Where is the Green in Open Access Big Deals?

Open Access ‘Big Deals’ (also called ‘Read-and-Publish’ agreements) have been a big topic of discussion in the last couple years.

Richard Poynder defines the term nicely:

Here agreements are signed with legacy publishers that combine bulk journal subscription fees (as with traditional Big Deals) plus bulk OA publishing fees so that authors can publish without personally having to pay APCs.

While all the rage in Europe (e.g. Netherlands, Germany, Finland), it’s yet to fully catch on in North America. Most North American Research Libraries are still experimenting with some-sort of APC discount agreement with publishers and so far only one academic institution, MIT Libraries, has attempted the full ‘all-inclusive’ OA Big Deal where authors do not need to pay any APC at all.

The rationale behind OA Big Deals is to help with the transition to the full OA future. As Ellen Finnie from MIT has said:

The idea is that over time, as more universities adopt this kind of contract, the proportion of paywalled articles will decline, and funding will shift from paying for access to closed content, to supporting open access to research produced by authors on one’s campus.

Poynder gives a good breakdown and analysis of OA Big Deals. He lays out four problems he sees:

  1. Lack of transparency
    • It’s still very unclear what exactly has been agreed to in these deals and if the costs are fair or reasonable.
  2. Success is not certain
    • It’s not clear that these deals will speed up the process to full OA or slow it down.
  3. Unfair advantage to legacy publishers
    • These deals are often with the established players in the publishing market. Setting them up for even more years of dominance.
  4. Doesn’t solve the affordability problem
    • The goal of the OA movement is not just to remove cost barriers for readers, but also for authors who need to publish. Too lower publishing costs on authors as whole. Are OA Big Deals making things cheaper? Or are institutions paying more?

These problems are all tied in with the fact that OA Big Deals typically are for one specific kind of OA, Hybrid Open Access. For example, look at the OA Big Deals in the Netherlands on this Radboud University LibGuide. Their Wiley, Springer, and Taylor & Francis deals include only Hybrid OA Journals and no fully Gold OA ones.

The Open community has started seriously questioning the value of Hybrid OA lately.

Hybrid OA journals have higher APCs than Gold OA journals. There’s also evidence that suggests publishers are using them to ‘double dip’. i.e. publishers don’t lower the prices for subscriptions even though their operating costs are less because they are now receiving more and more income from APCs. They are getting paid twice. Dipping twice into the publishing and subscription funds of institutions.

So Hybrid OA isn’t solving the affordability problem, but there is also the larger concern that it actually is slowing down the transition to full OA. Despite the growth in Hybrid OA, publishers aren’t flipping journals over to full OA. Legacy publishers still remain dominate with their large profit margins and, as the Springer IPO revealed, they see Hybrid OA as an opportunity to increase their profit margins even more:

Lately we’ve seen a push against Hybrid OA Journals as institutions and funders are starting to look at no longer supporting APCs for Hybrid OA Journals. Even institutions who don’t have OA Big Deals, just discount APC arrangements with publishers, are moving away from Hybrid OA.

We are at a bit of weird place now. The large legacy publishers still control most of the market – attracting most of the submissions from authors- but are not offering fair prices on open access publishing. Newer, smaller open access publishers have fair prices and sustainable systems, but are not attracting nowhere near as many authors.

OA Big Deals are an attempt to unify the two of these. The market power of the legacy publishers, with the fair prices and sustainable systems of newer OA publishers. But it’s not clear it is working. It may just be empowering the former at the cost of the latter.

So maybe it is time to step back here. Find a new approach.

All of this has me wondering about another type of open access that isn’t discussed in these OA Big Deals. Self-archived or Green open access.

Self-archived open access is when an author makes a version of their article open access in a repository, typically after an embargo. Usually this version is the Accepted Manuscript, the post-peer review, pre-publisher formatted version, and usually the embargo is 12 months.

One of the biggest challenges with self-archived open access is that it depends on authors doing the archiving. The ‘self’ part of self-archiving. This is a challenge because publishers policies can be very complex and hard to understand. Also because it’s a challenge for an author to hold onto the specific version of the article that can be archived. The Accepted Manuscript isn’t the final copy of the paper, that’s the Publisher Version, so authors usually don’t bother hanging onto their manuscript – because it is seen as just a transitional version – and just hold onto the final version instead.

