Cameron Neylon published a very interesting and timely opinion piece on the Times Higher Education titled “Let’s get this right” (28 March 2013).

[Unfortunately, as frequent readers of THE online will know, registered users of the site can be blocked from viewing more articles if they have exceeded their allowed quota… which is not ideal, particularly considering the subject debated. Hence this post].

Cameron’s article is short and to the point, and I cannot but agree with him in his call to 1) not associate ‘Green’ and ‘Gold’ with specific buisness models, by which he means whether Article Processing Charges are implemented or not, 2) refer to the ‘Gold’ and ‘Green’ options as publication channels, and 3) use robust evidence when advocating Open Access.

He writes:

[…]the terms “green” and “gold” have very specific technical meanings. They refer to mechanisms of access: “green” means access provided through repositories to author manuscripts; and “gold” means access provided to the final published version of papers in journals.

They explicitly do not refer to business models. Gold does not necessarily mean that article fees apply. The majority of outlets registered on the Directory of Open Access Journals website do not charge any fee, and some of these are very prestigious in their fields. According to a definitive 2012 study by Mikael Laakso and Bo-Christer Björk of the Hanken School of Economics in Helsinki, at least 30 per cent and possibly as many as 60 per cent of articles made immediately accessible on publication are in journals that do not charge article fees. Yet, over the past 12 months, reports, arguments and parliamentary questions have all uncritically repeated the assumption that public access through journals entails such fees.

[…]

The terms “green” and “gold” are now so debased that we should simply stop using them. Let’s talk instead about channels of publication, repositories and journals, and new blends that blur these distinctions. Let’s talk about the services we want and whether they are best delivered by commercial providers or by the community: peer review, copy editing, archiving and indexing. And let’s talk about the full range of sustainable open-access models and how they are appropriate, or not, in different research domains and settings.

Perhaps more importantly, Cameron calls for the use of robust evidence when lobbying for Open Access, some of which already exists. He is entirely correct that “for a robust scholarly debate to proceed, we need more evidence to be published and reviewed.” (Some of us think here: “Yes! For the win! If I only there were funding/more time and channels available to me to do this!”)

I hurried a comment to his article, which I have copied and pasted below, with some minor corrections I could not do at the THE interface:

Cameron is right to call for a correct use of the terminology. I would say though that what is “poisoning the debate” is not necessarily an imprecise usage (or rather, understanding or application) of ‘Green’ and ‘Gold’, but a certain unwillingness to

  1. have engaged with open access before it became a governmental imposition and
  2. accept that open access always-already posits that the traditional business model of paid-subscription or paywalled journals is not working.

To be honest even I may have myself referred to ‘Green’ and ‘Gold’ as ‘business models’ within the context of [discussions around] the Finch report, but not because I ignore the fact that as Cameron rightly points out they do not necessarily refer to specific business models per se if by that we understand the charging of article processing fees (or not). Why has this equation of ‘Gold’ Open Access and the paying fees has taken place?

In the traditional and conservative discoursive universe around the Finch report, at least as I have experienced it online and in now dozens of academic workshops, lectures and conferences I have attended in the last year, there are no journals other than the traditional journals that would not embrace open access unless they charge APCs (this is a generalisation of course, since not all traditional journals will/would go this route. Of course there are those journals, but my point is that one of the problems is precisely that instead of thinking of other journals rather than the ones that traditionally imposed a paid-subscription model, when some people think of going ‘Gold’ they are thinking of publishing in those same (often ‘legacy’)  journals that have been or will be ‘forced’ to offer an open access model).

For many, ‘Gold’ equals ‘Unpayable APCs For Which Almost Nobody Have Funding For’. In my view, this (alas, incorrect and biased) definition is rooted in this unwillingness to interrogate the academic publishing system as a whole, including the reasons why people publish in paid-subscription journals in the first place, and the many years in which the structural inequality of access to academic knowledge (by limiting access to many outside a few elite institutions in the ‘developed’ West, fee waivers and discounts or not) remained largely unquestioned.

So yes indeed, ‘Green’ and ‘Gold’ do not equal ‘business models’ if by that we mean whether authors will have to pay to publish or not. As I have already suggested the question is why this definition has become so widespread, and I would suggest one reason is the lack of imagination and even courage to dare a more thorough transformation of the academic publishing landscape.

This does not mean that OA advocacy of this type is calling for the ‘destruction’ of academic publishing as we have known it, as some anti OA colleagues may suggest. On the contrary, it means calling for a realistic, intelligent, ethical renovation of the sector in the context of the radical transformations to the conditions of production and reproducibility of academic knowledge in the age of the Web.

Indeed, equating Gold OA with paying APCs is incorrect and it undermines the OA ethos, because it merely shifts the economic burden from libraries to individual authors. This is not the point, and it is only bound to promote a kind of inequality which OA also seeks to tackle.

In the end, Open Access is more than an ethical stance, it is a technology and a specific redefinition of traditional publishing business models, because it poses that charging ridiculously expensive institutional subscription fees is not fit for purpose because (amongst other reasons) it alienates non-elite academics and non-elite-academic taxpayers, leaving them in many cases without access to content that either discusses their own situation, was authored by them or was funded indirectly through their taxes.

Proposing that publicly-funded research should be openly-accessible by the taxpayers who funded such research is an ethical proposition but it is also a particular kind of business model. Proposing that academic publishing currently has a business model which is very likely to become unsustainable and that in many cases exploits the labour of academics and that therefore something has to be done is a call for the discovery of new business models.

New business models often require radical exercises of imagination: we cannot make a successful transition to OA by leaving things as they are, reacting by imposition rather than will, and without a desire (importantly, from Early Career Researchers as well) to interrogate the most-obvious foundations of academic publishing, and innovate accordingly.

This is a quick blog post and therefore not an academic article. It is an opinion piece and it should be interpreted with that framework in mind.