Gold Conversion: A Prisoners' Dilemma?

From: Stevan Harnad <>
Date: Mon, 8 Oct 2007 00:10:17 +0100

    Gold Conversion: A Prisoners' Dilemma?

    Stevan Harnad

    Hyperlined version:


    SUMMARY: Given the undeniable, irreversible and growing clamour for
    Open Access (OA) worldwide, journal publishers face two Prisoners'
    Dilemmas. (1) The first concerns whether to continue business as
    usual, to mounting opprobrium from the academic community as well as
    the tax-paying public, or to convert directly to Gold OA now, at the
    risk that institutional subscriptions at current prices for incoming
    journals may not transmute stably into institutional "memberships" for
    outgoing article publication costs at the same institutional price. If
    publishers convert from institutional subscriptions to institutional
    Gold OA "memberships" today, they counter the opprobrium and lock in
    current subscription rates for a year (or whatever duration-deal is
    agreed with institutions), but they risk institutional memberships
    defecting after the duration elapses, with cost-recovery fragmented
    to an anarchic individual author/article level that may not be enough
    to make ends meet. (2) The second Prisoners' Dilemma facing publishers
    is that if they instead counter the opprobrium by converting to Green
    OA now (as 62% of them already have done), Green OA Self-Archiving
    Mandates may still force their conversion to Gold eventually, but
    because access-provision and archiving (and their costs) will by
    then be performed by the distributed network of mandated Green OA
    Institutional Repositories, the revenues (and expenses) of journal
    publishing then may be reduced from what they are now. (Perhaps
    this can all be integrated into just a single Prisoners' Dilemma --
    or perhaps it is not a Prisoners' Dilemma at all: just the optimal
    and inevitable outcome of the powerful new potential unleashed by
    the online medium for the communication of peer-reviewed scholarly
    and scientific research.)

Although I no longer write much about it -- because there are strong reasons
for according priority to Green OA Self-Archiving first, and I am ever
about doing anything that might instead help get us bogged down, yet again,
passive, pre-emptive speculation rather than practical action -- I too
and welcome an eventual transition to Gold OA journal publishing, and have
so from the very beginning.

The question, of course, is how we get there from here. My own expectation
(based on much-rehearsed reasons and supporting evidence) is that it will be
the eventual cancellation pressure from mandated Green OA that both forces
funds the transition to Gold OA, with the institutional cancellation savings
paying the institutional Gold OA publication fees. But this scenario is
predicated on two necessary prior conditions: (a) universal Green OA and (b)
universal journal cancellations.

This scenario for converting to Gold OA does not work if it is not
in particular, it cannot unfold "gradually" and piecemeal, either journal by
journal or institution by institution. The three reasons for this are that
the true, fair costs of Gold OA publishing are not known at this time, (2)
is the money available to pay for them, (3) nor (and this is perhaps the
important) would publishers be willing to downsize to those asymptotic
costs at this time of their own accord. Only (a) the cancellation pressure
universal Green OA, together with (b) the distributed infrastructure
by universal Green OA -- allowing the functions (and costs) of
and archiving to be offloaded from journal publishers and libraries onto the
distributed network of Green OA Institutional Repositories -- will suffice
force both the downsizing and the transition, while at the same time freeing
the funds to pay for it.

(My profound ambivalence about again raising this speculative hypothesis
concerning the future of journal publishing at this time is that it risks
delaying universal Green OA, by increasing publisher resistance to the Green
mandates that are needed to bring OA about. Yet I keep having to resurrect
hypothesis now and again, as a counter-hypothesis, to answer equally
speculative hypotheses about a direct transition from non-OA to Gold OA,
neglecting the nonhypothetical, tried, tested, demonstrated and hence
intermediate step of universal mandated Green OA, which is, apart from all
else, an end in itself, being eo ipso 100% OA.)

The trouble with the "flip-over" hypothesis (the aggregator's-eye view
by then-CEO of Ingenta, Mark Rowse in 2003 -- see Peter Suber's recent
is the same as the trouble with the "institutional membership" strategy of
BioMed Central as well as the "hybrid Gold" option offered by a number of
publishers today (the author/institution can choose either conventional,
non-OA publishing or fee-based OA publishing, paid for per individual
published): The reality is that today most of the potential institutional
for paying for Gold OA (whatever the price) are still committed to paying
institutional journal subscriptions. Although the idea of locking this all
at current subscription rates, using the very same money, and just
-- from institutions as users, buying-in journals (i.e., annual collections
articles published by other institutions), to institutions as providers,
paying-out for publishing their own individual articles -- sounds appealing
(especially to an aggregator, and as long as we forget for the moment that
current subscription prices and publishing costs are arbitrary and inflated,
not reflecting the substantial economies to be made from distributing the
access-provision and archiving load across the network of Green OA
institutional repositories), there is a logical problem inherent in the
minutiae of this flip that make it into something of an Escher drawing:

An institution can commit in advance to paying for the buy-in of a certain
yearly collection of journals for its users. But can it commit in advance to
publishing, in any particular journal, a certain yearly number of articles
its authors? Are even the prior years' publication figures for that journal
from that institution a valid predictor of what will be submitted by that
institution to that journal the following year? And can a peer-reviewed
commit in advance to accepting a certain yearly quota of papers from a given
institution? (Is it not the referees who must decide, article by article,
journal by journal?)

Is it not more likely that the yearly institutional quota of articles
in any particular journal will vary substantially from year to year, and
institution to institution? And is it not the author who must decide, in
case, where he wishes to submit his article (and for the referees to decide
whether they will accept it)?

