Remember when Elsevier floated the idea of regional open access in 2017 and was soundly pilloried for it

I do. 

So imagine my surprise to hear that Jean-Claude Burgelman, the Open Access Envoy of the European Commission who serves on the cOAlition S Executive Steering Group, has suggested geo-specific access as an approach to achieving open access!

Fortified City of Ranthambhor, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Fortified City of Ranthambhor, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

According to The Times Higher Ed, Burgelman observed that Europe’s commitment to open access publishing leaves other “nations free to access articles through initiatives such as Plan S – a global open access plan unveiled last year by European funders under the auspices of the commission – when their own country had not reciprocated with similar plans.” This echoes the claim that underscored a 2015 proposal for a UK national open access license that “the UK’s support for ‘gold open access’ risks giving the rest of the world our research without matching reciprocal benefits.”

Indeed, this does seem to be true — that publications are made freely available with no built in reciprocity and, I would note, does seem to also be the goal of open access: 

“By “open access” to this literature, we mean its free availability on the public internet, permitting any users to read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full texts of these articles, crawl them for indexing, pass them as data to software, or use them for any other lawful purpose, without financial, legal, or technical barriers other than those inseparable from gaining access to the internet itself.” (Declaration of the Budapest Open Access Initiative)

When pushed to reconcile his proposal with the principles of open access, Burgelman replied that regional access “is better than no OA and that it could be imagined at a regional level.”

And, it turns out this isn’t the first time that Burgelman has raised such a strategy. He was reported in 2018 as saying that “as the EU expands access to its cloud, it will need to set reciprocal data sharing conditions.”

Support for Open Access/Plan S Weakening?

Burgelman is not wrong to be looking at alternatives since the prospects of a global flip to open access are rather complicated. His remarks, however, lead to some pondering about whether support for open access in general, or Plan S in particular, may be weakening.  

Even if there is enough money in the system to transform subscriptions for reading to payments for publishing, it is ever more obvious that those monies are not held currently by the institutions that would need to make the publishing payments that are intended to replace the reading payments. For example, the German U15 issued a statement observing that federal and state government financing of scientific publishing must be redistributed among institutions in light of the financial burden that the Projekt DEAL contracts are placing on high publishing institutions. Or, more bluntly stated in a report issued by Science Europe: “Entirely flipping subscriptions to OA is also perceived as unsustainable, particularly for research-intensive universities.”

And, though many spoke hopefully of a global uptake of Plan S, memberships have not materialized. China made some early statements of support for Plan S but there are also indications that such support in principle will not result in joining up. India has explicitly declared that it will not join Plan S. The architect of Plan S, Robert Jan-Smits, made a round of visits with US research funders, scientific societies, and White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy representatives but no significant policy changes have emerged that would more closely align US policy with Plan S.

As such, Europe stands out as a region where there is widespread investment in gold open access, to the point where significant article output in some of its countries are now being published gold. Being a leader of a global transition is good but some in Europe are clearly beginning to worry that the global flip to open access will slow or stall out. They are likely understandably concerned about the implications: that European institutions will need to maintain subscriptions to content published by scholars elsewhere in the world and that, without a global flip, cOAlition S funded authors will have fewer options for where to publish than their colleagues elsewhere. 

Finally, criticism of Plan S continues to grow. Recently, for example, open access leaders in Latin America have suggested that Plan S could undermine the open access ecosystem that is thriving in that region, which is based on subsidies by academic institutions rather than payments to publishers

Is Geowalling the Answer?

With a global flip to open access publishing seemingly unlikely to occur in the 2024 timeline demanded by Plan S, thereby impeding the vision of switching to “pure publish” agreements at that point, one can appreciate the creativity of considering whether there is a staged approach might enable Europe to achieve a “regional flip” on its own, without waiting on a “global flip.” 

The proposed solution is geowalling, which takes inspiration from the fact that “Amazon knows if someone is in the US or the UK and shows them different prices.” But, instead of different prices, geowalling would allow a user access or not based on geo-location. Burgelman seems to suggest that this geowalled access could also be used as a policy lever, to get other nations to follow the European lead. 

Johan Rooryck, the cOAlition’s Open Access Champion, stated to me via e-mail that “Jean-Claude Burgelman has made is clear that he made his remarks about Geowalling strictly in a personal capacity. This proposal does not reflect the position of cOAlition S, whose purpose is full and immediate Open Access as reflected in the June 2019 principles and implementation guidance.” 

However, given Burgelman’s role on the Executive Steering Committee of the cOAlition, stakeholders might be rightly attentive to what this personal perspective might mean for Plan S if it were to take hold among the leadership.

So, as a thought experiment, what principles of Plan S would need to be compromised in order to achieve geowalling as Burgelman discussed or had been previously proposed by Elsevier? 

