(This is the text of a talk — with only two slides! — given at the Researcher to Reader Conference in London, 20 February 2017.)

The question at hand is this: is there good reason to expect that open access (OA), and particularly OA of the Green variety, is likely to lead libraries and other customers to cancel their paid journal subscriptions? The context in which we have to ask this question is, quite frankly, one of dire economic straits in many if not most academic libraries. Around the world, and certainly in the US and UK, library budgets are largely flat, some are falling, and in those unusual circumstances in which annual budget increases actually do happen, they are hardly ever sufficient to keep up with price increases levied by publishers, especially journal publishers and especially those publishing in the STEM disciplines.

Of course, libraries have been saying this for years, even decades, and we have now cried “Wolf!” so often that most of the publishers I know have simply stopped taking us seriously. Why, they ask, if our circumstances are so dire, do we keep renewing our subscriptions? Why have publishers not seen massive (or at least sustained and growing) cancellations from libraries?

I believe there are two answers to this question: one that explains subscription persistence up until the past few years, and one that explains it since a few years ago.

Up until a few years ago, I think the persistence of library subscriptions can be substantially explained by the Big Deal, which did two things: first, it greatly reduced the unit cost of journals and articles for the individual library by adding large amounts of content to that library’s existing subscription base at a very low marginal cost increase. It is important to point out here, however, that the Big Deal does nothing to save libraries money. It doesn’t lower costs; it only increases the value realized in return for the cost, even as the absolute cost goes up. The Big Deal, in most cases, lowers tremendously the library’s cost per article – however, cost per article is not actually a cost measure; it’s a value measure. The cost measure — and the only cost measure — is the figure on the invoice, and the Big Deal in the 1990s made that number bigger, not smaller. However, the second (and more significant) thing that the Big Deal did to forestall cancellations was to make cancellation more difficult, by fencing off large swaths of journal titles and making them uncancellable. The emergence of the Big Deal, I believe, goes a long way towards explaining the persistence of journal subscriptions even as libraries’ collection budgets have gotten tighter and tighter – at least up until a few years ago.

Whenever anyone suggests that libraries might cancel their paid subscriptions to journals whose content is freely available online, they are shouted down – not by frightened publishers, but by outraged OA advocates.

It is worth pointing out here that hardly anyone ever believed that the Big Deal was going to be a sustainable arrangement for the long run. The Big Deal’s ongoing viability depends on a greater and greater portion of the library’s budget being redirected from other purchases into the Big Deal, and the inevitable end game is that the library ends up subscribing to nothing but one Big Deal. This inevitable scenario has already begun playing out in the last few years, as more and more academic libraries have begun shifting money out of their book budgets and into their serials budgets. This is the second explanatory factor for subscription persistence, the one that I believe explains that persistence over the past five years or so: in fact there have been journal cancellations, just not in massive numbers, and on most campuses I think it’s fair to say that just about every individual journal subscription that can be cancelled without the faculty burning down the library has been cancelled, and we are now buying fewer and fewer books in order to keep feeding the insatiable beast that is the Big Deal, as well as any truly essential standalone subscriptions that may remain. We are able to get away with this, for now, because so many of the books we buy get so little use, whereas journal content tends to be heavily used – this is particularly true in large research libraries, and is probably less the case at smaller institutions that focus more heavily on undergraduate education and on the arts and humanities.

However, even this gambit has started to lose its effectiveness, as we can all see it has to eventually. And indeed, the wolf about which we have been crying for decades now seems to be well and truly upon us. In the past year or so we have seen journal cancellation projects in the amount of $500,000 at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, $350,000 at Towson University, $1.5 million at the University of Calgary, $468,000 at the University of New Mexico, $200,000 at the University of Missouri, and $135,000 at Colorado State University, just to name a few. The University of Maryland cancelled 2,000 journal titles but didn’t provide a dollar figure publicly; CalTech, similarly, recently cancelled 650 titles. At the University of Utah, where I work, a planned $300,000 journal cancellation was avoided at the last minute by the discovery of some available one-time money – but of course when it comes to subscriptions, one-time money only delays the inevitable, and not for very long.

Furthermore, Big Deals themselves may be losing their iron grip on library budgets. In recent years the conventional wisdom has been that libraries love to talk about cancelling their Big Deals, but almost always end up deciding to stay with them – either because the publisher offers new terms, or because the faculty revolt. That may be changing. A few weeks ago I posted a query to a couple of listservs. I asked that listmembers share with me the names of libraries that had publicly announced plans to abandon the Big Deal, expecting that the great majority of them would have changed their minds. The data is messy and I’m still sorting it out, but right now I can report that a surprisingly high number of research libraries have recently abandoned Big Deal packages from Springer, Wiley, Elsevier, Taylor & Francis, SAGE, Oxford University Press, and Cambridge University Press. I don’t know whether this is a trickle that will dry up or one that presages a flood — I only know that the data coming in so far suggest a growing willingness on the part of libraries to break away from their Big Deal arrangements.

This, then, is the context into which we have to place any discussion of OA and library subscriptions: tighter budgets and inexorably-rising journal prices leading to greater scrutiny of existing subscriptions, which inevitably means more cancellations. The number of cancellations grows as the money available to siphon away from book purchases runs out.

OA does have the potential to provide libraries with some relief from this situation. But only certain manifestations of OA will do that.

In this difficult circumstance, OA promises to come to the rescue. However, the rescue scenario is not simple.

OA does have the potential to provide libraries with some relief from this situation. But only certain manifestations of OA will do that. What does not help libraries, financially speaking, is the emergence of new Gold OA journals, whether supported by APCs or by institutional subvention. We certainly welcome the appearance of these journals, but they do nothing to relieve the financial pressure we are under. Why? Because the journal marketplace is a marketplace of complements, not a marketplace of substitutes. The emergence of, for example, a new Gold OA journal that competes with The Lancet does not lead our faculty and students to give us permission to cancel our Lancet subscription. What they will want us to do instead is add the new Gold OA journal to our online journal list, while continuing to support the Lancet subscription as well. Why? Because each of the two journals provides a unique set of content — they report on different studies of different medications and interventions performed and written up by different researchers. The emergence of a new Gold OA journal is a good thing, because it adds to the fund of publicly-available science — not because it saves the library any money.

