Thoughts on journal embargoes

Some personal thoughts on the necessity and optimal length of any embargo periods applied to open-access deposits of articles published in toll-access academic journals. 

Conventional academic publishers have argued that it is necessary to place an embargo period on open-access deposits of authors’ articles in order to protect their income received through journal subscriptions. One can summarise their argument as follows:

  1. It is a given that some measure of private return to the publisher is necessary to underpin the public good of research publication.
  2. Short embargo periods will cause people to cancel subscriptions.
  3. Longer embargo periods are therefore necessary to protect publisher income through subscriptions, and therefore, the public good of research publication.

If we accept that argument, the focus shifts from whether we should have embargo periods to how long they should be. This is desirable territory for conventional publishers, because they know that policymakers can be persuaded that the how long question may only satisfactorily be answered when there is evidence that short embargo periods have caused damage to publishers, and is therefore straightforward to argue for a risk averse policy strategy. However, the publisher reasoning above is flawed, and can be unpicked in its entirety.

Anyone prepared to conduct a thought experiment to reimagine scholarly communication would conclude that  effective research dissemination needn’t be dependent on conventional publishers at all. Indeed, the existence of and the numerous open-access university presses worldwide show that there are already perfectly workable and acceptable alternatives to the conventional publisher model. The current dominance of conventional publishers does not negate the validity of the above thought experiment. One may question, then, what value is added by the publisher.

If policymakers were to reduce the publishing process to its essentials, they would find two valuable contributions that the publishing process makes to the author’s initial submitted draft article. The first of these contributions is peer review. Peer review is a service, managed by publishers, but provided by academics. The service is very valuable, no doubt, but its management has no intrinsic value. The service of academic is transferrable and, though facilitated by the publication process, it is not a direct product of it. Peer review is not unique to conventional publishing, either. So the traditional locus of peer review must be for historic reasons, and our thought experiment above might just as easily locate peer review elsewhere.

The second valuable contribution that the publication process makes to the author’s draft is that it inherits some of the brand value of the journal in which it is published. This brand value serves as an important signal to readers of the quality of the published work, and some of the brand value rubs off on the author, helping her to signal her own academic worth to others.

It would be tempting to conclude that this sort of brand signalling is an intrinsic contribution of the publication process, and the greater relative stickiness of journal brands would support such a conclusion. This understanding is incomplete, though: the article does not simply inherit the brand – it also contributes to it, in the same way that all prior articles published in all journals have contributed to all journal brands. Indeed, a journal’s brand should be more accurately thought of as a by-product of the freely given work of academics: not an additional good, but a secondary one. A journal’s brand is simply the result of an underlying process that mediates and accumulates academic esteem. Such processes are not unique to publishing, and our thought experiment might readily design new ones.

Beyond journal brand and peer review, policymakers should consider the other activities of publishers as nonessential to the research dissemination process (even though some of it may be highly desirable for academics and worth paying for, such as copy-editing, design, or even society activities subsidised by journal income). This isn’t to suggest that policymakers should attempt to do away with publishers, but rather to illustrate that it is straightforward to conceive of their contributions as being less essential and unique than they often attest. This deals with point 1 of the publisher argument above.

Turning to the assertion that short embargoes will lead to subscription cancellations, one uncovers more interesting things. While some conventional publishers are permissive enough to allow authors to upload copies of the final published version of record to the Internet, most conventional publishers restrict this to authors’ accepted manuscripts (AAMs) instead. I am sure that even those with access to the final version of record would agree that, in the vast majority of cases, the AAM contains all of the academically important aspects of the research article. Even if this were debatable, it appears that conventional publishers are on my side of this debate: if the AAM were meaningfully inferior, there would be no need for an embargo. The very existence of embargo periods should lead policymakers to conclude that AAMs, distributed to the Internet via repositories and indexed by search engines, are academically sufficient and therefore optimal.

Such a situation may be unpalatable for conventional publishers, but they can reassure themselves that, even with the AAMs available online with no embargo, readers will still subscribe to journals because:

    1. citation practices, particularly in the humanities, depend at the moment on paginated print copy, and these practices require a version of record to be available for citation (though it is straightforward to think up solutions to this: numbered paragraphs, signposting through sub-headings, AAMs annotated with VOR page breaks, direct correspondence with the author(s), and so on);
    2. many people want to read the journal’s editorials, book reviews and other peripheral content.

There are three further reasons why cancellations are unlikely, and all relate to the fact that libraries are the principal subscribers to academic journals. Firstly, if free online access to articles takes place at the article level, as with author uploads, then it takes place anarchically. Knowledge about which articles are freely available within a given journal is very therefore difficult for a subscriber to obtain. Libraries do not have the resources to monitor which articles are freely available in any given journal, nor do they have the appetite to make predictions about how this will change in the future. This means subscribers’ decisions to cancel a given journal on the basis of its contents being freely available online are impossible to make until (almost) all of the journal content is virtually guaranteed to be available for free. However, even at that moment, points 1 and 2 above would still apply.

