A challenge to publishers to justify embargo periods

Embargo periods on scientific research are now fairly commonplace. They are sanctions imposed by publishers on different versions of a research manuscript, often termed the author-accepted manuscript (AAM) or post-print,  in order to delay public release of those versions. Typically at this stage, the publishers themselves have had little or no input to the process besides managing the peer review process through volunteer editorial staff.

These impositions now typically exist in the form of embargo policies, in which publishers ‘allow’ researchers to deposit these earlier versions (still peer reviewed) in a public repository of some sort, but with a delay of anywhere between 6-24 months, typically. This is commonly referred to as ‘green open access’, although the original definition of this simply required public archiving in a repository without any mention of embargo periods.

So here’s the kicker. These embargoes are applied  by publishers in order to avoid putative reductions in subscription income due to such self-archiving. Basically another way of delaying access to knowledge in order to preserve corporate income, which for some reason we allow. However, there is little to no evidence to support the existence of such embargoes (see here, here, here, here , here, and here), and especially for this reason.

But why would a lack of embargo periods lead to a reduction in subscription income anyway? Let’s just think this one through. We essentially have two competing products. The first is the AAM, which is essentially a word document or PDF that has undergone peer review (again for free), and is available for free. Then you the final version of record, the published version, which has been made pretty, typeset, has the copyright owned by the publisher, and a journal brand attached to it, and will cost somewhere between $30-$40 to download a copy of the PDF per person.

So the ‘logic’ here is this. The second version costs so much per copy because publishers have added substantial value to the process. But if this product is so superior, then why would you need to place restrictions on the release of the AAM version? Surely anyone who wants a copy of the paper would see the amazing value add of the publishing process and not think twice about buying the final version?

Well, that’s just it. The value add is so little, and the price is so high, that no one in their right mind would pay for the final version, except under unusual circumstances. And publishers know this. The reason embargo periods therefore exist is to stop loss of revenue because the value add by the publishers is completely disparate from the price they charge for their product compared to the free version.

Embargo periods are an explicit statement from publishers about how little value they add to the process. The longer they are imposed, the greater this is. It’s really shooting themselves in the foot, and I am bewildered that this practice is firstly increasing (i.e., getting worse) in favour of publishers (see here for example), and secondly that as a collective academia has not taken a stand yet.

I challenge any publisher therefore to justify the use of embargo periods. If you add so much value to the process, you shouldn’t need embargo periods. You should be able to destroy any competing versions of articles easily, right? And the price you charge is clearly a reflection of that.

I welcome an evidence-informed response to this challenge. If one is not forthcoming, I call on policymakers and research institutes to completely ignore publisher-enforced embargo periods, as they are completely arbitrary and unjustifiable.

For more information on embargo periods, see our F1000 Research review paper on Open Access publishing.

8 thoughts on “A challenge to publishers to justify embargo periods

    1. But do they own copyright over the AAM or pre- or post-print versions of an article? I still want them to defend themselves. “Because we can” is a crap response, if that’s all they have.

  1. Seems a similar approach to commercial publishing, where the more expensive hardback is always out in the shops before a cheaper paperback. If you *really* want it, you’ll pay for it!

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