The only OA scenario that can actually save money for the library (and individual subscribers) is one that allows them to cancel subscriptions. If the emergence of new Gold OA journals doesn’t provide us that opportunity, then what does? The answer, of course, would be an OA model that, instead of providing new and additional content on an OA basis, makes existing toll-access content available on an OA basis. What does that? Not Gold OA, but Green OA. By making content from toll-access journals freely available in repositories, Green OA has the capacity to free libraries and other subscribers from the necessity of paying for access to that content.

To repeat, then: the financial relief that OA can give libraries and other subscribers is relief from subscription bills. And there was a time, in my callow youth, when I thought that such relief was actually a major part of OA’s purpose – that a pillar of OA’s value proposition was that it is designed to make it so that libraries and other subscribers would have access to scholarship without having to pay for it. But apparently I was mistaken, because whenever anyone suggests that libraries might cancel their paid subscriptions to journals whose content is freely available online, they are shouted down – not by frightened publishers, but by outraged OA advocates.

What do these outraged advocates say when they’re shouting down those who make this suggestion? The most common arguments are these:

First, that there is “no evidence that Green OA negatively affects subscriptions.” This is one of the most reliable talking points of SPARC. But if you take the time to stop and think about it, it becomes clear that this answer is a non sequitur. It responds to a concern about the future by pointing out that the future hasn’t happened yet, and by implying (though not explicitly saying) that we have no reason to believe the future will be different. In other words, the implicit argument here is that since Green OA has not yet demonstrably affected the existing subscription base, to suggest that it will ever do so is unreasonable. But the conditions that have protected subscriptions up until now – a Green OA landscape characterized by inconsistent and delayed access to inferior versions of articles – are not, as I understand it, conditions that most OA advocates find acceptable. My understanding is that the OA movement is working to move us towards a future in which the landscape would be characterized by consistent and prompt access to versions of record, or at least pre-publication versions that don’t depart in any material way from the versions of record. This scenario is the one that poses a challenge to the ongoing viability of subscriptions. Of course there’s no data proving that this scenario leads to cancellations – you can’t gather data on a circumstance that doesn’t yet exist. But it’s also very difficult to imagine that as we get closer to this scenario, libraries and other subscribers will remain just as willing to pay for access as they were under the old scenario – one in which consistent and prompt access to versions of record was only available for a price.

The only OA scenario that can actually save money for the library (and individual subscribers) is one that allows them to cancel subscriptions. If the emergence of new Gold OA journals doesn’t provide us that opportunity, then what does?

And this is where the real problem with Green OA – successful Green OA, that is, as opposed to crap Green OA – becomes clear. Unlike Gold OA, Green OA is absolutely dependent on the ongoing vitality of subscription journals. Without those journals, there is no Green OA. And the more successful Green OA is, the less incentive anyone has to continue paying subscription fees.

This brings us to the second thing that OA advocates often claim when they are trying to get people to stop saying that Green OA will undermine journal subscriptions. There are some who predict that libraries will continue paying for access even though they don’t have to, for the Good of the Order. This, to me, seems like the scenario for which we would need to see some evidence before we decide to rely on it to keep the economic structure of journal publishing afloat. As we all know, remarkable claims require remarkable evidence. The idea that people will refrain from paying for free content is not a remarkable claim; the idea that they will pay for free content is a remarkable claim.

Now, there actually is some evidence that libraries are willing to do this. My library is one among many that willingly pay several thousand dollars a year in order to keep the arXiv afloat, despite the fact that it costs nothing to access. The temptation to be a free rider in this case is real, but our library resists it and so do many others. However, in our case (and, I’m certain, in the case of every other library that willingly contributes to the maintenance of the arXiv) we also receive many other appeals to contribute to projects and initiatives that contribute to the greater good by making high-quality scholarship or scholarly services freely available to all. In the great majority of cases, we decline to contribute — not because we doubt the goodness and value of these projects, but because our resources are limited and we have to make difficult choices, just as we do when choosing between desirable journal subscriptions.

There’s another important factor in our decisionmaking as well, and that is alignment with our host institution. The money we spend is the university’s money, not our own, and we are held accountable for the spending decisions we make. In the past, the accountability has been fairly loose; the university gives us a certain amount of money with which to buy content, and unless administration are given good reason to believe that we’re spending it very badly, they have been willing to trust that we’re spending it well. If, however, our university were to get wind that the library is spending significant amounts of university funding on content and services that actually cost nothing, we would expect to have to answer some questions. And if our answer to the question “Why are you spending so much money on journals that don’t cost anything” is “We’re doing it for the greater good,” our administration might reasonably start wondering whether the greater good is better served by continuing to supply the library with money or by refurbishing the university’s physics labs, providing more scholarships to underprivileged students, or hiring more faculty. Again: the money academic libraries spend is not their own. It’s university money, vouchsafed to libraries for the purpose of meeting university goals and priorities. If librarians take it upon themselves to use that money for purposes that do not, in administration’s view, directly support those goals and priorities, there is a strong likelihood that the money will no longer be forthcoming. All of us in the room may agree that university administrations ought to care very much about making scholarship freely available to the world. But what will affect the library’s future is not what administrators should want, but what they actually do want.

Now, granted that Green OA exists now, and has existed for years, and doesn’t seem to have had a dramatic effect on subscriptions, we should ask ourselves what it would take for that effect to occur. I would like to propose two possible future scenarios, one of which will tend to leave the subscription base more or less stable, and the other of which will tend to undermine it dramatically.

The low-cancellation scenario is one in which the future looks very much like the present: Green OA is distributed spottily and unreliably; providing public access to articles is largely optional rather than mandatory; free access is delayed by a year or more after formal publication; articles available on this basis are relatively hard to locate; and the versions available for free are generally considered to be at least somewhat inferior to the formally-published versions of record. This is the world in which we now live, and it is the one in which there is no strong evidence of subscription cancellations in favor of Green access – for the obvious reason that Green OA has not yet been successful enough to pose a threat to toll access, and therefore is not yet achieving its promise.

The high-cancellation scenario is one in which access to deposited articles is pervasive and reliable, either because authors have willingly adopted the practice in large numbers or the choice of whether to do so has been taken away from them by funders or employers or government; articles are freely available without embargo, and are easy to find; and the versions deposited are identical to the versions of record in every material way. This is a scenario in which readers get virtually all of the benefits of subscription without having to pay for a subscription.

