Open Access Survey: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

From: Stevan Harnad <>
Date: Wed, 4 Feb 2004 16:18:48 +0000


              Stevan Harnad

The road to the optimal and inevitable (and, one might add, the
obvious) outcome for the research community -- i.e., open access to
all peer-reviewed research articles -- has managed to scare up every
conceivable obstacle in its short/long history. I have been tracking
these hapless hurdles for over 10 years now, dubbing them symptoms of
"Zeno's Paralysis," and faithfully cataloguing the remedy in each case
(31 so far)

But so far a hydra-like form of symptom-transfer keeps replacing each
treated ill by another! The latest is "Waiting for Gold" -- an ironic
ailment, because it is a symptom that evolved *after* the recent raising
of open-access consciousness worldwide (as attested to by a spate of
solemn declarations, statements and petitions): The research community
is now getting an inkling of the benefits of toll-free online access
to their peer-reviewed journal articles, at last, and a number of new
open-access ("gold") journals have lately been spawned. But for some
reason, this newfound consciousness seems to come with a blind-spot for
the *other* means of providing immediate open access, which is to publish
all articles for which there is not yet a suitable open-access journal
in a suitable toll-access ("green") journal -- but also to self-archive
them in the author's own institutional open-access eprint archive.

Instead, the research community currently seems bent on just
"Waiting for Gold," instead of doing some obvious self-help in the meanwhile.

This too will pass, of course, but one wonders how long it will take this
stratum of the planetary population (the research community), reputed,
as it is, to be among its brightest, to grasp, at last, that open-access
is *already* within its reach, could have been had already a decade ago
(and indeed has been had by a few substrata that have now indisputably
demonstrated their bril bona-fides), and threatening to become a bit
scandalous for this community, seen from future historical hindsight,
for its very absence!

Meanwhile, we archivangelists can hardly take heart in the fact that we
will eventually be seen to have been the bright lights that showed
the way, for it is so overwhelmingly obvious that our prophetic message
is no more profound or ingenious than the intellectual equivalent of
"It's raining: Put on your raincoats!"

Well, back to the clinical task of trying to combat paretic
symptom-transfer, this time in the Proceedings of the National Academy
of Sciences:

> PNAS, February 3, 2004, vol. 101, no. 5: p. 1111
> Results of a PNAS author survey on an open access option for
> publication
> Nicholas R. Cozzarelli, Editor-in-Chief, Kenneth R. Fulton, Publisher
> and Diane M. Sullenberger, Executive Editor

A priori, surveys, in a time of confusion and uncertainty, amount to
the blind leading the blind. The fascinated reader is encouraged to
compare the insights from PNAS's presebt 2004 polling with the ones from
a survey conducted 4 years earlier (before the rise in OA consciousness):
With a little astuteness, ample instances of all 31 of Zeno's Paralytics
will be found in both.

> There is considerable discussion in the scientific community about
> open access journals. In an open access model, articles are available
> without charge to the reader; the costs of publication are paid
> primarily by authors and funding agencies.

That is an open-access *publication* model, but the planet is still far
from open-access publication, whereas what is needed now (if open-access
is needed at all) is immediate open-access *provision* rather than to sit,
paralyzed, Waiting for Gold.

> The advantages of their
> model are obvious: immediate, unfettered release of scientific
> results to everyone, everywhere, without the delay and cost of
> obtaining research articles through journal subscriptions. The
> difficulties with open access are equally apparent. The majority of
> journals depend on subscription revenue, and that stream will dry
> up with open access.

This, of course, is pure speculation, insofar as open-access *provision* is
concerned. It is not at all apparent that the toll-access revenue stream will
dry up if open access is provided through author/institution
self-archiving for would-be users at institutions that cannot afford the
access-tolls. In fact, all evidence to date is precisely to the contrary:

      "Parts of physics have been self-archiving since 1991. Some
      subfields of it, like HEP, have reached 100% open-access
      that way some time ago. Yet no physics journal has folded or
      even experienced cancellation pressure. Indeed one prominent
      "born-gold" journal, JHEP, which reached a whopping impact factor
      of 7 within a few years of its launching, has since reverted from
      the gold cost-recovery model (OA) to the green one (TA), yet 100%
      of its contents were, are, and remain OA via self-archiving!

