Recently, Springer Nature published a white paper entitled, “Going for Gold”. The paper presents an analysis of a subset of their articles comparing the usage across closed access, open access (OA) via the Springer Nature platform, and open access through repositories. The paper concludes that “there is an ‘OA effect’ which sees OA articles in hybrid journals achieving greater impact, usage and reach than comparative non-OA articles” and goes on to assert that “there is no significant corresponding ‘Green OA effect’”.
Despite Springer Nature’s stated commitment to scientific rigour and reproducibility in their journals, this white paper does not live up to those standards. A closer examination of the underlying data finds that the research does not provide an accurate picture of the use and impact of repository-based, green OA, because it does not include the usage statistics of corresponding open access articles in repositories. Without comparing usage patterns of repository versions of an article, it is impossible to claim that the published OA versions have greater usage than repository OA versions. Furthermore, the articles used in the citation analysis have not been randomly chosen, but rather have been taken from the Times Higher Education rankings, which favours prestigious western institutions, introducing a huge selection bias. This white paper seems to be an unsubstantiated and self-interested narrative to protect the lucrative business models of the commercial publishing industry.
The ideas put forward in this paper about the “version of record” are also antiquated. Studies that compare preprints, article accepted manuscripts, and published versions have found that there is little substantial difference in the text between these various versions. And in a web-enabled, dynamic environment researchers can share preprints immediately, peers can review and comment openly, and articles can be continually updated, amended, and extended – something that can be supported and advanced through the repository route. These types of innovations are already being adopted, for example by Peer Community In and eLife, and will soon become scalable across many platforms with the introduction of COAR Notify protocol. It is time to leave behind the print era concept of “version of record” in favour of the notion of record of versions, which better supports the evolution of knowledge over time.
In reality, there are many different reasons why a researcher may choose the repository route for sharing their articles, not least of which are the prohibitive costs of APCs. They might also want to have their articles read more quickly (times from submission to publication vary, but can stretch to beyond 2 years in some cases). Others may wish to have their content managed and archived by their institutions and, as such, more easily accessible and usable by local communities and preserved for future generations.
While some assert that transformative agreements are the only path to achieving full OA, this approach does not address the structural problems inherent to the current scholarly publishing system, which include growing concentration of players, high costs, and systemic inequalities. it is important that we do not accept these narratives at face value. A mixed, complementary approach to the practice of open access, via OA journals and OA repositories, is both necessary and desirable for the future of open science because it allows for greater innovation, sustainability and inclusivity in scholarly communications.