On Wednesday November 7, 2007, in an entry called ‘More JAM about the NIH policy’, Peter Suber alerts us all to the fact that Nature, The Washington Post, Slashdot, and many others, got it wrong: the NIH policy is not about mandating its grantees to publish in OA journals, it is just about mandating them to deposit their articles, that is to say an “electronic version of their final, peer-reviewed manuscripts” in PubMed Central “upon acceptance for publication to be made publicly available no later than 12 months after the official date of publication”.
Indeed, as Suber says correctly, "The policy would require deposit in an OA repository (PubMed Central), not submission to OA journals. It's about green OA, not gold OA."
Unfortunately, in the perception of many – Nature, The Washington Post, and Slashdot surely don’t have a subversive agenda, but just report what is widely perceived – this distinction is of a level usually associated with copyrightlawyerly hairsplitteralcy. Apart from the fact that perceptional closeness is literally the case for the colours gold and green (have a look at hex colour 999933, which is often used on web pages to depict gold), the simple fact is that ‘gold’ and ‘green’ roads to OA are just easily confused. The somewhat enigmatic sentence added in the Congressional Bill: “Provided, that the NIH shall implement the public access policy in a manner consistent with copyright law” doesn’t make it any better. Nor does the idea of an embargo. Why allowing an embargo on making an author’s manuscript openly available? Or, put in another way, isn’t allowing a 12 months’ delay tantamount to saying that making a final manuscript freely available (‘green’) is, in effect, publishing? If it isn’t, why not insist on the manuscript being made open immediately upon acceptance? And what does “official date of publication” mean? The date the author’s version of the article first appears on the publisher’s web site? The date the fully formatted and copy-edited version first appears on the publisher’s web site? The cover date of the print issue in which the article (eventually) appears?
Is it really just “ignorance and misunderstanding” that leads to this quite persistent confusion? Or is there perhaps something subliminal or too subtle in the distinction between ‘green’ and ‘gold’ that wrong-foots otherwise intelligent people?
Applied to OA, ‘green’ and ‘gold’ are qualifiers of a different order. ‘Gold’ is straightforward: you pay for the service of being published in a peer-reviewed journal and your article is unambiguously Open Access. ‘Green’, however, is little more than an indulgence allowed by the publisher. This, for most publishers at least, is fine, as long as it doesn’t undermine their capability to make money with the work they do. But a 'green' policy is reversible.
This is not to say that the NIH policy isn’t going to be effective in bringing OA closer. It may very well be. But quite possibly not via ‘green’ (is it not time to realise that ‘green’ isn’t the fast and sure way to open access that it is often made out to be?).
Embargoes are the policies that will bring OA closer. Why? An embargo carries the risk for a publisher that both the reader (read: librarian) and the author can just afford to wait. Especially if embargoes should get shorter than 12 months. And if they can afford to wait, there is no need or incentive on either side to pay anything to anybody. For publishers, there are only two ways out, and neither involves ‘green’: to refuse articles from NIH grantees unless they come with some form of cash payment or exclusive rights. ‘Gold’ publishers already do that; they get paid in cash when they accept and publish an article. No cash, no publication. Subscription publishers get paid in the form of rights that are transferred to them. Copyrights, mostly, or at least exclusive publication rights (if and where there is a difference between those two). And those rights will look a lot less exclusive and therefore lose a lot in value under an embargo regime. So actually, it comes down to just one way, since the exclusive rights route is a mere cul-de-sac leading nowhere, all but closed off by embargoes. Or perhaps the other is stopping journal publishing altogether.
For hitherto ‘green’ publishers, to turn to ‘gold’ and join the already existing OA publishers in only inviting submission of manuscripts by NIH grantees that, should they be accepted for publication, come with publication fees in one way or another, will be an increasingly attractive option.