Secondly, librarians say that embargo lengths are a relatively unimportant factor in whether they decide to cancel a journal. Crucially, one of the major factors is journal price. Libraries will only cancel journals if they can’t afford the journal, and the following condition did not apply.

Thirdly, most librarians find it difficult to cancel individual titles, as they are tied into ‘big deals’ for subscriptions to many titles. Librarians cancelling their big deal would immediately face higher costs, not lower costs. The irony here is that libraries are therefore more likely to cancel society/minority journals first – it is ironic because of all of the ‘additional’ value provided by the subscription publication process, it is the dependent activities of learned societies that policymakers ought to be most sympathetic to.

We now turn to the final part of the publisher argument at the top of this piece. Here I present one simple truth: policymakers find embargo periods very hard to swallow, because they fundamentally undermine the public good of research publication by putting a price on recent knowledge. If policymakers accept that an optimal strategy is to annul existential threats to journals, it is reasonable to examine the evidence that such threats exists without losing sight of this simple truth. What they will find is this: there is no evidence that short embargo periods put journals at risk, and many journals currently allow embargo periods of less than 24 months, and a substantial proportion of journals allow authors to put their article online immediately. Policymakers should therefore feel well justified in asking why they should not simply set embargo periods to zero.


8 thoughts on “Thoughts on journal embargoes

  1. Ben, When I first started posting my papers on Web servers in about 1995 I imagined that if I dared to say I was ‘publishing’ these papers then my former publishing colleagues would soon correct me, that publishing was all about value-adding and much more than simply posting an unvarnished paper on the Internet. So I have long been bemused by the idea of green open access embargoes, which have emerged in response to green open access policies. If a publisher adds so much to my work, why would it matter to them that my own poorer version was also available, unless they thought it might be in serious competition with their own version and somehow affect their wider publications. Which rather invites the question about the real publisher value-add.

    In unpicking the relation between author contribution, publisher value-added and the publisher need for embargoes you have added some interesting new angles. First you highlight the publishing essentials: peer review and brand, then assert that all else by the publisher is nonessential (even if desirable to the author). Peer review determines that a paper can be published, and at this point the author’s accepted manuscript (AAM) must “contain all of the academically important aspects of the research article.” You go on to say: “The very existence of embargo periods should lead policymakers to conclude that AAMs, distributed to the Internet via repositories and indexed by search engines, are academically sufficient and therefore optimal.” In other words, peer review leads to the subsequent redundancy of the publisher/journal, for the paper, and the embargo serves to confirm this. The publishers are hoist, twice.

    As a former editor I used to believe that I added value to papers and journals I edited, often the value you claim to be ‘nonessential’. Perhaps. Some publishers add more of this ‘value’ than others. I have long suspected that embargoes were designed by publishers who added less, to hide the fact. If so, there would be an inverse relation between publisher value-add and embargo length, the less value-add the longer the embargo the publisher would want. In contrast, we can infer from your analysis that there is a direct relation between the author value-added (if we can call it that): the higher the value of the author content, that is, the quality of the original author content in the AAM, the less need of any embargo (or even publication beyond peer review and repository distribution).

    Here’s the dilemma: the better the original manuscript it’s likely there will be less value-add by the publisher, because the careful editor will have less reason to edit the better manuscript. So which is the driver for the embargo: less author value-add or less publisher value-add? These are acting in different directions.

    Except we still have your other essential, brand, and traditionally peer review takes brand into account. Let me play devil’s advocate. Just as some new publishers are testing open peer review, that might lead to the loss of peer review for some papers, perhaps if we drop embargoes we might also lose brands? We might lose those brands in which to publish, and the examining criteria those brands bring to bear on peer review of the best papers. The dilemma suggests that embargoes are protecting brands rather than papers.

    Personally I believe green open access embargoes are a blight on open access and wasteful for research, and that policymakers have connived with publishers in introducing them. I agree with you that policymakers should be bold and drop embargoes in open access policies. But your perceptive analysis has led me to view embargoes in a slightly different way, and suggest that we must tackle the effect on brands before we can persuade policymakers, let alone publishers, to take this step.

    • Thank you so much Steve for taking the trouble to reply so thoughtfully. Your point about author and publisher value-add acting in different directions is very interesting, and taken together with your suspicion that embargoes mask low-value publisher contribution to papers, this is actually quite galvanising from a policy perspective.

      I suspect you are right about brands, too. Except for where the brand is lent to the publication by a society or a university press, brands cannot easily be liberated from the publishing process like peer review can. Brands may be replaced, of course, and some may not be missed, but it’s important to be aware of this risk. The behaviour of learned societies over the next few years will be very interesting!

  2. Thanks for this piece, Ben, but your argument doesn’t follow.

    If people hold that they do not need publishers to certify and register their work, then they need not make use of their services. It might be worth trying to dessiminate purely via open repositories or overlay journals without using conventional journals, or to build services to enable others to do so. Then we could see how well these compete with conventional journals, on honest and equal terms.

