Are green and gold open access independent of each other? In particular, is worry about gold OA a waste of time, and are expenditures on it a waste of money? Stevan Harnad has brought up this issue in response to a recent talk I gave at Cal Tech, and in particular my remarks about a potential “open access compact”. I will take this opportunity to explain why I think that the answer to both questions is “no”.

Enaction of green OA policies at universities requires the broad support of faculty and administration, and careful attending to their wholly reasonable concerns. Chief among these is the following argument against a green OA policy: The services that the journals provide are important, as are the scholarly societies that publish many of the journals. They constitute a good to the scholarly community. But now consider the following dystopian scenario. Suppose the green OA policy being proposed were to be adopted universally, and further that it were widely followed so that the vast majority of scholarly articles were thereby openly available (though admittedly in the deprecated form of author’s final manuscript rather than publisher’s version). This might lead some libraries to feel freer about canceling subscriptions, which would lead to price pressure on journals. This price pressure might become so great that publishers might not even be able to recoup their costs by sale of subscriptions. In the absence of other business models, the publishers will have no choice but to shut down their journals. Then by a Kantian argument, it follows that the green OA policy should not be supported.

This worry is by far the most common one that I encountered in working with three Harvard faculties in passing green OA policies, and still encounter as I work with the remaining faculties at Harvard and talk with other institutions.

Of course, there are a lot of “might”s in the worry. But, it doesn’t matter that there is no evidence that such a scenario will transpire, and that there is in fact evidence against it. (The case of physics is well known.) It doesn’t matter that many of the steps in the process may not occur. I myself have recapitulated these counterarguments many a time. What is important is that it certainly might occur, it is consistent with the laws of economics (even if not dictated by them), and most importantly, it is widely perceived as being a real possibility. For that reason alone, it is important to have a response.

Let me first dismiss two inadequate responses:

If all that journals provided were access, then this response would be entirely correct. However, access is the least important of the services that journals currently provide—least important because technological advances have led to the ability to provide access at essentially zero marginal cost by the authors themselves. The important and valuable services that publishers provide in greater or lesser quantity are management of peer review, a variety of production services, and imprimatur. Of these, the last is by far the most important to the authors, but all are valuable to the scholarly community. If universal green OA were to make journals unsustainable by not addressing the affordability problem, and the dystopia ensued, then all of these services (other than access) would be lost. This potentiality introduces its own urgency. We cannot postpone the urgency until the dystopia ensues, as its mere possibility impedes the enactment of green OA policies right now.

A response that “the market will solve this problem down the line” is not sufficient for two reasons. First, markets are not magic. They solve problems by virtue of the behaviors of their participants and within rule systems that surround them. It therefore behooves us as participants to make sure that our behaviors and rule systems are set up to allow salutary changes to occur. If eventual conversion to gold OA publishing is the way that the problem (if it arises) ought to be eventually solved, then we must make it possible for a publisher to convert a journal to a gold OA business model. Currently, publishers cannot feasibly do so, as gold OA journals are at a systematic disadvantage against subscription-based journals from the point of view of attracting authors, since universities and funding agencies subsidize the subscription-based journals through their library subscription payments, whereas they do not subsidize article-processing charges for gold OA journals.

I return to the underlying issue, which is assuaging the worries of faculty considering green OA policies who are imagining the possibility of the dystopian scenario. The natural response is to assure the worrier that there is a reasonable alternative business model in the wings, namely gold OA. And to make that assurance plausible, we must address the viability of gold OA journals in a realistic way, at least under the same universalization that leads to the dystopian scenario. That is what the open access compact that I discussed at Cal Tech and elsewhere is intended to do.

In summary, a university that commits to the open access compact will more easily be able to answer objections against green OA policies specifically because it has an approach to long-range support for gold OA publishing, not in spite of it. The two models are inextricably tied. I, like Professor Harnad, am interested in facilitating the adoption of green OA policies. I proposed the open access compact in large part because I expect that adoption of the compact will lead to more green OA policies. The open access compact is therefore contributory to the promotion of green OA, not a sidetrack to it. I of course encourage universities to adopt green OA policies before gold OA support, but given that dystopian fears of faculty are preventing adoption of such policies, an open access compact that might assuage these worries should not be delayed.

Let me conclude by arguing against a view that support for the open access compact is at best “a needless waste of scarce research funds.” At least in the near term, the cost of the open access compact as I have proposed it is minimal. Universities implementing the compact would not underwrite hybrid gold OA fees, would not pay fees where grants had funded the research, and would be able to set up market mechanisms to ensure that economic signals from the fees are passed on to authors. A university supporting the open access compact may even choose to implement it by limiting its application to faculties falling under a green open access policy (as I hope and expect we will do at Harvard). All of these are consistent with the point of the compact, that it has the appropriate effect in mitigating the dystopian scenario, which arises from universalized green OA, just in case it is universalized in the same way. The point is subtle, but important. Not all mechanisms for supporting gold OA charges are equal. Some may involve wastes of money; indeed all of the extant OA funds that I know of collapse under universalization of their practice. But that does not mean that gold OA underwriting cannot be implemented in a way that supports the goal of allowing transition to gold OA in case of the dystopian scenario without wasting money now. And to the extent that we can provide such a system, the counterarguments against green OA policies will be much more easily dealt with. Insofar as the open access compact increases the odds of establishing green OA policies, it is ipso facto not a waste of the minimal funds that it requires.