Open Access Itself

The most obvious challenge to the notion of a “regional flip” is that it requires a fundamental redefinition of open access itself, since it is antithetical to current definitions of open access for there to be any barriers to access. Paywalls, datawalls, and what I am now calling “geowalls” are all barriers that definitionally create a “not open” state for a publication. A European geowall is just a more encompassing paywall than an institutional or national paywall. Reading would be restricted to those who are affiliated with those who are paying. 

To pursue geowalling, the cOAlition would have abandon its vision that “all scholarly publications on the results from research funded by public or private grants provided by national, regional and international research councils and funding bodies, must be published in Open Access Journals, on Open Access Platforms, or made immediately available through Open Access Repositories without embargo.” As the raison d’etre of the cOAlition, this would likely prove difficult for the group — though one could imagine a finesse of this that accepts geowalling as an interim approach in service of a longer-term global vision.

Copyright Retention and CC License 

To implement geowalling, the cOAlition would need to revise Principle 1: “Authors or their institutions retain copyright to their publications. All publications must be published under an open license, preferably the Creative Commons Attribution license (CC BY).” 

If authors have copyright, they would be free to share their publications outside of the geowall. But, even more of a challenge for geowalling is the the CC BY license. Anyone who has access to the geowalled content that is under a CC- BY license would be free to liberate the content from the geowall and post it elsewhere. One could imagine ResearchGate,, and any number of other services that would see an immediate opportunity to increase the value of their platform by systematically serving up this CC BY content. 

All of this would also be to the detriment of the value of the publishers’ platforms and these same publishers would be obligated to the additional costs of maintaining a geowall while seeing the value of doing so immediately eroded. It is hard to imagine that publishers would not insist on copyright concessions and a reset on CC licensing in exchange for setting up and maintaining a geowall infrastructure. 

Hybrid Journals

Geowalling content would also mean that Principle 8: “The Funders do not support the ‘hybrid’ model of publishing” would have to be abandoned. 

Instead of moving away from hybrid journals, geowalling would mean moving toward the hybrid article — with some, who are in nations paying for access to the article by committing to open access publishing fees or the like, having access inside the geowall. At the same time, those in other nations would be paying a reading fee for the same article.

Geowalled Access is Not Open Access 

Clearly geowalling is antithetical to the principles of Plan S. But, perhaps it will turn out to be a stage in the evolutionary process? Might it be necessary to abandon open access in the short term in order to achieve it in the long-term? Or, would geowalling itself, like a national license, be a further drag on the move to open access?

I tend to agree with Burgelman that full regional access is better than no open access. More reading access for more readers at the same or lower price is a good thing. 

But, it is not open access. 

And, to quote Johan Rooryck, the cOAlition’s Open Access Champion, it is also: “Not in line with Plan S. Period.” 

Burgelman tweeted that he “spoke as envoy and in my own name” and so it is not entirely clear whether his remarks will evolve to be a policy proposal or are just a personal provocation to further discussion. But, either way, all stakeholders will likely take any ideas that are proposed by the person in this position seriously, remembering no doubt that the previous Open Access Envoy, Robert Jan-Smits, very early on said “Ik ga er als een bulldozer tegenaan.”* Still reverberating from the shock of Plan S, publishers, librarians, and researchers alike are on high alert for any signals of further “bulldozing” of the publishing system by significant changes in policy. 


*Via Google Translate: “I’m going to hit it like a bulldozer.” 

Note: My thanks to Martin Paul Eve for alerting me to the 2015 HEPI Occasional Paper and some critiques. I recommend his geowalling commentary as well: If We Choose to Align Open Access to Research with Geo-political Borders We Negate the Moral Value of Open Access.

Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe

Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe

Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe is Professor/Coordinator for Information Literacy Services and Instruction in the University Library and affiliate faculty in the School of Information Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

View All Posts by Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe


27 Thoughts on "Can Geowalling Save Open Access?"

A great ariticle! I was always wondering how the problem of reciprocity could be solved. It seems like geowalling might be the answer.

It would be interesting to see how Gold OA journals could handle such mixed content:
– Geowalled articles form cOAlition S funded authors,
– globally available OA articles from other authors.
Who would pay for the extra costs of Geowalling? Would publishers charge higher APCs for cOAlition S funded articles? Or higher APCs for all the articles?

Not to mention the extra cost of development and maintenance for pay-per-view/subscription access solutions of Geowalled articles from pure OA publishers.

