The Color Coded Tiers of Open Access

Open Access, or OA, in scientific publishing is bringing long-due attention to the question of availability. University libraries pay millions of dollars per year on subscriptions, sometimes under the influence of coercive package deals which encourage libraries to subscribe to a lump of journals rather than pick and choose the most relevant. Tim Gower, a fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge, reports that UK university libraries pay anywhere from £234,126 (Exeter) to £1,381,380 (University College London) in subscription costs to Elsevier alone. The excessive cost increases in journal subscriptions have led to substantial actions by some universities, including a cancellation of Elsevier subscriptions by Harvard, MIT avoiding a 3-year renewal commitment with Wiley and Elsevier, and selective cancellation of Elsevier journals by Cornell, to name a few.

The debate over the efficacy of the scientific publishing status quo is alive and well. By most counts the rate of retractions has increased, although it is not clear if more retractions are caused by more misconduct or better vigilance. eLife editor and Nobel Laureate Randy Schekman, among others, suspect the pressure to publish in superstar journals and over-reliance on impact factor leads to misplaced incentives and rewards showy failures. For example, the infamous “arsenic life” paper has amassed 287 citations as of this writing, as indexed by Google Scholar, and is unlikely to be retracted by Science as a result; the 287 references to the article could buoy an additional 8 articles, each with little to no citations, and still maintain Science’s impact factor of ~32.

So maybe you’ve become a bit frustrated with paywalls and the relative attention (and citation) monoply enjoyed by top-brand journals. Perhaps you are tired of your library paying exorbitant fees for bundled subscriptions. In any case, you’re considering pursuing open access for some of your work. It may be as simple as hosting PDFs of your articles on your own, but the options are diverse, as are the costs. OA is typically differentiated into two major types, designated by color: gold and green.

Green OA refers to self-hosting of copies by a person, lab, or university. These can be archived and made avaible as pre-prints, post-prints, or in the final, formatted version published by the journal. The latter method can be contentious with some publishers (see the recent spate at Nature over Duke University’s open access mandate). SHERPA/RoMEO further differentiates green OA friendliness of journals according to a range of colors according to what is allowed by a journal or publishers copyright transfer agreement.

  • green pre-print, post-print and publisher’s version
  • blue post-print and publisher’s version
  • yellow pre-print and publisher’s version
  • white not designated/not allowed

Gold OA is driven by the journal or publisher, rather than the author or university. These are the journals typically associated as open access, and they usually, but not always, charge a hefty fee to authors. Journals under the PLOS umbrella belong to this category, and big name publishers have been dipping their toes into gold open access as well.

A hybrid approach to publishing is becoming widespread. This is often implemented as making optional OA available at a few thousand dollars charged to the author, such as the policy employed by the Journal of Visual Experimentation or Optical Society publications. Other journals make the headline article for an issue freely available, often in advance of print publication, to draw interest. Many journals have explicit policies that OK green OA after a designated grace period, e.g. according to their policy Science allows free access to articles 12 months after initial publication.

OA has a role to play in the changing landscape of scientific publishing but there are still plenty of variations to be tried, and OA is no silver bullet for all that ails publication, funding, and promotion in science careers. Web resources such as figshare expand the role of data and figures, while online lab notebooks like OpenWetWare increase transparency. F1000 Research is experimenting with citeable, viewable, open peer review. OA won’t stop the occasional “arsenic life” paper from stealing headlines, but it definitely has a role to play in the future of access.

Additional OA resources:

The University of California Berkeley Library maintains an index of publishers with gold open access options and their associated publishing fees.

Duke University OA mandates versus Nature Publishing Group:
Duke Libraries take by Kevin Smith, JD:
Nature Publishing Group’s take by Grace Baynes

SHERPA/RoMEO. Provides shades of green to denote publisher’s OA archiving policies:

Directory of Open Access Journals:

University of Colorado Denver Librarian Jeffrey Beall’s site:
Beall’s blog includes his list of potentially predatory publishers (, potentially predatory journals (, and the newer list of exploitative metric indexes ( These are essential resources, particularly useful when conventional publishers conflate known exploitative publishers with OA as a whole.


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