drawing those readership statistics away from the publishers’ websites. What is not known, at this point, is how much readership is being drawn away. PubMed Central may be complementing publishers by providing access to readers traditionally underserved by the subscription-model. On the other hand, PMC may be competing directly with publishers for the attention of the reader. Furthermore, little is known about whether access to author manuscripts is a viable substitute for the published article or how the length of embargo changes article-level usage statistics. It is puzzling that funders are debating changing access policies without these data.
In the next few months, I’ll be reporting on some emerging studies that attempt to answer some of these questions. In light of new funding policy debates, it is perhaps a good opportunity to revisit one’s access embargo and ask whether it should be changed considering that the world of access opportunities in the last decade has changed as well.