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Wednesday, November 17, 2021 News

Trampling on Green in a Rush for Gold

Open Access

Last week, Springer Nature (SN) issued a white paper, “Going for Gold: Exploring the Reach and Impact of Gold Open Access Articles in Hybrid Journals,” purporting to show superior access and reach for hybrid open access articles, and calling on research funders provide increased funding to support them – and to eliminate support for repository-based open access approaches. 

The un-peer reviewed paper, whose lead author is SN’s Senior Marketing Manager, states that their analysis comparing “downloads, citations and attention of articles published in hybrid journals” shows a “clear advantage in reach and impact” of articles published in hybrid and fully open access journals compared to articles deposited in open access repositories.

While SN provides a link to the underlying data, even a cursory examination of that data and the methodology used to analyze it raises serious concerns about the veracity of this conclusion, as well as the ultimate goal of this document.  

The dataset used in this analysis was limited to a specific subset of articles on SN’s platforms – only those that were both authored by researchers affiliated with institutions that had an identifiable Times Higher Education (THE) ranking, and that also appeared in a journal with an Impact Factor.  These limitations raise immediate concerns about bias, as both criteria will skew the data heavily towards articles from western and well-resourced institutions.  

The paper’s analysis of download statistics that excludes all usage from repositories is inexplicable. While the white paper’s conclusion plainly states the study found that hybrid articles hold a clear advantage in usage and citation over articles in repositories, only downloads on the Springer platform were analyzed. As no usage data from papers in repositories was included in this analysis, it is mystifying to see the authors conclude that their analysis: 

“…confirms the ‘OA effect’ which sees OA articles in hybrid journals achieving greater impact, usage and reach than comparative non-OA articles. However, by looking especially at subscription articles where an earlier version (such as a Green OA accepted manuscript) exists in an OA repository, it also shows that there is no significant corresponding ‘Green OA effect’. The existence of a ‘Green’ version is not sufficient to match the benefits of Gold OA if the VOR it is attached to is behind a paywall.”

Even more troubling is that this paper uses this unsupported conclusion to issue a direct call to research funders to cease supporting repository-based open access policies: 

“This matters because we are currently at a crossroads with the belief that Green OA is a suitable substitute for Gold OA filtering through in funder policies and mandates. This is not only a false choice as explained above; policies, such as the Rights Retention Strategy from Plan S, that seek to place Green OA on a par with Gold OA, are misleading authors…”

This shift into advocacy continues, with the paper appealing to funders to re-direct their funding to exclusively pay publishers for publication in open access – and hybrid open access – journals: 

“We believe that this white paper presents a robust case for continued funding and investment from funders for full Gold OA articles in hybrid journals….Efforts which seek to increase the availability of Green OA don’t create the intended benefits and risk delaying or even preventing the take up of full Gold OA and achieving the benefits described above…As such, we believe investment in Gold OA should be a priority and is the only way to achieve full, immediate and sustainable OA.”

Rather than providing a rigorous, data-supported case for gold or hybrid open access publishing, the purpose of this white paper appears to be an attempt to discourage research funders and policy makers from continuing to support repositories, which are essential to ensuring that the global research ecosystem is both open and equitable.  Repositories provide the community with a cost effective, community-controlled solution to quickly and widely share work at any stage of the research life cycle – providing access to a robust, interlinked “record of versions” of science as it progresses.  They are not inherently competitive with journals; in fact, in a world where Persistent Identifiers (PIDs) are quickly becoming ubiquitous, repositories often point readers to publishers’ websites for citation purposes – even if their final article version is behind a paywall.

In a healthy scholarly communications ecosystem, researchers should have a choice of options for communicating their work – including a mix of repositories, journals, preprint servers, and other innovative platforms that might emerge.  That choice should be informed by any and all data that is rigorously analyzed and fairly presented.  Papers like this blur the lines between scientific analysis, marketing, and policy advocacy, and do a tremendous disservice to the scientific community at a time when access to unbiased information is so critical. 

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