Game of Thrones (soundtrack)
Game of Thrones (soundtrack) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The title of this post is link bait, of course.  Green OA does not rot the brain and it is reckless and irresponsible even to suggest it.  Heh.  Stranger things, and worse, have happened, even here on the Kitchen, where truth reigns supreme.

But does it rot the brain, maybe, in a manner of speaking, um, perhaps to a degree, or just a little?  Or if the word “rot” is just too strong for you, would it be fair to say that some people sometimes let their guard down?  When we talk about scientific publishing, are we always scientific in our conversation?

Many, many years ago, when the HBO version of Game of Thrones was just a gleam in Papa Time Warner’s eye, I wrote about this on the now-moribund blog Publishing Frontier, which had been put together by my friend Peter Brantley, who even now moderates the immensely influential invitation-only Read 2.0 mailgroup.  You can find that post, “Putting Science into Science Publishing,” here.  My argument was that even when the topic is scientific publishing, the discussion often closely resembles that of the general-purpose Internet and not the more rarefied world where rationality and evidence reign.

And thus I was hugely entertained to receive an email from Scott Pluchak, written in support of a position that fellow chef Rick Anderson  and I have been arguing, namely, that in some instances librarians will use the availability of Green OA versions of articles as a reason to cancel subscriptions to journals.  Here is Scott’s marvelous take on this (reprinted with permission):

So let me get this straight — we need to invest considerable amounts of money, time and political capital building institutional repositories.  But since faculty don’t see that they have any value, we need to create institutional mandates that will force faculty to fill them up with imperfect versions of articles that we all agree are not an effective substitute for the version of record, which is still controlled by the evil publishers.  Since we don’t want people to actually use the green versions, we need to continue to keep those evil publishers in business by subscribing to their content, because they are on the right side of history for allowing their authors to deposit manifestly inadequate versions of their articles.  On the other hand, we should cancel the journals produced by publishers who don’t support green because they are doubly bad, and thus we should make sure that no one has any access at all to what they publish.

I have written about this debate on the Kitchen twice before (here and here) and will not dive into the particulars yet again.  Interestingly, this debate, which exploded on the liblicense mailgroup, was finally stopped by the usually hands-off moderator, who noted that the conversation was getting increasingly personal–but not before she weighed in on Rick’s side.

So to the claim that librarians will not use the OA status of publications as they assess what to renew, what to cancel, the answer is:  false.  Librarians (some) will do this, and some already are.  It is therefore entirely reasonable for publishers to resist Green OA.  The goal of a publisher is to keep Green OA messy:  incomplete, unreliable, and hard to find.  And that’s because librarians will act in their own institutions’ interest and decline to pay for what they can get for free.

Joseph Esposito

Joseph Esposito

Joe Esposito is a management consultant for the publishing and digital services industries. Joe focuses on organizational strategy and new business development. He is active in both the for-profit and not-for-profit areas.

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21 Thoughts on "Does Green Open Access Rot the Brain?"

This is not a criticism of Joe, but it seems we have just two names for four or more cases. Gold OA can mean articles are free because the journal is subsidized or because the author pays. Green OA can mean the article is posted someplace, sometime by the author or that the publisher makes some version of it accessible after an embargo period of some length, which may vary. No wonder there is so much confusion (or brain rot). The OA movement is trying to go in many different directions all at once. What a mess.

This is a criticism. I do not see any evidence that the next to the last sentence is actually happening, as it were. Perhaps I have missed the conspiracy. Rats! I never have any fun.

How much difference does it make if (some) librarians have this attitude when most of the subscriptions they get anyway come in bundles such as that offered in the humanities by Project Muse? My calculation, when director of Penn State Press, was that our dozen journals in the humanities would suffer not at all from going Green OA because they were all in Project Muse and virtually all the libraries that subscribed to our journals subscribed to them in this bundled way. What did suffer, of course, were subscriptions by individuals to those journals when those individuals were at institutions that had Project Muse subscriptions.