    But no conclusion about embargo periods for content selected by and copied from journals can possibly follow from this. That is a different thing entirely.

    The embargo period and how much content is copied onto repositories might affect how likely a library is to cancel a subscription to a journal, but not how valuable that journal is to researcher, either as author or reader.

    The argument in the article is therefore fatally flawed. If you think Green OA is better than conventional publishing, then do it, but don’t make it parasitic on the model you deprecate.

    • Steve, I agree that it is necessary to separate out ideas about the necessity of conventional publisher processes from arguments for the necessity of embargoes. That was the main point of the piece.

      The advantage of conducting a thought experiment is that one can limit oneself to imagining optimal solutions without necessarily worrying about how to get there. What I hope I’ve shown is that the two aspects of the publishing process that are frequently given by publishers as examples of ‘value add’ need not be thought of as such. If journals are valuable to academics in other ways, then great. In which case, publishers would be well advised to alter their lobbying position accordingly if they want policymakers to take them seriously.

      If I’m wrong about the likelihood of short embargoes damaging journals, then you might be right that green OA is parasitic on conventional publishing. A more common view is that green OA is totally complementary to conventional publishing. Interestingly, it is often said to me that green OA must be understood to be dependent on the subscription model, and to conceive incompletely of green OA as the publisher-independent deposit research in repositories would itself undermine publishers. (STM in particular have lobbied on this point.)

    • “Then we could see how well these [open repositories and overlay journals] compete with conventional journals, on honest and equal terms.”

      Of course we couldn’t. There are no honest and equal terms, precisely because of polluting effects of brand, as Ben explains in the original article. That is the great tragedy of academic publishing: many (not all) author prefer palpably inferior and more expensive publishers over evidently better and cheaper ones because they have a fashionable name on their sticker.

      • Mike – yes, I’m aware this has become a fashionable view. Researchers, it is argued, choose their journals incorrectly. They chase journals they think will benefit their careers, rather than the ones that would really benefit the wider scholarly communication ecosphere.

        What can have happened here? If it is true, then it is surely because we have a dysfunctional market. The choice (by academics) of which journal to publish in is divorced from any economic considerations: researchers only get to consider half of the question, the benefits to them but not the costs to their library.

        This is why the Finch report was right to stress the Gold OA model. What we need is a new environment in which both sides of this question are reunited, so that authors begin to weigh the benefits a journal has to offer them against its costs. Publishers’ charges would then be driven down in a functional market.

        If Ben is right that the subscription model is complemented by Green OA, we will not have solved this fundamental problem; in fact, we would be perpetuating it. If he is wrong, his approach would just undermine the (still) dominant model without replacing it.

        Now I’m only too aware that there are some very substantial difficulties to be tackled along the way here. Nonetheless, it is surely clear that even if Green OA has a role (which I think it has), it is not the answer, with or without embargoes. In fact, embargoes could become crucial to push authors towards immediate full OA with a sustainable model.

      • “Researchers, it is argued, choose their journals incorrectly. They chase journals they think will benefit their careers, rather than the ones that would really benefit the wider scholarly communication ecosphere.”

        Precisely. I’m not sure what you mean by calling that a “fashionable” view; I don’t care whether it is or not. What matters is whether it’s an accurate view; and by observation, it is. See for example Chris Chambers’ piece Those who publish research behind paywalls are victims not perpetrators.

        “What can have happened here? If it is true, then it is surely because we have a dysfunctional market.”


        “The choice (by academics) of which journal to publish in is divorced from any economic considerations: researchers only get to consider half of the question, the benefits to them but not the costs to their library.”

        Unfortunately, it’s worse than that. It’s not just cost to library that gets overlooked, but cost to society. When a researcher has a choice of publishing a twenty-page open-access paper that describes her work in replicable detail, or a two-pager behind Nature‘s paywall, academia in particular and society in general benefits far more from the former; it’s perverse that academic incentives (real or perceived) reward the latter.

        I don’t really see what implication that has for the choice between Green or Gold. My own position is that I care far, far more about BOAI-compliant OA than I do about which mechanism is used to achieve it. In the long term, a Green ecosystem should be unsustainable — Harnad’s prediction is that as we approach that point, publishers will of necessity switch to offering reasonable Gold (which means APCs in the $300 range rather than the current $3000).

      • “What matters is whether it’s an accurate view” – my very point.

        “I don’t really see what implication that has for the choice between Green or Gold. My own position is that I care far, far more about BOAI-compliant OA than I do about which mechanism is used to achieve it. In the long term, a Green ecosystem should be unsustainable.”

        The point is that we need a business model that stands on its own two feet, rather than simply copying content from journals supported by a business model with all the disadvantages you describe. And we need one that restores a functional market, to drive prices down. And it would be OA in the full sense, into the bargain.

        I think we would both be happy then.

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