If you are an OA advocate, ask yourself this question: which of these two scenarios is the one towards which you are working, and encouraging others to work?

In light of all this, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that those who advocate for Green OA as the preferred mode, and as the more or less universal solution towards which we should all be working, have simply failed to think through the implications of this goal. You cannot make something freely and easily available without undermining the commercial market for that thing. Examples from other marketplaces of circumstances in which providing free samples generates additional sales are not relevant here, because Green OA does not provide samples; OA is not the salesperson standing by the produce section handing out small bites of pineapple on toothpicks; OA is putting the whole produce section out on the sidewalk and inviting everyone to take as much as they want. On the other hand, the “freemium” model might possibly give us an idea of what to expect in a comprehensively Green OA world; this model is financially sustainable to the degree that it leads customers to buy an enhanced version of the free product. However, for this model to work in the context of scholarly communication, the OA version would have to be meaningfully inferior to the toll-access version. This is an arrangement more likely to be acceptable to publishers – but I’m not sure that it’s really what the OA community has in mind.

So, what if I’m right, and if Green OA really does increase the likelihood of journal cancellations the more it achieves its stated purposes? One rather difficult question remains: how might libraries go about it? Wouldn’t it be nearly cost-prohibitive to do the research necessary to determine which individual journals can be cancelled?

No, for two reasons. First, that kind of research is only cost-prohibitive in the low-cancellation scenario – that’s one reason it’s a low-cancellation scenario. To the degree that Green OA becomes pervasive and successful, the cost of identifying cancellable titles drops dramatically.

The second reason has to do with both journal cost and institutional priorities. Even today, living as we do under the low-cancellation scenario I’ve just outlined, there are factors that can make it cost-effective for a library to cancel subscriptions based on the existing Green OA landscape. The more expensive a journal is, and the less central it is to the curricular priorities of the institution, the more worthwhile it will be to investigate inferior but free access options. The investigation doesn’t have to be especially time-consuming and doesn’t have to be undertaken by professional librarians in order to produce a strong return on investment. Assign a student employee working on a service desk a list of high-cost journals, and ask him (as patron traffic permits) to take a random sample of issues from that journal and try to find Green OA versions of articles from those issues online. If two hours of that student’s time lead the library to cancel a $2,000 journal (or even a $500 journal), that is certainly time well spent. And if the investigation leads to no cancellations, the opportunity cost of the investigation is practically nil, because you were paying the student to staff that service desk anyway. But let’s take it a step further: what if you pay a student $10 per hour to spend ten hours a week investigating Green OA alternatives to toll-access journal content? If three months of that student’s time results in cancellations totaling $1,300 (or, in other words, one moderately-priced science journal), the library has saved more money than it spent investigating — and that’s only in the first year after the cancellation. The savings continue from year to year after that, since what was cancelled represented an ongoing annual expense.

To sum up then, I would encourage my colleagues who actively advocate for Green OA not to recoil from, or be outraged by, the possibility that it will lead libraries to cancel their subscriptions, but rather to embrace it. After all, if the promise of open access is not the promise of free access, then it’s difficult to see what the point is.

Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson is University Librarian at Brigham Young University. He has worked previously as a bibliographer for YBP, Inc., as Head Acquisitions Librarian for the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, as Director of Resource Acquisition at the University of Nevada, Reno, and as Associate Dean for Collections & Scholarly Communication at the University of Utah.


62 Thoughts on "The Forbidden Forecast: Thinking About Open Access and Library Subscriptions"

As always Rick you produce an interesting article. The debate on OA Green or Gold continues and libraries continue to talk about journal cancellations. However if you look at the top 20 STM publishers the paid subscription business still represents about 95% of the revenue with strong margins. Manuscript submissions to these same top 20 publishers are at an all time high. Renewal rates around the world are 99% with modest growth rate in new subscriptions. The paid subscriptions business is $2 billion or more and cancellations are even far less than inflation. On the e-book side these same publishers enjoy healthy sales and since 85% of their sales are direct, they don’t have to pay a middleman. Even the university presses have found a new market as Amazon now accounts for about 45% of sales which is larger than their academic libraries market.
While I know that library budgets are tight and most libraries have diverted money from books to subscriptions, the impact of OA Green or Gold on subscription budgets to date has been minimal.

Thanks, Dan. To be clear, I acknowledge here that the impact of OA on subscription budgets to date has been minimal. This piece is about the likely future impact of Green OA, should the goals of its advocates be realized. (Of course, whether and to what extent those goals will be realized is very much an open question.)

Rick I understand you are looking at the future. My point is that it has now been 10 years or more that we have had this OA debate. By now you would think that the manuscript submission levels for paid subscriptions would be dropping and putting STM publishers in a manuscript shortage, but nothing could be further from the truth. I believe that the overwhelming majority of STM researchers are not behind the OA movement Green or Gold. Some STM publishers are having their best financial years ever. I think some STM publishers are exhausted from hearing about OA. The global library community continues to cry wolf.

Dan, I’m fascinated by this statement:

By now you would think that the manuscript submission levels for paid subscriptions would be dropping and putting STM publishers in a manuscript shortage, but nothing could be further from the truth.

What is it about the OA debate that you think might have led us to expect authors to submit fewer manuscripts? (My impression is that the OA debate has mainly been between librarians and publishers, and that authors — with a few loud exceptions — have been largely uninterested in it.)

Rick my comment may have been confusing. What I was trying to say is that after 10 years if OA was gaining a serious foothold, I would have expected the number of manuscripts submitted to traditional paid subscriptions would be falling off and authors would be shifting their output to OA journals. In reality there is a a good stream of manuscripts going the OA route but the overwhelming number of manuscripts are still going to traditional publishers and their paid subscriptions. The traditional publishers rejection rates are still very high and they authors still want to be published in traditional journals. I would agree that the debate for the most part has not included authors who as you say are not interested in the OA debate.
So in answer to your question not fewer manuscripts, but a shift in publication from traditional paid subscription to OA journals.

I think you’re relying on a definition of “OA growth” that assumes the proliferation of OA journals, which then compete with subscription journals for authors. But that dynamic only applies when what are proliferating are Gold OA journals. Growth of Green OA doesn’t have any impact on submissions to toll-access journals, because articles published in toll-access journals are exactly what Green OA makes available.