The equation does balance out, even at current prices, if the "flip" is
universal. But as long as it is instead piecemeal and local to a journal or
institution, it contains certain internal contradictions. While there is no
universal OA, individual institutions will still need subscription access to
the individual journals their users require. (This is equally true if the
subscription access is transfered from the journal level to the individual
article level, through "pay-per-view.") As long as an institution is paying
those annual institutional incoming content access-fees, that money is not
available to pay for outgoing article publication-fees.

If an individual journal agrees to make all of an institution's outgoing
articles OA in exchange for the current subscription fee, that's fine -- so
that's still just a bonus for renaming the "institutional subscription fee"
"institutional publication fee." The institution continues to get access to
the incoming articles in that journal, and, in addition, its own outgoing
articles in that journal become OA: What subscribing institution would not
happily agree to receiving that bonus as well, in exchange for merely
rebaptizing its current "subscription charges" as "publication charges"?

But then (assuming this no-risk bonus is offered to all subscribing
institutions rather than just one, and they all accept this renaming), the
result would of course be that, next year, virtually all articles in that
particular journal become Gold OA, for all institutions, whether or not they
publish in or subscribe to that journal. So, the following year (or whenever
the "membership" deal elapses), why bother to subscribe to that journal at
especially for institutions that only publish the occasional article in it
every few years?

In evolutionary biology, this is what is called an "evolutionarily unstable
strategy". At the single-journal level, it is a recipe for inviting
cancellations, soon. It does not scale, either across time, or across
individual journals.

The same offer may sound less risky at the publisher "big-deal" level, in
it is a joint subscription to a whole fleet of journals that is at issue,
rather than a single journal. But, first, if that is viable at all, it is
viable for publishers with fleets of journals. And even there, it is still
authors (not their institutions) who decide, individually, each year, in
journal they should publish. Libraries can consult annual user statistics to
decide what journals to subscribe to next year, but it is not clear that
also translates coherently into author publication statistics. Again,
may be happy to take the Gold OA bonus in exchange for just renaming their
fleet-subscription fees "publication fees" today, but what happens in
subsequent years, when it is author statistics that are consulted on which
fleets of publishing fee "memberships" to "renew"?

The system may stay stable for a while, if there is wholesale transition by
most journals at a fleet level. In fact, initially, the ones most at risk
cancellation might then be the journals that do not offer the OA bonus in
exchange for renaming their subscription fees publication fees; so this
in fact act to further universalize the transition to Gold (a good thing).
we should be clear on the fact that this exercise would have been a
alongside a wholesale voluntary transition to Gold OA publishing on the part
publishers, with libraries ready to commit to pay for it at current rates,
now, as "membership fees."

(For the subscribing institution, the fee-based "product" was incoming
or fleets of journals; but for the publishing institution, the fee-based
"service" is based on individual outgoing articles, each in its own author's
chosen journal. A "flip" here would be rather like all countries agreeing to
pay McDonalds, Burger King, etc. a flat annual rate out of taxes for all the
burgers their tax-payers eat annually, based on their running national
for the latest N years: Fine for the fixed big-mac-eating tax-payer,
but not for the ones who never touch the stuff, or prefer more wholesome
for their money. And that's without taking into account that this would also
lock in current prices in a way that is impervious to supply and demand; or
possibility that it could prove a lot cheaper to produce burgers some other
way, some day. McDonalds' promise to "pass on" any future economies to the
consumer would sound pretty hollow in this captive-market "membership"

Nevertheless, I'd certainly be happy if this could all be agreed quickly and
amicably, between publishers and institutional libraries: But can it? Or
publishers, in a kind of prisoner's dilemma, worry that institutions might
defect on some of their journals -- the ones they currently subscribe to and
use, but in which their authors do not publish much? The prospect of such
selective "cancellations" might well be enough to keep publishers from
the first move, preferring instead to stick with subscriptions and just
hybrid OA (as many already do) as an option, at an extra institutional fee
article, with no risk to the publisher, rather than as an unconditional
in exchange for the current subscription fee (simply renamed), relying on
that "memberships" will stay loyal in the long term even after everything
becomes OA.

I can't second-guess the outcome of this prisoner's dilemma concerning
voluntary publisher conversion to OA, but I can already say confidently that
the current option of hybrid OA won't scale, because there isn't the extra
money to pay the extra OA fees while the potential money for paying them is
still paying for subscriptions. So hybrid Gold OA fees will remain just an
occasional extra bonus to publishers (and an extra expense to institutions).

The one thing that just might encourage publishers to make the full
to Gold OA voluntarily, however, is the worry that if they wait to make the
transition under the anarchic pressure of Green OA self-archiving and
self-archiving mandates at the article level, then the transition may indeed
come with a forced downsizing and loss of income, as I have hypothesized,
whereas if they convert voluntarily now, at the journal level, then they
hope to "lock in" current prices for a while longer yet. This is in fact a
second prisoner's dilemma, and I certainly can't second-guess its outcome
either, except to say that if it does drive the transition, then it will
been the prospect of Green OA mandates that induced the transition, rather
the actual practice of Green OA mandates -- but the cause will still have
the Green OA mandates!

What the research community must not do in the meanwhile, however, is to
sit passively, waiting to see whether or not the publisher and library
community resolve their Prisoners' Dilemma(s) in favour of Gold OA. Rather
"waiting for Gold," I hope we will continue pushing full-speed for 100%
OA by mandating it. That way we win, regardless of how the Prisoners'
are resolved. The Gold OA dilemma, after all, is between the publishing
community and the library community, whereas Green OA is entirely between
research community and itself.

    Harnad, S. (2007) The Green Road to Open Access: A Leveraged
    Transition. In: Anna Gacs. The Culture of Periodicals from the
    Perspective of the Electronic Age. L'Harmattan. 99-106.

Received on Mon Oct 08 2007 - 00:13:33 BST

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.3.0 : Fri Dec 10 2010 - 19:49:04 GMT