The inevitable failure of parasitic green open access

At the now famous 2001 meeting that led to the Budapest Open Access Initiative – the first time the many different groups pushing to make scholarly literature freely available assembled – a serious rift emerged that almost shattered the open access movement in its infancy.

On one side were people like me (representing the nascent Public Library of Science) and Jan Velterop (BioMed Central) advocating for “gold” open access, in which publishers are paid up-front to make articles freely available. On the other side was Stevan Harnad, a staunch advocate for “green” open access, in which authors publish their work in subscription journals, but make them freely available through institutional or field specific repositories.

On the surface of it, it’s not clear why these two paths to OA should be in opposition. Indeed, as a great believer in anything that would both make works freely available, I had always liked the idea of authors who had published in subscription journals making their works available, in the process annoying subscription publishers (always a good thing) and hastening the demise of their outdated business model. I agreed with Stevan’s entreaty that creating a new business model was hard, but posting articles online was easy.

But at the Budapest meeting I learned several interesting things. First, Harnad and other supporters of green OA did not appear to view it as a disruptive force – rather they envisioned a kind of stable alliance between subscription publishers and institutional repositories whereby authors sent papers to whatever journal they wanted to and turned around and made them freely available. And second, big publishers like Elsevier were supportive of green OA.

At first this seemed inexplicable to me – why would publishers not only allow but encourage authors to post paywalled content on their institutional repositories? But it didn’t take long to see the logic. Subscription publishers correctly saw the push for better access to published papers as a challenge to their dominance of the industry, and sought ways to diffuse this pressure. With few functioning institutional repositories in existence, and only a small handful of authors interested in posting to them, green OA was not any kind of threat. But it seemed equally clear that, should green OA ever actually become a threat to subscription publishers, their support would be sure to evaporate.

Unfortunately, Harnad didn’t see it this way. He felt that publishers like Elsevier were “on the side of the angels”, and he reserved his criticism for PLOS and BMC as purveyors of “fools gold” who were delaying open access by seeking to build a new business model and get authors to change their publishing practices instead of encouraging them to take the easy path of publishing wherever they want and making works freely available in institutional repositories.

At several points the discussions got very testy but we managed to come to make a kind of peace, agreeing to advocate and pursue both paths. PLOS, BMC and now many others have created successful businesses based on APCs that are growing and making an increasing fraction of the newly published literature immediately freely available. Meanwhile, the green OA path has thrived as well, with policies from governments and universities across the world focusing on making works published in subscription journals freely available.

But the fundamental logical flaw with green OA never went away. It should always have been clear that the second Elsevier saw green OA as an actual threat, they would no longer side with the angels. And that day has come.

With little fanfare, Elsevier recently updated their green OA policies. Where they once encouraged authors to make their works immediately freely available in institutional repositories, they now require an embargo before these works are made available in an institutional repository.

This should surprise nobody. It’s a testament to Stevan and everyone else who have made institutional repositories a growing source of open access articles. But given their success, it would be completely irrational of Elsevier to continue allowing their works to appear in these IRs at the time of publication. With every growing threats to library budgets, it was only a matter of time before universities used the available of Elsevier works in IRs as a reason to cut subscriptions, or at least negotiate better deals for access. And that is something Elsevier could not allow.

Of course this just proves that, despite pretending for a decade that they supported the rights of authors to share their works, they never actually meant it. There is simply no way to run a subscription publishing business where everything you publish is freely available.

I hope IRs will continue to grow and thrive. Stevan and other green OA advocates have always been right that the fastest – and in many ways best – way for authors to provide open access is simply to put their papers online. But we can longer pretend that such a model can coexist with subscription publishing. The only long-term way to support green OA and institutional repositories is not to benignly parasitize subscription journals – it is to kill them.

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