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Let’s get this straight

The terminology of open-access publishing is being misused: we must sort it out for the future, says Cameron Neylon

Given broad acceptance that the UK should move towards wider access to research, the debate has naturally moved on to the question of implementation. The details matter, including the words we use. The problem is that the terminology is being systematically misused.

For veterans of the open-access movement, 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.

PLOS, alongside other successful open-access publishers in the biomedical sciences, operates by charging article processing fees and makes a modest surplus (which, as a non-profit organisation, we reinvest in programmes in support of our mission). We believe it is important to acknowledge that scholarly communication has real costs and should be funded as a core part of the costs of research. We also support the view of the UK government and the Finch report that the best result would be a sustainable system through which published research is immediately made available in its final published and peer-reviewed form.

But the transition will be complex, and poor use of terminology can shape and limit our thinking about how to get there. By talking simplistically about two routes to open access - one where manuscripts go into repositories and another in which article fees buy public access through journals - we reduce the potential for truly innovative approaches.

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.

What, for example, about repositories that charge article fees to cover their costs? Or journals that offer peer review but where the content is hosted in a repository? We already have open-access journals that are supported, in kind or in cash, by their communities, and organisations that have traditionally subsidised small, specialised journals are looking to move on to an open-access footing. What can we learn from these successes - and failures?

It is worth noting that although Research Councils UK requires its new institutional block grants to be spent primarily on article fees, they may also be used for other purposes that support the long-term goals of immediate access with re-use rights. Smart institutions will be considering how to use some of that money for publishing experiments. These might include supporting the development of new kinds of journal, or working with other institutions to create pools of shared support to help humanities journals in the transition to open access.

As well as poisoning the debate, the lack of care in terminology is symptomatic of the paucity of good evidence available to government, Parliament and the scholarly community. Assertions have been made about the effect of embargoes of various lengths on journal viability, even though the best published data we have show no effect. However, these data are incomplete and anecdotes are emerging that point in a different direction; for a robust scholarly debate to proceed, we need more evidence to be published and reviewed.

A wealth of expertise already exists in delivering sustainable and affordable open access. Hundreds of thousands of articles from across the disciplines are already available through repositories and in journals that are fully compliant with all existing and proposed UK, European and US policies.

We at PLOS would never presume that the models we have built are suitable for all scholars in all places, but we do believe that our experience of the journey to sustainability and success will have value in guiding other domains of scholarship in theirs. So let’s stop mangling our terminology, let’s get the right data on the table, and let’s talk.

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