Much is being written about the “Nelson Memorandum”, released by the OSTP on 25th August, 2022.

As an independent society publisher in a field where funding is limited, and article processing charges (APCs) are not viable, how do we see our open future? The American Mathematical Society (AMS) publishes some 25 journals, 80 books per year, and an essential discovery gateway for mathematicians – MathSciNet®. We do our own production, operate our own digital platform, provide in-house customer service, and — amazingly – even have our own print shop and warehouse for our books and journals — print still being a vital part of mathematical culture. Publishing accounts for 70% of operational revenues. Our membership sits at around 30,000 mathematicians around the world, and we provide programs and services to mathematicians around the world, not just members – indeed we give away much in service of our mission to support mathematics. Importantly, it is worth noting that around 18% of articles published in AMS journals are from authors supported by federal funding. If we add authors supported by a range of other funders around the world, the number is around 40%.

It is quite clear that open or public access is a good thing – how could it not be? The big question for scholarly societies, which has been raised again and again, is how may we provide openness in an equitable, inclusive and sustainable way?

window being painted white obscuring view

I am not going to delve into the sustainability issue in this post. Instead, I want to consider whether open and public access models, as they have emerged so far, are delivering us to a more inequitable publishing future as we rush towards openness.

I am not going to argue that openness in itself leads to inequity. Indeed, it makes sense that if an author may publish their work without financial burden, and that readers can read articles, and engage with data without financial burden, the world will be a better place. Unfortunately, in our politically motivated rush to open, there are fissures in the publishing landscape that have the potential to drive inequity.

Many scientific communities are already fully engaged with Gold OA. For communities with significant funding for authors, and significant scale, Gold OA makes some sense, and indeed is expanding, especially through transformative deals being struck by commercial publishers, university presses, and some scholarly societies. As Roger Schonfeld in an excellent recent Scholarly Kitchen post entitled “How will Academia Handle the Zero Embargo“, points out;

“…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 Hinchliffe has termed this model “Green-via-Gold”.”

A recent Editorial in Science by Sudip Parikh, Shirley Malcom, and Bill Moran, entitled “Public Access is not Equal Access“, highlights potential inequities in our rush to Gold OA.

“Public access should foster a diverse universe of authors and readers regardless of their economic circumstances. This drives scientific excellence and public understanding. Some models for public access are bad for inclusivity. Gold OA journals, for which authors pay publication charges, work for senior scientists who are well-funded, tenured, and overwhelmingly male and white, but not so much for early-career scientists who may be poorly funded, not yet tenured, and much more diverse. Also disadvantaged are scientists at smaller schools, including historically Black colleges and universities, and in underfunded disciplines like math and the social sciences. Although it enables “open access” to readers, this model can be inequitable for many scientists and institutions.

Gold OA damages the scientific enterprise when it incentivizes a volume business model in which every paper is a quantum of revenue that must be published somewhere in a publisher’s ecosystem. The perverse incentive for publishers is to accept more papers, which furthers academia’s publish-or-perish mindset, makes predatory publishing more enticing, and dilutes the scientific literature.”

Richard Horton, Editor-in-Chief of The Lancet makes further pithy observations in his recent Commentary entitled “Offline: The scramble for science“.

“What the deluge of invitations to publish in open access journals suggests is that science publishing is undergoing a startling culture change – from one driven by quality to one driven by quantity. The calculus for publishers is straightforward: the larger the number of papers published, the higher the revenue.”

“A change in science publishing culture from value to volume, driven by the motive to protect revenues, risks jeopardizing the very purpose of science publishing itself. Quality is under threat. Equity is under threat.”

Should we also be considering a possible suppressive effect that the need to pay for each article will have on authors’ willingness to publish – particularly junior researchers who might otherwise usefully exploit the data produced by research with spin-off work, but who might have limited access to monies to cover the APC?

As we grapple with how best the AMS may move to open, bearing in mind issues of equity, quality and sustainability, what are our options?

Much of the future depends on a move away from fundamentalism to balance. There is a role for Green, there is a role for Subscriptions, a place for Gold, through transformative arrangements, and a place for Diamond. I would argue that as a scholarly society we can provide open and public options that reduce inequity and maintain sustainability – but to do this a stakeholder, be they a researcher, funder, library, publisher, policy maker, needs to recognize the equity and inclusiveness of a balanced approach. The AMS already offers zero embargo Green OA, and Diamond, along with subsidized Gold options. Some of our journals are just freely available. All our journal content is freely available after five years. And yet, this balanced portfolio still allows for revenues that support the mathematical community through the host of programs offered to mathematicians from students and early career researchers onwards.

