Green Open Access (OA) can be a factor in a librarian’s decision to cancel a subscription to a journal. Thus, publishers with liberal Green OA policies increase the chance that their journals will be cancelled. As Leo Durocher is famously quoted as saying, “Nice guys finish last.”
It’s important to recognize that a factor by itself is not determinative: I have heard of no librarian who categorically cancels publications with content that can be found from Green OA sources. But alongside other considerations–the merits of the journal, its fit with the institution’s research priorities, the amount of available budget–Green OA can tip the scale unfavorably. When such a journal is cancelled, the money that might have gone toward its purchase is spent elsewhere, usually with a publisher that has either a stronger or more relevant program or to a publisher that has decided to look after its own interests and not have a progressive Green OA policy. Money saved by cancelling one journal may go to pay for the price increase of another journal.
This is not the way we want things to work, of course; we want to reward people and organizations for their civic-mindedness. And sometimes we do, especially in flush times, when hard economic truths are not sticking up through the cloud of good intentions. But often in lean times we get “lean-spirited.” For my part I prefer not to judge people who behave in a situation precisely as most others would in the same situation.
My fellow Kitchen chef Rick Anderson addressed Green OA and cancellations and found himself in a maelstrom. Here is a link to the thread where this discussion took place. I encourage everyone to read it all the way through as it is informative, witty, and even entertaining. Rick said that he had instructed his staff to consider the availability of materials through other venues, including Green OA, when deciding which journals to retain and which to cancel. The logic of this is clear: if you have only so much money to spend, would you prefer to spend it on something that your institution has no other access to or on something that is available in some form in an institutional repository or other Green OA venue somewhere? Note the qualifier: If you have only so much money to spend. Other things being equal, I know what I would do in that situation. Rick’s is the voice of pragmatism, and I strive to emulate it.
Naturally, pragmatism can not be allowed to stand. Stevan Harnad engaged Rick’s comment and asserted that such a policy was a very bad thing since it would set back the advance of Green OA. This is an interesting remark, as it reveals Professor Harnad’s conviction that librarians, indeed the whole world, should view the achievement of his idiosyncratic goal as their highest priority. As far as I know, it is not the mission of Rick’s institution or any other to put Green OA at the top of a list of desiderata. Most institutions put service to their own institutions first, as one would expect. Cancelling Green OA journals will indeed set back the advance of Green OA, but that’s beside the point.
Several years ago I made this very same argument when I was invited by John Sack to speak at a HighWire Press client conference. I wish I had my slides from then; this was before the advent of SlideShare and Google Drive, so my only copy is on a useless hard drive that has been gathering dust on a shelf for years. My argument then and now is that journals are cancelled at the margin–that is, journals that are at the center of an institution’s programs are not likely to be cancelled, but journals that are at a distance from that center are at risk. Among the factors for cancellation (assuming the journal is of good quality) is the availability of the journal or portions of it elsewhere such as in bundles with many other journals (e.g., ProQuest or EBSCO collections) or in institutional repositories. After I gave my presentation, several people in the audience asked for a copy of my slides, which they wanted to use to explain to the professional societies that they worked for why Green OA represented a business problem for them.
The fact is that Green OA is like ouroboros, the snake that eats its own tail. It works best when it is less than perfect; when it is perfect it undermines the economics of the original publication. Let’s share a gedanken moment here. Imagine a journal that is sold on a subscription basis. Many of its articles can be found elsewhere: in institutional repositories, on authors’ Web sites, perhaps in a government archive. But items in those other repositories may be hard to find. Perhaps they don’t show up conspicuously in Google searches or the user cannot easily determine if they are the final version. In such an environment users are likely to look for the authorized instance of the article, and that is a compelling reason for a librarian not to cancel the journal’s subscription. In this environment publishers may not be overly assertive about Green OA because it is not hurting their interests.
But fast forward to a world where Green OA is getting better and better. Now you can find an article simply by typing the title or some keywords into Google or some other search mechanism. The Green version of the article appears; there is no need to seek the publisher’s authorized version. Librarians will observe this and pragmatically say that that journal can be cancelled.
So the better job Green OA does, the more it will be resisted. To keep Green OA programs going, they have to be imperfectly implemented.
Of course many people don’t care a fig if a journal gets cancelled, but they may not realize that Green OA requires that the journal keep going. The journal’s subscriptions underwrite the editorial and production process, including the management of peer review: without those subscriptions there would be no formally vetted articles in the first place that can then be made Green. This points to the advantage that Gold OA has over Green: it has a working business model attached to it. Such Gold OA services as the Public Library of Science and Hindawi are hugely profitable. They will be with us long after Green OA is a distant memory.
Whatever publishers may think about Green OA, they don’t have a free hand in its implementation or its obstruction. Funding agencies often mandate Green deposits and some universities mandate that faculty place copies of articles into institutional repositories. But beyond that is the Internet itself, which is a huge copying machine. The cost of stamping out Green copies of articles is more than any organization can bear. Thus publishers adopt a pragmatic (that word again) stance on Green OA, challenging it when the circumstances are serious, tolerating it otherwise. The creation of CHORUS is an instance of a strategic engagement with a Green OA policy that could undermine publishers’ interests.
But a publisher’s situation concerning OA is even more complicated than that. A publisher’s first job is to attract the best authors, but what do you do when some authors insist on some form of OA publication? Some of these authors vote with their wallets (or their funders’ wallets) and submit articles to PLoS, a Gold OA service; some opt for hybrid programs with established journals. Do publishers want to get into an argument with authors about depositing articles into an institutional repository or posting them on a personal Web site? So even as libraries are weighing OA in their collection decisions, publishers are seeking to find the right balance with authors concerning OA options. OA, in other words, is as much a matter of diplomacy as it is of policy. Nice guys may finish last, but nasty guys may not get to play the game at all.
You would never know how nuanced the overall situation concerning OA is if you follow the topic on a multitude of blogs and newsgroups. OA is often talked about as a vision, a mission, with soaring rhetoric and an invocation of the highest values of the scholarly community. Whatever turns you on, I suppose. The practical aspects of OA are not clearly defined; they tug one way, then the other; and they are often, perhaps always, partial and even sloppy in their implementation. The only constant is the presence of human judgment at every step. That librarian who is trying to gauge the implications of Green OA before she renews or cancels a subscription is at the very center of the paradigm.