Two news items in the past few days highlight the importance of being clear about what we mean when we say Open Access (OA). Elsevier, which now defines itself as a “global information analytics business”, rather than as an academic publisher, has reached an agreement with Impactstory to use Unpaywall to help Scopus users find “peer-reviewed articles tagged as OA”.

Elsevier has also announced that it is acquiring Aries Systems, “a leader in scientific publication workflow solutions”, whose tag line is “publish faster, publish smarter, with Aries Systems”. I would be much more interested in publishing cheaper, more broadly and more accessibly, but that doesn’t seem to be their priority, or Elsevier’s. “The acquisition is”, apparently, “in line with Elsevier’s organic growth driven strategy, supported by acquisitions of innovative open science companies that are helping improve the research information ecosystem”.

Lost in all the business jargon and the claimed commitment to OA is the fact that in both cases, Elsevier defines OA merely as non-subscription based. As far as I have been able to determine, Unpaywall, which in itself is a good idea, includes Author Processing Charge (APC) journals in their OA category. In fact, their data schema explicitly lumps green, gold and bronze OA into a single category.

It should be clear by now even to casual observers that APC based journals are no more open than subscription-based ones. APC journals simply move the gate from one end of the publishing process to the other. Instead of restricting who can read scholarship, they restrict who can contribute scholarship, which is at least as damaging to the academic process, if not more.

And as Springer Nature suggested in the prospectus for its failed Initial Public Offering, far from reducing the collective cost of academic publishing, the APC model, by moving the cost center from the consumer of scholarship to the producer, could actually generate more revenue and profits for commercial publishers than the current journal subscription model, by leveraging journal impact factor. In plain language, that means more costly scholarly publishing for all of us through more public expenditure for the publication of already publically funded research.

If the Springer Nature prospectus was a road map for the co-opting of OA by commercial interests, it’s fulfillment is in Elsevier’s rapid acquisition of initially OA related entities such as Mendeley and Bepress. The result, and the apparent intent, is to define APC as OA, and more importantly, to define OA as APC, in order to preserve the profits of the increasingly irrelevant big commercial publishers at the expense of the public interest. They are clearly out to convince us that we need them and their business model, when it is clear that we don’t.

For any scholar and/or citizen interested in open scholarship, it is increasingly important to be clear about the meaning of open. It means accessible to both consumers and producers or scholarship. It means not closed at one end, and not closed at the other. Subscription based journals are not open, and they are not necessary. APC based journals are not open and they are not necessary.

We must actively correct publishers every single time they say OA when they really mean APC based. We must be very conscious that once captured by a commercial publisher, an initially OA initiative is no longer OA. In other words, we have to be vigilant, and we have to take ownership of OA and its definition. That is the real road to an improved “research information ecosystem’.

One thought on “Elsevier, Unpaywall, and Aries Systems: the accelerating co-opting of the open access concept

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