As we look to funding agencies to interpret the “Nelson Memorandum”, perhaps it is this spirit of balance in the name of equity and inclusiveness that can inform our discussions.

Robert Harington

Robert Harington

Robert Harington is Chief Publishing Officer at the American Mathematical Society (AMS). Robert has the overall responsibility for publishing at the AMS, including books, journals and electronic products.


16 Thoughts on "Equity, Inclusiveness, and Zero Embargo Public Access"

Robert, “Much of the future depends on a move away from fundamentalism to balance.” I couldn’t agree more. When I was at OECD, I was long caught between the rock of having to generate revenues to cover the cost of publishing (the small matter of ~$11MN per year) and the other rock of making all OECD content open and free for everyone. Why did I have to generate revenues? Because the OECD’s members wouldn’t stump up the money to cover publishing costs (any more than OSTP is going to stump up for Federally-funded researchers). Why did I have to make everything free to read? Because OECD’s members thought that, as a publicly-funded institution, OECD’s work should be available to everyone. Joined-up thinking, it wasn’t. Our attempt to find ‘balance’? Freemium. Whereby anyone could read on screen, but you had to pay/be at a subscribing institution to download. This worked inasmuch as revenues were still earned and lots of people accessed the free, read-only, versions. Crucially, (and for me the real test), complaints from the public were as rare as hens’ teeth. Did this end the discussion? No. The open ‘fundamentalists’ kept pushing without ever offering to put any money on the table. To my knowledge they still are and the jury is still out on whether OECD will follow in the footsteps of other IGOs and go fully open access, obliged to absorb the cost of publishing by cutting research and other activities. My question to the fundamentalists was always this: if the public aren’t complaining about the balanced approach, where is the benefit to society to go further in making publications open if it means doing less research? I never got an answer.

The seduction of “balance” often appears irresistible: balance is often adorned with the golden mean, and it sounds so very reasonable, mature, logical, respectable… However, when balance includes subscriptions and transformative agreements – thankfully, APCs seems to have been sidelined in the desired move away from “fundamentalism” (whatever this may mean) – it also and inherently confesses a compromise with inequities. Then, the debate starts all over again about the desired “balance” between equity and the financial needs of an honourable society such as the AMS. The problem is that this “balance” is poorly conceived. The countervailing weights of the “balance” are orthogonal to each other, to stretch a mathematical metaphor.

The solution to solving financial problems is to get the institutions that have the money (funding agencies, libraries, charities) to work together with societies to find a way to subsidize them in their publishing effort. The AMS could play a very useful role in catalyzing this kind of effort. The AMSD could also work out something with other mathematical societies that face very similar dilemmas. For example, the Mersenne Centre ( publish mathematical journals in diamond format. Why not explore the possibility of joining forces with them? Why not exchange information about what could be done together, shared, etc. etc. How are they financed? What can be learned from that situation? Etc. etc. Perhaps societies should make use of their most powerful, yet neglected, weapon: collaboration with other societies and coordination with libraries and funding agencies.

A combination of political push (lobbying in the right places) and collaborative spirit among societies would also go a long way toward helping set up the right kind of balance all researchers want.

I appreciate a call for balance and equity for publishing. I also believe the definition of balance that’s sought after here must be one that is actually shared among stakeholders and not a one-sided understanding if it is to work — and that’s not really addressed in this article. The need for that shared definition cannot be understated or it is completely meaningless.

While I appreciate the desire for equity and balance, I’m also failing to see evidence of the claim that there is actually “balance” in current portfolios. Many society /publisher subscription pricing models have long avoided dealing with the legacy pricing inequity issues leftover from the days of print-only subs, despite customer articulated needs and willingness from stakeholders to collaborate for shared solutions. More often than not those requests for collaboration and new approaches were ignored. There was/is still an unwillingness to fix what isn’t deemed “broken” because revenues are still flowing in, despite looming evidence that it can’t last in the way it was designed. Now there is a forced change. This change is described in this article as “politically motivated” and fundamentalist, but I think that description is at least partly incorrect and maybe rather better described as a result of a reaction to long-term issue avoidance. Might we be running from one place of imbalance to the next because of years of inaction, stagnation, lack of collaboration and innovation? A needed change that delivers even incremental improvements, even one that’s imperfect, is still preferable to the alternative of standing still when there’s inherent brokenness being experienced. All that said, I acknowledge that whatever new models we find ourselves using, equitable or not, will be all of our dilemmas to resolve. I am biased of course as one of the stakeholders who is committed to this approach, but I believe true publisher-author-library-consortia-funder collaboration would provide better long-term results in reducing societies’ reliance on the volume-based, revenue-driven open publishing approach that is the current “go-it-alone” solution, and would bring improved trust in intentions, equity, and shared purpose all around.