I think I’m understanding this–it suggests that if OA were really the preferred path, authors would be submitting to OA journals rather than the top 20. It also implies that OA journals are somehow cost-free or cost-neutral. Incentives for publishing research are still oriented towards impact and visibility, not the production of research output itself, which means the top 20 are the goal. Top 20 publishers will never abandon their current model–it’s too lucrative. It is up to the producers of that valuable research output to move the incentives towards openness through their publication choices.

An excellent summary of the issues and challenges of journals subscriptions, OA, Big Deals. The observation of journals being complementary rather than substitutes is spot on. Sadly, this leaves us where we have been, with very little hope for a future that doesn’t involve mortgaging our intellectual history to license terms and buying fewer and fewer books. Though given the circulation data it’s difficult to justify any outrage at that.
Basically, the journal subscription conundrum is the laws of thermodynamics cast for libraries 1) you can’t win 2) you can’t break even and, 3) you can’t get out of the game.

I realize that “hybrid” journals are not the favorites of funders (it is not clear that some of them will pay APCs for hybrid journals, or at least don’t consider it as good as a pure OA journal), but those would be an alternative to cancellation, wouldn’t they, Rick, if they have substantial OA-article uptake?

I am assuming that such journals would reduce subscription prices as the percentage of OA articles grows (to avoid “double dipping”). I know several publishers who have that policy (I don’t see prices to be able to see if it happens in practice).

The other possibility is for existing journals to “flip”, but there are few examples of impactful journals doing that, yet. (NAR is the main one I am aware of. Glad to hear of others with an impact factor who have done that.)


Hybrid journals are definitely an interesting case. The pricing dynamic is fuzzy, because there’s almost never a direct 1:1 relationship between the dollars it costs to subscribe and the percentage of articles that are toll-access. Ultimately, libraries and other subscribers are likely to apply a pretty simple cost-benefit analysis: is access to the toll-access content in the journal worth the price demanded? The OA content doesn’t figure into the “benefit” side of the analysis, because that content doesn’t represent a benefit of subscribing.

I’m puzzled, Rick. You make the (correct) claim that Green OA is dependent on the existence of toll-access journals, but then how can Green OA survive if it begins to encourage libraries to cancel their subscriptions and those journals disappear (or convert to Gold OA)? The corpus of Green OA will then shrink accordingly, and if Green OA is completely successful in driving out TA journals, there will be no Green OA either and we will have a world in which only Gold OA survives! This will get library budgets off the hook, but the Gold OA fees will have to come from either universities or foundations, and if the latter, there will be less money available to fund research. This seems to be a big zero-sum game for libraries and universities while publishers will still find a way to make their income support their businesses. Internal reallocation of funding within universities will occur (perhaps leading more universities like Duquesne to cease supporting their presses), but no real decrease in costs, as far as I can see. Only if universities manage to wrest control of the journals themselves away from commercial publishers will any big change come about, and to make this happen will require faculty’s cooperation. Since so many faculty cannot even be persuaded now to deposit Green OA versions of their articles in library IRs, what hope can there be for universities to rally faculty support to take back the journals that have migrated to commercial publishers over the years? I thought the commercial publishers were ingenious i inventing the Big Deal and then ingenious again in making Gold OA work for them. They always seem to be one step ahead of universities and their libraries.

How can Green OA survive if it begins to encourage libraries to cancel their subscriptions and those journals disappear (or convert to Gold OA)?

It can’t. I addressed this in the 15th paragraph (sorry, I know the piece is really long — this is the paragraph that begins “And this is where the real problem with Green OA…”).

Thank you, Rick, for a good explanation of where we are and where we might end up.
I suggest we need other actors in the system. I look at the new crop of discipline preprint repositories springing up and wonder if they could manage the peer review process. This would be a huge cultural departure from faculty publishing in the highly reputable journals. But it could happen. arXiv now has a couple overlay journals, metrics for individual articles are available, and better adoption of ORCID would make it possible for universities to track their researchers’ output. A rather naive and off-the-top-of-my-head fantasy, but there are other options than the two you point out.

One possibility for preprints is that they could take over peer review from journals. Another is that peer review happens on a preprint server and is transferred to the journal for the all-important editorial decision. That’s essentially the F1000 model, except that you could separate the preprint and journal platform. It remains to be seen whether journals will buy into that model, or prefer to carry out their own review.

The big hurdle here is that without editorial oversight, peer review generally doesn’t happen. A few highly publicized papers get lots of attention, and the rest quietly languish. Even F1000, where authors are paying a fee, still has a lot of papers that are unreviewed or only partially reviewed. Once you start dealing with the scale of thousands, if not millions of papers, driving the peer review process becomes tremendously time consuming, and would put yet another time burden on researchers taking them away from doing actual research, or more likely, would be outsourced, and at that point, you’re basically reinventing the wheel and re-building a formal journal.

It could reduce the burden on reviewers if multiple journals would accept the reviews: if one editor says no, you transfer the reviews to the next journal. As you say, the question is how to get the reviewers. BioRxiv reports 10% of reviews with comments, which is good going, but a long way from 100%. A possible revenue stream for preprints would be for authors to pay a service to invite reviewers.

Note that a lot of those biorxiv comments are pretty insubstantial, and nowhere near what one would consider a rigorous review. Where that does happen is apparently through private channels like email. Not sure how willing most reviewers are to be “open” in their reviews if they are required to be identified (as would be needed by journal editors to gauge their expertise).

It’s unclear how such a system would work. If an article gets rejected by the reviewers, what recourse does the author have? If they can revise and resubmit, then how much of a savings are we talking about as it will have to be reviewed again, just like submitting it to a different journal. Perhaps some savings available if a paper passes review and reviewers can accurately slot it to the right journal (but I suspect that journal editors are pretty picky in who they trust to make such decisions and are unlikely to want to turn that over to third parties).

And still, you’d need someone making sure those reviews happened, which means costs, which would just shift the financial burden to a different spot in the process.

Interesting that you say “taking time away from doing actual research…” Isn’t peer review a really important part of the research cycle? If we argue that the quality of output matters, why wouldn’t the opportunity to move research forward through the thoughtful review of others’ work be as valuable as creating new work? I know that’s not where most priorities lie, but why not?