I don’t know a librarian who is cancelling journals because of OA. But many are certainly cancelling journals because of their rising cost. So green OA comes in very useful to fill in the gaps that are appearing as my university library year on year reduces its coverage of my field of interest.

What librarians want is to meet the needs of our users and an acceptable price point. That price point is more than the cost of the journal. We license the same content from multiple database providers because the content is bundled; we would rather not pay for duplicate or triplicate access–it annoys our users and increases our costs. What we want is the ability to provide seamless access to all the content, including the most current, without having to subscribe to tens of thousands of journals individually. Would it be nice if the content weren’t ruinously expensive? Of course, but a seamless user experience with solid, consistent, cost-per-use statistics to allow rationale use of our resources would do just fine. As for repositories, it is reasonable for a institution that pays the salaries of researchers to expect to be able to have a copy of the specific work, and the ability to use it for course reserves. If the process is too cumbersome to comply with that requirement then we need to improve the process.

I am curious about how you would improve the situation you describe. I agree that it makes no sense to purchase duplicate and triplicate access to content and I understand why that is relatively unavoidable. But you also state that you don’t want to buy lots of individual journal subscriptions, also understandable. You state: “a seamless user experience with solid, consistent, cost-per-use statistics to allow rationale use of our resources would do just fine.” No question that this is the Holy Grail for librarians so how do you get there?

My starting point would be the user experience (not the measurement stats) I’d like our link resolvers to take the user directly to the content, not to a page with three or four options, I want them to not have to input the search again (required in some of our DB). If the library hasn’t licensed the content and it’s available through a service such as the CCC’s “Get it Now” then being able to order it. At my institution the library would likely pick up the bill for that content. It’s the “mind the gap” problem that exists in all systems, each system does it’s job well but the hand-off to the next system is seldom seamless. Some 5 or 6 years ago we did away with a document delivery service because even though the library covered the cost of the content the user experience was so clunky that we had over an 80% walk-away rate from the feature. Users actually found it easier to order the document on ILL than through the vendor’s website. If our systems took users directly to the content in a higher percentage of cases that alone would be a major improvement in the user experience. In this area Google Scholar does a better job than we do. None of that is publishing, of course, it’s platform.

“So to the claim that librarians will not use the OA status of publications as they assess what to renew, what to cancel, the answer is: false.” You state this as a fact, yet admit in the articles that you link you that there is no data to support it. The only thing that makes it a fact is that it makes intuitive sense according to your bias so you can continue to develop an anti-OA talking point on behalf of for-profit publishers.

Not so. Both Rick and Scott are librarians and told me that Green OA is a consideration in making these decisions. In any event, more and more OA publishing is for-profit. Wiley just announced a bunch of new OA publications this week. You are not keeping up on what is going on.

I wasn’t aware that two observations now constituted statistical significance. Please, tell me, what’s the T test on that?

The question was not “are libraries cancelling subscriptions because of Green OA” but “are any librarians taking Green OA into account in reviewing subscriptions?” The answer to that is yes.

Two. You’ve confirmed that it plays a role in two librarians’ decisions. Earth shattering stuff.

You really are not paying attention. The question is should publishers make plans around this and how should they mitigate their risk. Publishers wisely see Green OA as a potential threat. They cannot wait to find out if the threat is real. Therefore some of them will oppose it now. And you would likely do the same thing in their position. People plan and make adjustments. That’s why we buy insurance policies.

I am paying very close attention. You’re desperately trying to articulate a position that green OA is a clear and present danger and the fact that two librarians agree with you is enough to succumb to confirmation bias. My library doesn’t factor in green OA to cancellations, I don’t know any other librarians who do, either. In order for it to even be an option a heavy preponderance of a journals’ articles would have to be available in institutional repositories, and continue to be so every month. A library isn’t going to cancel a subscription just because 10 or 15% of the authors who publish in the journal choose to self-archive.

Here, I’ve just heard back, from my friend who is a librarian, that his library doesn’t factor green OA in cancellations either. That’s 2 more examples. Are you going to weight them as heavily as your two precious “yes” responses?