Hear! Hear! (insert suitable stomping noise file here… 🙂 ).

Robert, can you help me understand a point made by Parikh, Malcom and Moran?

If a researcher is supported by a federal grant, don’t they have, ipso facto, the funds to pay an OA APC? Conversely, if a researcher is not supported by a federal grant, don’t they remain free to publish in a journal with a low or no APC?

Parikh, Malcom and Moran say, “Gold OA journals . . . work for senior scientists who are well-funded, tenured, and overwhelmingly male and white.” But don’t gold OA journals work for any researcher who has a non-tiny federal grant? Yes, biases persist in the disbursement of federal grants. But that’s a bug in the grant system that needs to be fixed, not a feature of gold OA.

What am I missing?

If publishing accounts for 70% of AMS’s operational revenue, what is the surplus this generates and how is it spent across the society’s services and programs? I think it would be helpful to have these numbers and info shared when we talk about a society’s publishing operation and future.

Gold OA doesn’t seem compatible with the workflow the average faculty member uses in the United States. Sure, if they are big grant writers, there is potential, but otherwise, it’s too much work to get the funding. The solution is going to have to be partnerships between publishers and funding sources and that doesn’t need to wait for some perfect revenue stream and isn’t based on article-by-article funding but rather issue-by-issue, or even better, volume by volume.

Why do you say it is a given that open access is a good thing? Open access is supposed to make research articles available to poor researchers who have limited access and/or makes research articles available more rapidly to everyone. Can you please cite an example where either of these hypothetical scenarios made a difference? Is there an example where a poor researcher obtained access to journal articles and then made an important contribution to a field? Can you cite an example where a researcher – rich or poor – obtained access to a journal more rapidly than simply asking the author for it, and that led to an important contribution to a field?

OA is supposed to make research articles available to everybody, not just “poor” researchers. Even Springer/Nature seem to see advantages to OA: Science advisors from a number of countries seem to think that OA with regard to COVID was helpful in “…efforts to contain the SARS-CoV-2 virus and thus save lives and reduce societal disruption. Efforts made by publishers to date to make publications and data on COVID-19 publicly accessible are greatly appreciated.” (

As for the series of challenges stated in M. Scheeringa’s comment, one could also put the same questions to the subscription model, or the APC model, etc. The best answer to these questionable questions, perhaps, can be found here:

I will end by saying that the accent placed on “poor” is quite condescending.

None of those are examples. You citing COVID was a general, badly-supported opinion. But I didn’t really expect a specific example because there are none. The narrative that open access will significantly advance scientific knowledge is a myth. I’ve asked for real examples in the past in this forum and nobody seems to have any.

Under the subscription model, articles are easily available; you just email the author and ask for a preprint.

When did the adjective poor become condescending? What do you call them – socioeconomically under-resourced?

Specific pieces of research work make contributions to further research, not their modes of dissemination or access. This is why I half-jokingly, asked how a subscription or an APC dissemination model could be introduced to argue for wider or faster access to information. My counter-question shows that Scheeringa’s tests are poorly framed.

And it takes a peculiar mind to deny that a more open, freer circulation of documents does not help the advance of knowledge production. Why did we invent libraries in the first place? Was it not to create a form of local open access? And are we going to argue now that libraries did nothing for the societies that cultivated them early and vigorously, as was happily the case in the USA, by the way.

Indeed, we can always write to the author, but it does not always work, especially when it is an older piece of work and the author is dead. And some authors do not respond. I know from experience.

And if the argument that open access will significantly advance scientific knowledge is a myth, then the counter argument stating that limiting access to research results will not harm the advance of science is equally mythical. The greater the number of competent people, and the freer the communication opportunities between competent people, the more good knowledge will be produced. Open access aims at doing both: increasing the number of people involved in research, and intensifying communications among researchers.

