Re: Gold Conversion: A Prisoners' Dilemma?

From: Stevan Harnad <>
Date: Thu, 11 Oct 2007 16:47:56 +0100

On Wed, 10 Oct 2007, David Goodman wrote:

> The fastest solution will be for a library to preferentially use
> its money to help pay author fees, leaving the few most used
> subscriptions and relying on resource sharing for the others. The
> membership pricing dilemma is solved by paying by the article, just
> as the subscription dilemma is. The greater availability of funding
> in this manner will soon induce the switch. While we libraries act
> like a captive market, we are prisoners along with the publishers.

The "membership" dilemma is most definitely not solved by "paying by the
article," nor by "leaving the few most used subscriptions and relying
on resource sharing for the others."

But, as I have no stake at all in experiments between libraries and
publishers on direct conversion to paid Gold OA (except inasmuch as
they might distract from or delay the momentum toward the adoption of
Green OA mandates), I will merely repeat why "just doing it" is not the
solution to the dilemma:

(1) An individual institution's annual individual-journal
subscription-renewal commitments are based on actual annual journal
(or article) usage and needs on the part of institutional users (real
and perceived).

(2) An individual institution's annual individual-journal "membership"
renewal commitments are not (because an individual institution's authors
do not submit an annual quota of papers to an individual journal, nor
do that journal's peer-reviewers accept an annual quota of papers from
that institution).

(3) Though less obvious, this is equally true for "big-deal" fleets of
journals from a single publisher, and corresponding annual institutional
fleet submissions and acceptances.

(4) So the conversion from subscriptions to "memberships" does not scale
-- neither individual-journal by journal nor individual-institution by
institutions, nor even fleet by fleet.

(5) Although Prisoners' Dilemmas are already notoriously difficult to
resolve pair-wise, it is even less likely that they will be
simultaneously resolved by multiple publisher/institution pairs.

(6) But even if all institutions should agree with all publishers to
convert all annual subscriptions to annual "memberships" this year, there
is still the question of whether the divergences between subscriptions and
"memberships" in (1) - (4) above would sustain the membership commitments
in subsequent years, rather than leading to institutional defection and
the journal's inability to make ends meet. (This is in fact the chief
deterrent to immediate conversion from the publishers' point of view:
institutional libraries can afford not to worry about their own likelihood
of defecting next year!)

This is the kind of second-guessing of what the other Prisoner will do
that makes it into a Prisoners' Dilemma.


My own view is that of course there will eventually be a universal
conversion to Gold, but not on the basis of annual institutional
"membership" quotas, analogous to and inherited from annual institutional
subscription quotas. That way leads only to an Escherian "impossible
figure," as described above.

Stable Gold OA fees will be levied, independently, on the individual
articles submitted and published, not on annual institutional quotas,
analogous to and derived from annual institutional subscriptions. But
those individual, independent author-fees will nevertheless be paid for
out of the subscription cancellation savings of the author's institution.

Those cancellations will be driven by mandated Green OA, which will at
first grow anarchically, article by article, not journal by journal,
hence without generating cancellations; but eventually, as it approaches
100% Green OA universally, across all fields, institutions and journals,
cancellation pressure from the availability of Green OA will first
cause journal downsizing and cost-cutting, phasing out the obsolete
pre-OA inessential (paper edition, publisher's PDF, access provision,
archiving). The only essential journal function that will be left then
will be the service of peer review, certified by the journal's name and
track-record for quality standards.

It is only if and when Green-OA-induced cancellations, having forced the
downsizing to the essentials, go on to make subscriptions unsustainable as
a way of making ends meet (even when downsized to just peer review alone),
that there will be a conversion to Gold OA, with those self-same annual
institutional cancellation savings themselves serving as the source
from which to pay for the institution's Gold OA costs (per article: no

And (most important), the per-article fee for that Gold OA will be much
lower than what is being proposed and charged today (in the form of
Gold OA fees, or hybrid Gold OA fees, or "membership" fees), because
journals will have downsized, under growing pressure from Green OA
growth, to being merely peer-review service providers/certifiers: Their
current access-provision functions will all be gone -- offloaded onto the
distributed worldwide network of Green OA Institutional Repositories. No
more paper edition or PDFs to provide, or be paid for. Fleets of journals
under the same publisher (if they still exist) will only exist in order
to benefit from the economies of scale, in implementing peer review
across multiple journals.


Is there a shortcut? an alternative to the hypothetical Green-OA-mediated
long-term process and outcome I have just described? Can there be
a direct transition to Gold OA today, by converting institutional
subscriptions into institutional "memberships", without the mediation
of Green OA mandates, Green OA, cancellation pressure from Green OA,
and downsizing?

Publishers and Institutional Libraries are certainly welcome to try! OA
is OA, whether 100% Green OA or 100% Gold OA. And there is certainly no
turning back from 100% Gold OA, from one year to the next, any more than
there is from 100% Green OA!

But, as I said, this is a Prisoners' Dilemma. David Goodman has singled
out one strategy that the Institutional Library (Prisoner A) might choose,
if the deal David contemplates were offered by the Journal Publisher
(Prisoner B). It remains only to see how the other Prisoners decide to
play -- first this year, and then next...

    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.

Stevan Harnad
Received on Thu Oct 11 2007 - 16:59:42 BST

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