takes to task publishing giant Elsevier for their latest round of
introduced restrictions on the sharing of academic research. Their new
policy states that, if no article processing charge is paid, an author’s
accepted version of the article cannot be made publicly available via
their institution’s repository until after the embargo period, which can
ranges from six months to four years.
Delegates at the The Higher Education Technology Agenda (THETA) conference on the Gold Coast a few weeks ago heard from futurist Bryan Alexander
about four possible scenarios for the future of knowledge. Three of
them sounded engaging: there was one where “open information
architecture has triumphed”; another where automation is the primary
driving force; and a third which is a renaissance of “digitally enabled
However, one was chilling. This was where the drive for “open” has failed, and content is locked up in walled gardens. This future is closer than many of us might care to think. Today the Confederation of Open Access Repositories – an international association of open access (OA) repositories – sounded an alarm
that policies are being enacted which, if unchallenged, will ensure
that that the foundations for these walls are cemented into place.
Image credit: James Nash CC BY-SAGreen and gold
There are currently two main approaches to open access publishing: Green and Gold. Green OA
is where the final published version of an article is only available
from a journal publisher’s site, after paying a subscription or after an
embargo period. However, the authors’ accepted version (after
peer-review but before copyediting), or an earlier version, can be made
immediately available via a repository – usually at an author’s institution or via a subject repository such as arXiv. Green
OA is the primary way that OA is supported in Australia. This is unlike
the UK, for example, which has chosen to support OA via Gold Open Access.
Gold OA is where the journal publisher typically charges the author
(or their institution) an “article processing charge” (APC), and it then
makes the article freely available to read and reuse via the journal’s
website. This is the model used by all journals published by the Public Library of Science. Gold
OA content is both free to read and, because of the license, usually
available for wide reuse. Although sometimes there is a compromise,
known as Hybrid OA, where some articles in a journal are Gold OA, but
publishers also charge a subscription for the non-OA content.
Reversal of rights
This issue raised by COAR has been brought to the fore by a new policy
announced by the giant publisher Elsevier relating to embargo periods
for articles that can be shared via a “Green OA” policy. Elsevier’s new
policy is a substantial tightening of its rules around Green OA. It
states that, if no APC is paid, the author’s accepted version of the
article cannot be made publicly available via their institution’s
repository until after an embargo period, which ranges from six months
to four years.
In addition, the license required is the most restrictive possible,
in that it prohibits commercial reuse, or use of excerpts of the work.
For example, an author’s colleague would not be able to use a figure
from a manuscript in teaching without specific permission. The fully
typeset version of the article is available only from the publisher’s
site after paying a subscription. Despite Elsevier heralding
the policy as “unleashing the power of academic sharing”, it is really a
reversal of the rights of authors with their own manuscripts.
Previously, Elsevier and other publishers had allowed authors to
place these accepted versions into repositories with no restrictions on
sharing. It’s also worth noting that Elsevier derives immediate income
from subscriptions to the final published articles, although there is no evidence
that deposition of the accepted version into repositories decreases
that income. Then, in 2012, Elsevier announced that if an institution
had a policy on open access, then authors could not share their articles
unless the institution had entered into a specific arrangement with
Elsevier. This was a policy that was considered so manifestly absurd,
not to mention confusing, that it was widely ignored.
Undermining the walls
This is, at its heart, another skirmish in the long running saga of
who owns what, and who has rights in scholarly publishing. And, for the
publishers, how they derive income from it. The issue of income has been
brought into sharp focus recently by information released by the two
biggest funders of OA in the UK, the Wellcome Trust and the UK Research Councils.
Analysis of what organisations in the UK are paying for OA found that in 2013, 20 UK institutions spent £3,312,679 on APCs
for hybrid articles, which was on top of the £29,392,142 they had to
pay for subscription access to the same journals. In addition, the vast
bulk of APCs – £1,861,757 in the case of Wellcome – are not going to
newer publishers who are trying to make a sustainable business out of OA
publishing, but to traditional publishers such as Elsevier and Wiley.
The majority of money paid to them, including the highest APCs, was going to support hybrid OA.
This debate affects everyone, not just publishers, funders and
librarians. Academic research is one of the most valuable global public
goods that exists, and its value only multiplies with access and reuse,
most of which can’t be predicted or planned. Building walled gardens or
segmented siloes of content only restricts that public good. Nowhere is
this shown more starkly than the announcement that, following the Nepal
Earthquake, the US National Library of Medicine was activating its Emergency Access Initiative,
to provide “temporary free access to full text articles from major
biomedicine titles” but there are restrictions on use of content, and it
only runs until June 13, 2015.
Is that the future we really want? Where access to information, based
largely on research that was publicly funded, has to be doled out as
charity? If not, then we should take heed of COAR’s statement.
This article was originally published on The Conversation under the title “Publisher pushback puts open access in peril“. Read the original article.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the
position of the Impact of Social Science blog, nor of the London School
of Economics. Please review our Comments Policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.
About the Author
Dr Virgina Barbour is the Executive Officer of the Australian Open Access Support Group.
She is based in Brisbane, Australia. She has a long history of working
in open access publishing, having joined PLOS in 2004 as one of the
three founding editors of PLOS Medicine, finally becoming Medicine and Biology Editorial Director of PLOS in 2014. Her training in publishing was at The Lancet where she worked before joining PLOS.
Impact of Social Sciences – Elsevier’s new sharing policy is really a reversal of the rights of authors.