I’m with you in general — peer review is a vital part of the research process, but let’s be real — no one is getting a job or a grant or tenure because they’re a really good peer reviewer. Doing original research and generating new knowledge is the core of the job, and as we pile more and more requirements on researchers, that’s what gets sacrificed. I do think that peer review is something worth sacrificing that time to do, but only on a limited scale, and only when appropriate or the researcher has the time available to do a good and thorough job of it. If we require X number of peer reviews per month (adding yet another time sink requirement on top of so many already there), I’m willing to bet that the quality of review will decline. There’s also a psychological phenomenon in making a voluntary task into a required one which alters behavior:

One issue that doesn’t seem to come up in these discussions is the continued growth in the literature. As Rick notes in the post above, publishers are dropping their prices in terms of cost per article. Journal articles are indeed getting cheaper. But, because there are more and more people doing research, and more and more pressure on those researchers to publish more and more often, there are more and more papers every year and even with reduced costs per paper, overall costs continue to rise.

Is the root of the problem academic administrations that on one hand drive this growth, while on the other continue to reduce funding to libraries to pay for this growth? The inherent conflict here seems at the heart of so many arguments around scholarly publishing. If you’re going to publish more papers every year, is it unreasonable to assume that costs will continue to rise? Flip to Gold OA and your costs are still going to go up every single year as the literature grows.

So which seems more likely — universities fund their libraries at a rate commensurate with the demands they put on researchers or a cultural change toward publishing fewer, better papers rather than the current goal of more, more, more? Or is the goal for administrations to continue to drive growth but find someone else (funders, governments) to take over paying the bills?

The costs of scholarly communication must be borne in some way, but you have limited the potential models to conventional subscriptions, Gold OA (i.e. commercial publisher is paid to open up access), and Green OA (i.e. commercial publisher sells access as usual, but some version of an article gets placed in some kind of open access repository sometime). These are not the only possible models, nor are they the best. There are also models of born digital, born open access publishing. Costs may be covered internally by academic institutions or they may be covered through something like a “public radio” model. Over the longer term, these are where the hope lies for reducing the cost and increasing the benefits of scholarly communication.

David, it wasn’t my intention to suggest that Gold and Green OA are the only possible models of scholarly communication. I was only explaining some of the implications of moving towards a more-or-less comprehensively Green OA future, which is what I understand to be the goal of many influential members of the OA advocacy community. Any other model that emerges will of course carry its own mix of costs and benefits, just as toll access, Gold OA, and Green OA do. (And actually, the funding models you describe in your comment would probably be considered by most to fall under the umbrella of “Gold.” Remember that Gold OA isn’t necessarily APC-based. Sometimes it’s funded by institutional subvention.)

First, I must say that I appreciate both your thoughtful article and your reply to my comment. Your reply helps to clarify something that I have found troubling in OA discussions. The terms of the discussion themselves (Gold vs Green OA) are overly broad and are cast in such a way as to distract us from what is most important, namely the institutional and funding model that supports scholarly communication. If Gold OA means that something is published first online and with open access, it typically also means that the publisher has simply moved the paywall upstream from the reader to the author. Under such a model, social benefits of open access accrue, but the ever-more monopolistic publishing industry continues to rake in its monopoly profits that increase our costs. Hiding under the overly broad Gold umbrella is a world of different institutional and funding structures for scholarly communication. It is this structural distinction and the exploration of new models that is of greater interest and that offers more possibilities for creative disruption (and reduction of monopoly profits) than the question of where the publishing monopoly locates its paywall. I hope we can move the OA discussion beyond the counterproductive Gold vs. Green distinction and open up discussions of OA to embrace broader questions of structural change.

If Gold OA means that something is published first online and with open access, it typically also means that the publisher has simply moved the paywall upstream from the reader to the author.

Believe it or not, this isn’t actually typically the case. Or, more accurately, I guess, it’s only sort of the case. The majority of Gold OA journals are not actually funded by author-side charges, but rather by some kind of institutional subvention. (Usually the journal is operated by its host institution as a cost center.) However, while it’s true that most Gold OA journals are not funded by author charges, it’s also true that most Gold OA articles are funded by author charges. I know that sounds paradoxical, but what makes it true is the prevalence of OA megajournals like PLOS ONE, Heliyon, Nature Communications, and Scientific Reports. (For a nice overview of the current megajournal landscape, see Kent Anderson’s recent SK posting on that topic.) The megajournals are invariably APC-funded, and the biggest of them publish tens of thousands of articles per year. This means that although most Gold OA journals don’t charge APCs, most Gold OA publishing is APC-based.

I agree that this is an excellent post. I don’t disagree with any points of your analysis, Rick, and in that context, I offer the following comments. I do so as a journal editor and publisher and an early advocate of OA in Canada. At the beginning (before the term OA was invented) I was convinced that, in dealing with librarians, we journal publishers would be readily able to come up with an arrangement in which journals would be able to do their work — attract good content, administer peer review, enhance the value of submitted articles, and make it available in the marketplace for a reasonable price. What I found instead was an ever-stronger faith-in-OA-based community desirous of using consumer power to control journal costs at a level far below what was necessary to compete with the value that commercial journals add to the articles they publish. I also found that community to have been emboldened by its success in lobbying to weaken copyright. It appears to me that the position libraries have taken on OA has paralleled the actions of the IT sector which, as Jaron Lanier has pointed out, has monetized the value IT adds to providing access while undermining the economies of content producers, effectively by undermining copyright.

Here are some constructive suggestions. The major missing point in your analysis is consideration of delayed open access. With library cooperation in the form of continued subscriptions, delayed open access can preserve the revenue that journals need to operate and make the version of record freely and publicly available. I realize that delayed OA does not address pricing issues but by making common cause with scholarly societies and the many reasonably-priced journals that do exist, momentum could be built sufficiently to possibly change publisher behaviour and even more possibly, author submission behaviour.

Giving delayed OA some consideration runs against the grain in part because libraries tend to treat journal publishers as a monolithic mass of price gougers. Besides there being a major (but perhaps narrowing) difference between STM and SSH journal publishers, there are a host of small scholar- and society-run journals whose main focus is to contribute to the dissemination of knowledge by charging enough to sustain their operations. Libraries do not treat these journals as allies, rather they are treated as would-be price gougers. A concerted program to increase subscriptions to these allies would greatly assist them in gaining market share and hence make it easier for libraries to serve readers without subscribing to the titles of the few, large, powerful, members of the price-gouging club.