The post’s early pivot to the header provocation (“Support for Open Access/Plan S Weakening?”)—with its “Open Access/Plan S” conflation—isn’t the main point, but the section isn’t fair. Hinchliffe: “Even if there is enough money in the system to transform subscriptions for reading to payments for publishing, it is ever more obvious that those monies are not held currently by the institutions that would need to make the publishing payments that are intended to replace the reading payments.” But the whole premise is wrong—that an article-fee model (paid by institutions, in this version) is the only way to redirect existing subscription outlays to a sustainable OA ecosystem. Consortial models and the Latin American tradition of direct subsidy detach payment from per-unit charges. The post, ironically, mentions the Latin American model, though only to throw more shade on Plan S and–weirdly, in this case–on momentum around open access itself

I make no such assumption that an article-fee model is the only way. Clearly it is not. There are many ways. What I’m commenting on here is not what is possible but what is being pursued. Plan S specifically, and conversation about Open Access generally in Europe, are heavily focused on individual APCs and transformative agreements (which are not always article-fee models FWIW but also offer “all you can publish buffet pricing” approaches).

There are a lot of scientific papers out there. One estimate puts the count at 1.8 million articles published each year, in about 28,000 journals.Mar 25, 2014
Academics Write Papers Arguing Over How Many People Read › smart-news › half-academic-studies-are-…
Who is going to pay for all this stuff? Surely not you or me! Why should I pay for some prof to get tenure?

(posting my comments from the schol-comm list) This post very interesting and I personally am deeply troubled by concept of regional reciprocity. Again, I raise the example of work that his been done in LATAM (FUBU in many ways) that has always been open to the global scholarly community. Despite the resource constraints and general volatility (especially lately) in the region, there has never been public discussion of “geo-walling” that research.

Geo-walling feels like yet another instance of resource-rich regions dictating to other parts of the globe how they are expected to “play” in the global scholarly ecosystem, rather than the collaborative approach — oft-discussed but not nearly as often implemented — of an inclusive ecosystem that takes into account all global scholarly communities — not just those with the most resources.

While funders do have a lot of leverage in this space, so do other stakeholders. I hope to see libraries and other publishers using their purchasing and dissemination power to push back against this kind of scholarly “protectionism.”

I adore Kent’s comment, that this discussion has its origins in an April Fool’s Day comment.

To be sure, this is another extension of creating artificial scarcity in pursuit of profit. It’s interesting if in the main scholarly discourse were not about improving the human condition, saving/extending lives, freeing prisoners unjustly accused and more down an endless list of how very important culture and knowledge are to the world in which we live.

But that is what this is about. The very notion that we should condition access to them — let alone geography — is abhorrent for many. Count me in that number.

I know it sounds crazy; however, when I have talked to people that have nothing to do with research/scholarship/publishing and we get to government funding of publishing activities in an OA world, this comes up. To an average person on the outside, using “their tax dollars” to make papers available to everyone in the world is not a natural leap. I always assumed this was an American view of things and, in fact, may be the reason why US federal agencies are not going the Plan S route. Competition and exceptionalism gets us to geo-walling discussions.

Oh wow. Are we seeing something like hothouse late Ptolemaic astronomy playing out in one last emphysematous gasp–epicycles, equants, deferents piled on one another in a final attempt to hold a paradigm (Plan S) together? Kuhn had a lot to say about the markers of paradigm supersession. I’m not a fan of his philosophy of science, but as applied to Plan S, sure makes sense.
Think too of the terminological apparatus that now accompanies OA (gold versus green versus diamond versus bronze etc etc), all subject to internecine disputes about just best how to parse these terms. And now, regional parsing: “Geowalling”. This is all getting very complicated.
What are the unintended consequences of OA in one country but not in another? It’s so unfair to the library serials catalogers, who are going to go crazy. They already have enough on their hands, what with the conceptual hurdles of tracing journal name changes. I have a bifurcating tree-chart of the name changes in Comptes Rendus on my wall, as a reminder of civilization’s indebtedness to serials catalogers and catalogers in general as conservators of the cultural record as disclosed in journals. And now, this new novelty. Imagine how Marc records will have to change in the face of this. A new Marc field listing countries in which a journal is OA versus ones in which it is not? And then how to monitor the geowalls? It’ll be like trying to track electoral redistricting. I’m told that the FirstSearch version of Worldcat does not exactly match the publicly accessible Worldcat. If it’s hard to keep versions of WorldCat synced, imagine what havoc such a new Marc field will introduce.

Incidentally, I’m really puzzled by this comment from Elsevier in one of the links above.
“Europe is a region where a transition to fully gold open access is likely to be most cost-neutral and, perhaps for this reason, where gold OA currently has the highest policy focus. This is in stark contrast to other research-intensive countries such as the US, China and Japan, which on the whole have pursued the subscription/green open access path. Therefore one possible first step for Europe to explore would be to enable European articles to be available gold open access within Europe and green open access outside of Europe.”