Unfortunately,  most publishers don’t allow authors to self-archive the Publisher Version…

This can help explain why self-archiving OA numbers are so low:

Self-archived OA is a important form of open access though. It’s one of the few no cost open access routes available to authors.  Services like Unpaywall have made value and discovery of these articles more important than ever. Green OA results are now appearing in discovery tools and scholarly databases.

For an author that doesn’t have the funding for an APC, self-archived OA is usually the only route to OA that they have.

It’s downsides, beyond the confusion leading to low archiving rates, are A) issues with readers being confused about what version the article is and B) the embargoes which mean the work is not immediately OA and readers need to wait for access.

(A) has led to some new worries lately with the rise of preprints and risk of readers assuming non-peer reviewed science has been peer reviewed. This is too complex a discussion for me to jump into here. But I will say I am pro-preprint because they give a fuller glimpse into how science is communicated and will help amplify discussions about the value of peer review and how we can make it better.

However, we do know that the accepted manuscript varies very little from the publisher version. The content of the two articles is the same, just the publisher version includes “publisher value-added contributions such as copy-editing, formatting, technical enhancements and (if relevant) pagination”.

So there is definite value in providing access to accepted manuscripts where possible.

As for (B), this is where it gets a bit interesting. Embargoes are a concern. Open-at-a-later-date is nice, but usually researchers need the new research immediately. Some publishers have scrapped embargoes completely though. Emerald Publishing allows self-archiving immediately after publication in a repository.

Canadian Science Publishing (CSP) also allows immediate self-archiving and will even do the self-archiving for the author. When an author publishes with CSP they can select an option to have their accepted manuscript immediately deposited in the University of Toronto repository, TSpace.

What if an institution was to set up Green OA Big Deal like this? A ‘we will subscribe to your journals, and if our authors publish with you, you need to immediately deposit the PDF of the accepted manuscript in our repository.’ It would be a lot cheaper than Hybrid or Gold OA Big Deals because no APCs are being paid, while ensuring that the work of their researchers is OA.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) already does something like this with publishers, although the embargoes still exist. Their policy is that all accepted manuscripts that receive their funding must be deposited in PubMed Central within 12 months of publication. A lot of publishers, like Elsevier, actually take care of this deposit themselves so authors don’t need to worry about tracking down the right version or not waiting for the embargo to pass and forgetting to post it.

A Green OA Big Deal would take care of the challenges of self-archiving. The burden would no longer be on the author to navigate a publisher’s policies and embargoes. Institutions would be responsible for understanding these, could negotiate to get better arrangements, and start mass-archiving instead of relying on authors to do it one-by-one.

What I am really wondering with this proposal is if Green OA is a better route to the full open access future than Hybrid is.

Hybrid is much more expensive, benefits legacy publishers, and doesn’t appear to be helping us toward a sustainable open access future.

Green OA Big Deals could create a big incentive for publishers to change to sustainable open access models. With the Hybrid model there is no real incentive to change because publishers keep making a large profit off APCs. With a Green OA Big Deal, publishers would actually be undercut. Libraries would start cancelling subscriptions as Green OA grows. Readers could go elsewhere – repositories – for access and services like Unpaywall would make this access easy.

The only way publishers could survive would be to make articles open access at fair price (or no price). If they charge too high then the added value of an open access final version would not be worth it when an open access accepted manuscript is free.

Libraries could exert more and more pressure when negotiating these deals to get shorter embargo periods. Eventually, most of the use and readership of a journal would shift to repositories. Sustainable open access prices would be the only way publishers could reclaim this readership.

Of course, publishers could just flat out refuse to agree to Green OA Big Deals. Although, with more and more Funders requiring open access  after 12 months, a legal recourse where publishers are forced to accept this may be possible (This seems to be how the NIH has publishers following their policy, they just made it the law).

Also, it genuinely does seem that a sustainable open access publishing model is what a lot of publishers want. A Green OA Big Deal route might be a little trial-by-fire for them, but if it’s done right, institutions and libraries can help support them on this transition.

And for the publishers that don’t want a sustainable open access publishing model, this approach may be the one we need to help change them.

Published by Ryan Regier

Doing lots of different stuff. Follow me on twitter at: @ryregier

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