Librarians have not made common cause on OA with scholars. As I see it, they tend to treat journal acquisitions as an inconvenient and/or an illegitimate cost of doing business and the library publishers believe they can do it themselves. Clearly, the commercial publishers add value. Some of that value is discipline-based legitimacy based on the accumulated archive of content and former, reigning editors. Another major contribution to value is the professional editing, layout and design, metadata handling and market positioning the journal provides. Rather than denying these realities, it would be far better to understand the value adds by a) reaching out to scholar authors and assisting them in getting published and b) treating journals as partners in scholarly communication, especially those journals that provide content at a reasonable price. Over time perhaps a better accommodation could be reached.

I am often discouraged by the library-based, Scholcomm blog. It is true that the large international publishers and some society publishers overcharge for their products. It is also true that overcharging is replete throughout society where there is insufficient market competition. But the continuing moral outrage implicit in much of the commentary is counterproductive. In a world where Chinese researchers are financially rewarded for placing articles in high impact journals, it is unlikely that costliness will be successfully managed by tut-tutting. Your average scientist would tell your average librarian that the publication of research is far more important than worrying about its cost. True there may be a certain selfishness inherent in that comment but there is also a certain truth to it.

Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Rowland. Just a couple of quick thoughts in response:

I did touch on the issue of embargoes in this posting, but I didn’t spend much time on them. I see embargoes as one factor that contributes to the cancellability (is that a word? I guess it is now) of any journal that allows Green OA. The shorter the embargo, the more likely the library will be able to cancel a subscription to that journal without sacrificing access. (It’s the difference between “Delayed” and “Immediate” in the “Two Scenarios” slide above.) You’re right that those who advocate for OA very often see embargoes as, at best, a necessary evil, and regard accepting embargoes as a temporary compromise that we must endure until the great day of full OA arrives.

Your points about the value that publishers create through their services are controversial. (I’m not saying they’re wrong, only that they’re controversial.) In my experience, OA advocates tend to be very skeptical that publishers add any significant value. That skepticism is baked into standard OA-advocacy tropes like “authors give away their work for free to publishers, who then sell it at a profit.” To my mind, this is an irresponsible oversimplification that crucially fails to account for the fact that authors don’t “give away” their work to publishers — they trade the right to publish their work (including, in many cases, their copyright) in exchange for something that they want very much and value highly: the review, editorial, and certification services that publishers provide. Reasonable people can disagree over whether these exchanges are fair and whether they yield a net gain or cause a net detriment to the scholcomm ecosystem overall. But you’re right that authors really do value the services publishers provide. That’s why they keep submitting their work to publishers, even when librarians tell them they shouldn’t want to. (Some will assert that authors don’t actually make this choice freely — that the outmoded and corrupt system of promotion and tenure forces them to submit their work to publishers against their will. Both my experience as an author and my interactions with other authors suggest that this isn’t so, but that authors are for the most part pretty satisfied with the current system. If they weren’t, I think they’d be a lot more enthusiastic about scholcomm reform.)

I run a journal where there are no proximate competitors in English. Even if we were commercial, we would not be canceled by a library, since there is plenty of scholarly interest in our field. But since we are free and OA, and with no plans to change that, we are in library catalogs all over the world. With no budget at all, we do have university library hosting, which incurs a tiny amount of labor each week to post up new articles. The rest of the cost is my and another editor’s time, borrowed from our working weeks. We have Scopus and Web of Science listing, at low to moderate IFs -high enough to keep good papers coming in. Since I am now fairly senior, I am not in danger of being fired for spending some time on publishing activities. It is part of our research group’s output. I am just a small example, but imagine rolling this out. This is the sort of sea-change that the sector needs I think – make ‘journal work’ a more recognized part of academic and library staff labor, actually reward scholars (at all levels) for publishing in outlets that have ethical publishing practices rather than in the the top-20 that are currently commercial (including, selecting journals for your papers that don’t charge university libraries or anybody else large fees), and in due course, getting ethical OA journals into that top 20. We need to take publishing back, by reducing demand for high cost commercially run journals. The various repositories are a partial solution, but a proper free journal is a better option in most cases.

The important point that Rick makes is that the status quo can not hold.

There are some interesting arguments about the particulars. I, for example, think that Gold OA titles can substitute for subscription titles, but the timeframe is a decade not a year. I also think faculty care about access to their work and that they increasingly see OA as a way to increase it, but again the time frame is long, maybe it will take a generation. I think the downplaying of the success of OA is also often overstated. On my campus 13% of the articles published last year were in Gold OA journals. In 2010 it was 4%. In 2016 over 65% of the articles published by our faculty were deposited in our institutional repository. We have both a Harvard-style OA Policy and an OA authors fund. We have cancelled subscriptions and promised to purchase articles when needed, if this is the cheaper alternative, which it often is. But again the important point is that the status quo is not and cannot hold.

The change that I see is that faculty can increasingly get the articles they need without fully relying on the library. The extreme alternative is Sci-Hub, though I doubt many of my faculty use it. But most have their ways of getting what we can’t provide. In a digital world slippage is impossible to stop. You e-mail the author, or go to her website, or ask a collaborator at a well funded institution for help or Google Scholar points you at a version in a repository. The bottom line is that because of this kind of slippage, cancelling subscriptions gets easier and easier, rather than, as you might expect, harder.

For me the desired end state is a largely Gold OA world. I know there is great skepticism, but I believe we will get there, not next year, but I won’t bet against 50% to 75% of scholarly articles being Gold OA by 2025.

The old subscription model with its huge publisher margins is slowly but surely slipping away. The status quo is not and cannot hold.

“The old subscription model with its huge publisher margins is slowly but surely slipping away. The status quo is not and cannot hold.”
I completely agree. It does require a lot of effort to keep change on the agenda. I think a great failing was that after the “Academic Spring” campaigns against Elsevier 5 years ago, and the 14,000 strong ‘Cost of knowledge’ campaign where academics signed up to avoid that publisher, the latter was not followed up and the site was not morphed into a more general campaign. So most academics went back to publishing with them after they made some concessions. There has been fighting over “Big Deals”, most recently in UK and Germany, but that is not as powerful in my view. The “Academic Spring’ has, really, withered and almost died. If I was in the US I would be trying to rekindle it, because who knows what is coming around the corner for journal pricing with a pro-corporate President in charge of the country. The campaign could focus on Big Deals, high APCs, or some other aspect.

