Thought Pieces

Words matter

If anyone thought that 2022 was going to be a time of peace and harmony in open access, some of the last salvos of 2021 will surely have put that to rest. 2021 was the year in which Plan S requirements kicked in, when transformative agreements were negotiated more widely than ever before and when publishers really showed their colours in the way they moderated their actions and, crucially, their language to describe and shape the open access world they would like to see. Undoubtedly, the arcane language that is all too common in publishing nowadays does not help, not least the colours that have unfortunately come to be associated with various types of open access.

This is not new, of course. In past years publishers used their words to shape public perceptions of open access to attempt to undermine its credibility — equating open access with low quality, non peer-reviewed work, and attempting to shore up the myth that only expensive commercial publishers could be trusted with the academic literature.

However, as open access to research publications continued to advance, supported by funder policies and buoyed up by innovation from small publishers within the open access sector, the larger commercial publishers have turned their attention towards ensuring that they shape the growing open access market to support their business models. Some of their action has been in buying up competitors and then folding them in or shutting them down. But this won’t work for every competitor and this is where words and their meanings come in.

So what should we be looking out as we negotiate the word salad of publishing nowadays? First, some of the basics: use descriptive exact terms, not terms that only have meaning by association. For example:

say: “fully open access” (not “gold”) when referring to a journal where all of the content is open access

say: “repository-based” (not “green”) when referring to open access in an institution or other open repository

Second, there is deliberate conflation of terms - using “gold” to imply that only paid open access is full open access (hint - that’s not true - see DOAJ or this cOAlition S report).

And finally, it gets even more slippery when you dig in further to some of the publishers' more recent language. What does “subscription-tied Green OA” imply? The implication from Springer Nature is that repositories have no independent value and that publishers are the only groups that can deliver open access.

You’ll be able to come up with your own examples but the message remains the same. In the increasingly combative world of open access, words will be weaponized to support one or other route or future for open access: precision matters. So read and use words carefully, question usage if necessary, and don’t let weasel words slide into our vocabulary.


Note: Views expressed here are written in a personal capacity.

Copyright © 2022 Ginny Barbour. Distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License. The authors adhere to the Upstream Code of Conduct.

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