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Who’s afraid of Green? Market forces and the Rights Retention Strategy


How to achieve universal open access (OA) to research outputs is the topic of sometimes heated discussion. Major publishers pronounce the superiority of ‘gold’ OA as the ‘only’ sustainable route to full OA. The rhetoric from major commercial publishers is understandably business-orientated, and driven by competition for market share. As part of their argument for continued ‘investment’ in their products as the ‘only’ solution to OA, these same publishers are vociferously campaigning to cast distrust on repositories, and discredit the practice of providing access to and disseminating Author Accepted Manuscripts (AAMs), as well as denying authors retention and assertion of their rights. That is understandable, given these publishers’ main drivers for success are shareholder satisfaction and monetary bottom lines. With the publication of its revised rules, it seems UKRI disagreed [that gold OA is the only sustainable solution], and rightly so. These points represent publishers’ interests, rather than the views of some mythical single “research community” (Eglan & Gatti, THE, 11/8/2021

However, such arguments that aim to limit authors’ (and research funders’) options are neither research- nor researcher-based, despite publishers’ claims to the contrary. They ride roughshod over the fact that the content of articles belong to the author, and fail to support a mix of approaches to OA, or the shift to a ‘Record of Versions model. They also dismiss the broader value of repositories for researchers, institutions and scholarship. This broader value, together with some publisher’s attempts to misrepresent repositories, was described by Kathleen Shearer in her piece: ‘Don’t believe the hype: repositories are critical for ensuring equity, inclusion and sustainability in the transition to open access’.

Although cOAlition S values the input and services publishers offer – and some of its funders state a preference for OA via the gold route – they do not support paid gold OA at any price nor to the detriment of content ownership. These publishers’ arguments in support of ‘the only way is our gold’ are hollow. 

Market forces will prevail

Publishers state that the version of record (publisher’s version or VoR) is the product that readers and authors prefer, want, and specially seek out. In fact, Springer Nature published a white paper describing their findings from their own survey on this very topic. If it is the case that authors and readers prefer the VoR, then authors (or their agents such as libraries) will pay for it. That is how the free market works. If a company provides a product or service people want, customers will pay for it. People will cancel if the service is not delivering what they need, is too expensive, or a competitor provides an alternative that’s better, cheaper, has more widgets, etc. 

So what’s the big deal? Why are major publishers trying to discredit repositories and the use of AAMs? What are they frightened of?

They should have nothing to worry about. They’ve even got years’ worth of external evidence in the form of Arxiv (hosting >2M articles), which, every year, disseminates thousands of physics and related subject preprints and AAMs very similar to the VoR. Journals continue to publish those same papers, despite content being freely available in Arxiv. If Springer Nature and other publishers believe their own statements, readers and authors will seek out the VoR. Repositories even help them to do this; one of the benefits of repositories is the free publicity they provide for publishers. Each discoverable record in a repository includes the DOI of the VoR for users to easily locate the VoR with a single click, and either access the full text immediately, or pay to access it (e.g. here and here). 

If an author wants to make an unformatted AAM version available, then so be it. Provided the VoR offers the features that customers want, then publishers have no cause for concern. If it doesn’t, then the publisher will have to rethink – but that’s how it should be, and how markets work. According to the publisher produced white paper cited above, there is nothing for publishers to worry about. As Peter Suber, arguably the father of the OA movement, stated, There are no good reasons to put the thriving of incumbent toll-access journals and publishers ahead of the thriving of research itself’.

Perhaps it is true that services like Unsub and the SPARC log of journal big deal cancellations mean that ‘green’ OA is having an effect on subscriptions. If it is, then why? Could it possibly be because what is on offer is too expensive, rights are too restrictive, and the product is not what the customer wants in some way? This is what the competitive market entails, and any services that are losing out clearly need to re-evaluate and reconsider what they are offering. 


Another factor major publishers cite is the ‘sustainability’ of OA publishing options. This somewhat tortuous and dubious argument hinges on a number of publisher-defined criteria, including:

  • continue status quo payment (often crafted as ‘investment’) for gold OA,
  • the spurious claim of the need for embargoes which conflicts with the actions of those same publishers who promote zero embargo via ShareLinks and similar initiatives
  • publisher-defined licensing (see LTP the boot is on the wrong foot), and 
  • attempts to discredit other forms of OA, particularly AAMs and repositories. 

Also, some publishers would like to think that they alone lead and drive research quality and dissemination, and are the sole custodians of the scholarly record. Such ‘sustainability’ arguments are misaligned with 21st century Open Science

Regarding sustainability, again, market forces will drive this. If the products on the market are those that users want and are willing to pay for at a price they can afford, then the OA publishing options offered by these publishers will continue and will be sustained by users’ payment. If not, they will fail – but only because they are not meeting what users want, need or can afford. The publisher has to earn their customers’ business by making their product what they will pay for. Having a place in that market is neither a divine right nor even a legal right. Owning the rights to content, by contrast, is a right: the author’s.


Publishers that talk about self-archiving as The false promise of Green OA are missing the point. Green OA isn’t promising anything – it is an expression of the right of authors and institutions to disseminate and use the research finding papers and other outputs they created, or were created with their affiliation, in a way that they choose. If supporting that right happens to result in a service that users prefer and choose to use in preference to a publisher’s VoR, then so be it. But publishers should not be so disingenuous to the authors that contribute content for the publisher’s use at no charge by trying to deny them the rights to disseminate their own work in the ways they choose. The content belongs to the author. 

It would appear that these publishers don’t want a normal market to operate. They are creating a monopoly (“the exclusive possession or control of the supply of or trade in a commodity or service”  Concise Oxford Dictionary), monopolising other people’s (i.e. their authors’) intellectual property, and attempting to close down what they claim nobody wants anyway. How contradictory. The result is harming fully open scientific discourse and open science, and is disrespectful to authors.

Sally Rumsey

Sally Rumsey was, until July 2022, Jisc’s OA Expert working as support for cOAlition S in all areas covered by Plan S, especially the Plan S Rights Retention Strategy. Prior to that, she was Head of Scholarly Communications & RDM, Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford. There she managed the University’s repository service for research outputs, Oxford University Research Archive (ORA and ORA-Data https://ora.ox.ac.uk). She was previously e-Services Librarian and manager of the repository at the London School of Economics. Sally remains a member of the UKSCL (Scholarly Communications Licence) group.