      "Self-archiving is anarchic: It is never quite clear at what point
      100% of a journal is openly accessible. That is no doubt one factor
      in the non-cancellation of green journals. Another factor is that
      although there are green journals in all price-ranges, the ones
      whose contents approach 100% self-archiving also happen to be the
      fairly-priced journals, like the APS journals, and libraries do
      not wish to penalise them for being fairly priced (and green!). In
      the case of supporting the reversion of JHEP from gold to green,
      I think the libraries were again trying to support a progressive
      journal, fairly priced, and needing to make ends meet. In some
      cases libraries still wish to keep ordering the print edition."


> It is unknown whether authors will be willing
> to make up the entire amount of this lost income or will choose to
> publish instead in journals that do not assess these charges.

This is an odd disjunction: The options, insofar as I understand them,
are toll-access journals that charge the user-institution for access
versus open-access (gold) journals that charge the author-institution
for peer-review and publication. Do the editors of PNAS here imagine a
third option (a journal that has no costs, or has its costs subsidized
from some other source?).

Nor is it clear -- on the hypothesis that there will indeed be an eventual
transition from the toll-access (user-institution-end) cost-recovery
model to the open-access (author-institution-end) cost-recovery model
that the *entire* amount of current journal income per article will
need to continue to be charged or recovered at all. Some cost-cutting
while downsizing to the PostGutenberg essentials is conceivable too,
as long as we are hypothesizing:

    "Separating Quality-Control Service-Providing from Document-Providing"

    "Distinguishing the Essentials from the Optional Add-Ons"

    "The True Cost of the Essentials (Implementing Peer Review)"

    "The True Cost of the Essentials

    "Re: The True Cost of the Essentials (Implementing Peer Review - NOT!)"

    "Journal expenses and publication costs"

    "Re: Scientific publishing is not just about administering peer-review"

    "Author Publication Charge Debate"

> Even if a journal decides that open access is a desirable end state, it
> is difficult to imagine a kinetic path that does not have financial
> deficits at intermediate stages.

Here is one such kinetic path, by way of an aid to the imagination:

(1) The average total revenue per article jointly paid today by those
institutions that can afford the tolls (for one of the 2.5 million
articles published annually in one of the planet's 24,000 peer-reviewed
journals) is about $1500-$2000.

(2) The high-end estimate of the cost per accepted article for peer-review
alone is $500 (or about 33% of the total revenue per article).

(3) If and when all institutions no longer spent their current serials
budgets to pay those tolls for access to the incoming peer-reviewed
articles from other institutions -- i.e., if and when there were 100%
annual windfall savings from toll cancellations -- there would be enough
money to pay the peer-review service costs for their own *outgoing* research
three times over.

Imaginations tend to fail when there is something to be gained (or
retained) from not exercising them.


> Given the uncertainties about the business model and the paucity of
> experience with open access,

The open-access publication business model will only become less uncertain
with time and testing. In the meanwhile, there is no paucity of experience
with open-access *provision* (via self-archiving), only a paucity in the
application of the fruits of that experience. (And even so, there is
at least three times as much open access being provided via the green
road of self-archiving than via the golden road of open-access journal
publishing, for the simple reason that it is far easier to found and fill
an open-access archive than to found and fill an open-access journal.)

> PNAS conducted a survey to determine
> what fraction of our authors would be willing to pay a surcharge
> (in addition to current author-paid page and color charges) to make
> their articles freely available online at the time of publication
> and, if so, how much they would be willing to pay.

An interesting question to ask, at a time when (1) self-archiving is a
cost-free (but unmentioned) option and (2) no institutional windfall
saving from toll-cancellations (nor any resultant need) yet exists to pay
for any transition to open-access publishing. Rather like asking people
how soon they would be willing to stop beating their wives...

