The OSTP Nelson Memo’s Public Access policy guidance has caused quite a stir in scholarly communication circles. I am not surprised to be fielding calls from publishers interested in thinking through the implications at an executive and board level. Many are understandably concerned about how an accelerated US transition to open access will impact their revenue and bottom line. Yet several publishers, including the largest houses, believe they are prepared for this policy shift and that there is a sustainable path forward for them. I have also heard from many library leaders. Some are confident that they have the right frameworks already in place for their institutions. For others, even though the library community lobbied heavily for this very outcome through SPARC, there appears to be substantial uncertainty about how academia will adapt. How will academia handle the zero embargo?
The Fork in the Road
There is a fork in the road in terms of how publishers will respond to the individual funder policies that will result from the Nelson Memo. Publishers tend to assume that a green repository model without an embargo will result in massive subscription cancellations. As a result, forecasters are anticipating that publishers will have little choice but to steer OA models for federally funded research towards gold options such as through APCs and transformative agreements. Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe has termed this model “Green-via-Gold.”
Green-via-Gold represents one tine in the fork in the road, but there is another. It is possible that some publishers will model out the value they offer beyond the Public Access option, whether it be through editorial review, formatting, linking, preservation, or any of a number of other services, and conclude that it is high enough that they can sustain their subscription revenue to an on-platform Version of Record even in the face of the zero-embargo model for a repository-based Author Accepted Manuscript. I do not anticipate this will be a widespread conclusion, but AAAS’s recent announcement that it will introduce a “green OA-zero day” model for taxpayer funded research for Science, as it did for the Plan S Rights Retention policy, suggests that at least this major not-for-profit publisher is prepared to take on this risk, at least for its primary journal with almost more than 100,000 individual subscribers.
That said, I share with most observers the view that many publishers’ preferred model under these circumstances will be Green-via-Gold. While not all publishers are equally prepared, some have taken substantial steps in recent years to ready themselves for, if not actually lead, an accelerated transition to open. And, in response to various mandates and agreements, publishers have shown themselves perfectly willing to route manuscripts submitted through appropriate business model workflows, suggesting that they could do so for federally funded research in the US. Because US authors have strong affinity for traditional journal and publisher brands, as Christos Petrou recently demonstrated, Green-via-Gold will likely thereby take hold.
Thus, some of the largest and most globally diversified houses may have a path forward here, but many smaller publishers appear to face more substantial challenges. Whether smaller publishers will be able to develop sustainable models at their own scale, or find themselves driven into the arms of the largest houses, is an important question for another piece.
What Libraries Want and Expect
At the most basic level, the new policy guidance should provide the major expansion in open access that many US libraries have sought through advocacy and lobbying efforts via SPARC and other organizations. Following the OSTP announcement, SPARC in particular was very quick to celebrate the new policy, with executive director Heather Joseph calling it “an enormous leap forward.” Let’s now dig in more specifically to what libraries may hope for in a specific version of the zero-embargo model that will be established through the new policy guidance.
A “green OA-zero day” model is in many ways the status quo model for a university library. If their approach to compliance for the 12-month embargo period in the Holdren Memo is any indication, most will likely continue to outsource, at least implicitly, compliance to publishers and their collective organizations like CHORUS. In this model, libraries can continue to subscribe and research articles are made freely available by the publishers (albeit as author accepted manuscripts and only for federally-funded content) from day one. There are no additional fees, payments remain on the “read” side and do not need to be reallocated across institutions, and there is no need to move money or track budgets differently within a given institution. The result is that the library has a simple choice, as indeed always it has had, between subscribing and not subscribing. Under this scenario, as the embargo drops to zero, many will continue to consult tools such as Unsub, likely using them to calculate that the resulting value of subscriptions has declined substantially.
The Green-via-Gold models, on the other hand, seem likely to require more proactive leadership from universities. They likely will require most research universities to undertake some or all of these imperatives:
- to ensure that grant applications include resources to support APCs even at the expense of other priorities;
- to adjust the nature of their business relationships with publishers, possibly through transformative agreements or other negotiated OA models;
- to budget additional resources, to support APCs and/or transformative agreements; and
- to ensure compliance with the new Public Access policies.
Leaders at several US libraries have been leading a push for transformative agreements. They have faced substantial complexities, including the prospect of higher aggregate costs and logistical challenges as a result of bringing existing APCs under the umbrella of the agreement. And their efforts have not been uniformly well received among their peers. It will be interesting to see if these agreements develop to provide greater coverage for federally funded research without unduly driving up costs by supporting open access for other research outputs.
It will be no surprise that many library leaders will instead prefer the “green OA — zero day” option facilitated by the publishers directly. And indeed, what I am hearing from library leaders at a number of major research universities is that they expect publishers to offer such “green OA — zero day” models as a result of the Nelson Memo. They do not anticipate their researchers being steered, or perhaps forced, into Green-via-Gold models and are not preparing to support researchers should this happen.
The coming years will show an array of solutions both from publishers and from libraries about how to address the policy mandates being introduced, including some that are more nuanced and indeed more creative than the simple distinction presented above.
Publishers that introduce a “green OA — zero day” model will surely be praised by libraries and universities. For many, this model will result in renewed pressure on subscription price, potentially including outright cancellations. But because only a subset of articles in most fields is federally funded, and only a minority in many journals, a policy like this one may offer a workable starting point for a transition for many publishers.
The trickier question is how the market will develop in cases where publishers encourage, or perhaps require, authors of manuscripts that received federal funding to associate themselves with a transformative agreement or commit to an APC. Will universities and their libraries that have heretofore not done so prepare themselves to support their authors under these circumstances? Or will they develop alternative infrastructure or protocols that allow their authors to avoid such publishers?
One interesting point of leverage that publishers may have is the ability to facilitate — or withhold — compliance management for institutions. As mentioned above, publishers have taken this burden on themselves up until this point. Some observers expect publishers may take on compliance responsibility for data deposit as well. If publishers opt out of facilitating compliance for subscription articles, libraries may find themselves asked to take on this burden without having the systems, workflows, staffing, or budget to do so. Or, if publishers charge for deposit as a service, will authors or institutions find themselves paying publishers, albeit not for publishing per se but for policy compliance? At least for some institutions, could such directions provide some additional rationale to support, even if grudgingly, a Green-via-Gold model?
I have yet to see guidance, either from SPARC or elsewhere in the library community, providing an indication of how the academic sector, and its libraries, will likely proceed. But universities with substantial amounts of federally funded research will find themselves forced to engage many of these questions one way or the other in the years to come.