Like the Holdren Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) Memo before it, the Nelson OSTP Memo articulates a “Green” public access mandate. Federal agencies are directed to ensure that “all peer-reviewed scholarly publications authored or coauthored by individuals or institutions resulting from federally funded research are made freely available and publicly accessible by default in agency-designated repositories without any embargo or delay after publication.”
In a subscription world, the effort to develop and maintain federal agency repositories of funded research is an understandable expense; the enabled public access is an alternative to paywalled access. But as the Nelson Memo catalyzes a shift to open access publishing and the overall shift towards an open access world continues inexorably, should we reconsider the double-cost of this repository approach, given that the green public access copy will duplicate already provided open access?
The Business Models for Green
From our decade of experience with the Holdren Memo, we can anticipate that, over time, compliance routes will be worn into well-trodden pathways baked into publisher and institutional workflows. In general, librarians in the United States have been spared the burden shouldered by our colleagues across Europe, where administering block grants and transformative agreements, monitoring researchers compliance, and providing for institutional reporting has grown to a substantial component of the library’s portfolio of responsibilities, at times crowding out other services and support for scholarship and learning.
Instead, for the majority of research outputs subject to the Holdren Memo, publishers have ensured compliance via CHORUS and automated deposit in repositories on behalf of authors, alleviating researcher and institutional burden. The embargo period allowed under the Holdren Memo helped to shore up the value of library subscriptions, particularly in the time prior to the more widespread development of preprint and other alternative copy servers and before the availability of reader-facing tools for locating off-publisher platform copies of articles such as the Open Access Button. In other words, the business model for this “green” public access to paywalled articles was subscriptions, i.e., Green-via-Paywall.
Researchers subject to the Holden Memo who choose to publish a “gold” version of record are also subject to the “green” mandate, though with no need to be concerned about the embargo period per se. The business model that supports the “green” public access to these articles is typically an article processing charge (APC), though transformative or pure publish agreements, Subscribe to Open, and various other subvention and membership models that fund Gold articles are also in play. This is Green-via-Gold.
Accelerating Towards Green-via-Gold
In the coming years, as the Nelson Memo comes into force, I believe we are going to see an accelerating shift from Green-via-Paywall to Green-via-Gold in the United States.
Some hybrid publishers are already routing manuscripts subject to zero-embargo funder mandates to Gold pathways. For example, the Plan S Rights Retention Strategy (RRS) statement enables zero-embargo. But, cOAlition S leaders have shared that publishers transfer manuscripts to Gold when authors include the RRS: “Elsevier does not allow for RRS. When they see Gates funding acknowledged they say it’s APC or C your way out.”
Other publishers have made explicit policy statements documenting their reasoning and response. For example, Springer Nature explains that “our research journals are now either fully OA journals or Transformative journals offering authors the opportunity to make the superior final version of record OA … Plan S-funded authors will therefore be directed to select the gold OA route, as preferred by cOAlition S funders, and this will be explained to them at submission.” We can anticipate publishers taking a parallel approach to the Nelson Memo zero-embargo requirement.
Additionally, we are starting to see growth in the number of journals flipping from subscription/hybrid to fully open. As examples, Cambridge University Press flipped 39 titles in 2023, Wiley flipped 37, and Springer Nature flipped 10. I predict this will continue as hybrid publishers are challenged to maintain the subscription side, as its value is eroded because of transformative agreements, particularly in Europe, which drive upwards the percentage of open access content in particular titles. The value of subscriptions is further diminished by alternative copy availability, piracy, and other leakage. As hybrid journals flip to open access, they only offer Green-via-Gold. And, Green-via-Gold is already the sole option from open access-only publishers such as PLOS and MDPI.
And, of course, given that the Nelson Memo also says that “federal agencies should allow researchers to include reasonable publication costs … as allowable expenses in all research budgets,” the easiest path to institutional compliance will be by requiring researchers to budget APCs and the like into grant applications. Researchers themselves may be unhappy with this requirement, but grants offices are quite familiar with researcher unhappiness with other budgetary (e.g., indirect costs) and compliance requirements and so that is unlikely to be a deterrent to such a policy.
Now, some may argue that publishers should allow zero-embargo under Green-via-Paywall and trust that librarians will not drop their subscriptions. This may be possible for a high prestige title with a substantial number of print subscribers; however, given library uptake of Unsub as a mechanism to decrease library spend on subscriptions, this seems unlikely to be broadly allowed by publishers.
Examining the Double-Cost
What’s notable is that both Green-via-Paywall and Green-via-Gold are double payment strategies for public access. In addition to libraries and institutions paying the costs of subscriptions or publishing services, U.S. taxpayers are paying for the development and support of agency repositories.
In a subscriptions world, this approach has a logic because public access is an alternative to paywalled access and funding repositories is less expensive than a subscription for the entire U.S. population.
But, in an open access world, open access is public access. And, it is public access to the version of record, which has been through the publisher’s editing and typesetting process, is linked up with researcher workflows, discovery services, DOI resolvers, and the like, providing for a better discovery and access experience, and is better connected to bibliometrics and researcher information management systems, maximizing impact measures for the published work.
As the system flips to Gold – and thus to Green-via-Gold, will it still be useful to continue to invest in the cost of Green depositing? It is true that the repositories provide an agency-wide record of funded research outputs and serve as the basis for various search and discovery tools. Building these databases will only become easier with the Nelson memo mandates related to metadata and persistent identifiers, which will strengthen linking from the agency databases to the published scholarship. But, is capturing and maintaining files that duplicate the publisher-hosted files necessary to achieve these ends? Given the expansion of investment in agency-designated repositories that implementing the Nelson Memo requires, it is worth considering those investments during this transitional time in light of a fully open access future.