> Such an option
> would allow those who are committed to the principle of open access
> to publish in PNAS. Such a surcharge might help defray the cost of
> canceled subscriptions and related revenue, and of administering the
> author-pays option.

This PNAS "questionnaire" is in fact just a veiled version of the
very same proposal (Walker 1998) that launched the American Scientist
Open Access Forum:

The author gets the option to pay the journal to self-archive for him,
right now.

The obvious replies to this

    (i) "Why pay to self-archive when you can self-archive for free?"

    (ii) "Why pay in advance for a transition that has not yet even taken
    place, has generated no windfall savings out of which to pay it,
    and may never prove necessary, or not for a long time?"

    (iii) "How would this guaranteed advance income allow for any
    downsizing and cost-cutting ever to take place?"

have not yet joined the ranks of Zeno's 31, but they are there in full,
in the very first posting to this Forum:

    "For Whom the Gate Tolls?" (1998)

> This is particularly important for PNAS, which
> operates as a nonprofit, break-even operation and is not permitted
> to maintain contingency funds or capital reserves. It should also be
> clear that this option would simply accelerate the free availability
> of PNAS content, which is now accessible without cost immediately
> in 132 developing countries and worldwide 6 months after publication.

The American Physical Society is also a nonprofit, break-even operation,
yet it has been peacefully co-existing with author self-archiving
since 1991. So too are the rest of the 55% of
journals that are already officially "green":

See also:

> PNAS surveyed 610 corresponding authors of accepted papers from
> August 22 to October 30, 2003. We received 210 responses, a 34.4%
> response rate. Like our corresponding authors, roughly two-thirds
> of the respondents were from the United States. Almost exactly half
> of the respondents were in favor of the open access option. It was
> a surprise at this early stage of the discussion that so many would
> be willing to pay extra for open access. However, the vast majority
> of these, almost 80%, were willing to pay a surcharge of only $500,
> about one-fourth of the amount that might be needed to cover journal
> operations without subscription income. Responses are tabulated below.

Why not just encourage them *all* to self-archive, without surcharge,
right now, in their own institutional open-access archives? And then levy
the "surcharge" only if and when it should ever prove necessary (which
will be, coincidentally, at exactly the same time that the windfall
institutional cancellation savings are there so that authors don't have
to pay it out of their own pockets or grants)?

What the PNAS questionnaire offered was certainly not a realistic sample
of the available options, let alone the optimal and inevitable one!

    "The Green Road to Open Access: A Leveraged Transition"

> Would you be willing to pay a surcharge to make your PNAS article
> freely available online at the time of publication?
> Yes: 104 (49.5%)
> No: 106 (50.5%)
> If yes, what is the maximum amount you would be willing to pay for
> open access to your work?
> $500: 81 (79.4%)
> $1,000: 15 (14.7%)
> $1,500: 4 (3.9%)
> $2,000: 2 (2.0%)

This just proves how easily folks are parted from their money (and how arbitrary
is a pre-emptive, pre-adaptive reckoning of what the essential costs of
open-access publishing may prove to be, without the necessary Darwinian
evolution that would determine the adaptive outcome).

> Below are the comments of a number of correspondents. We were struck
> by the wide range of opinions. Some authors will publish in PNAS
> only if we offer an open access option, whereas others will eschew
> PNAS if we do so.
> I fully endorse [an] open access policy for PNAS and for all the
> journals.

One hopes that such affirmative souls also have the sense to self-archive their
own articles now, rather than sit and wait paralytically for this contingency to
materialize of its own accord, while their own research impact-loss continues to

> The cost of publishing and subscribing to journals is already very
> high for scientist[s] in countries such as Australia. An additional
> cost to allow for open access to the PNAS will force me to direct
> my publications to journals that do not currently charge, despite
> their lower impact factor.

An understandable reflection of the fact that no windfall savings are upon us yet.
One hopes it is also coupled with the sense to self-archive all those other

> As a government employee, I am generally able to provide immediate
> open access to my publications already.