8 Responses to “The argument for gold OA support”

  1. The Merits of Gold Open Access « Open Education News Says:

    […] 12, 2009 · No Comments Stuart Shieber at The Occasional Pamphlet argues the merits of “gold OA” in a recent blog post. Gold open access can be defined as the […]

  2. leo waaijers Says:

    I think that the debate should taken one step further. Not only Green and Gold could cohabitat but they can be integrated in a reciprocally stimulating approach. The idea is that funders (universities included) should not only mandate OA but at the same time stimulate the market for non-proprietary peer review systems. See:

  3. Links 12/06/2009: Hadopi Down | Boycott Novell Says:

    […] The argument for gold OA support Are green and gold open access independent of each other? In particular, is worry about gold OA a waste of time, and are expenditures on it a waste of money? Stevan Harnad has brought up this issue in response to a recent talk I gave at Cal Tech, and in particular my remarks about a potential “open access compact”. I will take this opportunity to explain why I think that the answer to both questions is “no”. […]

  4. Stevan Harnad Says:


    I have written a response to
    “The argument for gold OA support” by Stuart Shieber.

    The full response is at: “The
    Argument Against (Premature) Gold OA Support”

    Here is just the summary:

    What is needed in order to provide universal OA as quickly and surely
    as possible is for universities (and funders) to mandate that their
    own researchers provide (Green) OA by depositing their articles in
    their institution’s OA repository immediately upon acceptance for
    publication. It is both a strategic and a conceptual mistake to think
    that money has to be spent at this time on paying for publishing in
    Gold OA journals. Gold OA journals’ time will come if and when
    universal Green OA makes subscriptions unsustainable. Then publishers
    will cut costs and downsize to just providing the service of managing
    peer review, paid for by institutions out of their windfall
    subscription cancellation savings. Universities and funders should not
    be either distracted or deterred from mandating Green OA now by
    thinking that they first need to provide funds to pay for Gold OA.
    (Once they have adopted a Green OA mandate, this is no longer a
    distraction or deterrent and they can of course do whatever they like
    with their spare cash.)

    (1) Any needless cost at all associated with adopting and implementing
    a Green OA mandate is a deterrent to arriving at consensus on
    adoption, not an incentive.

    (2) Minimal costs for Harvard U are not necessarily minimal for HaveNot U.

    (3) The way to explain the possible eventual transition to universal
    Gold OA is via its causal antecedent: universal Green OA.

    (4) The way to allay worries about Learned Society Publishers’ future
    after universal Green OA is to explain the simple, straightforward
    relation between institutional subscription collapse and institutional
    subscription cancellation savings, and how it releases the funds to
    continue paying for publication via Gold OA. (And remind faculty that
    if their institutions really want to keep subsidizing Learned Society
    publishers’ “good works” (conferences, scholarships, lobbying) as they
    are now through subscription-fees, they can certainly continue to do
    so through publication fees too, as a surcharge, on the Gold OA model,
    if they wish.)

    (5) Reserve any plans for promoting pre-emptive payment of Gold OA
    fees for those institutions that have already mandated Green OA (and
    preferably only after we are further along the road from 85 mandates
    to 10,000!).

    (6) Pre-emptive payment for Gold OA before universal Green OA just
    retards and distracts from providing and mandating Green OA. Moreover,
    it is incoherent and does not scale (“universalize”): It is like an
    Escher drawing, leading nowhere, even though it seems to.

    Stevan Harnad

  5. Robert Richards Says:

    Prof. Shieber:

    Thank you for this eloquent and persuasive post. If I understand correctly, you are making an empirical argument: that in your experience, faculties will not vote to implement Green OA unless institutional support for Gold OA is also implemented. That is, you are making the empirical claim that a commitment to institutional support for Gold OA is a necessary condition of persuading faculties to implement Green OA. Is that accurate? If it is, I would think that this empirical claim could be verified empirically, say, by surveying the faculties that have not implemented Green OA respecting what they consider to be the necessary conditions for persuading them to implement Green OA.

  6. » Commercial publishers aren’t the bad guys The Occasional Pamphlet Says:

    […] open-access publication charges, so as to “level the playing field” (as I’ve recommended elsewhere) disadvantages “a third […]

  7. Education Guidebook Says:

    I agree, green and gold open access are not independent of each other. Good observations here!

  8. Mary Peters Says:

    The adoption of the green OA policy might subsequently lead to a reduction in the available funds for research. If libraries cancel subscriptions and publishers can no longer recoup their costs, journals will be shut down. Most funders traditionally prefer to see hard copies of finished works rather than online copies.