Elsevier’s new policy on open access has exposed long-running tensions in the open access movement, prompting a war of words between the leading advocates for the green and gold varieties.
The publishing giant announced its “sharing” policy at the end of April. Alicia Wise, director of universal access at Elsevier, billed it as “more liberal in supporting the dissemination and use of research”. However, open access advocates objected to the new requirement for researchers to abide by an embargo period before making their papers open access on institutional repositories. Elsevier permitted immediate posting between 2004 and 2012, before restricting permission to researchers whose institutions do not have an open access mandate.
Among the fiercest critics of Elsevier’s move was Stevan Harnad, holder of the Canada research chair in cognitive science at the Université du Québec à Montréal, and the chief advocate for repository-focused green open access. His vision is for widespread repository posting to prompt libraries to cancel journal subscriptions, forcing publishers to restrict themselves to coordinating peer review at a vastly reduced price from that currently charged for journal-focused “gold” open access.
In a testy online exchange with Dr Wise, he condemned Elsevier’s “back-pedalling” as a way to “delay the inevitable for as long as possible, in order to sustain subscription revenue”. Dr Wise confirmed that the policy shift was a recognition that “libraries understandably will not subscribe [to journals] if the content is immediately available for free”.
In response, Michael Eisen, professor of genetics, genomics and development at the University of California, Berkeley, and co-founder of pioneering open access publisher Plos, blogged that Elsevier’s move proved that he had been right all along to see gold as the only sustainable route to full open access — despite Professor Harnad’s criticism of its expense and the time it took to create a new business model.
“The only long-term way to support green OA…is not to benignly parasitise subscription journals – it is to kill them,” Professor Eisen wrote.
Professor Harnad responded that he had anticipated publisher clampdowns on immediate open access – which was why he had pushed repositories to include a “copy-request button”, allowing semi-automated sharing of embargoed manuscripts. Waiting for all authors to switch to gold open access was “not a viable transition scenario”.
“It is a bit disappointing to hear an OA advocate characterise Green OA as parasitic on publishers, when OA’s fundamental rationale has been that publishers are parasitic on researchers and referees’ work, as well as its public funding,” Professor Harnad wrote. “But perhaps when the OA advocate is a publisher, the motivation changes.”
Professor Eisen tweeted: “Once again, Stevan Harnad is quick to impugn others’ motives but never questions his own”, and he challenged Professor Harnad to spell out how Plos had “corrupted” him. “The central premise of green OA has been that subscription publishers are not [the] enemy of open access – which is bullshit,” he added.
Several open access advocates expressed dismay at the tone of the exchange, suggesting that Elsevier would be pleased to see the open access movement turn on itself. In a blog, Mike Taylor, a research associate in palaeontology at the University of Bristol, wrote: “Let’s keep it clear in our minds who the enemy is: not people who want to use a different strategy to free scholarship, but those who want to keep it locked up.”