A new study, out today, takes a broad look at the usage lives of scholarly journal articles. The information it contains is vital for achieving the balance necessary for Green OA policies to work.
A few weeks ago we saw a series of dust-ups over Green Open Access (OA), and its potential economic impact on journals. One faction made the seemingly obvious statement that if you make a product free, customers (particularly financially strapped customers) will stop paying for it. The other side of the argument stated that because Green OA was disorganized and sporadic, it wasn’t an adequate substitute for the paid product, and would thus have no negative impact on subscriptions. Both sides of this argument contain some truth, but as we move forward, both are essentially wrong because they fail to take into account how much the Green OA landscape is changing due to funding agency mandates.
While some funding agency and government public access mandates favor the Gold route to OA, most seem to be leaning more toward the Green route. The United States, Australia and others (Argentina most recently) have announced these sorts of policies requiring public access to research articles based on their funding efforts. The widespread growth of such policies moves Green OA from a disorganized practice into an consistent prerequisite for researchers hoping to retain their funding. Furthermore, efforts like CHORUS will soon provide a mechanism for fulfilling these mandates automatically. In short order, any argument about the disorganized nature of today’s Green OA will be moot.
This wave of Green OA mandates also changes the question librarians will need to ask about retaining subscriptions. Public access to the articles will only come after an embargo period. The real purchasing question for librarians will not be, “is it free?” Instead they must ask, “is it free soon enough to meet the needs of my researchers?”
Embargoes are at the heart of making these Green public access policies work. As Joe Esposito has noted, the concept behind Green OA is somewhat self-contradictory. Its success means damaging the survival chances of the very thing upon which it depends. Embargoes are the mechanism necessary to create a symbiotic relationship between the two and provide the balance needed to keep things running. While some extremists dream of a world where everything is immediately free, this seems, at least under current conditions, the equivalent of hoping for a perpetual motion machine or a free lunch.
The problem with embargoes is that nobody seems to know how long they should be. The goal should be to make the material publicly available as soon as is possible without destroying the underlying foundation that supports it. But it’s not really possible to know where that line should be drawn until you cross it. Finding the tipping point means deliberately causing damage to the journal publishing ecosystem, then drawing back and hoping that damage is reparable. Breaking something and then trying to glue the pieces back together is a less-than-optimal way to set policy.
Many OA policies seem to have chosen their embargo periods out of thin air. There is no rationale offered, no specific evidence presented, as to why a 6-month or 12-month embargo is appropriate. “Because we said so” is simply not acceptable. Instead, we need to rely on what evidence we can gather and proceed conservatively, start well away from the tipping point and creep slowly closer and closer to it. We need data collection and careful analysis to be able to make accurate estimates about appropriate embargo lengths.
One of the great strengths of the White House OSTP policy is that it requires a rational, evidence-based procedure for setting embargo periods:
…a mechanism for stakeholders to petition for changing the embargo period for a specific field by presenting evidence demonstrating that the plan would be inconsistent with the objectives articulated in this memorandum
The Journal Usage Half-Life study, released today, marks a beginning to the evidence gathering needed to answer these questions and set rational policy.
As I understand it, the OSTP set a 12-month embargo as the default, based on the experience seen with the NIH and PubMed Central. The NIH has long had a public access policy with a 12-month embargo, and to date, no publisher has presented concrete evidence that this has resulted in lost subscriptions. With this singular piece of evidence, it made sense for the OSTP to start with a known quantity and work from there.
The new study, however, suggests that the NIH experience may have been a poor choice for a starting point. Clearly the evidence shows that by far, Health Science journals have the shortest article half-lives. The material being deposited in PubMed Central is, therefore, an outlier population, and many not set an appropriate standard for other fields.
Embargo periods should also take into account societal benefit from access to the articles. There are obvious reasons why we’d want to push for faster release of medical research. It takes an extremely long time for medical research to translate into actual treatment, so anything we can do to speed that process may save lives. That sense of urgency may differ for research in other fields. Certainly the world is a better place with more insight into Chaucer’s writings or Lincoln’s political strategy, but unlike the latest paper on cancer treatment, these sorts of things aren’t likely to impact a nation’s mortality rate. The question of urgency should inform embargo period decisions and how risky we’re willing to be to get the material out rapidly. This again points to Health Sciences as an outlier and a poor choice as the standard.
I’ve heard through the grapevine of several data collection and embargo impact studies that are in the works, and I’m hoping to see a useful body of knowledge assembled that can be used to drive rational, evidence-based embargo period policies. It’s important to understand that a Green OA mandate with too short an embargo period is the same thing as an unfunded Gold OA mandate. When embargo periods are untenable, journals respond by requiring the author to pay an article processing charge (APC) to make the article immediately available, rather than acquiescing to an embargo that threatens to collapse its subscriptions.
Too short an embargo period and a forced but unfunded move to Gold OA creates problems for researchers and is contrary to the strategy chosen for these mandates. Green OA can be sustainable in the long-term, but implementation needs to be balanced, thoughtful and evidence-based, rather than set up around guesses or hopes. That’s why studies like this one are so important in achieving funding agency public access goals.