I understand that SK, being a mostly anti-OA site, tries to follow up even tenuous threads of anti-OA talking points but there’s just not enough here to monger much fear.

My last comment on this thread. The Scholarly Kitchen is not an anti-OA site. Indeed, the very idea is amusing. I am currently working on OA sites for clients now. Gold OA works. But Green OA is a different matter. If I were a librarian, I would want it. If I were a publisher, I would not. It all depends on where you sit. Organizations do SWOT analyses, and Green OA comes up in such an analysis. Is it the biggest threat? Hardly: the biggest threat comes from other publishers, who are vying to get access to shrinking library budgets. But it’s something to take into account. I don’t think I am going to have an accident when I drive my car, but I fasten my seatbelt nonetheless. This is prudence, not fear-mongering.

It’s certainly being treated as earth-shattering stuff by some advocates of Green OA. When I mentioned publicly that my library would be likely to cancel journals based on Green access, it resulted in attempts to silence the discussion in OA forums, charges of being an “enemy” of OA, and an exchange on the LIBLICENSE listserv (referenced by Joe above) that, at certain points, devolved into incoherent tirade. Personally, I don’t mind so much being yelled at — I’m a big boy — but I do think we’d all be much better served if there were more rational discussion of this issue and less freaking out.

And by the way, idea that raising the possibility of cancellations constitutes an “anti-OA” position is silly. All publishing models and programs have associated downsides and risks as well as upsides for those who participate in them. If being an OA supporter means only talking about its upsides and shouting down anyone who tries to bring up complications and risks, then OA is in as much danger from its supporters as from its opponents.

My last comment on this thread. It’s fear mongering when you write 3 articles talking about a threat, the existence of which you have no evidence for aside from two anecdotal observations. You’re terribly transparent.

Could it not be said that one of the ultimate goals of Green OA is to force journal publishers to eventually go Gold? After all, from a publishing perspective, if most of your articles are already available in depositories through Green OA, why shouldn’t you simply make them Gold OA to begin with?

I think @saltedwit is making a clear point here. There is not much evidence around on the fact that Green OA will lead to journal cancellations at libraries — rather on the contrary, the recently-completed PEER project, a publisher-led, EU-funded study to gather evidence of the effects of Green Open Access, concluded that Green OA does not harm subscriptions. Moreover, the availability of imperfect copies of the version of record at repositories actually results in a statistically significant increase in the number of visits to and downloads from publishers’ websites.

I am glad to be aware of some open-minded, rather large STM publishers actually willing to cooperate with initiatives for supporting Green OA as a means of helping their (much coveted) authors comply with the Open Access policies that funders place upon their research outputs. I am ok with the brain-rot link bait fun, just wished there were some emphasis placed every now and then on the opportunities posed by cooperation instead of confrontation.

I think the issue here is that green OA is the wrong way to free up content. Rather than putting out rough and ready versions of papers (a bit like going to the ‘seconds’ shop to buy your crockery), that route should be for something more like the (final) content held in XML in a modern publisher’s workflow, rendered in a simple fashion. This would reduce (some) the overlap between green OA and normal publishing — each doing separate jobs. And…

> Moreover, the availability of imperfect copies of the version of record at repositories
> actually results in a statistically significant increase in the number of visits to and
> downloads from publishers’ websites.

This reminds me of Napster etc. about which there was talk that fans of free stuff actually went on to buy _more_ music (because, presumably, they could explore without the barrier of paying). If we can turn green into a good way to explore the detail of a paper without committing to buy then things would be closer to functional perhaps.

I think the most overriding factor librarians consider when cancelling journals is price. About 90% price, 9% usage stats and 1% left over for any other considerations, of which green OA availability would theoretically be one. I’ve never heard it discussed here though. The only question we librarians really care about is Can we afford it? So, publishers – just make your journals cheap and we will subscribe to them. Keep raising prices and we won’t. It’s not about OA – that’s just a lovely bonus.

Free is a price. This is the issue. Joe is not talking about the way things are but more about the way things would be if every article were free. This distinction seems to be lost.

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