Can someone explain to me the meaning of the first sentence of this paragraph? Cost-neutrality, in what sense?
Back to the dyspepsia-inducing work of cutting journals, but first this shameless plug for the discussion at:

Angela, no it’s not crazy at all. Here in the UK, which is a massive net exporter of scholarly research, both in terms of content and of publisher revenues (probably 70% of UK- originated research is not consumed by UK taxpayers), the latter statistic exists as a powerful refutation of the claim that ‘the taxpayer pays, so therefore the taxpayer must have access’. In an internationalised network of scholarly communication, the ‘taxpayer pays’ argument has always seemed to me, amidst a multiplicity of very strong and enlightened arguments for Open Access, just about the weakest.

Personally, I think the weakest argument is about the democratization of research. You can go to the Yankees game or you can sit back with “Physical Review Letters.”

Kent had it spot on! It’s absurd to think that once an article is published anywhere with OA, a publisher could stuff that genie back into the bottle. There are too many crawlers, discovery tools and links that would defeat the concept within seconds. Additionally, VPN’s and proxies are straightforward workarounds to geofencing.

Exactly! Virtual Private Network (VPN). Cheap and easy to establish, I could use a VPN to make my browser look like I’m coming from just about anywhere. Poof, your geowall is toast!

Does that assume that IP Range is being used to grant access? I’m wondering if newer systems, like Seamless Access (formerly RA21) would eliminate this potential workaround.

Seamless Access (RA21) works on top of institutional affiliation. So, unless a country/set of countries is going to establish a “user account” for everyone “in country” to be “nationally/institutionally affiliated” – then no. Honestly, there’s a lot that isn’t specified in all of these variations of geowalling that have popped up over time… is it for citizens, residents, taxpayers, folks physically in place, etc.? But, in any of them, you have to have a way to say “yes this person” and “not that person” … one presumes in geowalling it would likely be IP rather than user account, which is why a VPN completely gets around it. A private VPN can connect via a variety of locations (vs a university VPN which is tied to that university). So, for example, when I used ExpressVPN last month – I connected sometimes to USA and sometimes to Japan, neither of which were the country where I was physically located at the moment.

Prof. Hinchliffe, so from what you suggest private VPN has capabilities that an institutionally tied VPN (what I’m familiar with) does not.
And so on this account geowalling is “toast”, as one of the com box participants mentioned. I wonder why people advocate geowalling.

Hi, wouldn’t this render VPN a vehicle to gain access to any subscribed content–whether ejournals or databases or anything behind a wall?

VPN’s commonly are used when, for example, a university professor wants to work from home but still have access to their school’s subscriptions via IP address: The school’s IT department provides a VPN. VPN’s can not automatically bypass password protection or similar controls. There are many legitimate uses for VPN’s.

We use VPN for off-campus access. I’m wondering why the VPN would render geowalls toast (as you put it) and if so why this wouldn’t generalize to accessing anything behind a firewall. If I try to access something geowalled, I assume that if I’m not in the region for which there is OA (and outside of which there’s no access except tolled), I can’t get in. Which would be a different matter from SciHub type attempts to replicate the content within the geowall precincts, but that would be an issue independent of VPN.

The idea is that a VPN presents you as being located at the location of where the VPN is set up. For example, if I travel in Europe, I often can’t access movies on my US Netflix account. But if I’m employing my VPN to make it look as if I’m connecting from our New York office, rather than my actual location, then my account works fine. So the argument here is that if you restricted free access to a particular region, people would set up VPN systems to make the user look like they were accessing the content from that region.

Great analysis and very timely too as talk in the street suggests that China may be considering a geowalled OA policy (I assume instead of PlanS). Even if Europe were not to geowall, what would happen if all Chinese journals were locally free?
Maybe one strategic consideration for JPB’s comment is that for many European-heavy journals a unified European OA mandate would tip them to gold OA as a default with >50-60% OA content.
It is increasingly clear that a single solution won’t work. I can see P&R deals taking over in the global north and APCs continuing to dominate ROW…but ‘Publish’ and ‘Read’ asymmetries also exist within countries (as noted for the German DEAL above). Given the diversity/complexity, maybe it is time to focus again on what really matters: increasing the % fully OA papers out there, not the % of OA journals. Dropping the ‘hybrid ban’ (and notions of charge caps) would allow the system to adjust much more organically.

Thanks. You’re talking about people breaking the rules by configuring VPN access (from within the region) so that anyone outside the OA territory could tunnel in? But if VPN is used as it normally is, without this “assistance”, then they’d normally see toll barriers if we’re outside the region, i.e. if our VPN is tied to a campus IP. I may of course be missing something. Am not on the IT side.

Right, but here we’re talking about a geo-limited OA program, everything is free to everyone within a particular region, but behind access control outside of that region. So a VPN that made it appear as if you were in the region would grant you full access to that geo-limited OA content.

But any VPN configured to any institution or region outside of the geo-favored region would not grant that access. It’s not just a generic VPN, it’s one that is configured to make the user appear to be located within the region in question.

Leave a Comment