One has to wonder, though — if “the old subscription model… is slowly but surely slipping away,” then why does it “require a lot of effort to keep change on the agenda”? Maybe the old model isn’t slipping away so surely after all. Maybe the ecosystem is just morphing into one in which multiple models (including subscription) are able to flourish together.

If most faculty cannot spend a small amount of time uploading their Green OA papers to their universities’ IRs, I doubt very much that they are going to be inclined to devote far more time to a another Academic Spring movement.

Rick, thanks for this carefully argued piece. I agree with nearly everything you say here, including the core observation that we are not in an equilibrium but on a slippery slope, so that present conditions cannot hold. Only one part of what you said does not seem right to me: “Unlike Gold OA, Green OA is absolutely dependent on the ongoing vitality of subscription journals”. Why do you think that’s so?

As a thought experiment, let’s suppose that we woke up tomorrow morning and found that all the subscription journals had gone out of business. What OA models would remain possible? Clearly we would still have Gold, but how could we have Green? (You could still put articles in repositories, of course, but deposit is no longer what would make them OA — they would already be OA.) Without subscription journals you can certainly still have open access, but without subscription journals all OA basically becomes Gold.

Yes, that sounds right to me. The “version of record” is always whatever we say it is, in the end; in the absence of the traditional publishers, we’d have to come with some other definition than the one we’ve been using — but I don’t see that as a significant downside.

“OA is not the salesperson standing by the produce section handing out small bites of pineapple on toothpicks; OA is putting the whole produce section out on the sidewalk and inviting everyone to take as much as they want. “
What’s up with groceries and open access today?  The ecology blog Scientist Sees Squirrel” is worked up over today’s post “Why aren’t we agitating for for open-access groceries?” I just thought maybe Canadian ecologists get a little touched in late winter, but SK too? Quite the debate is ongoing over in that usually tame blog community, with aghast OA advocates from fields that have nothing to do with ecology finding the discussion and speaking out.

So Rick, if Green OA is as self-limiting as a snake swallowing its tail, might you speculate on a successful middle road? Perhaps something akin to what we’ve muddled to now, with mostly 1-year embargoes, incomplete postings, but perhaps an expansion of the U.S. Chorus scheme for free VOR access to publicly funded works? (If that scheme is good for U.S. federally funded articles, why wouldn’t other national funding organizations ask for equal time?)  I question how many people bother to post AAM versions under Green OA? Google Scholar takes me to RG way more often than institutional repositories, and ResearchGate is populated with VORs. I haven’t noticed many people worrying about embargoes, or any sort of enforcement. I think SOA (Scofflaw Open Access) is a more apt term than Green OA.

Actually I think all this debate over open-access to published articles misses a bigger picture. Access to recently published articles is within reach to all who persist. It just takes a bit of effort and a few days’ patience (writing the author, SOA, OCLC library requests, which even my city library will do). Open-access to research DATA is another matter, with quite a few scientists careful not to let others look too close lest their critics point out things they’d just as soon not have pointed out. Or perhaps they’re just hoarding their data, thumbing noses at grant provisions or journal “requirements.”

In reality, I think a middle road is probably what we’re going to end up with. Personally, I’m very much in favor of diversity: I hope that our future will be one in which a variety of access models will continue to coexist. I don’t see any reason why that can’t be the case, unless those who are lobbying for an all-OA world get their way. (No one, to my knowledge, is lobbying for an all-toll-access world.) The argument I’m advancing in this paper isn’t that we’re inevitably advancing towards an all-Green-OA future, but rather that the more successful Green OA becomes, the less you can reasonably expect that libraries and other subscribers will continue paying for access.

Another potential future: Libraries decide that high end, important journals for relevant fields on campus are worth subscribing to, in order to get new information right away rather than after an embargo. But the lower impact journals, they decide they can wait on and drop their subscriptions. These journals are then forced to go Gold OA in order to survive, but at that point, they are outcompeted by megajournals, which offer an easier peer review process to pass and for many niche fields, a higher impact factor.

So essentially, you end up keeping the high end as subscription journals, wiping out the middle and then everything else gets dumped into a megajournal. Does this then create a 2 class system, where authors doing one level of work can publish it for free, while those doing work considered lesser have to pay? And does it further enforce tenure, funding and hiring committees reliance on candidates having big name journals on their CV?

That’s certainly a possible scenario, David. It would be another example of the importance of thinking in terms of unintended consequences (not just intended ones) when working towards fundamental change in any ecosystem.

One assumes that this scenario would also spell the end for many, if not most, research societies, as they are often dependent on journal revenue to fund the work they do on behalf of their communities.

And that, I think, may be the real reason why OA advocates wig out when anyone suggests that Green OA could lead to subscription cancellations. They know that raising the possibility of cancellations might lead societies to be reluctant to move to a Green OA model for their journals.

Excellent article, but I think you also have to look at costs from the authors’ side, namely that of making the Green-OA version available in a curated and reliable manner. While not hugely expensive per article, it nevertheless requires budget allocations: somebody has to collect the manuscripts and run the website! Given current budget prospects for US science agencies, Green-OA getting better seems a dodgy assumption.

Thanks, Ken. And you’re right, of course, about Green OA solutions being costly. But those costs aren’t borne by authors; repositories (whether institutional or centralized and subject-based) are supported by institutional funding, not by charges to the authors whose work is being archived.

Thanks for a crisp and cogent analysis Rick and some new (to me anyway) information regarding the potential cancellation of some Big Deals. One question (which is not central to your analysis) regarding the scenario of assigning a student (or whomever) to search for Green OA alternatives to “high priced” journals. In a Big Deal context, is there such a thing as a “high priced” or “low priced” journal? Is there a journal price? Put another way, is it possible to cancel a single title and even if it is possible, does the price of the package it is in change? This seems like a strategy that is only applicable to titles that are not in packages, no?

