Control of the “Version of Record” has come to serve as one of the greatest assets of scholarly publishers. It allows them to maintain their centrality in the scholarly communication system. An important strand of the green open access movement has as its purpose to disrupt the value of the Version of Record (VOR). In turn, publishers are struggling to maintain control on this front. In the end, the set of views about the VOR that matter most are those of researchers. The recently released white paper Exploring Researcher Preference for the Version of Record adds to our understanding by bringing researcher perceptions into this conversation.
The NISO Recommended Practice NISO RP-8-2008: Journal Article Versions defines the VOR as:
A fixed version of a journal article that has been made available by any organization that acts as a publisher by formally and exclusively declaring the article “published.”
It is not surprising then, a great deal of the work of a scholarly publisher is focused on producing the VOR, which is typically also closely tied to a journal’s business model with closed access articles funded via subscriptions and open access articles funded via APCs or other payments to publish.
In the realm of supporting open access, funders are also often focused on the VOR. For example, when discussing its Rights Retention Strategy, cOAlition S explains its preference for the VOR to be open access:
Not only does the latter contain all the changes from the copyediting process, journal formatting/branding etc., but it is also the version maintained and curated by the publisher, who has the responsibility to ensure that any corrections or retractions are applied in a timely and consistent way.
For this reason, our preferred option is to ensure that the VOR is made Open Access.
Nonetheless, other versions of articles are also often available on preprint servers, in library institutional repositories, on author websites, and via platforms like Europe PMC and ResearchGate. GetFTR also includes a mechanism for publishers to provide alternative versions of articles when a researcher does not have subscription access via their institution (which some publishers are beginning to explore on their own platforms as well) and the partnership between ResearchGate and Springer Nature has evolved to provide alternative versions rather than the full VOR to unentitled users.
While some have focused their attention on the differences between the VOR and other versions, librarians are also increasingly exploring whether these alternative versions can substitute for the VOR in order to control their expenditures. These efforts are helped along by Unsub, which is particularly aimed at encouraging libraries to break the Big Deal by identifying high value subscriptions and canceling the rest.”
It was against this backdrop that I read Exploring Researcher Preference for the Version of Record, which reported on research Springer Nature conducted in collaboration with ResearchGate. It is perhaps obvious to caveat that it is in Springer Nature’s interests to use this study to reinforce the value of the VOR, a central position of a recent keynote by CEO Frank Vrancken Peeters at the APE 2021 conference.
The study was conducted “in situ” and leveraged the Springer Nature syndication pilot project that posted VOR articles for access on the ResearchGate platform. As Mithu Lucraft, Director for Content Marketing Strategy, of the Springer Nature Group and one of the study’s co-authors explained to me, the survey was presented to ResearchGate users that were logged in and who had interacted with at least one Springer Nature publication in the 60 days prior to the survey being live in October 2020.
Importantly, survey participants were not only asked to choose which version of an article they prefer but also which versions they would feel comfortable using for different purposes. In many cases, participants indicated that multiple different versions would be acceptable for a given use, which indicates that a preprint or accepted manuscript can substitute for the VOR in some use cases but perhaps not all.
The key findings reported from the study are:
- Researchers prefer to read and cite the article VOR. 83% of respondents preferred working with the VOR for citing content in their own work, compared with 9% preferring AMs [author manuscripts], and 2% preferring preprints.
- Researchers believe the article VOR is easier to read and is more reliable. In open text answers, respondents commented on the reassurance that peer review and proof of publication give to the VOR, pointing to the lack of time researchers have to read a large volume of content, and the desire to quickly assess and cite an article.
- Researchers are more likely to look for ways to find the article VOR, rather than an AM or preprint. Where authors did not have access to the VOR (i.e. they did not have access via a subscription or as a result of it being published OA), the majority — nearly 9 in 10 researchers — will take direct action to gain access to the VOR (e.g., contact the author).
- Alternative versions of the article can offer value, but with caveats on use. Even though the VOR is preferred, many researchers also feel comfortable using a preprint or an AM for reading and, in some instances, for citing. Speed of availability, in particular, is noted as a benefit from preprints.
- The article VOR is considered the most authoritative and credible source by the majority of researchers. Researcher preference for the VOR highlights the value added by publishers, in particular with reference to the ‘stamp of credibility’ that publication in a recognized journal brings.
According to Carrie Webster, Vice President for Open Access, Springer Nature was motivated to undertake this study as part of their strategy to transition to gold open access and in support of their vision of a sustainable path to fostering open science. The results indicate that, while non-VOR versions can offer value, with speed of availability particularly noted as a benefit of preprints, there remains a significant preference from researchers for the VOR as soon as it is available.
Researcher preference for the VOR relates to it providing, as Carrie termed it, “a complete reading experience.” Through the VOR, researchers can read the full text, see embedded figures, and access supplementary information and extended data all from a single source, without having to search for content from repositories or other third party platforms. The VOR on the publisher platform often offers downloadable citation details, article-level metrics, enhanced reference lists with links to articles or full-text, and links to corrections and additional commentaries, which are typically not available via a preprint or author accepted manuscript in a repository or on a preprint server.
The report and the survey data set are freely available online and licensed CC BY. This facilitates an opportunity for replication of the analysis as well as enabling a look at aspects that were not included in the discussion in the formal white paper. I noticed, for example, multiple mentions of Sci-Hub as a mechanism for getting a copy of the VOR, which did not receive a focused look in the white paper.
In addition, I hope that this study will catalyze future research that adopts and/or adapts the survey instrument to probe into perspectives from specific communities of practice. It would be useful to develop a more fulsome understanding of how readers and researchers engage with different article versions. Many questions come to mind:
- Are there differences among sub-fields within disciplines?
- Are there differences among researchers at different career stages within a field?
- Are there differences among disciplines? Are there differences among colleges or departments within a university?
- Are faculty practices and preferences different when they are acting as researchers vs when they are acting as teachers?
- Do faculty have the same expectations of their students as they report of their own practices?
We have much to learn about how these various article versions are used and perceived in order to fully understand their roles and value in the scholarly communications system.