Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Lo-fun and hi-fun

I have recently been talking to some major (and minor) publishers about what they could do in regard of open access, given the increasing demand, even if converting to ‘gold’ open access models is not realistic for them, in their view. I suggested that they should make human-readable copies of articles freely accessible immediately upon publication. Access to human-readable articles would of course not satisfy everybody, but it would satisfy the ‘green’ OA crowd, if I assume Stevan Harnad is their prime spokesperson. He dismisses machine-readability and reuse as distractions from his strategy of ‘green’ open access, and he even supports embargoes, as long as articles are self-archived in institutional repositories, which is his primary goal. Human-readable final published versions directly upon publication would be an improvement on that. It would also likely satisfy the occasional reader from the general public, who wishes to be able to access a few scientific articles.

How could those publishers possibly agree to this? Well, I told them, they could reconsider their view that there is a fundamental difference between the published version of an article and the final, peer reviewed and accepted author manuscript (their justification for allowing the author-manuscript to be self-archived). There may well be, of course, and there often is, but it is not likely to be a material difference in the eyes of most readers. Instead of making much (more than there usually is) of any differences in content, they could distinguish between low-functionality versions and high-functionality ones of the final published article, the ‘lo-fun’ version just suitable for human reading (the print-on-paper analogue), and the ‘hi-fun’ version suitable for machine-reading, text- and data-mining, endowed with all the enrichment, semantic and otherwise, that the technology of today makes possible. The ‘lo-fun’ version could then be made freely available immediately upon publication, on the assumption that it would not likely undermine subscriptions, and the ‘hi-fun’ version could be had on subscription. Librarians would of course not be satisfied with such a ‘solution’.

Although initially greeted with interest, the idea soon hit a stone wall. Although no one has explicitly said that they would never do this, the subsequent radio silence made me conclude that among the publishers I talked with the fear might have emerged that a system with immediate open access to a ‘lo-fun’ version accompanied by a ‘hi-fun’ version paid for by subscriptions would expose the relatively low publisher added value in terms of people’s perceptions and in terms of what they would be prepared to pay for it. That fear is probably justified, I have to give it to them.

There is no doubt that formal publication adds value to scientific articles. The success of the ‘gold’ open access publishers, where authors or their funders are paying good money for the service of formal publication, is testament to that. There must be a difference – of perception at the very least – between formally published material and articles ‘published’ by simply depositing them in an open repository. That added value largely consists of two elements: 1) publisher-mediated pre-publication peer review and 2) technical ‘production’, i.e. standardised to a sufficient degree, correctly coded (e.g. no ß where a β is intended), ‘internet- and archive-proof’,  rendered into several user formats, such as PDF, HTML and Mobile, aesthetically pleasing where possible, interoperable, search-engine optimised, and so forth. The first element is mostly performed by the scientific community, without payment, and although the publisher organises it, that doesn’t amount to a substantial publisher-added value, in the common perception. The second element on the other hand, is true value added by the publisher, is seen as such by reasonable people, and it is entirely justifiable for a publisher to expect to be paid for that. There are some authors who could do this ‘production’ themselves, but the vast majority make a dog’s dinner out of it when they try.

There is of course a third element in the equation: marketing. Marketing is responsible for brand and quality perception. Quality mainly comes from good authors choosing to submit to a journal. Getting those good authors to do that is in large part a function of marketing. The resulting brand identity, sometimes amounting to prestige, is also an added value that a self-published article, even if peer-reviewed, lacks. But alas, it is not commonly seen to be an important value-add that needs to be paid for.

Having 'lo-fun' and 'hi-fun' versions of articles makes the publishers’ real contribution explicit. That’s the rub, of course.

Back to ‘gold’, I’m afraid. Or rather, not so afraid, as ‘gold’ OA doesn’t have any of the drawbacks of ‘lo-fun’. Fortunately ‘gold’ is more and more showing to be a healthily viable and sustainable business model for open access, at least as long as the scientific community sets so much store by publisher-mediated pre-publication peer review (see previous post for my thoughts on that).

Jan Velterop


  1. "Access to human-readable articles would of course not satisfy everybody, but it would satisfy the ‘green’ OA crowd."

    Please, Jan, don't propagate confusion by equating Green (a strategy for obtaining OA) with Gratis (a degree of OA). As we well know, there is Gratis Gold and BOAI-compliant Green, as well as Gratis Green and BOAI-compliant Gold.

  2. You're right, Mike. That's why I added "if I assume Stevan Harnad is their prime spokesperson. He dismisses machine-readability and reuse as distractions from his strategy of ‘green’ open access, and he even supports embargoes, as long as articles are self-archived in institutional repositories, which is his primary goal."
    To me, open access is open access according to the BOAI definition, if amended, then just with 'immediacy' (not mentioned in the original definition). 'Gratis' is not a form of OA; it is not BOAI-compliant. 'Green' can be anything, admittedly including OA (although OA even seems to mean 'optional access' in Harnad's lexicon: ID/OA), but nobody can be sure what the OA status is of 'green' deposits.

  3. We evidently agree on definitions! I just wanted to be sure that no-one is able to misread your representation of the Harnad compromise as constituting your acquiescence.

    BTW., the BOAI FAQ does talk about immediacy:

    Is open access compatible with an embargo period?
    No. Open access is barrier-free access, and embargo periods are barriers to access. Many of the benefits of open access are not achieved when embargoes are in place. However, while delayed free access does not serve all the goals of the BOAI, it does serve some of them. Just as open access is better than delayed access, delayed free access is better than permanently priced access. Note that authors can always ensure immediate open access through self-archiving or by publishing in journals that provide immediate open access to their contents. Please see our similar reply to the question on initiatives to make journals affordable rather than free.

    1. Immediacy is in the FAQs indeed. But it's not in the definition ( which is an unfortunate oversight, in my view. I'm guilty of that oversight as well, being part of the group that defined open access.

    2. Yes, it's a shame that it's not in the definition. But good that the intention is made to explicit by the FAQ. It would take a very legalistic reading indeed to claim the embargoed OA is BOAI-compliant.

  4. Dear friends,

    Just to dispel all doubt, Green OA does not mean embargoed OA.

    The ID/OA (immediate-deposit, optional-access) madate (Liège/HEFCE model) is just a compromise strategy, to make it possible for all institutions and funders to adopt an effective, harmonized mandate that is immune to publisher embargoes.

    The length of the allowable OA embargo thus becomes a separate matter. The automated copy-request Button provides Almost-OA during any embargo. And universal mandatory ID/OA + the Button hasten the inevitable transitition to immediate-OA (and then Fair Gold and CC-BY).

    If publishers provided immediate read-only access that would be very nice, but it would not diminish the need nor the momentum for immediate Green OA (just as publishers providing delayed Gold after a year will not diminish the need or the momentum for Green OA).

    It does not take a great deal of thought to realize that if access-denial is bad for research, then immediate access is the solution, not access-delay. That is not a definitional matter. It is common sense.

    And no matter how hard one tries to cite Holy Writ (BOAI 2002) by way of justification, besides the definition of OA havign subsequently refined, it is also a matter of common sense that Gratis OA (free online access) is a component of Libre OA (free online access + re-use rights) and already within reach of institutional and funder Green OA mandates (but not yet grasped), beginning with ID/OA .

    So over-reaching for Libre instead of grasping Gratis is not the way to get either of them.

    First things first.