Good question, Michael. The scenario I proposed would have to involve standalone journals since, as you point out, you can’t usually cancel titles selectively from Big Deals.

This gives me an opportunity to call out a common fallacy that gets thrown around in the literature and the blogosphere from time to time — that most academic libraries no longer have a meaningful number of standalone journal subscriptions. The Big Deal does drive out standalone subscriptions over time, but most of us are still dealing with a lot of them. My institution, for example, which is a middle-tier ARL library, still has upwards of 1,000 individual journal subscriptions. So we’d be able to keep a student pretty busy for some time if and when we get to the point that we’re ready to start investigating possible cancellations in favor of Green OA access.

I followed your argument till the last sentence: “After all, if the promise of open access is not the promise of free access, then it’s difficult to see what the point is.”

Let’s say that libraries aren’t able to figure out a way to save money from the advent of open access. Isn’t there still the promise of great access to research literature for readers, greater visibility for authors, and possibly higher rates of citation for authors, especially outside of their discipline? Those all seem like valid reasons for libraries to support the OA movement, whether morally, financially, or both.

But all the benefits you just outlined are dependent on the access being free, right? My point is that this is exactly the benefit that OA is supposed to offer. You get access without having to pay for it.

As for whether libraries should go ahead and pay anyway, in order to support the system: there are indeed good reasons to do so. Unfortunately, libraries have to make that kind of decision in the context of lots of other things that it makes sense to support for the Good of the Order, and without enough money to support them all. I don’t think we can assume that paying for free subscriptions is always going to be the right choice in that context.

Yes, the benefits that I outlined are dependent on access being free. Where I got lost is that I don’t know who is arguing for a type of open access that is not free access.

Good points on both Green OA and Big Deals. We are tormented by conundrums, no? One of these is choosing to cancel the Big Deal. Perhaps this is not so much a conundrum but rather a fear of the amount of effort it requires. One can’t say, for example, we need to reduce our journal cost by 10%; we’ll cancel our big deal and cut our core titles by an amount to equal 10%. It won’t work because you’ll get into a red queen race with the publisher about how much the total cost of your core titles is. A 10% cut will end up costing the same as what you were paying for the big deal. It can only make sense financially if you are thinking of cutting 40 to 50%. And that would require eliminating access to not only the package premium titles you were entitled to under the big deal, but 40% of the titles that were once part of your core. Pitting the value, as you said, of the big deal against the truly significant decrease in access necessary to cut the big deal enough in order to have real financial savings. Whether Green OA will ever make that decrease in access negligible (or palatable) is hard to assess, hard to predict. Kind of like wondering if consumers can be made to shop around for better health care value. The cost AND the value of both scholarly publishing and health care are a little too obscure.

What puzzles me is that libraries should favour OA, because in the long run, once everything is Gold OA, they will be completely superfluous. I think they could survive if they transform themselves into diamond open access publishers, which do not charge either author or readers (see a detailed proposal here: https://www.frank-m-richter.de/freescienceblog/2015/10/28/how-to-switch-quickly-to-diamond-open-access-the-best-journals-are-free-for-authors-and-readers/)

I disagree that they will become completely superfluous. While they would no longer pay subscription fees, they could instead subsidize OA publishing directly (as in the model of Open Library of Humanities and LingOA), manage payment of APCs for affiliated authors, or more fully move into the role of recommending (instead of acquiring) online resources, including OA journals, for their users. And there are plenty of other areas of activity for libraries: helping researchers use software for collecting, analyzing, and visualizing data, and simply providing makerspaces, group-study space, and quiet study space.

It would be wonderful if libraries were to keep their budgets to support OA publishing directly, but I don’t see why any university administration would spend money on things that their staff get for free anyway. What I DO see is why a university would spend money to increase the prestige of its brand name – so it DOES make sense for Stanford to spend money on the Stanford Enyclopedia of Philosophy (which it doesn’t do yet, I’m afraid), or maybe for Zurich to spend money on a Zurich Journal of Linguistics, and so on. But this means that the librarians need to become publishers to survive (unless they are happy to just serve coffee to the students who are working in their premises).

Martin says, “I don’t see why any university administration would spend money on things that their staff get for free anyway”. Indeed, this echoes what Rick wrote in the paragraph beginning “There’s another important factor in our decisionmaking as well” when noting that, till now, many libraries have in fact been spending a portion of their budget this way, and doing so for the greater good and in hopes of changing the system. In fact, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy that Martin mentions is in fact supported this way by many libraries, plus, despite what Martin says, by Stanford itself: see its homepage ( https://plato.stanford.edu/ ), which explains who is supporting the “current operations”.

If this is the university’s goal, then why is the library necessarily the group to achieve it? University presses have been around for more than 500 years and do just what you propose here — drive recognition and brand name, provide lower cost alternatives to commercial publishers and in some cases, generate revenue for the university. It remains unclear to me why people trained in library science would be the right ones to head up publishing efforts, rather than experts trained in publishing.

This is a not uncommon (unfortunately) misconception about the work that academic librarians do. When I was the director of the health sciences library at UAB we had a total staff of 45 fte, 19 of whom were professional librarians. Only 3 of the librarians spent a significant portion of their time on issues related to the management of paid access to serial literature. The rest were engaged in a variety of activities including such things as teaching students about using the literature in an evidence-based fashion, working with faculty to identify appropriate resources, organizing topical guides to resources, identifying numerous other points within the workflow of students and faculty where the expertise of librarians was essential in helping people accomplish their work. If all of the journal literature were available OA, the workload of the majority of the librarians and paraprofessional staff would not be appreciably altered. There certainly are great opportunities for librarians to be engaged as publishers and research data managers, but the perception that the majority of library work involves managing subscriptions is woefully inaccurate.

The time to concel subscriptions is AFTER Green OA has become universal, not BEFORE, because pre-emptive cancellation just slows the progress of Green OA. While Green OA is just partial, cancellation means loss of access. And publishers try harder to embargo Green.

Harnad, Stevan (2015) Open Access: What, Where, When, How and Why. In: Ethics, Science, Technology, and Engineering: An International Resource eds. J. Britt Holbrook & Carl Mitcham, (2nd edition of Encyclopedia of Science, Technology, and Ethics, Farmington Hills MI: MacMillan Reference) http://eprints.soton.ac.uk/361704/

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