Finally, open access was never conceived as a charitable enterprise with a peculiar focus on “poor” researchers. Setting this term up front, as if relieving poverty were OA’s main objective, made Scheeringa’s message sound patronizing, which is not vastly different from condescending. And I am not talking about “political correctness” here.

Your comments about me being condescending and patronizing are formatted as minor points positioned at the end of your comments, but you are indeed clever, as I think they are actually the main thrust of the support for OA. Name-calling the non-believers in OA is an act of moral shaming, and the only real motivation to support OA is for moral status. The absence of evidence that OA benefits science means the only defense of OA is to achieve equity for equity’s sake, and if I don’t believe that, I must be morally inferior. Thank you for taking the bait and demonstrating again that OA is solely a woke ideology.

But you have me dead to rights on the problem of getting preprints from dead authors. Now that my “peculiar mind” thinks about it, it is amazing how often that must be hindering modern science. Let’s deconstruct the whole system to solve that dead author problem.

My cleverness must defer to yours: constructing such a convoluted argument out of, admittedly, a secondary point, is proof enough.

If you feel morally inferior in this discussion, this is clearly your problem, and I should add that you brought it up yourself. I do not remember making reference to you being morally inferior, but then you may have anxieties in this regard. Who knows?

Where is the name calling in my texts in this exchange? If you are referring to the fact that I sensed condescension in your description of OA, you should be able to see the difference between “sensing” and “name calling”.

The useful life of older works varies greatly, so that many papers from dead authors remain extremely useful. In the social sciences and in the humanities, as well as in mathematics, the useful life of documents certainly exceeds decades. Furthermore, the idea is not to “deconstruct” – Derrida would laugh about your use of the word he helped to popularize – the “whole” system just to solve the dead author problem. The point is to deeply reform the system to make it work better, both in terms of equity and efficiency.

And you did not react to the invention of libraries. Why not scrap them and let publishers deal directly with readers, as do publishers of magazines? Why do people, such as doctors affiliated to University hospital, enjoy libraries so much? The answer is clear: because libraries create a form of open access for a limited constituency. OA simply, and logically, extends this reasoning to the whole population (which is not to say that OA supporters expect anyone to be able to read anything).

Last point: what is a”woke ideology”? English is not my first language…

In the early 1990s I was contractor at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Whenever I submitted a proposal to use one of NASA’s satellite observatories, I included in my proposed budget $1000 to pay for the Astrophysical Journal’s APC. I can’t remember how much money I sought, but it was less than $50K.

But I could have submitted the paper that resulted from my proposed observation to the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. MNRAS doesn’t levy page charges for regular papers.

My point is: If you have a grant, even a modest one, you can likely pay an OA APC; if you don’t, you have other publishing options.

What I think Parikh, Malcom and Moran (and maybe Robert too) might be most worried about is a future in which the likes of MNRAS disappear and all journals are gold OA. In that universe, Albert Einstein, as a patent officer in 1905, would have struggled to pay to publish his four revolutionary papers of that year.

It seems to me that OA is a cult! One can never argue with a cultist. One asks for proof and one only gets some argument but never any proof!

I would ask the cultists on what proof do you have that there is a pot of gold in an institution or library or grant that can cover the cost of paying for an OA article. Numbers please!
Additionally, just who is going to pay for archiving and the maintenance of the archive?
In the case of OA all costs will be covered by the author and in this inflationary world costs will go up.
Lastly, garbage in garbage out if you can afford to pay for the publishing of garbage you get garbage.

Let us forget about the vocabulary used by Mr. Kane. This leads nowhere.
I wonder what the phrase “pot of gold” covers. But I know that libraries pay for subscriptions, and they pay millions of dollars each year. A number of funding agencies (and libraries) also pay for APCs. I would also submit that these libraries, funding agencies, charities, etc. also feed the profits of large commercial companies.
I do not understand how Mr. Kane reaches the conclusion that, in the case of OA, all costs will be covered by the author. Many flavours of OA do not cost anything to the author, for example the “diamond” version: free to the authors and free to the readers. Of course, Mr. Kane, as “citizen Kane” might object to direct public subsidies to scientific publishing, but then does he object to direct subsidies to research, and does he object to treating research publications as part of research?

In short, Mr. Kane’s reasoning is showing some deep structural problems, to say the least…

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