And *precisely* the same thing can (and should)
be done by all non-government employees as well:

> I think that this idea of charging authors to make scientific papers
> available for free is delusional. The vast majority of the members
> of the scientific community belong to institutions that subscribe to
> major journals. Scientific papers are not medicines: normal people
> don't need them, don't read them, don't care for them. It would just
> put another constrain[t] on publications, limiting access to publish
> to those people in wealthy institutions.

Rather muddled about both the reality and the available options. Normal people
don't need access to peer-reviewed research: researchers do. And the
access of most of the would-be researcher-users of each and every one
of the annual 2.5 million articles published in the 24,000 peer-reviewed
journals is blocked by the fact that no institution can afford toll-access
to all, most, or even many of the 24,000, but only to a small and shrinking
fraction of them.

[But this respondent mixes the nonproblem of "access" by an author to
a journal (to publish an article in it) with the real problem of access
by a would-be user to that article. It is no doubt the "how soon would
you stop beating your wife" premise of this PNAS questionnaire that is
behind this confusion!]

> I think it would be ideal if open access was optional for
> authors. Having some papers not accessible may keep subscription
> levels high.

Utterly muddled on cause-and-effects. But that's what happens in opinion polls
where the blind lead the purblind...

> We already pay page charges for publications in PNAS, so our grants
> in effect subsidize publication. An extra charge for online access
> is therefore acceptable. Such a charge should be applied uniformly,
> however, so that immediate availability is standard for all articles
> in PNAS. If you don't do this there will be a problem with equity and
> fairness between the haves and have nots or the simply tightfisted
> (presumably you will be able to deal with financial hardship cases
> on an individual basis).

All true, and fine, but no reason to wait one microsecond before finishing
this questionnaire, forgetting about counterfactual conjectures about
wife-beating, and immediately providing open access to one's own articles
by self-archiving them.

> Thank you very much for considering an open access model... such
> a model will ultimately serve the best interests of the scientific
> community.

Ultimately we all die. What is needed immediately is not an open access
*model* but open access! And it is within the immediate reach of every one
of the authors of the annual 2.5 million peer-reviewed journal articles.

> Open access is an ok idea in principle, but most of my colleagues
> already have a subscription.

The worry is not your colleagues, whose institutions can afford the
subscription tolls, but all those would-be users worldwide whose
institutions cannot. And the cumulating loss of research impact
that results form this fact:

> [I have] no grant funds to afford this. [I would] rather submit
> to a journal that does not charge fees for investigators without a
> lot of support. Maybe such fees can be waived for those who cannot
> afford them.

Might have been nice to remind this respondent of the poor man's
self-archiving option.

> Should be available immediately after accepting galley proof.

But should an author need to pay $500 for it now, when all costs are
still being covered by tolls, rather than by self-archiving immediately,
at no additional cost?

> My support for this desirable option is thin, only because of
> financial constraints.... If the author is allowed to choose, my
> support grows.

The author *can* choose: to pay a gratuitous $500 for PNAS to self-archive
for him -- or to self-archive for himself, for free!

> Expedite ASAP.

While waiting for the ASAP, who about self-archiving, right now?

> In deciding whether to experiment with an open access option, we
> will continue to weigh the comments and concerns of PNAS authors
> and readers, as well as the effect on our finances.

Might be a good idea to present *all* the options to them clearly the
next time, both the gold and the green.

Stevan Harnad

NOTE: A complete archive of the ongoing discussion of providing open
access to the peer-reviewed research literature online (1998-2004)
is available at the American Scientist Open Access Forum:
        To join the Forum:
        Post discussion to:
        Hypermail Archive:

Unified Dual Open-Access-Provision Policy:
    BOAI-2 ("gold"): Publish your article in a suitable open-access
            journal whenever one exists.
    BOAI-1 ("green"): Otherwise, publish your article in a suitable
            toll-access journal and also self-archive it.
Received on Wed Feb 04 2004 - 16:18:48 GMT

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.3.0 : Fri Dec 10 2010 - 19:47:19 GMT