The Golden Road of Open Access is the Path of Least Disruption

A few days ago, the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) – the country’s major funding agency – announced that it will soon start to require funded research to be published in a fully open access journal. At a symposium at the University of Amsterdam to mark the beginning of the open access week, NWO president Jos Engelen today reasserted this aim and set out a bold vision: in ten years, all research in the Netherlands will be published following this ‘Golden Road’ to open access.

It would be easy to mistakenly believe that such a commitment to the ‘Golden Road’ to open access is a revolutionary step. After all, big words about making knowledge freely accessible to the public are at play. But the opposite is true: the seeming gold standard is perhaps the most conservative implementation of open access currently discussed, and misses an opportunity for profound changes to how scientists collaborate and scientific findings are communicated.

The cost of gold

In simple terms, the Golden Road states that scientific output should be published in fully open access journals. At today’s symposium, it was mainly contrasted with the ‘Green Road’, in which output is deposited in open access repositories and may still be published in closed access journals.

Golden Road open access has seen significant success in the Netherlands, growing two percentage points annually over the last few years and garnering the support of state secretary for Education, Culture and Science Sander Dekker. But this success has come at the expense of Green Road repositories, as Wouter Gerritsma of Wageningen University showed using the example of Narcis, the national open access repository. That is not only costly; it is also to the detriment of grey literature such as Ph.D. dissertations. Traditional papers make up only 45% of the content on Narcis; but the remaining 55% remain hidden when gold, rather than green, is the publication standard. Indeed, grey literature benefits particularly strongly from open access repositories: seven out of the top ten publications downloaded from UCL’s ‘Discovery‘ repository are dissertations, according to library director Peter Ayris.

The Golden Road also often implies an ‘author pays’ funding model, in which papers are freely accessible, but authors pay the journal for publication. These costs can be significant: a paper in one of the PLoS journals can cost between $1,350 and $2,900. In contrast, repositories – which do not provide peer review – are cheap to run and free to use. Gerritsma that the cost of ‘fully gold open access’ in the Netherlands at current output numbers and publication costs (around $1,200 per paper) would cost $27.7 million – not significantly less than the $34 million Dutch universities currently pay for journal subscriptions. Worse, still: because universities would have to pay for both open access publishing and closed access subscriptions during an unspecified transitory phase, they would face both bills at the same time.

A missed opportunity for change

One of my favourite quotes about the open access movement states that “if open access does not hurt Elsevier, we are doing it wrong”. The Golden Road seems to be exactly that wrong path: it merely shifts around when the bill is paid, but the sums remain (approximately) the same. This would perhaps seem reasonable if the cost of journal subscriptions reflected the value rendered to the scientific community by publishers, but clearly they don’t: scientific publishing is one of the most profitable industries there are, and the cost of subscriptions is widely considered exploitative.

The Golden Road also misses an opportunity to replace the century-old publication model based on journals with procedures and technology for the digital age. At a recent question-and-answer session, Denny Borsboom called for psychology to adopt the publishing model of mathematics and physics, in which results are upload onto arXiv and receive open peer review there, the subsequent publication in journals almost being secondary. In that, he echoed Brian Nosek, who (together with Yoav Bar-Anan) has laid out a grand agenda for opening up scientific communication which gradually decouples steps such as evaluation and publication, which now seem inextricably linked. Open access is a first step in this agenda – but if open access publishing remains firmly in the hands of for-profit journals, the following steps may never come.

Addendum: Wouter Gerritsma’s presentation is now only here.

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